The Bagpiper of Normandy -1944

Piper Bill Millin playing his backpipes for fellow soldiers
War Office official photographer, Evans, J L (Capt) – Imperial War Museum
3 June 1944

Commonly known as Piper Bill, Private William Millin was personal piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat and Commander of 1 Special Service Brigade at D-Day. A commando brigade of the British Army, it was formed during the Second World War and consisted of elements of the British Army and Royal Marines.  The brigade’s component units saw action individually in Norway and the Dieppe Raid (in France), before being combined under one commander for service in Normandy during Operation Overload. On 6 December 1944, the Brigade was redesignated as 1st Commando Brigade, removing the hated title Special Service and its association with the German SS.

Early life

Millin was born in Saskatchewan, Canada on 14 July 1922 to a father of Scottish origin, who had moved the family to Canada but returned to Glasgow when William was three to attend his school years.  He would later join the Territorial Army in Fort William and played in the pipe bands of the Highland Light Infantry and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.  Volunteering as a commando, he trained with Lord Lovat at Achnacarry along with French, Dutch, Belgian, Polish, Norwegian, and Czechoslovak troops.

Second World War

Operation Overlord – the Normandy landings on D-Day

The British 2nd Army, Commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade, landed from an LCI(S) (Landing Craft Infantry Small) on ‘Queen Red’ Beach, the Sword Area, approximately 8.40 am on 6 June 1944.  The brigade commander, Brigadier Lord Lovat DSO MC, can be seen striding through the water to the right of the column of men.  The figure nearest the camera is the brigade’s bagpiper, Piper Bill Millin.

Millin landing on Queen Red Beach, Sword (right foreground)
Lovat is wading through the water to the right of the column
Evans, J L (Capt), Army Film & Photographic Unit – Imperial War Museum
6 Jun 1944

Millin is best remembered for playing the pipes while under fire during the D-Day landing in Normandy.   Pipers had traditionally been used in battle by Scottish and Irish soldiers.  However, the use of bagpipes was restricted to rear areas by the time of the Second World War by the British Army.  Lovat, nevertheless, ignored these orders and ordered Millin, then aged 21, to play.  When Private Millin demurred, citing the regulations, Lord Lovat replied: “Ah, but that’s the English War Office.  You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”  Piper Millin then proceeded to play as his comrades fell around him on Sword beach.  In later conversation with captured German snipers, they stated he was not shot, as they thought he had simply gone mad.

Private Millin, whom Lovat had appointed his personal piper during commando training in Scotland, was the only man during the landing who wore a kilt – the same Cameron tartan kilt his father had worn in Flanders during World War 1 – and armed only with his pipes and the “black knife,” sheathed inside his kilt-hose on the right side.

Piper William Millin’s bagpipes played on Sword beach during the D-Day landings
Displayed at Dawlish Museum along with his bonnet, 100-year-old kilt and dirk
Credit: Creative Commons

Lovat and Millin advanced from Sword to Pegasus Bridge, which had been defiantly defended by men of the 2nd Batallion, the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry (6th Airborne Division) who had landed in the early hours by glider.  Lovat’s commandos arrived at a little past one p.m. at Pegasus Bridge although the rendezvous time in the plan was noon. To the sound of Millin’s bagpipes, the commandos proceeded to march across Pegasus Bridge.  During the march, twelve men died, most shot through their berets.  Later detachments of the commandos rushed across in small groups with helmets on.

Later life

Private Millin saw further action with 1 SSB in the Netherlands and Germany before being demobilized in 1946 and going to work on Lord Lovat’s highland estate.  He made regular trips back to Normandy for commemoration ceremonies and France awarded him a Legion of Honor for gallantry in June 2009.

Millin played the pipes at Lord Lovat’s funeral in 1995  and following his own stroke in 2003, died in a Torbay hospital on 17 August 2010 at the age of 88.

Popular culture and legacy

Millin’s action on D-Day was portrayed in the 1962 film The Longest Day.  He was portrayed by Pipe Major Leslie de Laspee, the official piper to the Queen Mother in 1961.

One set of Millin’s bagpipes are exhibited at the Memorial Museum of Pegasus Bridge in Ranville, France.  His original set of bagpipes are now displayed at Dawlish Museum where he presented his pipes in 2004, prior to the 60th anniversary of the D-Day Landing, along with his kilt, bonnet, and dirk.  These items are still shown at the museum library with photographic archives and looped video telling of Millin’s exploits.

Dawlish Museum officials have written testimony from Millin that the bagpipe set on display in Dawlish is the genuine set which he played during the D-Day landings at Sword. The ones on show at the Pegasus Bridge Museum are a second set that were used by him later in the campaign, after the capture of Pegasus Bridge. 

With the help of son John Millin and the Dawlish Royal British Legion, a bronze life-size statue of Piper Bill Millin was unveiled on 8 June 2013 at Colleville-Montgomery, near Sword in France.

Life-size bronze statue of Piper Bill Millin
Placed on Sword Beach
Colleville-Montgomery in Normandy, France


On 7 August 2013, the BBC featured a film of Bill’s son John Millin playing  the bagpipes in memory of his father at the statue’s unveiling at Colleville-Montgomery in Normandy.  Broadcast live, from Weston-super-Mare, the film also showed scenes of more than 500 pipers from 21 countries taking part in the unveiling of the £50,000 statue by French sculptor Gaetan Ader, which took more than four years of fund raising by the D-Day Piper Bill Millin Association to complete.


In Appreciation for our British Allies

 At Normandy During WWII


About Karen Evans

Advocate For Honoring Military Service
This entry was posted in American History, American Veterans and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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