World War 2 History: Leo Major, the One-Eyed One-Man Army
The City of Zwolle Awaits Destruction
Just after midnight on April 14, 1945, a solitary figure slipped into the outskirts of Zwolle, a city roughly in the middle of the Netherlands. Private Leo Major, a French Canadian soldier in the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, an eye-patch over his damaged left eye and wearing sneakers, sprinted quickly and quietly along the dark, empty streets. He carried a submachine gun and a bag full of grenades; two more submachine guns were slung over his back. He'd been sent to reconnoiter Zwolle, which was occupied by the Germans, and possibly link up with the Dutch Resistance, while Allied tanks and heavy artillery gathered to bombard the city and drive the Germans out. But Leo had decided to liberate the city and save it from destruction all by himself.
Major Loses an Eye on D-Day
Private Major's decision to save Zwolle was not an isolated impulse of suicidal bravado. He'd pretty much been a thorn in the side of the Germans since landing on Juno Beach on D-Day the year before with the rest of the Canadian Army. On that first day he captured a German armored half-track by himself. A few days later, he tangled with SS troops and killed four even though, during the fight, a phosphorus grenade blinded him in his left eye. He refused to be evacuated, stating that he only needed his right eye to aim. Besides, with his new eye-patch he fancied he rather looked like a pirate.
Major Captures 93 Germans
In late Autumn of 1944, as the Canadians advanced toward Antwerp, Belgium, Private Major encountered two Germans, killing one and capturing the other. Instead of returning with his prisoner, the lone Major forced the soldier to take him to to his commanding officer. In the ensuing firefight, he killed three more before the garrison of roughly 100 surrendered. As he escorted them back to Allied lines, SS troops spotted the prisoners, hands on heads, and began firing on their own troops. Major respected regular German Army soldiers as fellow combatants, but after seeing the SS kill several of their own men, he would in future give no quarter when it came to members of the SS. Major kept his prisoners moving and by the time they were safely behind Canadian lines, he had single-handedly captured and delivered 93 German soldiers.
For this extraordinary feat, Major was told that British General Montgomery would present him with the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), second only to the Victoria Cross for enlisted men. This Private Major refused because he said Monty was too incompetent to be handing out medals.
Street Named After Leo Major
Major Enters Zwolle
By April 13, 1945, the 3rd Canadian Division had approached the Dutch city of Zwolle from the south and needed to determine the extent and location of the occupying German forces. Private Major and his friend Corporal Arsenault volunteered to scout the enemy positions, contact Dutch resistance and return before 6:00 am when the division's artillery would start shelling the city. The two slipped into the city's outskirts after dark, but had already decided to try to save the city from being destroyed. Unfortunately, Arsenault soon ran afoul of an enemy machine gun emplacement and was killed. Enraged, Major picked up his friend's weapon and killed two of the crew while the rest ran off. He helped himself to a third submachine gun, plenty of ammunition and filled a bag with grenades before heading further into the city.
Major Spreads the Word: The Canadians Are Here
As he approached the town center he spied a soldier in the driver's seat of a German staff car outside a tavern. Major surprised him and forced him inside the pub where he found a German officer conversing with the barkeep. After disarming his new captive, Major, who spoke no German, discovered that the officer spoke fluent French. He told the German that Zwolle was nearly surrounded by an overwhelming force and he was a member of the Canadian advance party that had infiltrated the city with orders to withdraw by 6:00 am when the city would be subjected to a horrific bombardment followed by a massed attack. The officer seemed to understand the situation-- as well as the fact that the war in Europe was in its last weeks-- so Major took a calculated risk and let the men go, hoping they would spread the news of their hopeless position instead of rallying the troops.
Major Wreaks Havoc
For the next several hours, Major prowled the city, firing his weapons and throwing grenades, indeed sounding like an advance party instead of a lone private. On occasion, he got into actual firefights with groups of German soldiers and killed and wounded some. He preferred scaring them off when possible, but several times he escorted groups of eight to ten captives back to the Allied lines before heading back into the city center.
At some point he found the Gestapo headquarters and set fire to it. Later still, he came across Zwolle's SS headquarters which he entered. Inside were eight SS officers who put up a fight. He killed four, but the other four escaped. Major regretted he wasn't able to kill them all.
Zwolle Is Saved and Major Accepts His DCM
By 4:00 am, he was not able to find anymore Germans; the enemy garrison had fled westward. Slowly, timidly, some of the city's inhabitants were coaxed outside and Major was able to meet with the resistance, who had to overcome their suspicion of this lone, one-eyed apparition bedecked with three submachine guns. The evidence of the now-quiet city convinced them and they helped Major retrieve his friend's body and return to his regiment by 5:00 am. The artillery barrage was called off and, instead of bombarding and assaulting the city, the Canadians were able to march into Zwolle to the cheers of its inhabitants. Private Leo Major had single-handedly liberated the Dutch city.
This time when awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, he accepted, though he still groused about the Americans (specifically General Patton) for grabbing all the credit and glory for the Allied advances.
Not Done... Major Wreaks Havoc in Korea
After the war ended, Major returned to civilian life in Canada and resumed his job as a pipe fitter. However, when the North Koreans invaded South Korea, he rejoined the army. In November 1951, the 64th Chinese army launched a massive attack and parts of Major's regiment were nearly surrounded. The Lieutenant-Colonel ordered Major and his eighteen scouts to relieve the pressure by counter-attacking the Chinese occupying Hill 227. Equipped with submachine guns and wearing sneakers, they infiltrated the defenders until they were behind them and launched their attack. Taken completely by surprise, the Chinese panicked and the hill was retaken. An hour later, the Chinese counter-attacked and Major was ordered to withdraw. This he refused to do and called in regimental mortar fire almost on his own position. The firing was so intense that the mortar tubes glowed red hot and ultimately became useless, but the hill was held. For three days, hundreds of Chinese tried to dislodge the Canadians, but Majors' scouts repeatedly threw them back until the Canadians were relieved.
Major Accepts His Second DCM
For his actions on Hill 227, Major was awarded his second Distinguished Conduct Medal. He summed his exploits up by saying, “I fought... with only one eye and I did pretty good”. If he had a complaint this time, he kept it to himself.
Zwolle Never Forgot
The Dutch citizens of of Zwolle never forgot him. Starting in the 1970s and until his death in 2008, Major periodically returned to Zwolle and was given a hero's welcome each time, cheered by its citizens. The children are taught in school about the one-eyed liberator who saved their city from destruction. He became an honorary citizen of the city in 2005 and has been the subject of news articles and documentaries. When Leo Major died in 2008 at the age of 87 in Montreal, the town hall flag of Zwolle flew at half-mast and townspeople recorded their condolences in a special register. Later that year, the city renamed a street in his honor, Leo Majorlaan (Leo Major Street).
© 2015 David Hunt
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