Pipe Tunes from the Second World War – Part 1

RSPBA adjudicator Harry Stevenson presented this project at the Blackthorn Pipers’ Society in Belfast last month. The object of the event is self-evident from the title and we are grateful firstly to Harry for making it available to readers of Piping Press but also for highlighting some very good and almost forgotten tunes associated with this conflict. Harry says,’The main reason why I did this presentation was that five of my uncles served in WW2 and all survived: Hamilton and Joseph Stevenson with the Royal Ulster Rifles, my mother’s younger brother John Stewart with 42 Royal Marine Commando, Leslie Clarke with the RAF in Burma and Norman Colson (from Dundee) with the Royal Engineers, including post war bomb disposal duties in Belfast. Belfast was blitzed twice; in fact my mother’s family home was completely destroyed’…..

On the 11th November 1918 with an Armistice agreed, hostilities in the Great War ceased. With the signing on the 16th June 1919 of the Treaty of Versailles the state of war between Britain and Germany was ended. The Great War was to be the war to end all wars, yet just 20 years later it began again. World War 2 was to have the most horrific and destructive weaponry ever used in warfare, but out of this conflict came some good pipe tunes.

Harry Stevenson
By Harry Stevenson

The Low Countries were soon occupied by the Germans and with the threat of an invasion of France, the British Expeditionary Force was sent to to halt the German advance. The sheer strength and mobility of the Panzer divisions supported by dive bombers from the Luftwaffe forced the British to retreat with the subsequent evacuation of over 300,000 soldiers from the harbour and beaches at Dunkirk. These included French, Belgian and Polish troops. The first two tunes in tonight’s presentation come from this time, Abbeville and The Dunkirk Boatmen:

Abbeville is a small town in the Somme region and it was here that the composer of the tune, John Anderson (Johnny) Barnes, was taken into captivity. John joined the Black Watch in 1938 and was taken prisoner in 1940 and sent to Stalag 9C, eventually being freed in 1945. In later years he was Pipe Major of Whitrigg Colliery and Polkemmet Pipe Bands, both formidable Grade 1 bands.

The Boatmen of Dunkirk is a tribute to the crews of the small craft which sailed across the English Channel to ferry the soldiers from the beaches out to the bigger ships anchored in the deep water. This was done under enemy fire and many small boats were sunk or damaged. The tune was written by Pipe Major John Balloch who had served with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in the Great War.

He had originally named the tune as The Boatman of Dunkirk in honour of a neighbour Alasdair MacMillan who worked for the Caledonian Steam Packet Company and who had crewed one of the small boats. However, when Mr MacMillan pointed out that many others had been involved, the tune was renamed The Boatmen of Dunkirk.



By mid 1940, with France, the Low Countries, Norway, Denmark and Poland under German control, Adolf Hitler ordered Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain, but with a strong British naval presence in the Channel and North Sea, the Germans firstly had to win the war in the air.

The Luftwaffe outnumbered the RAF by 4 to 1, but with the courage, skill and tenacity of the Fighter Command pilots (‘the Few’) so many enemy aircraft were destroyed during the Battle of Britain between June and September 1940 that Hitler postponed and eventually cancelled his invasion plan. RAF Fighter Command was composed of British, Commonwealth & Polish pilots.

And we have a piping tribute, ‘Salute to the Few’, the piobaireachd written by Pipe Major Donald MacLeod of the Seaforth Highlanders. Here is the ‘ground’ or theme of the tune:

For our next two tunes we move to North Africa and the campaign in the Western Desert. Italy had entered the war on the German side and had tried to invade Egypt, which at that time was a British Protectorate, to seize the Suez Canal. When the Italian forces were beaten back by the British, Hitler ordered General Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) and his armoured Afrika Korps to take control of North Africa.

There were two battles at El Alamein, the first in July 1942 ended in stalemate, with neither side victorious, but the second in October 1942 resulted in the British 8th Army under the command of General Bernard Montgomery defeating the German forces.

Harry in action at the Blackthorn

One of the final battles in the Western Desert took place  in April 1943 at Wadi Akarit in Tunisia. Here the 2nd and 5th Seaforths and the 5th Camerons had the task of capturing the Djebel Roumana and holding it against a series of German counter attacks. Military observers described this action as one of the greatest heroic achievements of the war.

The tune El Alamein was composed by Pipe Major William Denholm of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. It is usually played these days as a two-parted slow march, but here it is played in its original four part 6/8 march form. The 51st Highland Division at Wadi Akarit was composed by Lance Corporal William MacDonald of the Seaforth Highlanders, known as Black Will:

One of the most beautiful tunes commemorating events at El Alamein is a 4/4 march simply known as H.D., the shoulder flash worn by soldiers of the Highland Division. The tune was written in later years by Piper Rodney Sumner of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards. Rodney served with Pipe Majors Angus Macdonald and Gavin Stoddart, later Director of Army Piping.

In his book ‘In the Best of Company’ Rodney writes: ‘Dedicated to, and written for, Lieutenant George Morrison, 7th Battalion Black Watch RHR and Piper Duncan MacIntyre, 5th Battalion Black Watch RHR. Lt. Morrison was a navigating officer. His job after the artillery barrage was to stand up and walk forward holding a compass, keeping a straight line so that the battalion attacked the correct objective.

Piper MacIntyre, like all pipers of the 51st were to lead their companies forward playing; all wore the kilt that night. Both men took the full force of the Afrika Korps fire and could not protect themselves. Piper MacIntyre, hit twice carried on playing as his company began attacking their objective. Piper MacIntyre was hit again and knocked to the ground. He continued to play as his life ebbed away. When his body was found his bag was still under his arm and his fingers on the chanter. Lt. Morrison was 21, Piper MacIntyre 28. In 1938 Duncan MacIntyre had won the Strathspe y & Reel at the Northern Meeting.    

  • To be continued. Thanks are due to the following for their help with information on various pipers and tunes: Ms Jeannie Campbell MBE, Pipe Major Alastair Duthie, Black Watch RHR and RSPBA adjudicators Tom Brown and Alan Ronaldson. HS.
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