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

It was not long before the Germans threw in the towel: They were simply outclassed by the commandos. "Soon a trickle of grey uniforms appeared: bewildered men in shock, their hands clasped behind their backs."

They were taken prisoner and then lined up prior to being sent down to an assembly point on the beach.

This thrust inland was to be spearheaded by the 500 men of 6 Commando. Their most important goal that morning was to link up with the British airborne soldiers who—as we heard in an earlier episode of Unknown History—had captured several key bridges during the night.

It was not long before the Germans threw in the towel: They were simply outclassed by the commandos.

As the commandos pushed inland, they were hit with everything the Germans could fire: shells, mortars, oil bombs, and the so-called Moaning Minnie, which indeed "made a low moaning sound like a cow in labor."

But they gave as good as they got. Alan Pyman managed to creep up to one pillbox with his portable flame-thrower, along with a couple of others. They incinerated everyone inside. Their commander recorded the event with an enthusiasm that verged on glee. "I know they had been bursting to use it."

The men stumbled across gruesome sights as they advanced. One of the most noteworthy was "a leg standing upright in a polished jackboot." The whereabouts of the second boot, the missing leg, and indeed the rest of the German body was a complete mystery.

Lord Lovat joined them in Saint-Aubin, an unremarkable little village some two miles from the coast. Here, his lordship’s run of good fortune almost came to an untimely end. "A sniper’s bullet smacked into the wall beside my head with a crack like a whip." The sniper made Lord Lovat more cautious—but only a little. Piper Bill Millin found him still "striding along as if he was out for a walk around his estate."

At one point his lordship noticed an enemy sniper hiding in a nearby cornfield. After asking for his hunting rifle, he got down on one knee and fired, scoring a perfect hit. It was not so different from stalking deer, except that tracking Germans was altogether more exhilarating. Lovat sent two of his men to fetch the dead body, rather as if they were bagging a hunting trophy.

"Right, piper," said Lovat to Millin, "start the pipes again." He was intending to give John Howard and his men who had captured the inland bridges the greeting of their lives.

He had promised Howard that he would arrive on the dot of noon and was acutely aware that time was running out. But as his men approached the village of Benouville, site of one of the bridges captured by Howard, he did his best to make that midday rendezvous. 

The sight of the commandos gave renewed confidence to the beleaguered men of the airborne division who had feared they were soon to be annihilated. They shouted, they cheered, they threw caution to the wind. "Now you Jerry bastards," they yelled. "You’ve got a real fight on your hands."

As Lord Lovat approached the bridge, he asked the whereabouts of John Howard. Howard appeared seconds later and held out his hand, addressing Lovat with evident relief. "We are very pleased to see you, old boy," he said.

"Aye," replied Lovat, "we are pleased to see you." And then he glanced at his watch and uttered the words that would later be made famous by the Hollywood film, The Longest Day: "Sorry, we are two and a half minutes late."

He shook Howard’s hand once again, only gripping it slightly tighter this time. "Today, history is being made," he said.

Howard would have liked to utter something equally memorable, but he was too dog-tired. "About bloody time!" he said with a grin. They were the only words he could muster.

The commandos had fought a superb running battle against the Germans and advanced inland with supreme confidence. Their success was of vital importance to the success of D-Day. In reaching the village of Benouville—and securing it—they had also secured the entire eastern flank of the D-Day landing zone.

In reaching the village of Benouville—and securing it—they had also secured the entire eastern flank of the D-Day landing zone.a

It was a good day’s work.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Unknown History. In the next episode, we’ll be meeting a colourful German SS tank commander who was given just one order on D-Day: to drive the Allies back into the sea.


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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