Piping Today #54, 2011.

The solemn and complex manoeuvres the troops made on the battlefields of the 18th and 19th centuries were almost inevitably done with pipers playing when Scottish units were involved. 

At the turn of the 20th century things changed quite dramatically. 

After some early warnings from the Boer wars, the First World War forced the British Army to reconsider most of its doctrine and practice — and pipers’ tasks were no exception.

The main differences compared to the previous century’s warfare were twofold: the speed with which the actions took place and the effectiveness and reliability of each soldier’s personal firearms.

The most iconic image, so familiar in the previous 150 years, of a column of troops marching under fire across the battlefield with colours flying and pipes playing, was simply impossible in the 20th century — it would have meant a total massacre. 

In the modern era,  troops had to move in open order, dash from cover to cover, fire back at distant enemy positions, duck showers of shrapnel and hope not to attract any sniper’s attention. In this kind of setting, all soldiers — including pipers — were obliged to keep their heads below the parapet. In the majority of the actions they were involved in, pipers had to switch to their secondary role of stretcherbearers, leaving their instruments aside. 

Later, pipers were also assigned to other supporting tasks — like the machine gun platoon and, in World War II, infantry support tank crew. This was a way to keep the pipers’ role and dignity undented: they were still expected to play to cheer up the troops — but only when reasonably far from the
firing line — and, when in action, they were still as close to the fighting private as they’ve always been but performing a more specialized and technical task. 

The result was fewer pipers actually playing in action and even regulations starting to formally  forbid it. Sometimes, however, it did happen and since it had become so unusual, it was often considered a heroic deed worth a medal or a fanfare in the media: such as Damien Laidlaw, who was wounded while playing in the Battle of Loos in 1915 and was awarded the Victoria Cross; Bill Millin, who piped troops ashore in the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944; or Pipe Major Scott Taylor, who played a lament for fallen colleagues at the start of an offensive in Iraq in 2004.  

For the troops in the field, anyone foolish enough to stand upright in the middle of a battlefield, playing an incredibly loud instrument and unable to fire back couldn’t be regarded as anything but a “mad piper”. 

This is the story of David Kirkpatrick, one of those “mad pipers”. 

On the way to Florence we had a lovely time. We ran a bus to Rimini right trough the Gothic Line. Soon to Bologna we will go. And after that we’ll cross the Po. We’ll still be D–Day dodging way out in Italy

Hamish Henderson, Ballad of the D–Day Dodgers

A lifetime piping career

David Kirkpatrick was born in Girvan, Ayrshire, on May 11, 1924, and started to play at the age of seven under the tuition of Willie Carswell, harbour master and pipe major of the local scout band. He was drafted in 1942 in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders but was soon transferred to the Highland Light Infantry. Since he had been enlisted as a piper, he was able to keep up with his playing under different Pipe Majors. 

In the HLI, he was assigned as company piper to D Company and sent overseas where he saw plenty of active service, being in action in Africa first and then in Albania. After his intense combat experience in the Balkans, he was assigned to a less demanding job in the regimental store and sent to Italy where he passed a parachute qualification course. 

•David Kirkpatrick pictured above left as a young piper with the Girvan Boy Scout Group; above right pictured after receiving his wings; middle left playing with the Highland Light Infantry in Greece; bottom right pictured in Egypt; and bottom left shown on a photo sent home from the war by his father William to his mother, Jessie, in Girvan.

By 1945, he had the qualifications to be transferred to the SAS and he was then involved in commando operations behind enemy lines until the end of the war. He distinguished himself and was awarded the Oak Leaf Gallantry award for piping under fire.

David’s father William had served as a Pioneer in WWI and in 1939, still being in the reserve, was called back to serve in the Engineer Corps. During the war, he was stationed in many different theatres, but the hand of fate meant he was able to keep in touch with David more closely than if he had stayed in Scotland. 

Father and son met once in Egypt and twice in Italy — each time was sheer luck as their units just happened to be in the same place at the same time.  On their second meeting in Italy in 1945, David told his father he had been selected to join the SAS and was going to be sent behind the lines for special operations. William was quite upset since he couldn’t see why a man who had already “done his part” should again risk his life in a war that was almost over by volunteering for the most dangerous task. 

David went on to do what he was convinced was his duty and, in spite of many close calls,  was lucky enough to end the war without a scratch.

During the war, David played different sets of Lawrie pipes from the regimental stores. These sets were issued with a spares box to provide each piper with extra reeds and hemp but other supplies had to be improvised. While in Italy, for example, David tried to season his bag with molasses rations from US Forces’ stores, but couldn’t manage to do it so kept using and re-using seasoning treacle scavenged from inside the bag, thinned down in hot water. 

When demobilised in June 1945, he handed over the Lawries he had played to the HLI depot together with the rest of the military kit — he’s now the proud owner of a silver and ivory set of Hardy pipes. 

After the war he married Anna and had four children: Allan, born in 1948, Ross, born in 1950, David, born in 1954, and Lee, born in 1966.  David managed to transmit his love for piping to all of them, but among his many grandchildren only Allan’s son, Allan Jr., has kept up with the family’s piping tradition.

David was the first teacher for all his sons but taught many other pupils, including Brian Heriot who is now a Pipe Major with the Scots Guards. 

He played with Girvan Royal British Legion and Girvan & District pipe bands and even now, despite a minor arthritis problem in his shoulder joint, still loves to play with the Girvan & District Pipe Band. He’s also been appointed the official piper of Girvan Masonic Lodge.

In his piping career, he achieved some successes, winning the Benmore shield in Grade 3 at Cowal with the Girvan Royal British Legion PB, but his most rewarding moments were winning the Cumnock Piping Trios competition in 1965 and 1966 with his two elder sons Allan and Ross.

His sons also played in local bands: Allan with Girvan Royal British Legion Pipe Band; Ross with Girvan Royal British Legion and Ayr pipe bands; David with Girvan Royal British Legion Pipe Band; and Lee with Girvan Royal British Legion, Girvan Juvenile, City of Bedford and RAF Kinloss pipe bands. Of the four, only Lee is still involved in a pipe band (RAF Kinloss) but they all still enjoy playing the pipes.

•David Kirkpatrick in 2011, photographed at an Girvan Pipe Band practice. Photo: John Slavin

Italy 1945: Operation Tombola

In late 1944, the Allied forces in Italy were reorganising after Operation Olive, the summer offensive against the Gothic Line. They had learned the hard way in Cassino and on the river Sangro that moving along Italy’s mountainous backbone was a hard task in itself, but getting through it with carefully prepared German positions blocking the way was a bloodbath in good conditions and sheer suicide in a harsh winter.

Plans were made for a spring offensive, which actually turned out to be the final one. 

The Gothic line probably wasn’t as strong as the Gustav Line, leaving more room for operation on the Adriatic coast but it had resisted the first push of Operation Olive quite well and so needed careful preparation.

The “strategic bombing” approach wasn’t as effective in Italy’s rugged landscape as it had been in France and German wider terrains, so the Allied started to give more and more support to the partisans in the areas straddling and behind the Gothic Line. Although this exposed the civilians to ruthless reprisals, the result in terms of intelligence and damage inflicted to enemy installations made it necessary.

The ruthlessness of Germans and Italian fascist death squads didn’t achieve the intended result of making the Italians surrender, but rather pushed them more to do their part to get rid of these forces that now were unanimously seen as the only and true enemies.

Following this strategic approach, the British committed themselves directly by sending small SAS forces to operate together with the partisans in commando actions behind the lines. In early 1945, a good opportunity to strike a fierce blow to the German command structure was devised, the target was the LI Gebirgkorpskommandatur (51st Mountain Army Corps HQ) located in Albinea, not far from Reggio Emilia. The 51st HQ was a vital point in the German defence system, since it was not only the hub coordinating all the Gothic Line defences from La Spezia to Bologna, but also one of the few field HQs directly in contact with Berlin. Neutralising the 51st HQ would have caused a total command and communication crisis for the Germans. Since the HQ was located in countryside south of Reggio in two neighbouring villas — villa Calvi and villa Rossi — it was the ideal target for a small but well-trained commando force.     

The plan was for the SAS force to link up with the local Gufo Nero (Black Owl) partisans formation and with a Russian battalion of former Red Army soldiers — men captured on the East front, pressed into service with the Wermacht, sent to fight on the west front and once there, they slipped away to fight the Germans back.  

The entire force was supposed to be led by Captain Michael Lees, an Army officer sent behind enemy lines by the Special Operations Executive2 to co-ordinate the sector. 

However, SAS Major Roy A. Farran, who was on the plane on March 4 to supervise his men’s first jump behind the German lines, “accidentally” slipped out of the plane with a parachute and landed with his troops, immediately taking command as senior officer in the field. In the following days, more men and supplies were sent to Farran and, after his specific request, a piper — David Kirkpatrick — was parachuted into the Italian mountains on March 24.

What David recalls more than anything else of that night was the chilly sensation around his ankles —­ as he made the parachute jump wearing a kilt. 

When he landed near the village of Villa Minozzo, David was quizzed by a couple of rather puzzled local farmers about his garb. At the time he knew little Italian and wasn’t able to answer them properly. They were reluctant to let him go — excited by the sight of such an exotic soldier and eager to give him any kind of support but he was finally met by a SAS jeep which took him to the British headquarters on Mt. Cusna where David met Major Farran and was welcomed with a meal of eggs and bacon. 

From then on, the Major asked David to do all the piper’s duties as if their mountain hideout had been Redford Barracks. He was asked to play reveille, play at officer’s mess, play lights out and was also asked to play during the night. 

The Major wanted to send a signal to everybody in earshot — friends and foe alike — saying, “We’re here and we’ll soon be coming at you.”

David was a big attraction for the local population and was often surrounded by swarms of children as he played. Many of them have been contacted and interviewed recently by two Italian reporters and writers — Valentina Ruozi and Matteo Incerti — who collected many extremely vivid first-hand accounts of the “Mad Piper in the mountains” during their research on the partisans’ operations in the area.  

Just two days after David arrived, Operation Tombola was staged — a night attack on the 51st HQ at villa Rossi and villa Calvi.

During the night between March 26 and 27, a column of around 100 SAS, Gufo Nero and Russian partisans moved down from Mt. Cusna and marched towards the villas. The Russians fanned out to cover the few houses straddling the Reggio — Modena crossroad slightly south of the two villas, where most of the German soldiers were billeted, while the rest of the force moved on.

When they got closer to the villas, the SAS and Gufo Nero partisans split into two groups, one heading to villa Calvi and the other to villa Rossi.

The Major was with David in the column heading for villa Calvi, and when all the men were finally in position, he sent the piper close to a big tree in the villa’s garden, then gave the signal to attack. The first shots rang out around 2am, at the same time as the first notes of Highland Laddie. The SAS and partisans neutralised the sentries, then moved in position forming two crescents covering both villas. They attacked both buildings, targeting doors and windows with small arms fire and the thick brick walls and closed gates with grenades. The plan was to keep the buildings under fire for some minutes, then to enter and finish the job, clearing all rooms one by one. During all this, David was supposed to keep his position by the tree and play, no matter what was going on around him. 

The action was a success: the Germans in the villas were killed by the ricocheting bullets while still in their bunks or finished by the SAS and Gufo Nero partisans when they entered the buildings. The rest of the German garrison, billeted near the crossroad, was decimated by the Russians.

The radio and telegraph facilities were damaged beyond repair, the geographic operational room dismantled and all the maps destroyed or taken away. Both buildings were set ablaze.

The Germans suffered heavily, with around 60 men killed or wounded, but they managed to fight back a little, killing three SAS and wounding two more. While all this mayhem was going on, David continued playing until a stray bullet hit the stock of one of his drones, putting the pipes out of action. 

He then stood down until the attack was over and the retreat signal was given around 2.35am. 

From his position he could see all the Germans being cut down by gunfire as soon as they stepped out of the buildings or running wildly with their bodies covered by flames. He could hear the yells of many people wounded or dying. It was not something easy to forget.

Getting in touch with the past

After Tombola, the SAS troops continued to operate in the Reggio Emilia area but soon found themselves overtaken by the events. After the 51st HQ was destroyed, the German command considered the situation in the Po valley hopeless since the Allied forces were starting to pour in from the south-eastern and eastern coastal areas they had secured. The order to fall back north toward the Alps was issued and when the Americans leading the liberating troops arrived in Bologna in April they found the SAS to welcome them — with David among them.

On April 25, an armistice was signed ending the war in Italy and V-E day was soon to follow. David was sent back home and demobilised, getting back to his civilian life but not to his pre-war innocence. The things he saw had struck him quite deeply and he didn’t like to talk about them, even with his relatives.

The story remained largely untold until the early 2000s when Valentina Ruozi started her research about the SAS and Gufo Nero activities and Matteo Incerti heard of about a “Mad Piper” playing in Albinea.

Valentina and Matteo both had a personal interest in the partisans’ operations in Modena and Reggio Emilia since their families had had members directly involved in the anti–fascist fight. Family heritage later became professional interest when they both wrote some articles about the 1943–1945 war in Italy for the local press. They read each other’s work and discovered they had both found some pieces of the jigsaw centring on Operation Tombola.

They started to put together their sources and evidence to rebuild an extremely interesting bit of local history from scratch. They cross–referenced personal recollections of locals they interviewed in the villages of Albinea and neighbouring Villa Minozzo with documents from the archives of Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia (ANPI, Italian Partisans’ National Association) and papers from official British and German war archives.

The story that emerged was astonishing. Matteo was able to trace David Kirkpatrick through British archives first and then through the Girvan Masonic Lodge and was able to carry out a couple of phone interviews with David to confirm what had happened. 

The story was so incredible that Matteo and Valentina decided to put it in a book, Il Bracciale di Sterline (A Bracelet Made of Pounds), published in Italy in April 2011. 

The piper that saved a town

What Matteo and Valentina discovered was that Major Farran’s decision to have a personal piper accompanying him for Operation Tombola proved literally vital to the civilians living in Albinea. 

What the maverick SAS officer had in mind was to use the sound of the bagpipes as a decoy to surprise and puzzle the enemy and, at the same time, to mask the actual size of his small force making it seem bigger with this simple but effective trick 

On these fronts, it proved absolutely successful.

The SAS Major was also aware that in June 1944, Lord Lovat had led the commandos on Sword Beach with his piper, Bill Millin, playing under fire and probably wanted to show the SAS were just as dashing as the green berets.

That inter-corps rivalry aside, what Matteo and Valentina had discovered was that in the early hours of March 27, the officer commanding the 51 Gebirgskorps, General der Artillerie Friedrich-Wilhelm Hauck, rushed to villa Calvi and villa Rossi to assess the situation. He realised the HQ was useless and tried to understand what had happened. He asked the few officers who were still alive then personally surveyed the area. The evidence he found was the bodies of the three fallen British SAS soldiers and a shocked report from all the survivors saying the attack was sudden, quick, professional — and with bagpipes playing.

•An Italian Scout Group has honoured David’s bravery by naming a Scout Troop Compagnia Kilt with bagpipes pictured on their patch

Hauck was aware that British agents had been sent to link with the partisans but so far they had just done some intelligence work and had been spotted in the Italian partisans’ bands involved in guerrilla actions — mostly against small or isolated German forces. This action looked different… and they had a piper!

Hauck wasn’t completely sure it was a British-led operation and called Colonel Eugen Dollmann, a Hitler protegé and SS officer in charge for the area, giving him the evidence he had gathered and putting the final decision in his hands.

Dollmann agreed with Hauck that the attack couldn’t be anything other than an action by a British spearhead force, leading the way for the main Allied force. This had two consequences, one global and one local but both crucial in saving many lives. 

On the wider scale, the German withdrawal north started some time before the Allied troops actually arrived in the river Po valley, making their progress easier and less costly.  On the local scene, the action was considered as having been done by regular troops, not by partisans, and so the Germans didn’t retaliate against the civilian population.  

In 1944 and 1945, the German forces in Italy — with the Italian fascists’ support — adopted a merciless retaliation policy that was meant to repress the insurgents and partisans. For each German soldier killed or wounded by the partisans, 10 civilians from the area would be executed. 

This led to many of the bloodiest episodes of the war as far as the Italian population was concerned, with the Fosse Ardeatine bloodbath in Rome, the massacre at S.Anna di Stazzena, and the  killings of Marzabotto and Padule di Fucecchio — to list just a few.

But this time, thanks to Major Farran’s dashing ésprit and David’s bagpipes, the civilians were left out of the war. Since 60 German soldiers had fallen, this could have meant the killing of up to 600 civilians — virtually the entire population of Albinea, the village closest to the 51st HQ.

But all these facts couldn’t be seen in the correct context until Matteo and Valentina’s research gathered the information from the different perspectives, linking the British and partisans’ actions with the German reactions and decisions.   

•The book cover of Il Bracciale di Sterline by Matteo Incerti and Valentina Ruozi

When the book Il Bracciale Di Sterline was published and the results of Operation Tombola became clear, the mayors of Albinea and Villa Minozzo decided to honour David as he deserved.

In July 2011, Matteo and Valentina went to Girvan to meet David who, due to his age, decided not to fly to Italy. They presented him with the honorary citizenship of Albinea and Villa Minozzo.

In his house, David, surrounded by his sons and grandsons, was amazed by the tale and started to talk about his war years in a way his own relatives had not heard before. Much of what is reported in this article comes out from that interview.

From what they’ve seen and heard from David, Matteo and Valentina think that he finally felt the burden of the horrors he had witnessed in action weigh slightly less heavily on him, and when he realised that what he did contributed to save so many lives, he felt able to finally share the experiences of his war years.

These are the D-Day Dodgers who’ll stay in Italy

In ever respectful memory of:

James A. Riccomini, Sidney E. Guscott, Stanley Bolden

2nd SAS, killed in action at villa Rossi