Léo Major

Léo Major DCM (January 23, 1921 – October 12, 2008) was a French-Canadian soldier who was the only Canadian and one of only three soldiers in the British Commonwealth to receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) twice in separate wars.[1] Major earned his first DCM in World War II in 1945 after a successful reconnaissance mission in Zwolle. As he was sent to scout the city with one of his best friends, a firefight broke out in which his friend was killed, yet he still continued, after which he found that the city was mostly deserted by the German occupational army. Thanks to his efforts Zwolle was spared from the artillery fire that was planned the next day by the Allies. He received his second DCM during the Korean War for leading the capture of a key hill in 1951.


Léo Major

Léo Major.jpg
Major in 1944
Born(1921-01-23)January 23, 1921
DiedOctober 12, 2008(2008-10-12) (aged 87)
Longueuil, Quebec, Canada
OrganizationCanadian Army
AwardsDistinguished Conduct Medal (1945, 1951)


Born on January 23, 1921, New Bedford, Massachusetts, to French-Canadian parents, Major moved with his family to Montreal before his first birthday. Due to a poor relationship with his father, he moved to live with an aunt at age 14. This relationship combined with a lack of available work led Major to join the Canadian army in 1940 to prove to his father that he was "somebody to be proud of".

World War IIEdit

Major was serving with the Régiment de la Chaudière which landed on the beaches in the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944.[2] During a reconnaissance mission on D-Day, Major captured a German armoured vehicle (a halftrack) by himself. The vehicle contained German communication equipment and secret codes.[3] Days later, during his first encounter with an SS patrol, he killed four soldiers; however, one of them managed to ignite a phosphorus grenade. After the resulting explosion, Major lost one eye but continued to fight. He continued his service as a scout and a sniper by insisting he needed only one eye to sight his weapon. According to him, he "looked like a pirate".[4]

Major single-handedly captured 93 German soldiers during the Battle of the Scheldt in Zeeland in the southern Netherlands.[5] During a reconnaissance, while alone, he spotted two German soldiers walking along a dike. As it was raining and cold, Major said to himself, "I am frozen and wet because of you so you will pay."[6] He captured the first German and attempted to use him as bait so he could capture the other. The second attempted to use his gun, but Major quickly killed him. He went on to capture their commanding officer and forced him to surrender. The German garrison surrendered themselves after three more were shot dead by Major. In a nearby village, SS troops who witnessed German soldiers being escorted by a Canadian soldier shot at their own soldiers, killing seven and injuring some others. Major disregarded the enemy fire and kept escorting his prisoners to the Canadian front line. Major then ordered a passing Canadian tank to fire on the SS troops. He marched back to camp with nearly a hundred prisoners. Thus, he was chosen to receive a Distinguished Conduct Medal. He declined the offer to be decorated, however, because according to him General Montgomery (who was to present him with the award) was "incompetent" and in no position to be giving out medals.[6]

Dirk Staat, conservator of the Dutch National Military Museum, doubts that Léo Major really captured 93 German soldiers and refused a medal, because according to him there's nothing about this in the army's documents of the time. [7]

"Maar over dat alles is helemaal niets over terug te vinden. Major vocht mee in Zeeland, en hij zal ongetwijfeld effectief zijn geweest. Maar over zijn medaille lezen we niets. En vergis je niet; als iemand tien minuten te laat bij het avondappèl was, dan staat dat in de verslagen. Of dat ze dinsdag nieuwe schoenen krijgen. En dan zou over de medaille voor Major niets beschreven staan? Zou heel raar zijn, kan ik mij niet voorstellen."

"But about all of that you cannot find anything. Major fought in Zeeland, and he would have undoubtedly been competent. But about his medal we read nothing. And do not be mistaken; if someone came ten minutes too late to the evening roll call, then that is in the reports. Or that they get new shoes on Tuesday. And then there would be nothing noted down about the medal for Major? Would be really weird, I cannot imagine that."

In February 1945, Major was helping a military chaplain load corpses from a destroyed Tiger tank into a Bren Carrier. After they finished, the chaplain and the driver seated themselves in the front while Major jumped in the back of the vehicle. The carrier struck a land mine. Major claimed to have remembered a loud blast, followed by his body being thrown into the air and smashing down hard on his back. He lost awareness and awoke to find two concerned medical officers trying to assess his condition. He simply asked if the chaplain was okay. They did not answer his question, but proceeded to load him onto a truck so he could be transported to a field hospital 30 miles (48 km) away, stopping every 15 minutes to inject morphine to relieve the pain in his back.[8]

First Distinguished Conduct MedalEdit

Leo Majorlaan (Léo Major Lane) street sign in the Dutch city of Zwolle. The text reads: Canadian first liberator of Zwolle (1921–2008)

Stories about Major's reconnaissance of Zwolle have been exaggerated and conflated with his other deeds and there are several conflicting accounts of what happened.

At the beginning of April, the Régiment de la Chaudière were approaching the city of Zwolle, which was shown to have strong German resistance. The commanding officer asked for two volunteers to scout the German force before the artillery began firing on the city. Private Major and his friend Corporal Willie Arseneault stepped forward to accept the task.[2] To keep the city intact, the pair decided to try to capture Zwolle alone,[4] though they were only supposed to ascertain the German numbers and try to contact the Dutch Resistance.

Around midnight on 13 April, Arseneault was killed by German fire[2][4][9] after accidentally giving away the pair's position.[10] In a radio interview with RTV Zwolle, Major told that he became mad after that, but managed to control himself.[11] Major killed two more of the Germans, but the rest of the group fled in a vehicle.[4][7] He decided to continue his mission alone. He entered Zwolle near Sassenpoort.[11] What happened after that is not clear:

According to the Canadian Army Journal Vol. 11.3 Fall 2008:

Major [was] carrying two Sten guns and a sack of grenades. He arrived in the centre of Zwolle at about 0100 hours and found the streets silent and deserted. Here, he spotted a German machine-gun nest which, since the crew was sleeping, he promptly attacked and eliminated. He then found a German scout car and forced one of the Germans, who he had captured, to drive through the streets with the lights on, flying a white flag. For several hours, Major moved through the streets in this manner, shooting at any target he could find, making an impression that a large Canadian force had arrived. The citizens were awakened but were afraid to come out of their houses. By a stroke of luck, Private Major came across the head of the local resistance, Frits Kuipers, and three of his men. By now the Germans appeared to have fled the city in panic. The group therefore returned to the town hall and the resistance fighters brought the citizens out into the streets. The local radio station was used to announce that the town had been liberated. Major was exhausted but he had to complete his mission by bringing back the body of his comrade, Wilfrid Arsenault, to his lines. The resistance fighters arranged for a car to transport the body back, but were fired on by outposts of the Chaudières. Major was furious and climbed onto the top of the car so that he could be easily seen from a distance. In this manner, he returned to the Canadian lines to report the result of his mission to his commanding officer. [2]

According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen: Major "worked his way to the city centre", captured a soldier "at the wheel of a German staff car outside a tavern", went inside the tavern with this captive and disarmed the officer who was drinking inside. The two communicated in French. Since "the officer was from Alsace-Lorraine, a region near France that was not terribly committed to Adolf Hitler's rabid designs", Major "took a risk" and "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." Then Major spend the "next few hours engaging patrols whenever he could and setting off grenades where they would make noise, but do little damage." He killed a few, but he mostly wanted to send them into a panic. "He chanced up 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.'"[4]

According to an article in the Dutch newspaper Trouw:

Hij bereikte de stad en liep er door uitgestorven straten. Hij klopte op deuren, maar niemand durfde open te doen. "Na een poos was ik zo moe dat ik niet meer helder denken kon. Maar ik had genoeg inlichtingen, nergens ontmoette ik vijanden." Hij liep in kringen rond, verliet de stad en kwam bij een boer die hij geruststelde door het woord CANADA aan de binnenkant van zijn muts aan te wijzen. Al snel had hij contact met de ondergrondse. Hij kon terug naar zijn eenheid met de melding dat de vijand Zwolle had verlaten.[10]

He reached the city and walked through deserted streets. He knocked on doors, but nobody dared to open up. "After a while I was so tired that I couldn't think straight anymore. But I had enough information, nowhere I encountered enemies." He walked around in circles, left the town and came to a farmer whom he reassured by pointing at the word CANADA in the inside of his hat. Quickly he had contact with the underground resistance. He was able to return to his unit with the message that the enemy left Zwolle.

The newspaper also mentions: "Maar in de decennia die volgden verwerd Leo Major volgens velen tot een 'Rambo' die wild schietend straat na straat veroverde op ’zeker duizend’ Duitsers die hardnekkig weerstand boden. Het was een verhaal dat hij – zo lachen zijn vrienden mild – op het laatst ook zelf steeds iets meer ging geloven." "But in the decennia that followed Leo Major became a 'Rambo' who according to many conquered street after street wildly shooting around on 'certainly a thousand' Germans who persistently resisted. It was a story that he – so his friends mildly laugh – in the end started to believe a little bit himself."

According to an article in Jonge Historici (Young Historici): "Major liep door de uitgestorven straten en legde contact met de ondergrondse. Daarna keerde hij terug naar zijn regiment, waar hij om 9 uur meldde dat de vijand de stad had verlaten."[12] "Major walked through deserted streets and established contact with the underground resistance. After that he returned to his regiment, where he at 9 o'clock reported that the enemy had left the city."

In an interview with De Stentor, curator Dirk Staat dispels some of the myths:

[B]eschrijvingen dat hij als rambo de stad in vuur en vlam zette, terwijl hij om zich heen schoot en granaten door de stad gooide; dat beeld klopt denk ik niet. We hebben politierapporten van die nacht gelezen, en daarin lezen we niks terug over de onrust.

Descriptions of him setting the city on fire like Rambo, while he was shooting around him and threw grenades through the city; I don't think that is the right image. We have read police reports about that night, and within we read nothing about the unrest.

He also thinks the vehicle used by Major was just the car of the head of the local resistance, Frits Kuiper, which Major also used to ride back in the morning. "De Duitsers die hij gezien heeft, zullen het staartje zijn van de terugtrekkende bezetter."

"The Germans [Major] saw, would have been the tail end of the retreating occupation."

The story about Major capturing 93 German soldiers is extremely unlikely:

Als je meerdere groepen mee wil nemen, terug naar de Heinoseweg, dan ben je uren bezig. Dat is logistiek haast niet te doen, dus ik denk het niet. Daarbij: er valt niets over terug te vinden. In het oorlogsdagboek van zijn régiment lezen we: 'Léo keert terug, vertelt dat de stad vrij is en heeft lichaam van Welly bij zich'. Niks over krijgsgevangenen.

If you want to take multiple groups with you, back over the Heinoseweg, you're busy for hours. That's logistically barely doable, so I don't think so. Besides: there's nothing to find about this. In the war journal of his regiment we read 'Léo returns, tells that the city is free and had body of Welly with him.' Nothing about prisoners of war."

The headquarters of the SS was set on fire that night, but Staat does not think Major was the one who set the fire. "[Het gebouw in brand steken] past precies in de modus operandi van vertrekkende Duitsers. Die doden gevangenen en vernietigen dossiers. En wat is effectiever om dossiers te vernietigen, dan het gebouw in brand te zetten?" "[Setting the building on fire] fits the modus operandi of the retreating Germans. The dead bodies and destroyed dossiers. And what is more effective to destroy dossiers, than to set the building on fire?"[7]

In a segment on Léo Major on a radio program by RTV Zwolle: "De Duitsers staken het huis (...) aan de Potgietsersingel, waar de Duitse politie kantoor hield, in brand om hun documentatie te vernietigen." "The Germans set fire to the house (...) on the Potgietersingel, where the German police held office, to destroy their documents." The segment included an interview of Léo Major, who describes the events of the night. The first thing he did was go to the railroad station, because he "thought that's were the Germans would come in" and he had "heard from Hendriks van Gerner that some of the bridges were destroyed." He entered the city through the Sassenpoort. All the people he met "were either collaborators or German (sic.). And the German (sic.) I met, most of them were drunk." He had made noise "using grenades and my machine-gun". "So most of [the Germans], I think, were caught in panic and ran away from me."[11]

Major was back at camp by 5:00 am,[4] 7:00 am,[13] or 9:00 am.[12] and thanks to his efforts, the planned shelling of the city would be called off and his Régiment de la Chaudière could enter the city without a fight. Major then took his dead friend back to the van Gerner farm until regimental reinforcements could carry him away.[citation needed] For his actions, he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Second Distinguished Conduct MedalEdit

When the war in Korea broke out, the Canadian government decided to raise a force to join the United Nations in repelling the communist invasion. Major was called back and ended up in the Scout and Sniper Platoon of 2nd Battalion Royal 22e Régiment of the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade,[14] 1st Commonwealth Division. Major fought in the First Battle of Maryang San where he received a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal[15] for capturing and holding a key hill in November 1951.

Hill 355, nicknamed Little Gibraltar, was a strategic feature, commanding the terrain for twenty miles around, so the Communists were determined to take it before the truce talks came to an agreement that would lock each side into their present positions. Hill 355 was held by the 3rd US Infantry Division, who linked up with the Canadian's Royal 22e Régiment on the Americans' western flank.[16] On November 22, the 64th Chinese Army (around 40,000 men) began their attack: over the course of two days, the Americans were pushed back from Hill 355 by elements of the Chinese 190th and 191st Divisions. The 3rd US Infantry Division tried to recapture the hill, but without any success, and the Chinese had moved to the nearby Hill 227, practically surrounding the Canadian forces.[17]

To relieve pressure, an elite scout and sniper team led by Léo Major was brought up. Armed with Sten guns, Major and his 18 men silently crept up Hill 355. At a signal, Major's men opened fire, panicking the Chinese who were trying to understand why the firing was coming from the center of their troops instead of from the outside. By 12:45 am, they had retaken the hill. However, an hour later, two Chinese divisions (the 190th and the 191st, totaling around 14,000 men) counter-attacked. Major was ordered to retreat, but refused and found scant cover for his men. He held the enemy off throughout the night, though they were so close to him that Major's own mortar bombs were practically falling on him. The commander of the mortar platoon, Captain Charly Forbes, later wrote that Major 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."[18]

Death and legacyEdit

Léo Major's headstone at Last Post Fund National Field of Honour, Pointe-Claire, Canada

Major died in Longueuil on 12 October 2008 and was buried at the Last Post Fund National Field of Honour in Pointe-Claire, Quebec. He was survived by Pauline De Croiselle, his wife of 57 years; four children; and five grandchildren.[19] A documentary film about his exploits, Léo Major, le fantôme borgne, has been produced in Montreal (Qc). To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe, Canada Post issued a stamp in honor of Major, “The one-eyed ghost”, on April 29, 2020.[20]


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-03-11. Retrieved 2006-07-08.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ a b c d "Leo Major | Canadian soldier". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-02-23.
  3. ^ Major, Jocelyn (December 2008). "Leo Major: L'Honneur d'un Canadien" (PDF). Histomag '44 (57): 12–23. Retrieved 27 May 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Atherton, Tony (May 7, 2005). "Divergent portraits of war". The Ottawa Citizen. canada.com. Archived from the original on March 11, 2007.
  5. ^ "The legendary liberator of Zwolle". www.godutch.com. Archived from the original on 2016-06-16.
  6. ^ a b Cite error: The named reference Ottawa citizen was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  7. ^ a b c https://www.destentor.nl/zwolle/leo-major-en-de-bevrijding-van-zwolle-feit-en-verzinsel-van-elkaar-gescheiden~af9458b7/
  8. ^ "No. 37235". The London Gazette (1st supplement). 21 August 1945. p. 4266.
  9. ^ https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/14040378/welly-arsenault 1
  10. ^ a b https://www.trouw.nl/nieuws/leo-major-1921-2008~b76cd21f/
  11. ^ a b c https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wnkx4TIlzJA
  12. ^ a b https://www.jhsg.nl/leo-major-zwolle/
  13. ^ Rae, Bob (26 April 1945). "D-Day Chaud Scout, Stubborn Man, Captures Zwolle On His Own Hook". The Maple Leaf. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  14. ^ "Leo Major – TRF". www.kvacanada.com. Retrieved 2017-02-23.
  15. ^ "No. 39467". The London Gazette. 12 February 1952. p. 866.
  16. ^ National Archives of Canada, RG 24, Vol 18357, R22eR War Diary, Commander's Conference, 19 November 1951.
  17. ^ "Leo Major – TRF". www.kvacanada.com.
  18. ^ Charly Forbes, Fantassin (Sillery, Les Éditions du Septentrion, 1994) 315.
  19. ^ Murphy, Jessica (October 19, 2008). "Decorated hero dies at 87". The Toronto Star. Toronto, Canada.
  20. ^ Post, Canada. "Canada Post honours the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day". www.newswire.ca. Retrieved 2020-08-28.

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