06/06/2014 03:02 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:04 EDT

The Mad Piper of D-Day: A Canadian Hero


On Friday, an ever-dwindling gang of fading, brave champions shall gather. Their gang were beautiful, planet-saving heroes, every last one of them. With a few exceptions, our generation of cowards (of which I count myself one) seems incapable of even computing such bravery, which was etched into their psyche. They just called it decency. Of course, they did.

But there was bravery, and then there was Bill Millin, Piper Bill, a commando who astonishingly marched the beaches of Normandy that pivotal day seven decades ago, as his comrades swam, rushed, fell, fought, died around him. He played the bagpipes, which he had been forbidden to take with him.

Millin was born in Regina, Saskatchewan to Scottish parents, who left Canada for Glasgow in 1934, when the boy was just twelve years old. A decade later, on those beaches which were mankind's very fulcrum, mortars, machine guns and snipers felled men in their thousands. The Mad Piper, as he became known, played on in the kilt his father had worn in the Great War and armed with only the sheathed dagger of Lord Lovat's 1st Special Service Brigade.

British High Command had banned the pipes. "Ah, but that's the English war office," Lovat told Mr. Millin. "You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn't apply."

To the tunes of Highland Laddie and Road to the Isles, Millin played as his friends scrapped through their final moments, others fought to exist for another hour in the world. Millin had just been relieved to be ashore, as he had suffered from seasickness.

Once ashore, he was not even grazed, as he played up and down Sword Beach. His pipes received minor but repairable damage. The German snipers refused to shoot him, thinking him mad, on a suicide mission or just plain bad luck if they were to kill him.

Veterans, and not just those with a Highland brogue, still speak of the soul-stirring and inspirational sound of Piper Bill's music as they left their landing craft, replacing their bowel-churning fear with a shoulders-back, chest-out, chin-up bravado, swagger and nerve. Sassenachs shouting, 'Well done Jock,' was never said with so much love and respect.

"When you're young you do foolish things. If I had to do it now, I may think twice. But that was my job," Millin once said.

Remarkably, he piped up and down the beach, before making his way stubbornly to Pegasus Bridge, a key node in the Allies' advance. The incredible tale is preserved on celluloid in the star-studded The Longest Day (1962).

Bill Millin died in 2010, but a memorial was held in Northern France this week in his honour.

Abjection and horror can highlight moments and men of unreasonable courage to beggar belief. This isn't about finding new words or new ways to underline the importance of that day. There are no words. It is just about remembering and doing what we can to make sure this and future generations observe and respect.

As an absolute minimum. And of course, that will always include an unarmed man who chose music over machine gun fire on the bloodiest of days, and survived.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn them.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them

(L. Binyon)