By mid-August 1944, it began to look to the Calgary Highlanders like the German Army in Normandy was finally collapsing, and the 5th Brigade War Diary reflected on the 10th that German forces opposite were mainly low-grade battle groups. The regimental newsletter noted in July 1945:
The tempo of the fighting decreased as we fought our way through Bretteville and Clair Tison. However, the fatigue of the pursuit increased as we tried, generally in vain, to engage the enemy at Urville, Fontaine-les-Pin, through the shelling at Orbec to Ste. Germain-la-Campagne. It was on the way to Orbec, as we passed through Vimoutier and Laboscraie, that we felt the first collapse of the German Army.
Nonetheless, despite the breakthrough to Falaise and the rout of the German 7th Army, there was still work to be done. A period of rest ended on the 12th by orders to move southwards again. On entering Mesnil-Touffrey in the late afternoon, enemy artillery fire killed Private Wallace Bradley, the C.O.’s driver. By last light on 12 August 1944, the Calgary Highlanders were ordered to pass through Moulines and move south to Clair Tison, described as “a few stone farmhouses lying mostly on the north side of a narrow east-west blacktop road.” It was located in a valley, with high ground to east and west, with the River Laise flowing through the town and irrigating the orchards and farmland that surrounded the small hamlet.
By advancing to Clair Tison, the Highlanders would be leading the entire 2nd Canadian Division in their attempt to turn the German flank along the river. For the third consecutive time, the Calgary Highlanders were required to lead a 5th Brigade attack, as the other two battalions were too depleted. (The Maisonneuves were 231 riflemen short, effectively only being able to field two companies instead of four).
Hot food was brought up to the men at midnight on the night of 12-13 August, welcome after a day of marching in the hot sun. The Highlanders would go without sleep for another night. Brigadier Megill withdrew the planned armoured support from the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment, and the C.O. of the Highlanders was advised that tanks of the 27th Armoured Regiment would instead rendezvous during the morning at Le Mesnil, on the anticipated axis of advance.The advance started at 01:45. The route had not been reconnoitered and the night was especially dark. Enemy positions were unknown, and the battalion set off through thick trees. Only maps and compasses were available to guide the unit over sunken roads and unmarked tracks. The night is described by Bercuson’s history as still and thick with mist.
Moulines was not in the hands of the 4th Brigade as expected, and it was apparent that any continued advance would be unsupported. Lieutenant Colonel MacLauchlan decided to push forward. Passing through an orchard south of Moulines, the battalion found a narrow dirt track, which they followed east for a kilometre, then turned south, and skirted the western edge of a thick wood before arriving at Le Mesnil just before dawn. The lead company was halted and ordered to wait; as battalion headquarters arrived, brigade ordered defensive positions dug around Le Mesnil.
At this point, a German Regimental Aid Post was captured, complete with enemy Medical Officer and wounded soldiers. Since RAPs are set up well to the rear of battalion fighting positions, it became apparent that somehow the entire battalion had infiltrated the German defences. Retreating German troops were encountered and seemed eager to surrender, many bearing safe conduct leaflets. One German jumped into Major Mark Tennant’s jeep, desperate to give up. Some 75 soldiers were captured at Le Mesnil during the night.
German soldiers were reported near “D” Company’s positions in the morning, to the left and rear of the battalion. A brief firefight resulted in many German casualties, and some companies, in the words of Roy Farran, “were fighting backwards in the direction from which they had come.” The lead companies were engaged in shootouts with German transport on the road to the south, and prisoners from that direction included a German Regimental commander.
Signals Sergeant Alvin Palfenier, who had distinguished himself at May-sur-Orne, was wounded in the head, and loaded into a jeep with a medical orderly. The driver got lost on his way back to the Highlanders’ RAP, and the jeep was captured. The driver escaped, but Palfenier disappeared. He was initially listed as missing; he today lies in the Bretteville-sur-Laise war cemetery; he left behind a wife in Medicine Hat. He was 27 years of age; his brother Theodore, serving in the South Alberta Regiment, was killed a month later. Palfenier had accompanied the original draft of Highlanders to the U.K. on the SS Pasteur.
The battalion stayed in Le Mesnil throughout the morning of 13 August. The tanks of the 27th Armoured Regiment arrived and the company commanders planned the advance on Clair Tison with the C.O. It would be a mutually supporting affair, with companies covering each other by bounds. The advance started at 14:00, with “D” and “C” Company in front from left to right. “D” went through the north end of a triangular-shaped orchard west of Les Houlles – a small hamlet northwest of Clair Tison. A “C” Company platoon meanwhile captured a suddenly encountered 88mm gun, driving the crew off. As “D” moved into Les Houlles, “B” moved through “C” into the south end of the orchard. “A” moved into a smaller orchard 400 metres west of Clair Tison. All the while, German artillery fire harrassed the unit, and two tanks were lost. The battalion’s anti-tank platoon brought up two 6-pounders in case enemy tanks were spotted.
“A” Company managed to secure an important crossroads in an orchard west of Clair Tison, and “D” Company left Les Houlles to move through them, parallel to and north of the main road. The carrier platoon moved in to hold Les Houlles in their place. “C” moved toward Clair Tison on the south side of the road. German artillery remained inaccurate, falling to the rear of the advancing Canadians, and Canadian armour tried to engage German 88mm guns. “A” Company followed “C” and “D” into Clair Tison itself.
The bridge over the Laise was checked for mines by the battalion’s pioneer platoon. The unit had three companies in the town, but all were west of the river, and so the CO ordered “B” Company to leave its position in the triangular orchard and move east, through Les Houlles, to the Laise. They moved at the same time battalion HQ made its move south through the same area, and German shelling sent the company to ground, ordered to stand firm until “A” Company could withdraw and assist them. The company was reorganized, and moved away from the area, towards the river, crossing the obstacle at 17:30. “A” Company also crossed the river at about this time.
German artillery observers, on high ground to the east less than a kilometre away, brought down heavy shelling, setting most of the buildings afire and knocking out two more Shermans. Tank fire and artillery of the 5th Field Regiment was called down on the Germans on the high ground. The Highlanders had two companies on each side of the river now, with a small bridge between them – but further movement into Clair Tison was impossible due to the clear fields of observation German artillery observers had.
On the evening of the 13th, Le Regiment de Maisonneuve attacked south through the bridgehead towards Le Chesnaie, but were repulsed from the high ground east of Clair Tison. A second attack through the Highlanders by the 6th Canadian Brigade managed to secure a bridgehead over the Laise River, taking high ground at La Cressonierre, on a ridge overlooking the Laise Valley. This assisted the forward movement of II Canadian Corps, and again put the Highlanders behind the front.
The action was overshadowed by Operation TRACTABLE that same day, with four divisions attacking towards Falaise after carpet bombing by heavy bombers. For the Highlanders, though, it was a time of rest. They marched northwest to Tournebu, having been without food and sleep for an extended period of time. For all intents and purposes, their involvement in the Battle of Normandy was over; the final act would be pursuing the defeated German armies to the Seine.
Casualties were “amazingly low”, and morale high. They had improved greatly since Hill 67 and Bretteville. Their actions, according to Terry Copp, “unhinged German resistance on their right flank, assisting 4 Brigade’s advance to Tournebu and 53rd (Welsh) Division’s movement to Mortainville.”
Three major decorations were awarded for this battle. The Commanding Officer received the DSO in October 1944, and the citation read as follows:
On 13 August 1944, the Calgary Highlanders under command of Lieutenant-Colonel MacLauchlan advanced along the low wooded country immediately to the west of River Laise to capture a crossing at Clair Tison. The battalion had just completed a night march through difficult country and was to be covered in its further advance by another brigade which was to secure the high ground on the right. This ground was not in fact captured and the Calgary Highlanders were therefore advancing, overlooked from both flanks. Undeterred by this or by the fact that Battalion Headquarters was under heavy shell fire and mortar fire throughout the day, Lieutenant-Colonel MacLauchlan pressed his battalion on making skilful use of the ground and passing companies through to successive objectives so quickly and steadily that the enemy was not able to determine the exact course of the battle and take any effective counter measures.
As a result of this determined drive, the battalion was able to form a firm bridgehead over the River Laise by 1800 hours that evening and to hold it in spite of all enemy attempts to dislodge the battalion until the flanks had been secured and another formation passed through to the high ground beyond.
Lieutenant-Colonel MacLauchlan, demonstrating outstanding leadership by his personal courage and example, determination and endurance enabled his battalion to inflict a severe defeat on the enemy in this important engagement.
Lieutenant Ross was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star in April 1945. His citation read:
On 12 August 1944 the Calgary Highlanders were given the task of establishing a bridgehead across the River Laise near the town of Clair Tison. The operation involved the seizing of three intermediate objectives before the crossing could be made and the bridgehead secured. Communications were of paramount importance and when at the end of the second phase wireless failed liaison had to be established by an officer on foot.
Lieutenant Ross was chosen for this important role and although very tired from previous operations he set out immediately and under heavy enemy shell and mortar fire made his way to the forward companies and brought back the complete picture of the situation to his commanding officer.
As the battalion’s position was such that immediate bold action seemed vital to the success of the operation, Lieutenant Ross volunteered to return to the forward companies, brief them and start them off. Reading the battle as he went he decided when he reached the fourth company that the opportune moment for a company to rush the bridge and seize the high ground on the far side of the river had arrived. He issued the necessary instructions accordingly and so accurate had been his analysis that the bridge was secured intact and the bridgehead established.
During all this time intense enemy fire was directed on the area in which he had to move about but regardless of the risks he was taking, Lieutenant Ross remained cool, and not only performed the task detailed, for which he had volunteered, but studied the progress of the battle and by using initiative and excellent judgement enabled his battalion to strike at the exact moment when the changes of success were greatest.
This officer’s total disregard for his personal safety, his calmness and quick thinking more than compensated for the lack of normal communications and were in no small measure responsible for the successful establishment of this important bridgehead essential to the success of the brigade…
Sergeant Harbut was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star in April 1945:
On the morning of 12 August 1944 the Calgary Highlanders prior to an attack on Clair Tison moved into Le Mesnil. A quick reorganization had to be made due to a report of enemy being on the left flank.
Lance-Sergeant Harbut in charge of a Bren group, by using initiative and very good judgement, so positioned his guns that a maximum volume of fire was soon brought down on the enemy. The resultant very large number of killed and wounded was so demoralizing to the remaining twenty that they speedily surrendered. Lance-Sergeant Harbut’s effective and quick action in clearing up the area enabled his battalion to rapidly reorganize and prepare for further engagements.
Later that morning [his] company was ordered to seize and clear Les (Houlles). During the approach to Les (Houlles) the company was stopped by very heavy machine gun fire. Lance-Sergeant Harbut by his unconcerned actions and daring example so encouraged his section that they too disregarded the fire. The whole company becoming infected with the same spirit, immediately advanced, captured Les (Houlles), and forced the enemy to retire to Claire Tison.
The attack on (Clair) Tison was planned and launched immediately. D Company’s two-inch mortars were concentrated under command of Lance-Sergeant Harbut. Although by now very tired, and in spite of the intense enemy machine gun and mortar fire brought down on his every movement, he skilfully directed and maintained the volume of fire from his mortars. By altering his position continually as his company advanced, he was able to support them on to their objective.
While consolidating D Company was subjected to a terrific enemy artillery and mortar barrage. Lance-Sergeant Harbut moved from trench to trench encouraging his men until wounded and ordered out for medical attention.
Lance-Sergeant Harbut’s total disregard for personal safety, his initiative and outstanding leadership were an example to all ranks as well as being of immeasurable assistance in contributing to the success of this action.
Photo courtesy Andy Dorosh
Photo courtesy Sgt. Denny Russell
Clair Tison has survived as a small little village south of Caen. The important events of the Second World War were memorialized there in a plaque dedicated to the soldiers of Le Regiment de Maisonneuve. During the Centennial Battlefield Tour on June 6th, 2010, a guard of Calgary Highlanders, led by the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Vernon, and the Regimental Sergeant Major, Chief Warrant Officer Emmett Kelly, marched into Clair Tison behind the Regimental Pipes and Drums. After a short but emotional ceremony with local VIPs and citizens, a new plaque honouring the sacrifice of The Calgary Highlanders was dedicated at the site of the original bridge over the Laise River. Pressed for time, the regimental delegation – approximately 80 serving soldiers, musicians, retired members, and friends of the regiment – nonetheless enjoyed a brief coffee break in a local courtyard before boarding their buses for two other ceremonies that day, at Hill 67 and Juno Beach. As the buses pulled away, the citizens of Clair Tison, who had attended the ceremony in full force, lined the street to wave and hold up Canadian flags, wishing fond farewells as if to blood relatives. The poetry read aloud by the French school children at the ceremony remained fresh in the mind, if not the actual words, then the spirit with which it had been presented – “we are the children you never lived to have.”
The original bridge site at Clair Tison photographed shortly after the ceremony in June 2010 by Sergeant Denny Russell.Not much to look at now, the bridge was important in 1944 because it was just big enough to sufficiently bear the weight of a jeep, carrier or tank.