PIPERS IN BATTLE
Bill Millin – Normandy
by Evelyn McKechnie
On the 8th June 2013, a piper memorial was unveiled on Sword Beach in Normandy. It is in honour of the world-famous Scottish piper, Bill Millin, who piped soldiers ashore on D-Day, 6th June 1944. He was born in Shettleston in the East End of Glasgow in July 1922, his family moving briefly to Canada before returning to Scotland when Bill was three years old.
Bill joined the Territorial Army in Fort William, and he played in the Highland Light Infantry and Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders Pipe Bands. He volunteered as a commando and later trained with Lord Lovat at Achnacarry, the famous commando training ground near Spean Bridge.
The memorial to Piper Bill Millin is inscribed,
“On D-Day, June 6th 1944, on this sector of “Sword Beach”, as the Scots have done for generations, the Brigadier Lord Lovat, Chief of the 1st Special Service Brigade, also a Highlands Chief,
ordered his personal piper, Bill Millin to pipe his commandos ashore.
Above the roar of battle came the skirl of liberation with a piper leading the way.
They both entered legend.”
Shettleston to Sword Beach
Lord Lovat completely ignored orders that no bagpipes should be played in action on DDay. When Lovat ordered Millin to play, Bill said he could not due to the regulations. Lovat apparently replied, “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”
“Blue Bonnets over the Border’ was the tune that Bill Millin played as Lord Lovat’s 6 Commando of the 1st Special Service Brigade then made their way up from Sword Beach to Bénouville and the now-famous Pegasus Bridge. Despite Lovat urging Millin to run, he refused, declaring that pipers walked as they played. The Germans thought he was mad and didn’t shoot at him.
The most famous mission of the airborne division is the capture of the River Orne bridge at Ranville and the bridge across the Caen Canal at Bénouville. Commanding 180 troops of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, Major John Howard, captured the bridges after landing in Horsa gliders only metres from their objectives.
These are marked by stone plinths showing how close they came to the bridge and only seconds apart. It took less than ten minutes to capture both bridges intact. His orders were ‘Hold until relieved’. These were the first soldiers to set foot on Normandy soil during Operation Overlord.
They successfully defended the bridges until Lovat and his men arrived at the bridges just after 1 pm and they established defensive positions. They were later relieved by the British 3rd Infantry Division.
In 1944, the Bénouville bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the operation. The name is derived from the shoulder emblem worn by the Parachute Regiment which shows Bellerophon ride the flying horse Pegasus.
Simon Fraser became the 24th Chief of the Clan Fraser when his father died in 1933. When the charismatic Lord Lovat died in 1995 aged 83, it was his Bill Millin, his loyal piper, who played the pipes at the funeral. The motto of Clan Fraser is ‘Je Suis Prest’, in French it reads “I am ready“. For Bill Millin, he was always ready with his pipes. Millin was awarded the Croix d’Honneur by France in June 2009 and he died in 2010 aged 88.
“If they remember the bagpiper, they won’t forget those whose served and fell on the beaches”
Inscription on Bill Millin memorial
Culloden to The Somme
From the time of Culloden in 1746 to the Battles of the Somme in 1916, the bagpipes have installed fear and dread into the enemy. They have also inspired soldiers to continue the fight when all seemed lost.
More than 2,500 pipers served in the Great War, nearly 1000 of those did not return home. With more than 600 were wounded, it was almost a 50% casualty rate. At Longueval, on the Somme in France, there is a piper memorial to their sacrifice. It is not dedicated to one piper but to all pipers who served, regardless of unit or race.
The Pipers memorial was unveiled in July 2002 and commemorates all pipers, of all military units and all nationalities. 11 pipers were killed or died of wounds on 1st July 1916. It was sculpted by Andy De Comyn and depicts a piper in battle dress climbing over a parapet whilst leading the soldiers of his unit.
Piper James Cleland Richardson –
The Battle of the Somme
The Somme piper memorial is very close to the burial place of Piper James Richardson, of the 16th Battalion Canadian Infantry. He was awarded the Victoria Cross when he brought in wounded soldiers, only to discover he had left his pipes out in No Man’s Land. He was killed when he tried to retrieve them.
Piper James Richardson was born in Bellshill, and lived with his family in Rutherglen, near Glasgow before his family left for a new life in Canada. He returned to Europe with the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders, Canadian Scottish Battalion to fight in World War One.
Richardson’s bagpipes were believed to have been lost in the mud of the Somme for almost 90 years until 2002. However, they had been found by an Army Chaplain in 1917 and were identified years later by the unique Lennox tartan, the tartan used by the pipers of the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion.
Piper Richardson’s body was discovered by a farmer in 1920. His final resting place is Adanac Military Cemetery, close to where he fell. Adanac is ’Canada’ spelt backwards. It was so named because after the Armistice graves were brought in from the Canadian battlefields around Courcelette and small cemeteries surrounding Miraumont.
Piper Richardson’s citation reads:
‘For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when, prior to attack, he obtained permission from his Commanding Officer to play his company “over the top.” As the company approached the objective, it was held up by very strong wire and came under intense fire, which caused heavy casualties and demoralised the formation for the moment. Realising the situation, Piper Richardson strode up and down outside the wire, playing his pipes with the greatest coolness. The effect was instantaneous. Inspired by his splendid example, the company rushed the wire with such fury and determination that the obstacle was overcome and the position captured. Later, after participating in bombing operations, he was detailed to take back a wounded comrade and prisoners. After proceeding about 200 yards Piper Richardson remembered that he had left his pipes behind. Although strongly urged not to do so, he insisted on returning to recover his pipes. He has never been seen since, and death has been presumed accordingly owing to lapse of time.’
Ninth Supplement to The London Gazette of 18 October 1918.
22 October 1918, Numb. 30967, p. 12488
Piper Daniel Laidlaw
The Battle of Loos
During World War One, Piper Daniel Laidlaw was also awarded the Victoria Cross for tearing off his gas mask and jumping onto the parapet of the trenches of the the 7th Battalion, Kings Own Scottish Borderers, on the morning of the first day of the Battle of Loos in 1915.
He also played ‘All the Blue Bonnets over the Border’ and soldiers followed him up and over the parapet.
Piper Laidlaw’s citation reads,
‘For most conspicuous bravery prior to an assault on German trenches near Loos and Hill 70 on 25th September, 1915. During the worst of the bombardment, when the attack was about to commence, Piper Laidlaw, seeing that his company was somewhat shaken from the effects of gas, with absolute coolness and disregard of danger mounted the parapet, marched up and down and played his company out of the trench. The effect of his splendid example was immediate, and the company dashed out to the assault. Piper Laidlaw continued playing his pipes until he was wounded.‘
Third Supplement to The London Gazette of 16 November 1915.
18 November 1915, Numb. 29371, pp. 11449-50
A Scottish Soldier
Not far from Bill Millin’s memorial on Sword Beach is Hermanville War Cemetery, which at one time was called Sword Cemetery. This is the final resting place of another Shettleston soldier, unlike Bill Millin, he did not make it home. Robert McKechnie, my father’s youngest brother, landed on Sword beach on D-Day 6th June 1944 and was wounded on the 9th July 1944 in Caen. He succumbed to his wounds without regaining consciousness, two days later. He was 25 years old.
Like Piper Laidlaw’s regiment in World War One, Robert was a Kings Own Scottish Borderer. Robert is just one of the thousands of soldiers from all nations who are buried in the cemeteries throughout Normandy.
His epitaph reads,
‘He died the helpless to defend
A Scottish soldier’s noble end’
My father saw him off at Glasgow Central Station and his final words to him were, ‘look after mother’. It was she who picked the epitaph as her husband died earlier in 1939 in a tragic accident involving one of the ‘silent killers’ of the Second World War – the tram.
Over 100,000 people died during the battles after the invasion forces landed in Normandy. British, Germans, French, Canadians, Poles and Americans and many others from other nations lost their lives. There were also about 14,000 French civilian casualties, victims of the very heavy Allied bombing. There was US saturation bombing of Marigny and La Chapelle-Enjuger, (Operation Cobra to end the battle of the Bocage) and the British bombing of Caen.
Normandy is one of the most beautiful landscapes of France, with its lush, green pastures fenced in by the bocage. Anyone visiting Normandy cannot do so without reminders of the war all around them, but life goes on for the French. Even after the D-Day anniversary on 6th June, those who served and many who lost someone will continue to return to this part of France where the liberation of Europe began.
If you want to pay respects to someone this year in Normandy, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission can lay a tribute for you at the headstone or memorial. Their #shareyourtribute campaign is in honour of the fallen of the D-Day landings.
‘If you have someone that you remember and who is buried at one of the eighteen cemeteries in the Normandy area, or whose name is inscribed on the Bayeux Memorial, our gardeners, now back at work, while observing all safe distancing practices, will be pleased to lay a tribute for you’ CWGC website
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