As a weapon of war, the bagpipes earned their stripes on D-Day by stunning the enemy and buying a group of Scots-led commandos, including a 16-year-old boy, a vital moment as they advanced up the beach in the face of German gunfire.
With the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings marked today, new information has emerged about the role played by legendary piper Bill Millin in halting enemy attack and allowing the men of 4 Commando to safely take position on French soil.
Ken Tout, a former tank commando who supported the Highland Division during the D-Day campaign, has just published a tribute to the men who took part in the June 1944 landings with the account of a young Tunisian fighter, René Rossey, included in his new book, “How Modest are the Bravest!”.
READ MORE: D-Day: How Scotland shaped the toughest of fighters in its hills, lochs and glens
Aged just 16, Rossey travelled thousands of miles to Scotland – from Tunisia to Beirut and then to London and the Highlands – to train and serve with 1st Special Service Brigade, 4 Commando, after the allied liberation of his home country.
As D-Day approached, Brigadier Lord Lovat, chief of Clan Fraser, made a highly symbolic gesture and allowed the Free French to lead the advance into Normandy and be the first of the unit to step onto French soil.
Around 7:30am on 6 June, 1944 and carrying a .303 machine gun and an 80 pound backpack, Rossey jumped off the brigade’s landing craft and waded through the water to Sword Beach surrounded by floating corpses.
READ MORE: 6 June 1944: 'The grand assault on Hitler’s European fortress has begun’
As they advanced, German gunfire rained down with the 16-year-old amongst those halted in their tracks by a raised promenade and a barbed wire fence.
Trapped and under attack, it now appears that it was the sound of Bill Millin – who strode up and down the beach playing Heiland Laddie as 4 Commando made it out of the water – that saved him.
Rossey’s account said: “We were pinned down on the beach, many of our comrades killed or missing.
“But when Lovat’s piper walked up and down the beach, piping his lungs out, the Germans seemed stunned, as if they had seen a ghost.
“They briefly stopped firing, perhaps even to laugh, and in that brief moment we made it through the barbed wire at the top of the beach.”
At the time of the D-Day landings, a War Office directive ruled that no musicians should be sent to the front.
“So many were killed by the enemy by being put at risk in 1914. The War Office said no more musicians,” Tout said.
“When Lord Lovat said to Millin ‘have your bagpipes ready’, Millin said it wasn’t legal.
“Lovat said that was a ruling from the British War Office, and that they were Scottish,” he added.
Millin’s role in the D-Day landings is well documented, with it said German’s chose not to shoot the piper simply because they thought he had gone mad.
Tout added that the story of the bagpipes being played during the D-Day landings had “always been treated as a bit of a joke”.
“But actually there was something much more vital going on,” he added.
“Rossey was utterly stuck but that brief pause in firing once Millin started up his bagpipes allowed the Free French lads to dash across the promenade unscathed,” Tout said.
Rossey, who died in 2016, was one of 25,000 allied Commandos from around the world to be stationed at Achnacarry Castle in Lochaber for training in the unrelenting mountainous terrain. He “answered every call” of the tough training regime and was awarded the coveted green beret and Commando dagger. Still underage at the end of the course, he was known as Benjamin – or youngest brother – to his comrades.
Meanwhile, a statue of Bill Millin, who was born in Canada and whose father was from Glasgow, can today be seen on Sword Beach to mark the actions of this remarkable, brave musician. He died in 2010.
- How Modest are the Bravest! by Ken Tout is published by Helion and available now