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
WWII soldiers and a bagpiper

The landing craft broached the shore in tight arrowheads and they were soon so close that they could hear the crash of the breakers. On Lovat’s landing craft, the commander, Rupert Curtis stepped up the power as he prepared to cut through the shallows.

"I’m going in!"

He was answered by other cries from landing craft all around. "Stand by the ramps!"

"Lower away there!"

'Bodies lay sprawled all over the beach, some with legs, arms and heads missing, the blood clotting in the sand.'

The commandos were hitting the beach at Sword. Their first sight was a shocking one, as one of the commandos would later recall. "Bodies lay sprawled all over the beach, some with legs, arms and heads missing, the blood clotting in the sand." The sound was even worse, like an animal in pain. "The moans and screams of those in agony blended with the shriek of bullets and whining of shells."

The commandos knew better than to hang around at the water’s edge. They fanned out as they sprinted up the beach, dodging the heavy fire. Yet they were not immune to danger and Lovat saw many of those close to him gunned down.

Lovat’s personal bagpiper, Bill Millin leaped off the ramp just behind his lordship, landing in waist-deep water. "My kilt floated to the surface and the shock of the freezing cold water knocked all feelings of sickness from me." The commando in front of him was hit in the face by a lump of flying shrapnel and collapsed into the foaming water. Lovat himself could be seen striding through the shallows with scarcely a care in the world. It was as if he were immune to danger.

Commander Rupert Curtis was watching the unfolding scene from the bridge of his landing craft. It was striking. "Every minute detail of that scene seemed to take on a microscopic intensity"—and nothing more than the "sight of Shimi Lovat’s tall, immaculate figure striding through the water, rifle in hand."

As he paced briskly out of the surf, Lovat turned to Bill Millin and began one of the more unlikely snatches of conversation to take place on the beach that morning.

"Would you mind giving us a tune?" he said as a line of bullets zipped into the sand.


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.

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