William Anderson Millar was born in was born and grew up in Edmonton, AB and graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in Mining Engineering. He soon started working for Canadian Industries limited as a mining engineer, specializing in tunnelling and special techniques involving demolition for underground geological excavations using high-grade explosives. When the war began, he and his two brothers enrolled, he in the Royal Canadian Engineers, brother John in the Air Force and brother Lea in the Artillery. Both Bill and Jack, as they were known, would give their lives to their country. Lea returned and taught school in Edmonton, dying in 2007.
Bill completed his basic and intermediate training at Camp Petawawa, ON and was sent to the Engineer Officer Reinforcement Unit in England to continue training and await an assignment. His mining and explosives experience likely affected his later selection to join the 7th Field Company for Operation RUTTER. When Operation JUBILEE was launched, Bill landed on RED BEACH and led a party in destroying and demolishing beach obstacles and other structures. Like the assaulting infantry, they were quickly stopped on the beach by heavy and sustained enemy fire. There were many casualties and much of their engineering assault equipment and demolition explosives were lost. Avoiding fire as best he could, Bill found shelter for as many men as possible and directed their defence. They tried to continue their to advance over RED BEACH towards assigned demolition targets, but they hadn’t a chance. In the end, he along with other survivors, was taken prisoner and marched to a POW holding area outside Dieppe.
The Story Begins
Bill’s courage on the beach is clear and undisputed, but it is afterwards that his real character shows through. Millar was not a quitter, and becoming a prisoner did not end his war. He and the rest of the officers were loaded on a train destined for a designated Officer Prisoner of War Camp In Eichstatt, Germany.
In the first episode of his story, Millar along with other officers, managed to escape from the train. While a few made their way back to England, Millar was re-captured and sent again on his journey to Eichstatt. From Eichstatt, the Canadian officers were taken to Willisbad Castle. Here occurred one of the more interesting events of Canadian military history.
In early September, and on the express order of Adolf Hitler, all Commonwealth prisoners were to be bound. This was based on Operation JUBILEE instructions for Allied forces to bind the hands of all captured German soldiers, as was the practice among Commando units, ostensibly to keep them from destroying documents. The British responded to Hitler’s edict by cancelling the practice, but binding on almost tit-for-tat basis continued for some months in PoW camps in Germany, the UK and Canada. Interestingly, based on complaints to the Red Cross that bind cords cut into the prisoners' wrists, the Germans introduced the use of shackles as pictured here.
By December, the British and Canadians unilaterally ceased the shackling of prisoners. The Germans demanded guarantees that the practice would not be reinstated in the future, and orders were issued forbidding the binding of prisoners except in case of operational necessity on the battlefield. The Germans objected to the reservation in this clause and Canadian and British prisoners remained shackled until late 1943, when the International Red Cross Committee and German authorities resolved the issue, and the Germans ceased the practice without formally rescinding their orders.
In practice, the handcuffs used by the Germans were quite insecure and could be easily removed. In fact, it is said prisoners only wore handcuffs during the twice-daily check parades. The German guards had no interest in exercising their policies. So after only three days at Willisbald Castle, Bill Millar was able to escape once again. Unfortunately, he was recaptured and sent back to Willisbald Castle, Bill Millar was able to escape once again. Unfortunately, he was recaptured and sent back to Eichstatt. Here he joined up with a group of re-captured British officers who immediately began construction of an escape tunnel. Lt Millar’s tunnelling engineering expertise was put to use. Along with 64 others, Bill escaped through the tunnel and made it into Austria where he was recaptured and then returned to Eichstatt with his fellow escapers. He was soon dubbed the “the Great Canadian Escaper" by German POW camp staffs.
Bill was then designated as a persistent escaper and transferred to the highest security POW prison at Colditz Castle where he stayed until he escaped again in January 1944, but was recaptured two weeks later. This time he was taken to Stalag VIIIB where other members of the 7th Field Company were also being held. Soon after, he was taken to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria by the GESTAPO.
At this point, it should be noted that Hitler executed his infamous ‘Bullet Decree’ (Kugel Erlass) by which all recaptured prisoners were to be shot as political, as opposed to military, enemies of the Third Reich. By this time, Bill fell under that decree. He also fell under Hilter’s personal Commando Order that ordered all captured Commandos, paratroops and Special Forces soldiers were to be shot immediately after interrogation. The German High Command had already defined Operation JUBILEE as a Commando Raid.
It is believed Lieutenant William Anderson Millar was executed by SS at Mauthausen. His body would have been cremated and his ashes dumped into a mass grave. The Germans who committed this offence were later and convicted of the War Crime of the murder of Allied Prisoners of War, including that of Bill Millar. He is commemorated at Brookwood Military Cemetery in England.
MiD or MC?
Members of the 7th Field Company who witnessed Lt Millar's actions on the beach have stated his leadership, defence and care of the wounded and dying was performed under the most extreme combat conditions. They conclude that had superior officers witnessed his true conduct and exemplary leadership, and had reports of his actions been fully and properly reported, a Military Cross would most definitely been awarded. His conduct while a prisoner also attests to his courage and leadership. While in captivity, he fostered a healthy escape attitude among his fellow prisoners. His outstanding conduct as an officer making repeated escape attempts tied up scarce German resources. While at Colditz Castle, it is said he encouraged other prisoners to record their PoW experiences so they could be shared after the war. He was the last prisoner to escape from Colditz and was recognised by the Colditz Society as being an incredible feat of daring and skill.
Another RCE officer, wounded and captured at Dieppe and imprisoned along with Millar, Lt John Edward Rogers Wood, MC of HQ 2nd Division Engineers, collected and edited these accounts after the war and had them published as DETOUR-The Story of OFLAG IVC in 1946 with proceeds going to the International Red Cross. The book credits Lt Millar with a persistence in attempting escapes and being a model officer advocating, taking part in and leading escape planning, including assisting in concept, design and underground excavation of the Eichstatt tunnel through which 68 POWs escaped.
Lt Millar was awarded a "Mention in Dispatches" (MiD) for his actions and leadership under extreme combat conditions on RED BEACH at Dieppe. Awarded posthumously on 15 June 1946, this recognition was originally submitted for a Military Cross, but that award was disallowed because it could not be awarded posthumously, as was the policy of the day. That proposed citation concluded with “…Among prisoners who had shown great determination, ingenuity, skill and daring in many and varied attempts to escape, there were few who could equal Lieutenant Millar's record of four successful breaks in a period of seventeen months, and none who surpassed him in determination and daring. Such extraordinary resolution and courage are deserving of the highest commendation.”
Note: Millar Lake in Nunavut (61.1351, -104.1556) was named after Lt Millar in 1956.
Lieutenant Millar who was captured at Dieppe on 19 August 1942 set a splendid example of cool courage, initiative and devotion to duty in that operation. Throughout the period of his captivity, Lieutenant Millar determined to escape, and after continual disheartening efforts at length succeeded, although it is now presumed that he has paid for his scape with his life. His first attempt at escape took place while being moved by train from the beaches of Dieppe where he jumped from a heavily guarded train while passing through a dark tunnel. He risked death from a bullet of a watching guard or death or mutilation from the unknown risks of landing in the darkness against some obstruction or under the wheels of the moving train. Despite these nerve-wracking risks he jumped successfully only to be recaptured by guards stationed at the exits of the tunnel. After several months of disagreeable confinement in dirty and vermin-infested French prisons he was transferred to Oflag 7B from where he escaped in June 1943 via a tunnel, only to be recaptured again by a cordon of armed guards set out deep in the countryside as the result of a large escape of British officers through this tunnel. Prior to this escape he had been the willing and determined assistant of Major G.M. Rolfe, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals in the preparation of two dangerous attempts, which could not be brought off after long and ingenious preparation, owing to failure of certain necessary climatic requisites, i.e. snow and fog. He earned his place in the tunnel party by virtue of the admiration of the camp authorities for his persistence in the still-born attempts. Upon recapture he was confined with his comrades in an old castle situated on a high bluff. They were closely watched by no less than twenty guards. They were short of rations and physically unfit due to the violent exertion of their escape through the tunnel. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Millar joined again with Major Rolfe in another hazardous attempt. The chamber where he was confined was lighted by a barred window, from which there was a sheer drop to the sloping banks of the cliff below. The exact distance could not be measured or even estimated with any accuracy, while the slope of the bank to the level ground was so steep as to give the impression of a drop of some 400 feet. Lieutenant Millar and two comrades collected all the Red Cross string in the possession of the whole party and made a rope 50 feet long. They decided to chance the remaining distance to the ground. By night, in utter darkness, after distracting the attention of the guard in the room by a clever ruse, they removed the bars from the window and Lieutenant Millar led the way to the unknown ground below. The rope too thin to grip and too short for the drop but fortunately Lieutenant Millar landed without more than a severe shaking. His two companions were more badly hurt and were unable to march. Lieutenant Millar then went on alone and after a clever "train jump" of fifty miles or more, he was captured again by armed sentries upon whom he came unawares. At once, upon being transferred then to Oflag 4C, the most heavily guarded prisoner of war camp in Germany, Lieutenant Millar set about preparations for a fourth escape. In January 1944, in a black night and a rainstorm, and with the perimeter lights extinguished because of a Royal Air Force raid in the area, but with the sentries doubled as a result, Lieutenant Millar climbed from a window, dropped down a rope to a stone paved inner courtyard and hid in a German lorry parked in the courtyard. The whole operation was carried out in full view (but for the cover of darkness) of no less than six sentries none more than twenty yards away. The slightest sound would have brought a rifle shot, not could Lieutenant Millar know that the darkness was sufficient to hide him. Having successfully hidden in the truck over a long, uncomfortable and dangerous night, he was driven out by the unsuspecting Germans in the morning and made off in the country bound for Czechoslovakia. Lieutenant Millar has not been heard of since and has been listed as presumed dead. Among prisoners who had shown great determination, ingenuity, skill and daring in many and varied attempts to escape, there were few who could equal Lieutenant Millar's record of four successful breaks in a period of seventeen months, and none who surpassed him in determination and daring. Such extraordinary resolution and courage are deserving of the highest commendation.
Note: This award was originally submitted as a Military Cross, but was disallowed because Lt Millar had been killed before the medal was awarded.