Oil Portrait of LCol Ian S Johnston, CBE,DSO, ED

Brigadier Ian S JOHNSTON, CBE, DSO*, ED, CD (MID)

Commanding Officer 1st Battalion 48th Highlanders of Canada

(Canadian Active Service Force) December 1942 – June 1944

Honourary LCol (48th Highlanders of Canada) 1964 – 1967 and HCol 1967 – 1972.


Ian Strachan Johnston CBE DSO (2) ED KC was born on 12 August 1908 in Toronto, Ontario. He was educated at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario, 1921 to 1925 earning the highest military rank of any Old Boy in the school’s history. He attended Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario from 1925 to 1930 with the commission number 47593.  Johnston joined the 48th Highlanders of Canada in 1930 as a 2nd Lieutenant and in 1933 was called to the Bar of Ontario and began practicing law.  On September 1939, Johnston joined the 1st Battalion, 48th Highlanders of Canada for overseas duty, being appointed Adjutant and Captain on 5 September. He travelled with the advance party to Halifax on 16 December and sailed with the battalion on the Reina del Pacifico that month. In December 1940, he was was promoted to Major as Officer Commanding D Company, followed by an appointment to Commanding Officer of the 48th Highlanders in January 1943 and promotion on 5 May to Lieutenant-Colonel. Johnston led the battalion in the landings at Pachino, Sicily on 09 July 1943, then the Sicilian campaign and the advance up Italy including San Leonardo, the Gully, Ortona, San Nicola – San Tommaso, the Liri Valley and the Hitler Line. LCol Johnston was awarded the Distinguished Service Order at Ortona Crossroads which opened up the final advance to Ortona. On the night of December 23rd-24th, the 48th Highlanders, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Strachan Johnston, performed one of the most remarkable feats of the war. Carrying only personal weapons, the Battalion moved off into the night in single file in the rain following a hidden footpath, penetrating unseen a mile behind the German lines, then dug in an all round defence by dawn.  The Battalion spent Christmas Day surrounded by enemy firepower, with fire from German 88 MM guns, machine-guns, mortars, and snipers. That night a 48th officer, leading 180 Saskatoon Light Infantry, used the same foot path bringing food, ammunition, radio batteries, and rum. At 1000 hours on December 26th, the enemy threw everything it had at the 48th. The fighting was intense, and often hand-to-hand. Then the 48th’s Information Officer, who had left back along the foot path in daylight returned guiding three tanks of the Ontario Regiment. With the tanks in support, the 48th Highlanders now launched their own counter-attack, wreaking havoc on the Germans. An estimated 120 Germans were killed or captured. The 48th, in 3 days, had lost just eight killed and six wounded. Now the only road for the Germans into or out of Ortona was threatened. On the night of December 27th-28th, the German paratroopers abandoned Ortona. Then came the Hitler Line, fortified by concrete, artillery, mortars, machine guns, anti-tank ditches, wire, Teller and box mines, and manned by 8,300 troops.  On 22 May 1944,  and without tactical support, the 48th Highlanders became the first Canadian battalion to break the Germans’ strongest position in Italy. In recognition, Johnston was made Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur (Order of the Legion of Honour, Knight) and awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme (War Cross 1939-1945 with bronze Palm). In June 1944, he was promoted to Brigadier in command of the 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade. In February 1945, he proceeded the North-West Europe campaign, where Johnston and his brigade led a major attack on German forces in Holland. In June 1945, he was promoted to General Officer Commanding, [A/MajGen] 5th Canadian Armoured Division . Brigadier Johnston remained in Europe to act as one of the judges in the Court Martial of Kurt Meyer for the killings at Abbey d’Ardennes.

Brigadier Johnston retired from active service as one of the most decorated Canadians of the war: twice awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for conspicuous gallantry. In addition he was awarded the CBE by the British, named by the French a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur (Order of the Legion of Honour, Knight) and awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme (War Cross 1939-1945 with bronze Palm). For his Second World War service, he was awarded the 1939-1945 Star, the Italy Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with Overseas Clasp and the War Medal 1939-1945 with MID Oak Leaf. In January 1946, Johnston returned to Canada and was transferred to the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade of the Reserve Army. He returned to the legal profession, as a partner in the firm Johnston, Heighington & Johnston in Toronto. He was also a Director of Maple Leaf Gardens, a Commissioner of a 1964 study which led to a major reorganization of Canada’s militia, and Honourary Colonel of the 48th Highlanders. Ian Strachan Johnston died in 1984, at the age of 76.

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

On 13 Dec 1943 the 48th Highlanders of Canada under command of Lt Col IS Johnston were ordered to attack an objective immediately west of the area known as Ortona Crossroads (Italy) MR322148. The attack was made with the support of the entire Corps Artillery against an enemy defensive position, that had been fully prepared with weapons emplacements, defending buildings and a closely coordinated artillery and mortar fire plan. The 48th Highlanders of Canada captured their objective inspite of the determined resistance of the enemy, with whom lay all the advantages of ground and cover. As a result of the courage and initiative shown by their Commanding Officer/Lt Col IS Johnston by his coolness under direct fire and his determination personally to lead his men. the 48th Highlanders of Canada succeeded in penetrating the enemy positions to a depth of one thousand yards, this making possible the further planned destruction of the enemy. By his conduct throughout his action Lt Col IS Johnston more than upheld the highest tradition of the Canadian Infantry. CG 11 – 11-3-44 page1043

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

The 11 Canadian Infantry Brigade Group, commanded by Brig Johnston was given the task of breaching the heavily fortified Gothic Line. As a result of information gained by active patrolling on the Brigade front, Brig Johnston gained the initiative, and launching an attack on the night 30/31 August 1944, thirty-six hours ahead of schedule and before the enemy had time to complete the relief which was in progress. The battalion on the right reached its objective but the one on the left was held up by heavy fire from the Montecchio feature. Brig Johnston immediately regrouped his force and personally organized an attack on this from the rear. This bold thrust was successful and after hard fighting the Brigade had gained a firm position in the defences. CG3 p254 – 20/1/45

Mention in Dispatches (MID)

The King has been graciously pleased to approve the Mention in Dispatches in recognition of gallant and distinguished services to: Brigadier IS Johnston. CG44 3-11-45 p4925

ED (Awarded GO/55 1944), CD
48th First Bn (WW 2)
Service number

Data source(s)

*Reinforcement Draft 10 Jun 1940
*Reinforcement Draft 10 Jun 1940
Major I. S. Johnston - 48th HighLanders 1st Battalion
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