Once Upon a Time, Giants Walked Amongst Us


This post isn’t really meant to be political in any way, shape or form. In fact, I wrote it because I was doing some Googling about the movie The Longest Day, found this, and . . . well . . . see my title above.

Also, let your eyes linger over this:

In the film, we catch brief glimpses of a bagpiper accompanying Lord Lovat and his commandoes. The man playing the piper is actually the late Pipe Major Leslie de Laspee who was at the time Pipe Major of the London Scottish Pipe Band, and personal piper to HM the Queen Mother. Daryl F. Zanuck was able to cast such a prestigious piper because the real man, Bill Millin, was an amazing man in his own right.

[. . .]

Millin was the only piper to lead troops on D-Day.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill had specifically forbidden them. The British War Office believed that they would attract sniper fire. His commander, Brigadier Lord Lovat – Simon Fraser, hereditary chief of the Clan Fraser – was a law unto himself. “Ah, but that’s the English War Office, Millin,” Lovat told him. “You and I are both Scottish so that doesn’t apply.” Millin reminisced, “The water was freezing. The next thing I remember is my kilt floating in the water, like a ballerina.” He was the only man during the landing who wore a kilt – it was the same Cameron tartan kilt his dad had worn in Flanders during the Great War – and he was armed only with his pipes and the ceremonial Skean Dhu dirk sheathed inside his right sock. “I didn’t notice I was being shot at. When you’re young, you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing when you’re older.”

After the war, German soldiers defending Sword Beach said they had not shot him because they thought, “he must have gone off his head.” Other British commandos cheered and waved, Mr. Millin recalled, though he said he felt bad as he marched among ranks of wounded soldiers needing medical help. However, those who survived the landings never complained.

“I shall never forget hearing the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes,” one of the commandos, Tom Duncan, said. “As well as the pride we felt, it reminded us of home, and why we were fighting there for our lives and those of our loved ones.”

From the beach, Private Millin moved inland with the commandos to relieve British paratroopers who had seized a bridge near the village of Ouistreham that was vital to German attempts to move reinforcements toward the beaches.

[. . .]

British glider troops led by Major John Howard (played by Richard Todd, who actually landed at that bridge with paratroopers reinforcing the glider troops, on D-Day) seized a bridge over the Orne River at Ouistreham (now called Pegasus Bridge). They had been told to “hold until relieved.” They had no idea if the beach landings were successful. They were shelled by mortars and suffered countless German counterattacks. They were less determined than they were resigned. They would hold to the last man. Then, across the bridge, they heard Millin’s pipes. “Black Beer” was the first sign that the landings had succeeded, and that the glider troops and their airborne reinforcements might see home again.

The last tune Millin piped on D-Day was “The Nut-Brown Maiden,” played for a small red-haired French girl who, with her folks cowering behind her, had asked him for music as he passed their farm. He gave the pipes later to the museum at the Pegasus Bridge. He often revisited that bridge, and sometimes piped across it, during his long and quiet post-war career as a mental nurse at Dawlish in Devon. On one such visit, in full Highland rig with his pipes in his arms, he felt a tap on his shoulder. When he turned around, he saw a red-haired woman, who remembered him fondly, and kissed his cheek.

There are 13 comments.

  1. Inactive

    I just want to take a moment to say how marvelously onomatopoetic the word skirl is. 

    As to the piece itself: It is a good thing that war is so terrible, lest we become too fond of it.

    • #1
    • November 27, 2012 at 2:08 am
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  2. Inactive


    “When he turned around, he saw a red-haired woman, who remembered him fondly, and kissed his cheek.”

    Typing through welled-up eyes.

    • #2
    • November 27, 2012 at 4:32 am
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  3. Member

    I’m also teary. Lovely. Giants, indeed. Thanks for sharing.

    • #3
    • November 27, 2012 at 4:39 am
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  4. Inactive

    Now you’ve done it. The pipes call and so I am off to re-read “The General Danced at Dawn” by George MacDonald Fraser.

    • #4
    • November 27, 2012 at 5:43 am
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  5. Inactive

    Someone else here insulted The Pipes.

    Nothing’s better for a Parade, a March, or a Proper Funeral.

    I’ve even heard ’em used in Jazz.

    • #5
    • November 27, 2012 at 5:45 am
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  6. Inactive

    That was great. The Nut Brown Maiden story is the stuff of legends. On itunes I found Canadian singer Jane Siberry (Itunes store search Jane Siberry nut brown maiden) singing in the Scottish with pipes very lovely. So by virtue of this Longest Day link I’ve discovered a new singer. Thanks.

    • #6
    • November 27, 2012 at 6:23 am
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  7. Inactive

    I knew I’d heard the words spoken and it came it me. It was from I Know Where I’m going.. this partial extract explains the scene and the vid clip shows it..

    “The people are vivid, and unaffected in a way that is unfamiliar to Joan, but nearly as magnetic to her as MacNeil is. They watch the action from outside, she on a ladder, to get a better view, he directly beneath her. When the pipers—her pipers, hired for her wedding, stranded on the mainland just as she is—play My Nut Brown Maiden, MacNeil quotes a verse:Ho ro my nut-brown maiden,Hee ree my nut-brown maiden,Ho ro ro maiden,You’re the maiden for me.The pay-off is his delivery of the last line—the audacity of it, as he looks directly at her, with sudden, smoldering, unapologetic intensity. Cheeks blazing, her alarm and excitement are palpable.”Enjoy it The whole film is on youtube in parts.
    • #7
    • November 27, 2012 at 7:32 am
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  8. Contributor

    Pejman, that just makes my day. Thanks!

    • #8
    • November 27, 2012 at 8:39 am
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  9. Inactive
    Pejman Yousefzadeh Post author

    Don’t thank me. It was a pleasure to write this post up.

    Adam Freedman: Pejman, that just makes my day. Thanks! · 16 minutes ago
    • #9
    • November 27, 2012 at 8:57 am
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  10. Member

    Beautiful, Pejman! And – despite your demurrals – Thank you!

    • #10
    • November 27, 2012 at 10:28 am
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  11. Contributor

    O, the joys of Ricochet!

    • #11
    • November 28, 2012 at 1:50 am
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  12. Inactive

    ‘Skirl’ appears in John Flanagan’s “Ranger’s Apprentice” series — the spinoff series, “Brotherband,” has a main character who’s the skirl of his wolfship.

    Fear not: A generation of Australian and American kids are growing up with skirls.

    Crow’s Nest: I just want to take a moment to say how marvelously onomatopoetic the word skirl is. 

    As to the piece itself: It is a good thing that war is so terrible, lest we become too fond of it. · 12 hours ago

    • #12
    • November 28, 2012 at 3:01 am
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  13. Thatcher
    Adam Freedman: Pejman, that just makes my day. Thanks! · 23 hours ago

    Ditto. Magnificent! 

    • #13
    • November 28, 2012 at 8:23 am
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