D-Day: Bagpipes and Snipers

Upon landing at Sword Beach the morning of June 6, 1944, one group of eite British commandos were accompanied by a Highland bagpiper, who emphasized the greatness of their victory. 

Giles Milton
8-minute read
Episode #85

Who was Shimi Lovat? And how did a flamboyant Scottish aristocrat come to be head of the British commandos? Turns out that patrician charm goes a long way when it comes to leading an attack on the Nazis.

Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. I'm your host, Giles Milton, and today we're talking about the extraordinary beach assault led by Lord Lovat and his band of British commandos.

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Like the American Rangers we learned about in an earlier episode, the British commandos were the elite of the elite—a highly trained group of soldiers who were to land on Sword Beach, the most easterly of the five landing beaches in Normandy.

They were under the leadership of Simon Fraser, the 15th Lord Lovat, a flamboyant Scottish chief with a patrician charm and an unbreakable spirit. One of his friends described him as having "indefinable star quality."

Only Lord Lovat would have the swagger to go into battle with a Highland bagpiper at his side. And surely only he would wear a monogrammed shirt under his battledress. He was known to his friends as Shimi Lovat—an anglicized version of his traditional Gaelic name.

Lord Lovat was a showman and D-Day was to be his greatest act.

Just 33 years of age, Lord Lovat had the wind-blown air of an Elizabethan pirate-adventurer. Appointed commander of the 1st Special Service Brigade—the commandos—he had vowed to create the finest unit ever to go into battle. In common with other front-line leaders, Lovat knew that only the best prepared men would pull through D-Day. To this end, he trained them halfway to death, with enforced marches and full-scale practice assaults on the coastline of southern England.

His men referred to him as "The Mad Bastard," a term of endearment. They admired his flamboyance just as they loved his swaggering confidence. Lord Lovat was a showman and D-Day was to be his greatest act.

Lovat understood that to win a war, you needed to understand the psychology of those who were fighting it. You needed to fire them up and make them believe in themselves. At times, that meant putting on a spectacular show, one so loud and exuberant that it would be remembered for years to come. And that is why, when the commandos had embarked at Portsmouth on the previous evening, Lovat had planned it to unfold like some warlike version of Mardi Gras, with color, festivity, and most of all, noise.

It began with his personal bagpiper, Bill Millin, blasting out favorite tunes from his native Scotland. Next, Lovat got the various captains to play their gramophones through the ships’ loudspeakers. "Everyone was on deck laughing and shouting and the radio playing away with swing music," said one commando. "What a feeling! I do not think anyone had a care in the world." Others felt a burst of patriotism. "I never loved England so truly as at that moment," said the commando Reginald Barnes.

Lovat had planned it to unfold like some warlike version of Mardi Gras, with color, festivity, and most of all, noise.

The Channel crossing that followed was extremely rough and many of the men were violently seasick. Only Lord Lovat seemed immune. He had borrowed the captain’s bunk and was sleeping soundly. "I can snore through any form of disturbance," he would later say, "provided I go to bed with a clear mind."

As they neared the French coastline, Lord Lovat got dressed and encouraged his men with a rousing call to arms.

The men had a gulp of rum as they came within reach of the German coastal guns. When Lovat stood up to survey the scene, waterspouts erupted all around him.


About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.