ARRIVAL AT DESTINATION: SWORD BEACH & COLLEVILLE-MONTGOMERY
Tuesday 3rd June. At 10am the ‘D-Day Revisited’ Group of Normandy Veterans visited the Portsmouth D-Day Museum. John Millin was especially welcomed by the Museum Curator, Andrew Whitmarsh. Viewing the D-Day Tapestry, John pointed out that his father had complained about the detail of his portrayal when he was first shown the historic tapestry. Piper Bill Millin was the only man to land in Normandy on D-Day wearing a kilt – actually his father’s Cameron Highlander Kilt as worn in Flanders during the Great War. Bill had apparently insisted the tapestry should be changed to depict a beret instead of a helmet, so the tapestry had to be unpicked. The Museum put on a special event for this 70th Anniversary and the veterans enjoyed the visit, viewing wartime heritage vehicles and weapons displayed by re-enactment groups.
Later, boarding the Brittany Ferries vessel “Normandie” for the 1445 departure, it was sadly time to say goodbye to Karl Wainwright, the ‘Millin-Montgomery’ Voyage Piper. Having recently joined the Black Watch Regiment, Karl was shortly due to report for basic training. He had been on continuous duty for the Voyage since the first ceremony at Spean Bridge in the Highlands on Sunday 4th May.
As the Ferry left the Terminal and headed out into the Solent, Piper John Millin took up position on the rear deck. From there, amongst a crowd of Normandy Veterans, John played “Amazing Grace” on the ‘Millin-Montgomery’ Pipes. As the “Normandie” slowly passed warships tied up alongside the Naval Base, Black Watch Piper Jamie (Ted) McDonald took over from John and kept the stirring music playing as the Ferry progressed out of Port. “Amazing Grace” became the favoured tune of the afternoon, played once again as the Ferry passed Nelson’s Flagship, HMS Victory... a fitting farewell to Portsmouth as the veterans once again set off for France seventy years on.
It was soon a special moment for John Millin and his family on board as the Ferry passed the Hamble River inlet from where his father had departed for D-Day. It was a good moment to recall the words of Countess Mountbatten who had served as a Wren at HMS Tormentor; looking at how packed the estuary was with warships large and small, troop transports, tugs and Landing Craft, etc., she commented “you could have walked dry shod across to the Isle of Wight.”
Thursday 5th June. After an early start, the ‘D-Day Revisited’ Veterans’ Group arrived at Pegasus Bridge shortly after 9 o’clock. It is at the Pegasus Bridge Museum where Bill Millin’s “Normandy Pipes” are kept on proud display. Once again visiting the Museum with his wife, Dorrie, John Millin expressed his pride to see his father’s Pipes on public display. John explained this set was used by his father after the Landings when his original set was damaged by shrapnel.
There were several wreath laying ceremonies during the morning, mostly carried out on the original Orne River Bridge which is now kept as a memorial in the grounds of the Museum. Commemorative parachute drops took place and there were several fly-pasts, most particularly the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight including Spitfire fighter planes and the Lancaster Bomber.
After the ceremonies, some veterans took the opportunity to visit Café Gondré on the other side of the River. This is a favoured venue for the Para Veterans who are always made very welcome by Madame Arlette Gondré who remains proud that hers was the first house in France to be liberated as the Allies landed. The Veterans all made their way over to an out-of-the-way area alongside the Orne River. Here were moored three heritage boats of the 70th Power Boat Squadron. Many veterans were pleased to take a break and stepped aboard MGB-81. Alongside was Richard Basey’s MTB-102, the Dunkirk flagship which brought the ‘Millin-Montgomery’ Pipes into Portsmouth on 2nd June.
Boat crews were pleased to offer a tot of whisky as the veterans awaited the VVIP visitors as promised by Admiral Neil Rankin during his speech at Southwick house just a couple of days earlier.
Shortly after noon HRH Prince Charles arrived accompanied by HRH the Duchess of Cornwall. As Admiral Rankin took Prince Charles aboard MGB-81, it was Peter Goodship of the Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust who introduced the Duchess to Victoria who in turn introduced the assembled Normandy Veterans. Shortly afterwards Prince Charles came over from his tour of the Gunboat to meet with the veterans and enjoyed a chat with each of the 57 Normandy Veterans in the Group. The Royal couple were unhurried and of course the veterans were delighted to have this opportunity for a meeting at this historic D-Day site in some degree of privacy.
Royal Navy/Landing Craft Veteran Frank Woods reminisced with Prince Charles, telling him that it was his Grandfather King George VI, who had presented him with his DSM in late 1944. Veteran Vernon Parry briefly spoke Welsh with the Prince and was pleased that he passed the test. Prince Charles was in uniform as Colonel in Chief of the Parachute Regiment so may have spent a few extra seconds with Normandy Paratrooper Veterans, no doubt especially pleasing Lance Rooke, Alf Bradshaw, Glen Jones, Len Buckley and Raymond Shuck.
Friday 6th June. This being the anniversary day of commemoration and celebration, there were many set piece and grand events throughout the day. The ‘D-Day Revisited’ Veterans’ Group began the morning at the Bayeux Cathedral where a ceremony took place in Royal presence as well as that of British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife.
After the Cathedral Service most of the congregation took the opportunity to walk up the narrow town streets to the British Military Cemetery. The Prime Minister and Ministers of State of France and Britain walked with Normandy Veterans as the French people cheered and thanked the veterans for the Liberation. This was a moving time for all involved. A little road-train towing open carriages was used to help many of the elderly veterans to manage the uphill trek.
The Grand Ceremony & Service at the Cemetery was conducted in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh accompanied by HRH Prince Charles and HRH the Duchess of Cornwall. Along with the British and French Prime Ministers, many Ministers of State were present with senior members of all political parties. After the Service there was a convivial period in which veterans and guests came together. This was a particularly memorable moment for Royal Ulster Rifles Veteran, John Shanahan, as he was introduced to the Queen. John had landed on Sword Beach in the second wave on D-Day. During this time as everyone prepared for lunch in the marquee, John Millin was congratulated for his part in the events by Alec Salmond, 1st Minister of the Scottish Parliament and by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague.
Bayeux was the first town to be liberated by the Allies so it was once again a fitting scene for the ‘Millin-Montgomery’ Story to symbolise the journey from those training bases in the Highlands of Scotland to the shores of Normandy. With John Millin present in the Veterans’ Group the party was completed by the presence of the Hon. Lady Arabella Stuart-Smith with her brother, the Hon. Henry Montgomery representing their father, the 2nd Viscount David Montgomery of Alamein.
After the Bayeux Cemetery Service all veterans were bussed with Police Escort to Sword Beach where they took part in the International Commemoration Event for the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. This grand celebration took place actually on Sword Beach. This Event was attended by around 500 Normandy Veterans in the company of eighteen Heads of State including Her Majesty the Queen, President Obama, Francois Hollande President of France, Angela Merkel Chancellor of Germany and many others.
For the ‘Millin-Montgomery’ Voyage the main event was yet to come. After the International Ceremony it was inevitably difficult to recover all the veterans amongst such a huge crowd. Once this was achieved, albeit a little late, the two coaches made a short road journey over to Colleville-Montgomery where a large crowd of townsfolk were gathered at the Piper Bill Millin Statue.
The ‘D-Day Revisited’ Group of 57 Normandy Veterans was greeted by the Mayor on behalf of the citizens of Colleville-Montgomery. This small coastal town was renamed after the Liberation in honour of General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, the Commander of Allied Forces for the Invasion. Hundreds of townsfolk had gathered here. Once the veterans had been cheered into place, John Millin (in full Highland Dress) proceeded with his speech in which he spoke of his father’s deep feelings for the French people and his habit of visiting every year, often just camping on the beach.
‘D-Day Revisited’ Chairman was asked to speak on behalf of the veterans. This brief address included the following:
“I must firstly apologise for being a little late but we have just come from the International Event held on the beach just a couple of miles along the coast at Ouistreham. I admit we do hear that your President is perhaps not as popular as he might like, but you can all be pleased today; in the World spotlight he made a speech of which all France can be proud. However, we are here today for the Normandy Veterans; these are the men who landed here on these very beaches exactly seventy years ago. They brought freedom to an oppressed people and went on to liberate the whole of Europe. We all owe them a debt which we can never repay.
We are also here today at the end of the “Millin-Montgomery” Voyage – ending a month during which time we have brought these Bag Pipes 1,000 miles from Spean Bridge in the Highlands of Scotland to Sword Beach, visiting many British Ports en route celebrating at each place with the local people whose parents and grandparents contributed so much to the Invasion effort.
The grand story links Piper Bill Millin whose stature stands larger than life here behind me with your town and with Sword Beach on whose edge we now stand. Piper Millin is a symbol of the British soldier representing courage, audacity and perhaps even a little eccentricity.
On behalf of the Normandy Veterans assembled here I thank you for your generous welcome and hand you over to Royal Marine Commando Patrick Churchill who would like to say a few words.”
Pat Churchill was duly escorted to the microphone as Serge translated into French. Pat spoke of his personal friendship with Bill Millin and with the Millin family. There was pride in his voice as he explained to the assembled audience of citizens of Colleville-Montgomery how pleased he was to be here amongst his fellow veterans and how grateful he was for their welcome.
After the applause for Pat’s remarks, the Mayor called for the wreath-laying at the Piper Millin statue. Two Normandy veterans were selected to represent the 57 present so it seemed appropriate to choose two who had been at Sword Beach on D-Day. Accordingly, John Dennett and Bob Barker were called forward to lay the wreath. After the Piped Band had played and when all formal proceedings were finished, the Veterans’ Party joined arms for their own spirited rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”.
As the gathering broke up it was agreed that one of the townspeople would travel on one of the Carver Coaches to guide the driver to the dinner venue which was held at the local Sports Hall. Once there, at the end of a very long day – appropriately seventy years later it was once again the Longest Day! The veterans were all keen for a good rest, a glass of something strong and a nice meal. Happily, and as a fitting end to the Anniversary day, the people of Colleville-Montgomery generously provided all three. Presented with home-cooked food, many in the Veterans’ Party commented that it was the best meal they had received all week.
As the Group settled down to their meal, the opportunity was grasped to conclude the long journey of the ‘Millin-Montgomery’ Voyage. Unfortunately the Mayor was unavailable due to other duties so John Millin had agreed to accept the Commemorative Plaque on behalf of the town. One of the lead pipers from the Millin Statue ceremony was invited to lead this concluding moment.
The grandest and most fitting name for a Ceremonial Piper – ‘Tosh McDonald’, in all the regalia of his highland uniform, played into the Hall with the ‘Millin-Montgomery’ Pipes. In front of this large assembly of Normandy Veterans, John Phipps presented the Plaque to John Millin. This Shield includes the names of all the ‘Little Ships’ used as volunteers for the 11,000 miles voyage. The Shield will be displayed in the Mairie of Colleville-Montgomery as a lasting record of the historic link between the Highland training grounds, all the Normandy Veterans and Sword Beach.
To read the next chapter in the tale of the Millin-Montgomery Voyage click here:
CHAPTER 12. The Final Ceremony - Omaha Beach