Donald G. MacLaughlan was born the son of a Calgary doctor, but dreamed from the age of sixteen of being a soldier. He joined the Army Cadets in high school, and joined the Calgary Highlanders immediately after graduating.
By 1939, MacLaughlan was an 18 year veteran of the Militia, having attained the rank of Major and a reputation for being one of Alberta’s top rifle shots. Just the year before, he had been fired from his job at the Albertan newspaper for taking excessive time off of work in order to attend Militia courses. When J. Fred Scott was filling the slate of officers in 1939, MacLaughlan was tapped to command one of the rifle companies.
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.
When 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.
By 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.
The 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
Your 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.