Valor Friday

| June 18, 2021

Léo Major

This week we’ll be going over an incredible enlisted man from Canada, who’s known as “the Québécois Rambo”. He could easily be called Nick Fury from the Marvel Comics. Sergeant Leo Major started life by being born in the greatest country on the North American continent. His parents, of French-Canadian ancestry moved young Leo back to their native Canada, the second greatest country on the continent, when he was still a baby.

Born in 1921, he clashed with his father when he was a teen and had been sent to live with an aunt at age 14. A lack of employment and a desire to make his father proud led young Major to enlist with the Canadian Army in 1940 at age 19. Canada had already joined the UK in declaring war on Germany in September of 1939. Major would be one of more than 1.1 million Canadians out of a population of about 11 million at the time.

At the time of their joining of the war, Canada, while ostensibly operating independently from the UK, they were under British command. War plans at the time, drafted before the war started, saw limited overseas service for the Canadians. After the fall of France and the impending threat against the British Isles, these plans changed.

Canadian forces were deployed to Britain to aid in defense, to Hong Kong, and about 5,000 served as part of the ill-fated Dieppe Raid in August, 1942. From that point on, the Canadian forces were an integral part of Allied operations throughout Europe and North Africa.

Major was assigned to the Régiment de la Chaudière, a Québécois light infantry formation. He was trained as a scout and sniper. As part of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, Major and his regiment first saw combat on the morning of 6 June 1944 as part of the Allied Invasion of Normandy, landing at Juno Beach. Of the 950 casualties suffered by Canadian air, land, and sea forces on that day, most of them came from the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.

In his first taste of combat, Leo Major excelled. On D-Day he single-handedly captured a German half-track. Inside the enemy armored vehicle was a trove of code books and communications equipment. A few days later Major was on patrol and came across his first Nazi SS patrol. He killed all four of the enemy patrol, but not before one of them lit a white phosphorus grenade. After the explosion Major lost an eye, but kept fighting.

Despite losing an eye, Major insisted on remaining at the front and continued his work as a scout sniper. His argument with his commanding officers was that he only needed a single working eye to properly sight his weapon. Major subsequently wore an eye patch and said he “Looked like a pirate.”

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division fought almost continuously through the summer of 1944. In October, they were selected along with the rest of the Canadian First Army to conduct an amphibious assault in the Scheldt river delta area in an attempt to open up the Belgian port and city of Antwerp. This would be crucial to continued success as the Allies were stretching their supply lines having moved nearly through all of France in short order after the breakout from Normandy.

Early on in the month-long battle, Leo was alone on a reconnaissance patrol. During stormy weather he took refuge in a house in the southern Netherlands. While there, he spotted two Germans walking along a nearby dike.

Major captured one of the Germans and attempted (again, single-handedly and with only one eye) to use him as bait to lure out the second German soldier. The second man didn’t fall for the trap and when he went to use his gun. Major shot and killed him.

With the one enemy captive, Major moved of his own volition to the soldier’s nearby garrison. It’s hard to imagine it, but the one-eyed scout took the garrison’s commander prisoner. He forced the entire garrison of nearly 100 men and officers to surrender after personally killing three of them.

Major had, alone, captured 93 Germans. While marching them back to friendly lines, nearby SS troops saw Germans being escorted by a Canadian and opened fire on their own men. Perhaps the fanatical Nazi troops thought the surrendered were traitors. Whatever their reason for opening fire, Major calmly ignored the enemy fire and carried on. When he found a passing Canadian tank, he ordered them to fire on the SS troops. By that time the SS had killed a further seven Germans.

Major was allegedly recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), which was the second highest award for combat valor for enlisted men (the equivalent of an American Distinguished Service Cross). He is said to have denied the honor, since he didn’t want to receive it from General Bernard Montgomery, who he felt was “incompetent” and in no position to be giving anyone medals.

However, the Canadian archives don’t show any recommendations for the DCM to Major for this action or nor is there an explanation why he would have refused it. He did receive seven days off for his actions. He was apparently late in returning to duty because his car wouldn’t start.

A few months later, in February 1945, Major was helping a chaplain load corpses from a destroyed Tiger tank into a Bren Carrier. After they finished policing the tank, the driver and chaplain got into the front and Major hopped in the back. Moments later, Major recalls hearing a loud blast and flying through the air. The light armored vehicle had hit a mine.

Major landed hard on his back and came to while being assessed for his injuries. He was quickly loaded into an ambulance and removed to a nearby hospital, stopping to load him with morphine along the way for the intense pain.

Before he was fully convalesced, Leo returned to his regiment by April as they moved on the Dutch city of Zwolle. Zwolle was supposed to have significant German occupation forces. The regimental commander asked for volunteers to scout the city and contact the Dutch Resistance before they commenced artillery strikes on the village. Major, still a private, and his friend and comrade Corporal Welly Arsenault stepped up.

On April 13th, the two men were reconnoitering the city when, for whatever reason, they decided to capture the town themselves, without orders, without air or artillery support, and without the rest of their regiment. The details of the battle are murky at best, with conflicting accounts, even from Major himself. Like a fishing story, Major’s retelling of that night evolved over the years. I’ll try my best to describe what most likely happened.

Around midnight on that April night Arsenault and Major found an enemy outpost manned by four Germans. There are two general versions of what happened next.

The more official version has Arsenault, senior man among the two, ordering Major to cover while he charges the enemy position. Killing two of the enemy, Arsenault wounded a third before he was mortally wounded himself. He continued firing until he ran out of ammunition, which provided Major enough covering fire that he was able to kill the rest of the enemy and rout the German position.

Alternately, the version Major tells is that Arsenault accidentally gave away their position as they were crossing a railroad track going towards the enemy outpost. Arsenault was immediately fired upon and mortally wounded. In a controlled rage at the loss of his friend, Major rushed the enemy position, killing two of the men within while the other two got in a vehicle and fled.

Regardless of which version of events you believe, Major was now alone on his reconnaissance patrol and continued his self-initiated invasion of Zwolle. The stories of Major’s invasion of the village have increased in his one-man heroics to the point of stretching credulity. Even Major himself seems to have bought into believing some of the stories himself.

Major entered the city through the Sassenpoort, a gate in the city wall. There were Germans in the city, but they were likely the last remnants of the retreating army. There are tales that he again returned with dozens of prisoners, but the regimental log shows only “Léo returns, tells that the city is free and had body of Welly with him.” So what happened in the city?

Once inside the walls, Major’s version of events has him coming into the town center about 0100 hours. Finding the place deserted and a German machine gun nest staffed with soldiers sleeping, he dispatches those foes. He then finds a German staff car and captures a German officer. The officer surrenders to him, handing over his pistol. Major takes a risk and gives the officer back his firearm. He then has the German drive him through the city while the German waves a white flag. To make himself appear to be a much larger force than one man, he randomly shoots at every target he can find and lobs hand grenades into the streets where they will incite fear in the enemy but not do any major damage. He claims to have killed at least three German Wehrmacht soldiers and took out a house filled with eight SS soldiers.

After several hours of this, Major has forced all the Germans to flee the city in panic and he makes contact with the resistance forces who bring everyone out of their homes and announce the city as liberated. Major then carried the body of his fallen comrade back to his regiment whereupon he was fired upon by his own sentries before he’s able to announce his identity.

Now, what is the more likely scenario? According to police reports from that night, there were no reports of the firefights and explosions that Major relates. That and the regimental report of Major’s return paint a much more mundane picture of the battle.

Major entered the city and found it largely deserted. He knocked on doors, but the terrified residents refused to answer or come outside. He left the town and chanced upon a Dutch farmer. Showing the Dutchman the “CANADA” printed inside his hat, he convinced the man he was an ally. The farmer then put Major in touch with the resistance in the town. He was then able to return to his unit to report that the enemy had fled Zwolle. Major returned from his patrol sometime between 0500 and 0900 hours.

Distinguished Conduct Medal

Whichever version of events you believe, Major was gazetted (Brit-speak for awarded, because all such awards are published in the London Gazette) the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the liberation of Zwolle. The DCM ranks just behind the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest honor) and is the second-level award for valor in the face of the enemy. His citation reads in part, “The gallant conduct of this soldier, his personal initiative, his dauntless courage and entire disregard for personal safety, was an inspiration to all.”

The town of Zwolle considers Leo Major the city’s hero and liberator from Nazi rule. They named a street after him, Leo Major Lane, the signs of which say; “Canadian first liberator of Zwolle (1921–2008)”. For his part, Leo always considered the residents of Zwolle as family and they returned the compliment to him.

World War II ended a few weeks later with the fall of the Nazi regime. Canada, prior to World War II had not maintained a standing Army. They had possessed a small cadre of professional soldiers supported by volunteers (and during the latter years of the war, conscription), but were essentially a British colonial militia. After the war, Canada used the experiences gained in the World Wars to create their own standing (with active duty and reserve components) military forces.

The first post-war overseas use of the Canadian Army was in response to requests for troops from the United Nations after North Korea invaded South Korea. They immediately set about forming, training, and shipping overseas the 2nd battalions of the three permanent regiments. Leo Major, by now a corporal, was called back to duty. He was part of the second group of men sent over in spring 1951 as part of the Scout and Sniper Platoon of the 2nd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment.

In the first week of October 1951, the Australian-led First Battle of Maryang-san happened. This week-long battle would be remembered as Australia’s finest moment in the war.

The 3rd Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) would lead the charge in the battle to take two important hills, Kowang san (Hill 355) and Maryang san (Hill 317). With tactics refined against the Japanese, the RAR-led force would take the two high ground hills and use them to pry off the numerically superior Chinese forces by attacking them from multiple angles. The tactic worked.

With the peace talks occurring in the background, the Chinese were keen to retake Hill 355, which commanded a view of the ground 20 miles in all directions. They attacked en masse in November. The US 3rd Infantry Division was holding the hill, with the Canadian’s Royal 22e Régiment on their left flank on 22 November when they were attacked by 40,000 men of the Chinese 64th Army.

Over the course of two days, the Americans were driven off HIll 355. When the Chinese captured nearby HiIl 227, the Canadians were nearly surrounded.

To retake Hill 355, the Canadians sent a scout sniper team up to sneak into the enemy lines. Major would lead the team of 19 men who crawled up the hill at midnight, wearing running shoes for maximum stealth. They had fully infiltrated the enemy position and at a signal opened fire with grenades and Sten submachine guns. This confused and scattered the Chinese, who couldn’t figure out why there was fire coming from within their own ranks.

By 0045 hours the small force of scouts had retaken the top of the hill. Soon enough the Chinese figured out what was going on. Within an hour both the Chinese 190th and 191st Divisions (totalling some 14,000 men) counterattacked the hill.

Outnumbered more than 700-to-1, Major was ordered to retreat. He refused those orders and held the hill through the night, despite a lack of effective cover for him and his men. By morning the Chinese troops were so close, Major was calling in mortar fire at danger close ranges.

The mortar platoon commander, Captain Charly Forbes, later wrote of Major that he was “an audacious man … not satisfied with the proximity of my barrage and asks to bring it closer…In effect, my barrage falls so close that I hear my bombs explode when he speaks to me on the radio.”

For his action in Korea, Major was awarded another Distinguished Conduct Medal. His citation reads, “Against a force, superior in number, Corporal Major simply refused to give ground. His personal courage and leadership were beyond praise. Filling an appointment far above his rank, he received the full confidence of his men, so inspired by his personal bravery, his coolness and leadership.”

Major left the Canadian Army in 1953. Major had passed away in 2008 at age 87. A 2019 documentary about Major was called Léo Major: Le fantôme borgne (“The One-Eyed Ghost”).

Major was the only Canadian, and one of only three men in all the Commonwealth, to receive two Distinguished Conduct Medals for two separate wars. In 1993, the British awards and honors system was revised to remove distinctions based on rank. The DCM was the second-level combat bravery decoration for other ranks (enlisted, non-commissioned, and warrant officers) with the Distinguished Service Order being the comparable officer decoration. They were both replaced with the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross as the second-level award for combat bravery for all ranks. This means that Major’s accomplishment of being able to claim two DCMs for two wars will never be equaled.

In total, between the first Canadian receiving the DCM in 1901 and the award’s discontinuation in 1993, 2,132 awards were made to Canadians. Only 38 received a bar (indicating a second award such as Major’s).

Here’s Major’s full award set;

From left to right; Distinguished Conduct Medal with bar, 1939-1945 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal (bar w/ silver maple leaf indicates overseas service), War Medal 1939-1945, Korea Medal, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal for Korea, and United Nations Korea Medal.

Category: Army, Historical, Real Soldiers, UK and Commonwealth Awards, Valor, We Remember

Comments (9)

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  1. KoB says:

    “They had us surrounded and outnumbered nearly 700 to 1…The poor bastards!”

    Hardcore…A Real Soldier’s Soldier! Salute!

    Thanks Mason.

  2. Only Army Mom says:

    BZ to Leo Major, makes me proud of my
    Quebecois heritage. The “I will do as I please, the way I please, caution is for the weak” attitude is one I recognize from long-past family members.

  3. ninja says:

    In April/May 2020, Leo Major was honoured by being featured in one of the two new Canadian Commemorative Stamps:

    “Canada Post Unveils New Stamps To Mark 75th Anniversary of Victory In Europe Day”

    https://www.richmond-news.com/local-news/canada-post-unveils-new-stamps-to-mark-75th-anniversary-of-victory-in-europe-day-3122144

    Thank You, Mason, for taking the time and posting the story of another Hero.

  4. Hatchet says:

    Cheers and thank you for posting this Mason. A damn good read on this rainy Friday morning and another reason to be proud to be Canadian and yet another reason to greatly appreciate our southern neighbours. Thanks again

  5. Green Thumb says:

    Hardcore motherfucker.

  6. President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neanderthal B Woodman Domestic Violent Extremist SuperStraight says:

    You can hear the “CLANK CLANK” as he walks down the hall.

  7. MI Ranger says:

    I felt like I was reading an inspiration for the Six Million Dollar Man played by Lee Majors (aka Leo Major), he lost an eye so they gave him a telescopic one so he could snipe from farther away.
    Interesting that they said they wore sneakers to be more quiet! Surprised they had them available.
    Hard charger….you know we are surrounded, with 700 to 1 odds, guess we better start shooting! Hate to die tired!

  8. SgtBob says:

    Disparities in accounts of what happened: Sometimes the mind fills in blanks. “It must have happened this way.” Two people in the same fight will have different ideas of what happened.

  9. Sparks says:

    When you measure badass, this man is one of the top bars.