By LCol Don Chipman (Ret’d)
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.”
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