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Bagpipes in World War II, Part 1

Bagpipes in World War II, Part 1
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The role of bagpipes on the front lines of war came to an end after the First World War. The high death toll inflicted on pipers relegated them to duty behind the front line in the camps. However, there are always people who defy the rules, this is the story of two of them.

The most famous bagpiper of WWII is Bill Millin. He was born in Regina, Saskatchewan in July of 1922. He grew up in Scotland, His family moved there when he was three. Millin joined the Territorial Army and played in the pipe bands of the Highland Light Infantry and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders before volunteering for service in WWII.

Bill Millin was a member of No. 4 Commando, part of the 1st Special Services Brigade. His commanding officer was the 15th Lord Lovat, Simon Fraser, who appointed Millin as his “personal piper.”

No. 4 Commando took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy on Sword Beach. They landed about 30 minutes behind the initial assault under heavy fire. Lord Lovat asked Millin to play the troops ashore, against regulations. After some hesitation he agreed.

Millin was one of the first people off the landing craft. His only weapon was his sgian dubh. He wore his commando jacket and green beret along with the kilt that his father had worn in Flanders in the First World War. The soldier next to him was killed almost as soon as the ramp came down.

Bill Millin waded through water 3 feet deep to shore and then proceeded to march back and forth across the beach, 3 times, while under heavy machine-gun fire, as the rest of the unit came ashore. He played the tunes “Highland Laddie,” The Road to the Isles,” and “Blue Bonnets over the Border.” A captured German gunner later said they didn’t shoot him because they thought he had gone mad.

After the landing, No. 4 Commando moved inland to help secure Pegasus Bridge which was held by members of the 6th Airborne Division. Millin played “The Nut Brown Maiden” as They crossed the bridge.

Statue of Piper Bill Millin at Sword Beach, Normandy
Statue of Piper Bill Millin at Sword Beach, Normandy

When the war was over Bill Millin worked on Lord Lovat’s estate before becoming a psychiatric nurse. He died on August 17, 2010. The bagpipes he played during the D-Day landing are on display at the Dawlish Museum, in the UK. On August 7, 2013 a statue of him, playing the bagpipes, was uncovered and dedicated at a memorial on Sword Beach.

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Repertoire Expansion - Highland Laddie
Road to the Isles - Part 1
Repertoire Expansion - Blue Bonnets over the Border - Part 1
Repertoire Expansion - The Nut Brown Maiden

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David Lairson

David has been playing the bagpipes for over 20 years. He is an instructor and soloist with the Palm Beach Pipes & Drums and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band. David is active in the Florida competition circuit, and when he is not practicing or playing he works as a computer technician. He currently lives in sunny South Florida.

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