By Henry Sakaida

I was a kid in 1962 when the movie THE LONGEST DAY came out. It was about the 6 June 1944 D-Day Invasion of Europe by Allied Forces. It had an all-star cast and was a big budget production at around $10 Million, based on the book by Cornelius Ryan. Of all the historical figures in the movie, the one who caught my interest was Commando leader Lord Lovat, played by debonair British-born actor Peter Lawford.

Lord Lovat was actually Simon Christopher  Joseph Fraser, a Scottish Highland aristocrat, landowner, and soldier whose family had a colorful history.  Lord Lovat is a title in the peerage of Scotland, created in 1458. Inverness in Northern Scotland was their ancestral home. As the 15th Lord Lovat, he was born in July 1911. Despite their immense wealth, his parents believed in sweat equity. The young lad was sent to work on coffee plantations in Brazil and look after shorthorn bulls in Argentina. Lovat received his education at Oxford. His father raised the territorial militia known as the Lovat Scouts in 1900. It served honorably in WWI.

lord Lovat crest

The crest of the Clan Fraser. The motto in French reads “I Am Ready.”

Known to his friends as “Shimi” (son of Simon in Gaelic) and often addressed as Simon Fraser or simply Lovat, he became the 24th Chief of the Clan Fraser upon his father’s death in 1933. As a young 21 year old, he bore the huge responsibility of managing their large estate and business affairs. Lovat married in 1938 and would eventually have 4 sons and 2 daughters.

Great Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Offense being the best defense, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to take the war to the enemy.  He proposed the creation of small units of highly trained, highly skilled, shock troops utilizing hit and run tactics. In June 1940, the Commandoes came into being. Volunteers came from all branches of the military including some foreigners.

lord lovat wwii Commando monument

Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge in the Scottish Highlands where they trained. Officially unveiled by Queen Elizabeth in 1952.

Lovat knew that the Commandoes were his calling and quickly volunteered. He trained his men at Achnacarry in the Scottish Highlands. Sleeping in the mud and rain, surviving on what they caught in the field, climbing steep mountains with full backpacks and no rest, everyone pulled their weight. Each Commando was a one-man army, skilled in demolition, weapons, arson, survival, teamwork, and tactics.

Lovat’s leadership was put to the test. No.4 Commando raided the German-occupied Lofoten Islands (Norway) on 3 March 1941, destroying an oil depot, factories, and 11 ships. Rank and responsibilities came quickly; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross for gallantry.

The Commandoes were such a thorn in Hitler’s side, he instituted the Commando Order on 18 October 1942. This secret order decreed that any Commando who was caught or surrendered, would be shot without trial, even if he was in proper military uniform. Hitler considered the Commandoes as nothing more than saboteurs and bandits, just like the Partisans on the Russian Front.  The order was against the Geneva Convention; a number of Germans who carried out the order were executed for war crimes after the war.

lord lovat wwii 1942

LtCol The Lord Lovat after returning from the Dieppe Raid on 19 August 1942. Poor planning by higher ups and bad luck decimated the Canadians troopers in the failed assault. (IWM)

On 6 June 1944, Brigadier The Lord Lovat brought the men of the 1st Special Service Brigade  ashore at Sword Beach with Bill Millin playing his bagpipes. Was the movie depiction of Lovat’s activities on D-Day accurate? I had to know! I dashed off a letter to him in Scotland in 1976 and was delighted to a receive a reply. Then in 1979, I went to London to visit a friend and called the old Brigadier on the phone to interrogate him further.

I asked Lovat if Piper Millin had indeed played his bagpipes as they stormed ashore under fire.  “Yes, a fearless man he was!” he declared with pride. “The war office regulations said no pipers in combat; I just ignored them.” Millin’s presence on the beach raised morale and made history; you can’t talk about Lord Lovat and D-Day without mentioning Bill Millin.

“Did you wear a white sweater and carry a bolt action rifle when you landed?” I asked. This was pure trivia but this budding historian had to know! And Lovat answered:  “A white sweater? No! That would have made me a nice target! I carried an American carbine. It was very light which I liked, but it had a short range.” While going towards their objective  in Benouville, Lovat knocked down a German with his .30 caliber M-1 during an ambush.

There is a memorable scene in the movie where Lovat links up with Major John Howard’s 6th Glider Airborne Infantry holding the strategic Pegasus Bridge. “Did your piper actually play his bagpipe as you approached the bridge?” I asked.  I thought this movie scene was either pure Hollywood, or if true, a show of bravado and esprit de corps. I was wrong! Back came the reply: “Yes! It was a pre-arranged signal to Howard that we were coming in and he was listening for us…Peter Lawford, who played me, said a few things in the movie, which I actually didn’t say, but now wish I had!” chuckled Lovat.

Lovat informed me that there were quite a few theatric licenses taken in the bridge scene. For instance, the Germans had not rigged the bridge with explosives. He did not casually walk his men across the bridge with Millin playing the pipes. “I lost a few good men to snipers on that bridge,” he said. “We actually ran across!”

“What did you think of Peter Lawford playing your part?” I asked. This was my final question. “Well, he wasn’t Scottish!” Lovat pointed out. “He was a good ham actor.”  And we both had a laugh.

Henry Pegasus Bridge

The Pegasus Bridge shown here is a replacement; the original was saved and can be seen at the Memorial Pegasus (Pegasus Bridge Museum). It is within walking distance to the present day bridge.

Pegasus Bridge2

The original Pegasus Bridge, which attracts thousands of visitors each year. You can still see the bullet markings on the old steel bridge.

Pegasus bridge plaque

Plaque affixed to the newer Pegasus Bridge honors the British airborne troopers who captured it on the night of 5/6 June 1944. It was the first piece of real estate liberated in France in WWII.

I wanted to know more about Piper Bill Millin. The Commando Association in London provided me with his phone number, so I called him at his home in Dawlish, Devon. The old piper, now working as a nurse, was happy to share his experiences over the phone. “I saw the movie,” he recounted. “At the time, I was 21 years old. I wish they had used a much younger man for my part!” he complained. “Many years ago, during a French TV interview, I met a German who had been a sniper there. He said he had me in his sights! And I asked him why he didn’t shoot me and he said I must have been mad, playing my bagpipes during combat! It’s not sporting to kill a mad man.  I was always out in front, out in front of Lovat but never got hit.”

On 12 June 1944, Lovat and his officers were hit by friendly artillery fire. He was badly wounded and evacuated back to England where he made a full recovery. After the war, he became involved in politics for a short while. But he tired of it and returned home to Inverness to manage the family’s huge estate.

Lovat told me that he was invited to be a technical advisor on the movie The Longest Day and recounted a funny incident at Pegasus Bridge. While walking around during a lull in filming, he suddenly threw himself down on the ground when a car with “German” soldiers approached. Then a big man grabbed his arm to help him up. “My, my, sir” said the extra who was playing a soldier. “Aren’t we getting a little rusty here?” For a split second, the old commando thought that he was back in the war! Old habits die hard.

D-Day operation re-created in the film "The Longest Day" On the set of the film are the actors and real heros who captured the Orne River (Pegasus) Bridge. Right to Left: Major John Howard, Richard Todd (actor who portrays Major John Howard), Lord Lovat, Peter Lawford (who portays Lord Lovat) Pictured:- 6th September 1961

Lovat made trips back to Normandy to take part in the D-Day celebrations. Later in life, he began to suffer chronic health problems.  What should have been his golden years were marred by personal tragedies. His young son Andrew was gored to death by a wounded buffalo during a hunting trip in Tanzania in March 1994; he was only 42. This devastated the Fraser chieftain. Then the  eldest son, Simon, fell off his horse from a heart attack 4 days after Andrew was buried. He had been fox hunting with a group on their estate; he was only 54 and would have become the 16th Lord Lovat had he survived his father.

Lovat once owned over 190,000 acres in Inverness; their ancestral home was Beaufort Castle. However, due to heavy taxes and debt from bad business ventures by his eldest son, the family was forced to sell their castle as well as over 19,000 acres of land. The family business consisted of farming, commercial forestry, fishing rights, and cattle breeding.

On 16 March 1995 at age 83, Brigadier the Earl of Lovat, DSO, MC passed away. It is said that he died of a broken heart. His loyal piper Bill Millin played his bagpipes at his funeral (he died in August 2010). Shimi Lovat’s beloved wife Rosamond (“Rosie”)  lived to March 2012; she was 94. They had 4 sons and 2 daughters. Lord and Lady Lovat were greatly respected and loved for their generosity and kindness.

Lovat letter1a

Lovat letter2a

Lord Lovat was a real gentlemen who found time to answer questions from an inquisitive college kid.

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  • Bill Getz says:

    Stories of the British noblemen in WWII is always interesting. I had the opportunity to spend Christmas of 1944 at the 15,000 acre estate of Lord Derwent in his 99 room manor home, Hackness Hall near Scarborough. He was in British Intelligence at the time. He had married the daughter of the Romanian Army Chief of Staff. I used this location in my novel, “Double Eagles.”

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