Author Topic: L?o Major...... Canada?s One Man Army  (Read 712 times)

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Offline W1RC

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L?o Major...... Canada?s One Man Army
« on: February 08, 2022, 05:07:14 AM »
Leo Major?s story is so preposterous that Hollywood still hasn?t made a movie about it.

A French-Canadian who saw action in the Normandy landings, Leo began his military career by capturing an armored vehicle full of communications equipment, providing the Allies with invaluable intelligence. He then single-handedly took out a group of elite Nazi SS troops, but lost his left eye after a dying enemy managed to ignite a phosphorus grenade. When a doctor tried to send him home, Leo reportedly replied that he only needed one eye to aim. He later broke several bones in his back, but again refused to be evacuated, returning to the battlefield to participate in the liberation of Holland.

During an early-morning reconnaissance mission at the Battle of the Scheldt, he spotted a German contingent in a village, most of them asleep. A typical soldier would have returned to report to a superior, but for a guy like Leo this was an opportunity. He captured the German commander, and after killing a few soldiers, the entire company of 93 men surrendered to him. He then escorted them back to the Allied lines. Seriously, you can?t make this stuff up.

But Leo?s greatest feat was still to come. In April 1945, the Canadians were tasked with liberating the Dutch city of Zwolle. Their plan was to bombard the German positions with artillery until they surrendered. Leo was once again sent on a reconnaissance mission, this time with a friend. His superiors really should?ve known better. Realizing that an artillery barrage would also kill innocent civilians, Leo and his buddy Willie decided to liberate the city all by themselves. Unfortunately, around midnight, Willie was shot and killed. Enraged, Leo grabbed his friend?s weapon and gunned down two Germans, with the others fleeing in terror. He then proceeded to capture a different German vehicle and forced the driver to bring him to an enemy officer at a nearby tavern. Leo then informed the surprised officer that the town was surrounded by an overwhelming Canadian force and that an attack was imminent, before strolling out of the tavern and disappearing into the night.

The next step was to convince the Germans that what he had told the officer was true. Leo spent the rest of the night racing around the town, gunning down Nazis and throwing grenades like a one-man army. After seeing their comrades gunned down by a mad Canadian in an eyepatch, most enemy soldiers made the smart choice and surrendered. As the night wore on, Leo kept appearing at the Allied lines with groups of confused German prisoners?before returning to the city. His final feat was to clear out the local SS headquarters. By 4:00 AM, the Germans had abandoned the town. The artillery attack was canceled, the city saved by a single man.

Leo received numerous medals for his deeds in World War II, and earned even more in Korea. Leo Major died in 2008, but his memory lives on in Zwolle, where he is regarded as a hero.

Offline W1RC

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Re: L?o Major...... Canada?s One Man Army
« Reply #1 on: February 08, 2022, 05:28:30 AM »
Most soldiers would probably have gone home after the first explosion claimed their left eye.

It was the dying months of the Second World War and Hitler was losing, but Canadian troops were still pressing into the Netherlands ? wet, cold and under fire. Losing an eye was a pretty easy ticket out of there. And for anyone who did stay, a second blast tossing them 15 feet in the air like a ragdoll, breaking their back and both ankles, would have sealed the deal.

But L?o Major was no ordinary soldier.

After stubbornly refusing to head back to Quebec after suffering repeated, horrific injuries (you only need one eye to shoot a rifle, he argued), Major would go on to become the only Canadian ever to receive a Distinguished Conduct Medal in two separate wars (the second earned in Korea).

He is perhaps best known, however, as the liberator of Zwolle, a town that has sat nestled between four rivers in the northeastern corner of the Netherlands for over a millennium.

Not one of the liberators, mind you. The liberator.

On an April night in 1945, Major single-handedly chased the Germans out of the town of 50,000 souls, and Zwolle has never forgotten it. There is a street there named after the hero from Quebec?s R?giment de la Chaudi?re, who returned for regular visits before he passed away in 2008.

There?s also an annual ceremony to mark his bravery, and late last month, a group of soccer fans unfurled a huge banner in Major?s honour.

The fact that Major?s life reads like a rather implausible movie script may be one of the reasons why he isn?t nearly as well-known in Canada. A cursory search of Library and Archives Canada?s database yields very little on the man, and his service files are not readily available.

?When I saw this story, I thought ?this is incredible,? I have to do something on this.'?

Drapeau relied heavily on testimony recounted by Major to his sons, one of whom ? Jocelyn ? became the family?s de-facto historian. Jocelyn Major has since died, but Drapeau said he was able to gather a great deal of information once his father finally agreed to talk about his experiences during the war.


?And, maybe not as much in English Canada, but in Quebec military history isn?t quite as glorified ? It?s distance, too. That?s another factor. The fact that these are things that happened 6,000 kilometres from here.?

The liberation of Zwolle

Records kept by the military commanders outside Zwolle in the spring of 1945 are sparse. They noted only that Major and another soldier, Cpl. Willie Arsenault, entered the German-held town on a reconnaissance mission sometime after sunset on April 13, 1945. The area was crawling with German occupiers, but many had gone to bed.

Major returned at 9 the next morning and announced the town had been liberated, but that Arsenault had been killed.

What happened in the interim has been the subject of intense study by historians, and has been backed up by Major?s own testimony.

After Arsenault was shot dead, the man who became known as the one-eyed ?ghost? took out the Germans who?d killed his comrade, grabbed a bag of grenades and set off alone.

Major eventually found his way to a bar and got a German officer to surrender to him. They spoke French, with the Canadian convincing the German that the village had been surrounded and would fall by morning, but he?d give them a chance to escape if they evacuated all their troops right away.

He then handed the German back his gun as a sign of good faith and watched as the officer set off into the night.

Major, knowing he?d need to make it seem like the Canadians were really poised to attack, proceeded to run through the streets firing a machine gun, tossing grenades and taking German prisoners. He rested for a time at the home of a young couple and recounted that when they saw the Canadian patches on his uniform, ?it was like magic ? I knew I had made new friends.?

Major eventually ran into local resistance fighters and enlisted their help. He captured upwards of 50 Germans that night and delivered them in groups to Canadian troops nearby before melting back into the darkness.

Then ? as the pi?ce de r?sistance ? he lit the Gestapo headquarters on fire.

?A bit of a hothead?

According to author Drapeau, Major was a born soldier who had actually volunteered to fight.

More than seven decades after he returned home, Major?s incredible story is finally beginning to resurface in Quebec. An hour-long documentary about his life aired last month on Radio-Canada, and Drapeau is one of several people who have produced written works on his life. His death in 2008 was marked with a full obituary written by the Canadian Press, but he is still far from a household name.

?If he hadn?t succeeded in liberating the town, it?s possible those guns would have started firing ? there would have been deaths. Civilians, kids, women, the elderly. So we don?t feel the extent of that, but they?re very aware of that over there.?

The mayor of Zwolle, Henk Jan Meijer, was also interviewed for the recent documentary and explained why he thinks the Canadian?s legacy has endured.

?He is a symbol of our freedom,? the mayor said. ?It?s very important that our children still remember that it?s not easy to be free. It?s vulnerable, freedom. You always have to think about that.?

From Global News, May 6th, 2018.

https://globalnews.ca/news/4178944/leo-major-soldier-zwolle-liberated/


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Re: L?o Major...... Canada?s One Man Army
« Reply #2 on: February 08, 2022, 07:45:21 AM »
ZWOLLE, The Netherlands. If you saw him sitting in a hotel restaurant along the Stationweg in this old walled city, your gaze likely wouldn't linger.

Just another old man warming himself over a cup of tea, an insubstantial collection of brittle angles in a shapeless overcoat.

But take away 60 years and add 60 pounds. Stand him up on the straight, clean limbs of a 25-year-old and dress him in fatigues. Strap three machine-guns on his back, put a sack of grenades in one hand and a patch over one eye, and what have you got?

Anyone who ever read a Marvel comic in the 1960s would have a ready answer: Sgt. Nick Fury, American G.I. Blood-'n'-guts, veins-in-his-teeth Nick freakin' Fury who, according to the historic revisionism of Stan Lee, liberated Europe pretty much single-handed back in '45.

Except the guy we?re talking about isn't an endomorphic cartoon with a word-bubble over his head. And he isn't a sergeant -- or at least he wasn't 60 years ago. And he is emphatically not an American.

Best not to get him started on that pearl-handled Yankee glory-hog, George Patton. However, Pte. Leo Major, the kid from Montreal who became a sniper, a scout -- and a legend -- with the Regiment de la Chaudiere, comes as close as any soldier to matching in the flesh what Fury was in the funny papers.

You can get details from just about any school kid in Zwolle, where Mr. Major is as big a celebrity as there is this side of royalty and rap stars. He's been the subject of a slew of newspaper articles and TV documentaries since he arrived here in mid-April so the city could make him an honorary citizen and the city's synagogue could confer upon him a ponderous chunk of ceremonial bling-bling.

He and his wife, Pauline, are flying home today with an armload of similar testimonials and trinkets from the grateful people of Zwolle.

What's not to honour? We're talking about a guy who lost an eye within a few days of hitting the beach at Normandy and flat-out refused a medical evacuation. We're talking about a guy -- check that, a one-eyed guy -- who captured 93 German soldiers during the Battle of the Scheldt in southern Holland and then refused to be decorated on principle.

We're talking about a guy -- the only Canadian, mind you, and one of only three soldiers in the British Commonwealth -- who would go on to win the Distinguished Conduct Medal (second only to the Victoria Cross for enlisted men) twice in separate wars.

And we haven't even got to the part that makes the good people of Zwolle cheer vigorously whenever he comes back for a visit, as he has seven times since the 1970s.

You see, Leo Major is their city's liberator. Not one of the liberators. Not the best-known liberator. He is the liberator. As in the one and only. "No American has done that, free a city," he said with satisfaction recently, sipping his tea, and pulling his overcoat close despite the mild spring weather.

"You know, I can endure below-zero weather in Montreal where I live, but here I feel cold at night. It's too humid."

They're ironic words from an old soldier who spent most of the cold winter of '44-'45 in sneakers instead of combat boots so he could move quickly and quietly in the shadows.

"I was young," he says with a Gallic shrug. "I could take it." The 8th Infantry Brigade had a pretty good idea of the mettle of Pte. Leo Major by the time D-Day rolled around; he was a crack shot and cool under fire. But after he flushed out some SS troops on patrol in Normandy, lost his right eye to the heat of a phosphorous grenade, and then told his colonel he would not return to England, he began to attract broader attention.

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division had a tough fight through France and Belgium, Mr. Major recalls, honing their skills against SS as well as the far less dangerous regular German army.

The 2nd Canadian Division's war was just as gruelling, and they acquitted themselves just as well, he says. But on the world stage, Canadian moxie took a back seat to American hype.

"Who has the credit for that? Patton. He had all the credit," says Mr. Major. He is even less charitable to Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, who headed up British and Canadian forces.

Field Marshall Montgomery's ill-fated thrust deep into occupied Holland in the fall of 1944, a paratroop attack on river crossings, was an utter failure and undertaken at the expense of a broad steady advance. That delayed the liberation of the country's biggest cities, Mr. Major figures, and condemned their populace to slow starvation through the infamous "Hunger Winter" that took the lives of 20,000 Dutch civilians.

Pte. Major had an opportunity to express his displeasure with Field Marshall Monty soon afterward. It was during the battle for Scheldt, an estuary guarding the Belgian port of Antwerp.

Pte. Major was asked by his brigadier to go on the kind of mission for which he and his equally unflappable buddy, Cpl. Willy Arsenault, a Lac St. Jean lumberjack, had earned a reputation in the months since June 6. A company of mostly raw recruits sent across a canal to capture a town had simply disappeared. Pte. Major was asked to slip over and find out what had become of them.

And since Cpl. Arsenault had fallen ill a few days before, Pte. Major went alone, picking his way across the remains of a destroyed bridge.

It didn't take long to realize that the whole company had been captured; their communications equipment and some rifles lay abandoned in a field. "It was raining and cold," Mr. Major recalls. "I entered a house and went upstairs to get warm, and outside I saw two Germans on guard, walking along a dike. So I said to myself, they will not walk very long."

He surprised one, used him as bait to snag the second, and marched both to their commanding officer. When SS troops in a nearby huddle of houses saw the army officer apparently surrendering to a Canadian, they opened fire on the dike, garrisoned by close to 100 men, says Mr. Major. The precipitous SS action sealed the deal says Mr. Major.

"They could either come with me as prisoners or stay and be shot." Indeed, some were killed on the way back, but he managed to march 93 German soldiers into Canadian hands. The exploit was supposed to win him a field decoration directly from the hands of Field Marshall Montgomery, but Pte. Major couldn't bring himself to accept.

"He had made an awful mistake. I didn't like him at all."

Still, capturing 93 soldiers is not something that goes unnoticed, and the feisty young private from Montreal was still top of mind among division staff when the 1st Canadian Army eventually began to move north in the spring, crossing into Germany and fording the Rhine before coming back into Holland for the final push to the North Sea.

Bernard Diepman was 17 when the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division established a hard-won bridgehead at his father's canal-side farm, 12 kilometres southeast of Zwolle. Along the road that bordered the farm, he watched the advance of heavy artillery that would be deployed outside the handsome Dutch town, threatening its centuries-old architecture.

Along this same road, the soldiers of the Regiment de la Chaudiere would later march, among them Pte. Leo Major, the man who, in one night's work, would remake a destructive artillery barrage unnecessary.

Mr. Diepman, 77, now a retired Agriculture Canada economist from Billings Bridge, was back in the tiny village of Hoonhorst recently to revisit scenes of the battle that kept his family of 11 -- and two Canadian soldiers -- huddled in a cellar the size of walk-in closet for two nights in mid-April 1945.

Mr. Diepman was no more than a boy when the German occupation began. On market days in Zwolle, he would stare open-mouthed at the brash German soldiers stationed in the city, marching and singing about how they were headed for England

But most days, there had been little to remind him of the war until the final winter and spring, when the Germans set up launching sites for V2 rockets in the nearby woods. He recalls skating on the canal that winter and watching the rudimentary missiles roar menacingly overhead, bringing death and destruction to the Allied-held port of Antwerp.

Once, as he and family members watched a rocket climb relentlessly into the sky, something went wrong. Jets sputtered, and the rocket was no longer climbing but falling, directly toward the thatched roof of the family's traditional Dutch farm house. It veered in its decline and crashed about 500 metres from the house.

The explosion blew out two windows and left a sizeable crater in the pasture land, says Mr. Diepman. By late March, the rocket launchers and the troops who manned them had abandoned the town, quietly and without warning, and Mr. Diepman knew the war was almost upon them.

A neighbour reassured him, he says, insisting a quick, efficient liberation was at hand.

"He said, 'We are lucky because the (soldiers) that come through here are from Canada ... and they always have fire in the belly."  For two days, Canadian troops commandeered the Diepman farm house as artillery fire was traded back and forth, and infantry fought to secure Hoonhorst and surrounding farms. Nobody could have guessed that the battle for this canal-crossing on Zwolle's doorstep would be more heated than the city's own liberation.

On April 13, as Bernard Diepman watched a steady stream of Canadian tanks, artillery and troops pass along the road toward Zwolle, Pte. Leo Major and Cpl. Willy Arsenault were being briefed on a mission from which there was every likelihood they would not return. The division wanted to know the extent of the German presence in the city and, if possible, to make contact with the Dutch resistance. Pte. Major and Cpl. Arsenault had volunteered but secretly, Pte. Major had something else in mind. "I said to my friend there ... we'll do something, we'll try to liberate a city (by ourselves)."

After dark, the pair made their way to a farm house on the outskirts of the city. Hendrik van Gerner welcomed the "Canadese" soldiers and did his best to tell them where the Germans were dug in along the railway tracks.

Mr. van Gerner, now in his 90s, had a happy reunion with Mr. Major recently. "They talked all evening, even though they weren't able to understand each other," Mr. van Gerner's grandson, Hein, said afterward

As it turned out, Mr. van Gerner would be the last person, other than Pte. Major, to see Cpl. Arsenault alive.

He was cut down by a German machine-gun emplacement soon after the scouts left the farm. An outraged Pte. Major picked up his comrade's machine-gun and rushed the Germans, killing two and setting the rest to flight.

Determined more than ever to complete the mission he and Cpl. Arsenault had set for themselves, Pte. Major worked his way toward the town centre, pausing when he saw a soldier at the wheel of a German staff car outside a tavern.

Leaping from the shadows, he gave the driver a heckuva fright, he says. "Because I had only one eye, I looked like a pirate."

He went inside with his captive and disarmed the officer, who was drinking with the tavern keeper. The officer did not respond to English, so Pte. Major switched to French. "And gee whiz, he spoke much better than me." The officer was from Alsace-Lorraine, a region near France that was not terribly committed to Adolf Hitler's rabid designs. Pte. Major took a risk.

"I gave him back his gun. I said the war is almost finished and I am a member of the advance party -- I didn't say I was alone. I said it's a lovely town and I didn't want nobody to destroy that town.

"I think he understood me," he says. Pte. Major spent the next few hours running through the streets of Zwolle, engaging patrols whenever he could and setting off grenades where they would make noise, but do little damage.

"I killed a few, but most I tried to scare, to send them in panic." He chanced upon the SS headquarters and surprised eight of the elite force inside.

"They pulled a gun on me," Mr. Major says. "But you know, with one eye, I can see better than most people at night. I killed four of them; the other four ran away."

He searched the bodies for any information useful to the division. "Inside their uniforms, they had names of Dutch people. You understand?" says Mr. Major with a meaningful look.

"I should have killed the eight of them, but I couldn't."

By four in the morning, Pte. Major realized the Germans had vanished from the town. A garrison -- which some would later estimate in the hundreds -- had vanished.

He set about luring the townsfolk into the open, which proved almost more difficult than routing the Germans. Even the resistance was unsure of the one-eyed soldier who now had a German machine-gun on his back, as well as Cpl. Arsenault's and his own.

He went back to the railway with members of the resistance, picked up the lifeless body of Cpl. Arsenault, and was back with his regiment by 5 a.m. The Canadians advanced on the liberated city to the sound of cheers instead of gunfire.

The first of Pte. Major's two Distinguished Conduct Medals was awarded for this night's work (the second would come after he led a company to recapture a key hill during the Korean War).

Later, the Regiment de la Chaudiere would create a trophy in his honour, awarded annually to the company that performs best in competition.

But none of the honours heaped upon him over the years warm him as much as the friendship he has developed with the people of Zwolle, particularly the family of Hendrik van Gerner, for whom the old Canadian soldier was an honorary grandfather long before he was named an honorary citizen.

As for his military exploits, he sums them up succinctly: "I fought the war with only one eye, and I did pretty good."