Alex Massie

The Flowers of the Forest

Text settings
Comments

Back when the Iraq war was new and innocent and still pretty popular I recall a Scotsman headline announcing that, with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards entering the city, there was now the sound of Bagpipes in Basra. There was something thrilling, something tribal too, about this. Regardless of the arguments about the war, the skirl of the pipes summoned and honoured the ghosts (real and imagined) of warriors past. 

One of those warriors was Piper Bill Millin and he is dead now. He may be the most famous piper of the Second World War and his obituary merits quoting at length:

Bill Millin, who died on August 17 aged 88, was personal piper to Lord Lovat on D-Day and piped the invasion forces on to the shores of France; unarmed apart from the ceremonial dagger in his stocking, he played unflinchingly as men fell all around him.

Millin began his apparently suicidal serenade immediately upon jumping from the ramp of the landing craft into the icy water. As the Cameron tartan of his kilt floated to the surface he struck up with Hieland Laddie. He continued even as the man behind him was hit, dropped into the sea and sank.

Once ashore Millin did not run, but walked up and down the beach, blasting out a series of tunes. After Hieland Laddie, Lovat, the commander of 1st Special Service Brigade (1 SSB), raised his voice above the crackle of gunfire and the crump of mortar, and asked for another. Millin strode up and down the water’s edge playing The Road to the Isles.

Bodies of the fallen were drifting to and fro in the surf. Soldiers were trying to dig in and, when they heard the pipes, many of them waved and cheered — although one came up to Millin and called him a “mad bastard”.

His worst moments were when he was among the wounded. They wanted medical help and were shocked to see this figure strolling up and down playing the bagpipes. To feel so helpless, Millin said afterwards, was horrifying. For many other soldiers, however, the piper provided a unique boost to morale. “I shall never forget hearing the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes,” said one, Tom Duncan, many years later. “It is hard to describe the impact it had. It gave us a great lift and increased our determination. As well as the pride we felt, it reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.”

When the brigade moved off, Millin was with the group that attacked the rear of Ouistreham. After the capture of the town, he went with Lovat towards Bénouville, piping along the road.

They were very exposed, and were shot at by snipers from across the canal. Millin stopped playing. Everyone threw themselves flat on the ground — apart from Lovat, who went down on one knee. When one of the snipers scrambled down a tree and dived into a cornfield, Lovat stalked him and shot him. He then sent two men into the corn to look for him and they came back with the corpse. “Right, Piper,” said Lovat, “start the pipes again.”

At Bénouville, where they again came under fire, the CO of 6 Commando asked Millin to play them down the main street. He suggested that Millin should run, but the piper insisted on walking and, as he played Blue Bonnets Over the Border, the commandos followed.

When they came to the crossing which later became known as Pegasus Bridge, troops on the other side signalled frantically that it was under sniper fire. Lovat ordered Millin to shoulder his bagpipes and play the commandos over. “It seemed like a very long bridge,” Millin said afterwards.

The pipes were damaged by shrapnel later that day, but remained playable. Millin was surprised not to have been shot, and he mentioned this to some Germans who had been taken prisoner.

They said that they had not shot at him because they thought he had gone off his head.

You can appreciate their point. But "It seemed like a very long bridge" is both splendid and typical of that generation. Those of us born in the mid-1970s can only imagine what it must have been. "No joke" my grandmother often said to me and of course she was right and her husband, my grandfather, never talked about his service with the Royal Scots and the Commandos. How would our generation shape-up?

But Bill Millin and his bloody, bloody marvellous pipes are part of our folk - and real - memory of the war. Like the little boats and the RAF fighter pilots they've become part of a properly treasured past. And the bagpipes? Oh, the pipes they never cease to stir. So, pipey, this is for you and for all the music:

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Comments
Topics in this articleSocietyscotland