In early 1942, with the departure of J. Fred Scott, MacLaughlan
was given command of the Calgary Highlanders. Not long after,
British General Montgomery assessed the Canadian units in
England. MacLaughlan was described as "completely out of his
depth as a battalion commander..." The company commanders, on the
other hand, were rated as good but Montgomery noted that "they
have never been taught how to train their companies." With
respect to MacLaughlan, Montgomery continued in his notes that he
"...knows practically nothing about how to command and train a
battalion. He is possibly a good (company commander). He is so
completely at sea that he inspires no confidence at all. he is a
very decent chap; but I am sorry for him as he just knows nothing
whatever about it."
Montgomery passed his comments on to Brigadier AV Whitehead, but
MacLaughlan remained in command. Even when a new brigade
commander was assessing the brigade before D-Day, MacLaughlan
stayed. Brigadier Megill did give thought to replacing
MacLaughlan; the 2 i/c of the battalion, Vern Stott, appeared to
be a natural leader and Megill eventually decided not to replace
MacLaughlan until the unit had been tested in action. (In fact,
Stott later went to The South Saskatchewan Regiment as CO). In
fact, Megill had similar misgivings about the CO of Le Regiment de
Maisonneuve, who in his opinion was also backed up by a strong
second in command.
MacLaughlan's command style did not win him many friends in the
regiment; in fact, Bercuson tells us that a number of officers
fled the Highlanders to join other units on MacLaughlan's
account. MacLaughlan did not socialize with his officers, was
intolerant of their weaknesses, feeling himself superior to them.
the battalion moved to the continent, he gained the reputation
(how well deserved is open to debate) of being shell shy, ordering
deep bunkers built and wearing a US steel helmet rather than the
Canadian issue which offered less protection. By contrast his
replacement in October 1944, Ross Ellis, routinely visited the men
in the forward positions, wearing a balmoral instead of a helmet.
MacLaughlan has been criticized for his handling of the
Highlanders' early battles, including Hill 67 and May sur Orne,
but his excellent handling of the Clair Tizon battle earned him
the Distinguished Service Order. The Canadian Army at all levels
made fatal mistakes in Normandy, due to their inexperience, and
MacLaughlan was no exception. Many veterans have been slow to
forgive him for that; his relationship with his men was never one
of open admiration, such as the men had for Scott or Ellis.
October, historian Terry Copp tells us (in The Brigade)
that MacLaughlan, at "age 37...was very much the old man, a
nervous, sometimes irritable, task-master who led the battalion by
giving detailed orders." Not long after word was recieved of his
DSO, he was replaced by Ross Ellis. His relief came as a surprise
to the unit; according to Bercuson's history.
In mid-morning Ellis
was called away to brigade for an O-Group; not long after (the War
Diary tells us that) "Lieutenant Colonel MacLaughlan, DSO was
seen, almost in tears, bidding farewell to the officers and men.
Amid much sputtering and exclamations of surprise, the men wished
him God speed.
MacLaughlan's relief, according to Bercuson, came about partially
as the result of General Simonds' feelings on the matter of
rotating Commanding Officers. Simonds, at the time commanding II
Canadian Corps, felt that battalion commanders could only take
four to six months in that position and recommended a standard
policy of regular rotations. MacLaughlan had commanded the
battalion since 1942, and in combat for four months.
policy, however, was not the only reason for his relief; Bercuson
also tells us that Megill retained his doubts about MacLaughlan
even after being tested in battle, and by the end of the
Hoogerheide fight, both Megill and MacLaughlan himself realized
that MacLaughlan had had enough.
MacLaughlan harboured no resentments for his
replacement, and even wrote to Ellis two days after leaving
to tell him
performance has increased the personal affection I felt for
you and has developed in me a very great admiration for you
as a man and respect for you as an officer. No one could
have desired more loyal and consistent support than you have
invariably given me....I shall continue to pray for the
battalion as - I admit frankly and unashamedly - as I have
in the past.
Bercuson pays tribute to MacLaughlan at the end of
the regimental history by reminding the reader that the
Canadian Army had to expand from 4200 officers and men in
1939 to a force of several hundred thousand men by 1944, and
that while some of his actions were questionable, he led the
battalion competently and pushed himself to physical and
emotional exhaustion in leading his unit in action.
Canadian Forces Photo Unit photo