Remembering World War II: a family perspective

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Artwork showing men landing on the beach

Three Boundless members share stories of their loved ones’ memories of WW2, from a D-Day bagpiper to a family surviving the Blitz

The summer’s D-Day commemoration events inevitably stirred memories of family members caught up in the events of the time.

Private Bill Millin: Lord Lovat’s personal piper on D-Day

Memories of World War II: John's father was personal piper to Lord Lovat, commander of 1 Special Service Brigade

John Millin: Playing the pipes became Dad’s act of remembrance for all those who died.

“At school, we’d all boast about what our fathers did in the war. It was a case of ‘my Dad flew a plane’, or ‘my Dad drove a tank’. When it came to my turn, I’d say ‘well, my Dad played the bagpipes and drove the Germans back to Berlin!’ They’d laugh, but it was the only story I knew.

My father was Private Bill Millin, serving under the 15th Lord Lovat, commander of 1 Special Service Brigade, and was Lord Lovat’s personal piper on D-Day. Lovat asked him to pipe the commandos from the landing craft onto Sword beach. He duly played Hieland Laddie through the surf and, when they reached the beach, Lovat turned to him and said ’Ah, piper, play us another tune’. Dad looked at him incredulously and said: ‘I suppose you want me to walk up and down the beach as well?’ To which Lovat replied ‘yes, that would be nice’. And so that’s what he did. But Lovat knew what he was doing, because the sight of this piper walking up and down the beach in his kilt helped some of the terrified young lads coming ashore. Their orders were to get off the beach as quickly as possible, so they were doing their best to get off the beach and meanwhile there was my Dad, walking up and down the beach for a good 20 minutes.

He didn’t expect to get off the beach but was determined that he wouldn’t be killed in the middle of a tune – so he played them a little bit faster than normal! The German snipers thought it was unlucky to kill what they saw as an obviously mad, unarmed man, so they left him alone – but how he survived the machine guns and mortars, I don’t know.

As I got older, I found out more about what he saw that day – and when he was in Holland and Germany too, including the liberation of Belsen. I know he suffered flashbacks, and as he got older, he’d sometimes weep during interviews.

Dad donated his D-Day pipes to the Dawlish Museum and they created a Bill Millin tribute with some of his memorabilia. He was often to be found sitting next to the pipes, talking to visitors. He never let an opportunity pass by, he was always busy – he played the pipes for some of the Ten Tors marches across Dartmoor and later on, the Royal Marines at Lympstone, or the British Legion, would take him out.

My earliest memories are of the pipes; in fact, Dad was playing them outside the delivery ward when I was born. They were a big part of his life, and mine. Although I loved them, I avoided learning to play as I grew up – but when Dad was ill, I promised him I’d learn a tune and play it for the unveiling of his statue in France, which took place in 2013. He laughed and said ‘Aye, good luck with that, boy!’. He knew it would be hard, but I played a pitch-perfect Amazing Grace. I’ve never managed to do it again, though…

On 6 June 1944, Lovat told the commandos: ‘In 100 years’ time, your children’s children will look back and say they must have been giants in those days’. It’s something that Dad quoted regularly, especially if he was speaking to kids in schools. The impact it had on me was that we must remember what happened, because that day changed the world. Remembrance is so important.”

Discover more of our historical content or hear more from our members:

Find out about the creation of the Royal Air Force

See how the RAF saved the day in WW2

How the UK commemorated the anniversary of D-Day

Clifford Copping: a young airman treated by the Guinea Pig Club

Memories of World War II: Gary's father enlisted in the East Sussex Regiment just after his 17th birthday

Gary Copping: Dad was injured during the ‘hardest day’ in the Battle of Britain.

Dad enlisted in April 1940, just after his 17th birthday – like many others, he was under age, but his mother lied for him because she knew there was no way she was going to stop him. He had six weeks’ training, guarded a railway tunnel for four weeks and was then attached to the Fleet Air Arm at Ford Aerodrome. It was a training airfield, but on 18 August 1940 – known as the ‘Hardest Day’ during the Battle of Britain – it was bombed. Dad was manning the radios in the command pit, sitting behind sand bags, when they suffered a hit. He was told that when they found him afterwards, they could only see his head – the rest of him was buried under the sand.

Much of his story was learned through others, but he remembers hearing the Last Rites being read out and assuming they were for him. Thankfully, they weren’t, and he woke up in hospital, where he spent most of the next year as part of the Guinea Pig Club, treated by the famous Dr McIndoe at East Grinstead. They removed shrapnel and treated his burns, but they left a lot of shrapnel in him and every so often, he’d scratch an itchy area of skin and a little piece of shrapnel would pop out. As children, we didn’t associate this with bombs, it was just fascinating to see these little bits of metal coming out of him. We used to joke that he’d have a scrap value when he died.

As a result of his hospitalisation, Dad was discharged and he spent the rest of the war working for London County Council, driving people’s possessions from their bombed-out houses to the provinces.

When you’re a kid, you don’t take that much notice of your parents but as I got older, I watched war films and read books on all sorts of wars and took more of an interest in what he had to say. He did a lot of reading and discovered that the Germans had kept copious records of everything they did – there was a book published about a particular squadron of Stuka pilots, including records of who had bombed Ford Aerodrome on that particular day, and which part they had bombed. So he found out the name of the pilot who dropped the bomb on him – it turned out he survived the Battle of Britain but was later killed on the Russian Front. I think knowing what happened to that pilot gave Dad a bit of closure.

Dad was a big believer in fate, and in fact his injuries may have been fortunate in a way because he’d signed up for glider pilot training – many who had done the same died in training, or in the raids on Arnhem and Normandy. I think he felt that there wasn’t a bullet with his name on it, and that’s the way he lived with it. He was a great character – a bit of a Del Boy, if you know what I mean, with fingers in lots of different pies, but he was a grafter and a devoted husband and father. It’s been good to see all the D-Day commemorations, but I don’t need a special anniversary to remind me of what happened – I’m aware of it every day and I’m grateful that I’ve lived the life I have without having to fight. Those words ‘lest we forget’ are exceedingly important and I don’t think anybody should live their life without knowing what Dad’s generation sacrificed for us.

Eileen Mary Bullen: living through the Blitz in London

Colin's mother worked in the Woolwich [Royal] Arsenal during WW2

Colin Bullen: Mum always said that she never had any doubt we would win in the end.

On the first day of the blitz in September 1940, my Mum’s house in Charlton, south-east London, was flattened. Luckily, she was in an air raid shelter with her parents, but she remembered the impact of seeing her father in tears because all their possessions were destroyed. Mum and Dad were both working in the Woolwich [Royal] Arsenal during the war – she was based in the office, Dad was in the Danger Buildings – and of course that was a major target for the Germans, so they were often in the air raid shelters. She used to recall how, when bombers were coming over, you could hear this kind of thunder in the distance before you saw them as they came up over the horizon, following the Thames.

Even off-duty, they weren’t safe. Mum and Dad used to ride their bikes in the countryside and on one occasion they were machine-gunned by a Messerschmitt – fortunately, they missed. In 1944 when the V1s started coming over, she said they used to dive to the ground if they saw anything coming – and later still, the house where I was later born was hit by a V2 and its roof was blown clean off.

I remember asking her whether she thought we’d lose, certainly in 1940, and her reply was: ‘Oh, we never thought we would lose, we always knew we’d win in the end.’ That amazes me, but my aunts and uncles, who often came over, said the same. It was a different spirit in those days.

I was always interested in Mum’s story because it was covered so much of the history of the 20th century. During the First World War she was under the table during the first Gotha bombing raid and she remembered the Silvertown explosion in 1917, when the munitions factory blew up in West Ham. The whole of south-east London heard it. Afterwards came the Great Depression – Mum was working in the Civil Service, but one of her neighbours actually died of malnutrition – then there was the Second World War and after that, she and Dad brought up two sons with very little money.

But it didn’t affect her spirit. She lived her life to the full was kind and generous to the last – in fact, the day before the stroke that killed her, she was at the church helping out at a bazaar, aged 84. Hers was truly the heroic generation – and if it wasn’t for their actions, the world would be a much worse place.

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