Divergent Portraits of War: Léo Major

by 
Tony Atherton

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."

Reprinted with permission of the Ottawa Citizen.

 

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