I hope I’ll be forgiven for reblogging this piece but the Bill Millin story remains both deeply poignant and inspirational…
I am constantly surprised and inspired by the stories ordinary men and women doing what to me seem extraordinary things bring into my shop. The chap who, as a driver in the RAF, ensured that bombers loaded with atomic bombs were kept fuelled during the Cuban missile crisis. The man who as a young soldier stationed in India, fell asleep in an outdoor bathtub and woke up to find the tub surrounded by tiger paw prints. Ellis Bevan’s own stories about going up in Spitfires to monitor German bomber radio transmissions during raids.
I was recently given a collection of records by a gentleman who we’ve met on the blog before, but I’ll save his modesty and not name him here. He did not want a sum for the records but instead asked me to make a donation to the Gurkha Benevolent Fund. He himself had served as a Sargent in the Gurkha’s and was paid more than higher ranking Nepalese Gurkha officers. He has over his years in civilian life, paid the pension of a former Nepalese Gurkha. I find such unassuming decency and fair-mindedness deeply moving. It is the very best of the British working class.
I listened today, as I do every year, to the Ceremony of Remembrance from the cenotaph. As the band played Elgar’s Nimrod I found myself reflecting on how many service men and women are also fine musicians and particularly of the story of the late Bill Millin. Here’s how his obituary in the New York Times recalled his exploits and his influence:
Mr. Millin was a 21-year-old private in Britain’s First Special Service Brigade when his unit landed on the strip of coast the Allies code-named Sword Beach, near the French city of Caen at the eastern end of the invasion front chosen by the Allies for the landings on June 6, 1944.
By one estimate, about 4,400 Allied troops died in the first 24 hours of the landings, about two-thirds of them Americans.
The young piper was approached shortly before the landings by the brigade’s commanding officer, Brig. Simon Fraser, who as the 15th Lord Lovat was the hereditary chief of the Clan Fraser and one of Scotland’s most celebrated aristocrats. Against orders from World War I that forbade playing bagpipes on the battlefield because of the high risk of attracting enemy fire, Lord Lovat, then 32, asked Private Millin to play on the beachhead to raise morale.
When Private Millin demurred, citing the regulations, he recalled later, Lord Lovat replied: “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”
After wading ashore in waist-high water that he said caused his kilt to float, Private Millin reached the beach, then marched up and down, unarmed, playing the tunes Lord Lovat had requested, including “Highland Laddie” and “Road to the Isles.”
With German troops raking the beach with artillery and machine-gun fire, the young piper played on as his fellow soldiers advanced through smoke and flame on the German positions, or fell on the beach. The scene provided an emotional high point in “The Longest Day.”
In later years Mr. Millin told the BBC he did not regard what he had done as heroic. When Lord Lovat insisted that he play, he said, “I just said ‘O.K.,’ and got on with it.” He added: “I didn’t notice I was being shot at. When you’re young, you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing when you’re older.”
He said he found out later, after meeting Germans who had manned guns above the beach, that they didn’t shoot him “because they thought I was crazy.”
Other British commandos cheered and waved, Mr. Millin recalled, though he said he felt bad as he marched among ranks of wounded soldiers needing medical help. But those who survived the landings offered no reproach.
“I shall never forget hearing the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes,” one of the commandos, Tom Duncan, said years later. “As well as the pride we felt, it reminded us of home, and why we were fighting there for our lives and those of our loved ones.”
From the beach, Private Millin moved inland with the commandos to relieve British paratroopers who had seized a bridge near the village of Ouistreham that was vital to German attempts to move reinforcements toward the beaches. As the commandos crossed the bridge under German fire, Lord Lovat again asked Private Millin to play his pipes.
So the next time I get up in a folk club and feel a bit nervous in case someone doesn’t like my set, I’ll just say to myself “Bill Millin”