Monday, January 10, 2011

Leo Major - Liberator of Zwolle

You'll recall that before the holidays we traveled to Zwolle to get Grant's oboe repaired and enjoy a delicious (and very long) lunch.  You'll also recall the factoid that I shared regarding one Leo Major, a Canadian soldier, who was credited with single-handedly liberating the town in WWII. 

This information piqued the interest of our Canadian reader, who then did some exhaustive research to learn more about Private Major (sounds like the old "Who's on First" comedy routine).   It seems that liberating Zwolle was just one of his many accomplishments.  As you can read below, he was a true hero in both WWII and the Korean War.   Leo Major passed away in 2008 at the age of 87. 

Leo Major at a Parade in Zwolle in 1995.  The sign on the windshield translates to "The Liberator of Zwolle". 
Private Léo Major was a soldier from Montreal in the Regiment de la Chaudiere in World War II. He was one of only three Canadian soldiers in the British Commonwealth to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He is the only Canadian to have been awarded the honour twice.

The Allied Landings In France
On D-Day during a Reconnaissance, he captured alone a German Armored Vehicle (a Hanomag). The vehicle was full of German communication equipment (along with secret German Army codes).
Days later, during his first encounter with an SS Patrol he killed 4 soldiers, however one of them managed to ignite a phophorous grenade.  After the grenade burst, Leo lost an eye. The Medical doctor told Leo '"My friend the war is over for you. You are going back to England" Astoundingly Leo replied defiantly "No Way!, Sorry but I have a war to finish". He refused to be evacuated.  He was a scout and a sniper and insisted that he needed only one eye to sight his weapon. According to Leo, "I looked like a pirate".

Holland Summer 1944
Battle of the Scheldt
Leo single-handedly captured 93 German soldiers during The Battle of the Scheldt in southern Holland. During a Roconnaisance, whilst alone, he spotted two German troops walking along a dyke. Ambushing them, he meant to take them prisoner. The German garrison, upon seeing this, thought their commander was surrendering to the Canadians, and surrendered themselves.  Leo marched back to camp with nearly a hundred prisoners. For this event he was chosen to receive a DCM. He declined the invitation to be decorated however, because according to him' General Montgomery (who was giving the award) was incompetent and in no position to be giving out medals.

The First DCM
In February 1945, Leo was helping the padre loading the corpses from a destroyed Tiger Tank into a Bren Carrier. After they finished loading the dead bodies, the Padre and the driver seated themselves in the front whilst Leo jumped on the back of the vehicle.  The carrier took off, but didn't go very far as it had struck a tank mine. Leo remembered a loud blast followed by his body being thrown into the air and smashing down hard as he landed on his back.  He lost consciousness and awoke after two concerned Medical officers asked him "Are you OK?" He simply replied "Is the padre all right?" They didn't answer, but loaded him on a stretcher and onto a truck for a very bumpy ride to a field hospital 30 miles away, stopping every 15 minutes to inject morphine to remove the pain from his back.  The Doctor was not encouraging as they told him that his back was broken in three places, with four broken ribs and both ankles broken.
Again they told Leo that the war was over for him. They didn't know Leo because he let them take care of him for a week while he contrived a way to escape from the hospital.  A week went by and Leo had the opportunity to flee. He managed to get a ride from a passing jeep that drove him to Nijmegen, where he had previously met a family there.  His stay with the family was close to a month. Leo went back to his unit in March, 1945. In the beginning of April, the Regiment de la Chaudiere were approaching the city of Zwolle , which presented strong German resistance.
The Commanding Officer asked for two volunteers to recon the German force before the artillery began firing at the city. Léo and his good friend, Willie Arseneault, stepped forward to accept the task. They knew that there was big risk during this mission, but accepted it none-the-less. Leo and Willie, not wanting this beautiful city destroyed, decided to try and capture the city of Zwolle alone, though they were only supposed to recon the German numbers, and attempt contact with the Dutch Resistance .

Around midnight Willie was killed by German fire; he made just enough noise to make the Germans open fire, giving away their position. Enraged, Leo killed two of the Germans, but the rest of the group fled in a vehicle.  He decided, more than ever, to continue his mission alone, and to avenge his fallen comrade. He entered Zwolle near Sassenport and came upon a Staff Car. Leaping out of the shadows, he captured the German driver, and led him to a bar where an Officer was taking a drink. Inside he found that they could both speak French, and Leo pretended that he had an army at his back - he even gave the German his gun back.
He then proceeded to run throughout the city firing his machine gun, attacking and capturing German troups (about 10 times during the night he capture groups of 8 to 10 German soldiers, escorted them out of the city and giving them to the French Canadian troups that where waiting in Zwolle vicinity. After giving his prisoneers he returned to Zwolle to continue his mission) throwing grenades and making so much noise that he fooled the Germans into thinking that the Canadian army really had surrounded them, and was entering the city. 4 times during the night he had to force his way into several house to get some rest. Stumbling upon an SS H.Q., he got into a quick but deadly fight with eight ranking German officers - four were killed, and the other half fled. By then, at 4.30am in the morning an exhausted Leo found out that the Germans had retreated.  Zwolle had been liberated, and the Resistance contacted.  Leo then set about collecting his dead friend, Willie, and took him back to the Van Gerner farm until regimental reinforcements could carry him away. He was back at camp by 5 am. For his actions, Leo received the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The Korean War And His Second DCM
Leo Major fought in the Korean War, where he won another Distinguished Conduct Medal for capturing and holding a key hill (hill 355).  This position was in the hands of the Third US Infantry Division when the 64th Chinese Army made a decisive artillery barrage.  Over the course of two days, the Americans were pushed back by elements of the Chinese 190th and 191st divisions. The Americans retreated, leaving everything behind (Food, weapons, vehicles, etc).

They tried to recapture the hill, but without any success, and the Chinese had moved to the nearby Hill 227, practically surrounding the US forces. In order to relieve pressure, General Dextraze brought up an elite scout and sniper team led by Leo Major. Wielding sten guns, Leo and his men silently crept up the hill, surrounding the Chinese. At a signal, Leo's men opened fire, panicking the Chinese. By 12.45am they had retaken the hill.

However, an hour later two Chinese Division (the 190 and the 191) counter-attacked. Leo was ordered to retreat, but refused and found scant cover for his men. There he held the enemy off through-out the night, though they were so close to him that Leo's own mortars were practically raining down on him.
For three days, Leo's men held off multiple Chinese counter-assaults, until reinforcements arrived. For his actions, Leo was awarded the Bar to the Distinguished Service Medal.

According to General Dextrase Leo Major should have received at least 11 DCM for is action in WW2. For Gen. Dextrase he was the best allied soldier period. He was by himseft a one man army. 

[credits to many internet sources]

1 comment:

  1. IS there anyway I can get a list of sources from you? I'm conducting some heavy research into Leo Major, and a lot of discrepancies and myths have sneaked into the accounts about him.