Leo Major, a Canadian soldier with a turbulent past, rose to become an unlikely hero during World War II. His remarkable courage and determination in the face of adversity make for an inspiring tale of bravery and sacrifice.
Leo Major’s journey to becoming a war hero began in 1921 when he was born in Canada. He never imagined that he would one day surpass the expectations of an average soldier. His initial motivation to join the Canadian Army was to prove himself to his father, with whom he had a strained relationship.
In 1941, Major embarked on his overseas tour, serving in Le Regiment de la Chaudiere. Little did he know that his path would lead him to extraordinary acts of valor.
The Sniper with One Eye
On D-Day, Major was wounded by a grenade, resulting in the partial loss of vision in his left eye. Rather than accepting repatriation due to his injury, he insisted on staying with his comrades, claiming that he only needed one good eye to aim a rifle. His determination earned him a place in the scout platoon, where he honed his skills as a sharpshooter, gaining a reputation as an excellent sniper.
The Mission to Zwolle
In April 1945, Major’s regiment was approaching the Dutch city of Zwolle. Their mission was to assess the number of German troops patrolling the city and, if possible, establish contact with the Dutch resistance. The Chaudiere regiment was scheduled to launch an artillery barrage on the city the following day, and they wanted to minimize civilian casualties.
Accompanied by his friend Willy Arseneault, Major embarked on this perilous reconnaissance mission. Tragically, Willy lost his life when they encountered German soldiers at a roadblock. In a vengeful fury, Major eliminated two of the enemy soldiers, forcing the others to flee.
Unfazed by the loss of his friend, Major continued his solitary mission. He captured a German driver and used him to locate an officer in a nearby tavern. Major informed the officer of the impending Canadian artillery bombardment, neglecting to mention that he was alone in this endeavor.
With the information planted among the German troops, Major unleashed chaos upon Zwolle. He roamed the streets, firing a machine gun and strategically deploying grenades to create noise without causing significant harm to the town or its residents.
Panic Among the German Ranks
As the night wore on, the German soldiers, disoriented and fearful, believed they were under attack by a substantial Canadian force. By 4 a.m., the entire garrison, numbering several hundred soldiers, had retreated from the town. A single one-eyed man had driven them away in terror, and Zwolle had been liberated without significant civilian casualties or a full-scale battle.
Rather than succumbing to exhaustion after a night of evading German gunfire and sowing chaos, Major enlisted the help of Dutch civilians to recover Willy’s body. Only after ensuring his friend’s remains were retrieved did Major report to his commanding officer that there was “no enemy” left in the city. The Canadian army entered Zwolle to the sound of cheers instead of gunfire, and Major received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his extraordinary actions.
Humble Beginnings: Leo Major was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1921, before his family moved to Montreal, Canada. His early years were marked by hardship and poverty.
Motivated by Family: Leo Major’s decision to enlist in the Canadian Army was partly motivated by his desire to prove himself to his father, with whom he had a strained relationship. This underlying personal motivation added depth to his wartime heroism.
Partial Blindness: Major lost partial vision in his left eye due to a grenade blast during the war. Remarkably, he not only continued to serve but excelled as a sniper with just one functioning eye.
Preferred Rifle: Leo Major was highly skilled with a rifle, and he preferred the Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk I as his weapon of choice during his service in World War II.
German Retreat: Major’s unconventional tactics in Zwolle not only forced the German garrison to flee but also led to the liberation of the city without significant civilian casualties. His actions minimized the destructive impact of war on the local population.
Distinguished Conduct Medal: In recognition of his heroic actions in Zwolle, Leo Major was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, which is one level below the Victoria Cross, the highest British military decoration for valor.
First Canadian to Enter: Leo Major was the first Canadian soldier to enter Zwolle, marking a historic moment in the city’s liberation.
Multilingual Skills: Major’s ability to speak multiple languages, including French, English, and German, was an asset during his wartime service. It allowed him to communicate with civilians and navigate complex situations.
Continued Service: After World War II, Leo Major continued to serve in the Canadian Army, participating in the Korean War and rising to the rank of sergeant.
Lifelong Friendships: Leo Major formed enduring friendships with Dutch civilians he encountered during the liberation of Zwolle. He visited Zwolle several times after the war and maintained strong bonds with the people he had helped free from German occupation.
The Capture of 93 German Soldiers
If Major’s heroism in Zwolle wasn’t enough, his astonishing feats continued. In 1944, a year before liberating Zwolle, Major played a pivotal role in the Battle of Scheldt. There, he single-handedly captured 93 German soldiers and led them to waiting Canadian troops.
On another occasion, Major and Willy were tasked with a reconnaissance mission to locate a company of missing men. When Willy fell ill, Major proceeded alone and discovered that the missing company had been captured. Rather than immediately reporting back, Major decided to warm up in a nearby house. Spotting a couple of German soldiers through a window, he captured them and, with their reluctant assistance, was led to their commanding officer, who was among approximately 100 other German soldiers at the time.
Leo Major’s incredible bravery, resourcefulness, and unshakable resolve in the face of danger make him a true hero of World War II. His actions, both in Zwolle and throughout the war, demonstrate the extraordinary lengths to which an individual can go to protect and liberate others during times of conflict.