LÉO MAJOR, DCM and BAR

by
T. R. Fowler

Of all the British gallantry decorations, the Distinguished Conduct Medal must be considered the most prized because it is so seldom awarded.  In the Korean War, only eight such awards were made out of a total of 205 honours and awards to Canadian soldiers[i].  In the Second World War, the DCM was even more rare, making up only 3% of all honours and awards.  Thus, the award of the DCM and the Bar to the DCM, spanning both wars, to Léo Major should therefore be considered remarkable.

Léo Major, a native of Montreal , was 19 when he joined the Canadian Army in the summer of 1940.  He was a fellow of medium size, described as sociable, somewhat happy-go-lucky and, as he was to prove in the war, fearless.  He may have learned this latter trait, so valuable to a combat soldier, along with his survival skills, while growing up in a working-class district of Montreal during the depression years.  

Major went overseas in 1941 with Le Régiment de la Chaudière and, with his independent character, naturally gravitated toward the scout platoon.  He landed with the Chaudières on D-Day and, in the fierce fighting in the early days in Normandy, was wounded in the face by a grenade, leaving him with partial loss of sight in his left eye.  Disregarding this disability, he insisted on remaining with the regiment, claiming that he only needed one eye to sight his rifle. He continued fighting with his regiment through the Northwest Europe Campaign, earning the DCM for his actions in the liberation of Zwolle in the Netherlands .

At the end of the Second World War, Major returned to Canada and settled into civilian life in his old trade as a pipe fitter.  However, on June 25, 1950 , war exploded again, this time on the other side of the world in Korea .  Within five weeks, the Canadian Government made the decision to raise a volunteer force to join the United Nations in repelling the Communist invasion.  Recruiting went into full gear to form a brigade group built around battalions of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Royal Canadian Regiment and Royal 22e Régiment.  Jacques Dextraze, a veteran of the Second World War, was called back to lead the latter regiment's contribution.  The 2nd Battalion, R22eR turned out to be a unique unit since Dextraze was given a free hand in recruiting picked veterans[ii] and one of these, contacted through a network of former officers, was Léo Major.

By the late spring of 1951, the battalion was in action in Korea and Major's abilities were recognized as he found himself in the Scout and Sniper Platoon, a unit made up of men with special characteristics.  As described by a former officer of the regiment, they were "individualists in their nature and indeed tough.  Tough in the sense of endurance.  All of them could live on a bottle of water and a couple of slices of bacon ... at times out [in no man's land] for days".[iii]   

Truce talks with the Communist forces began in the summer of 1951 and dragged on throughout the rest of the year with no resolution.  The ground forces of both sides continued to launch limited offensives to secure favourable high ground in case a final cease fire might be declared.  In mid-November, as the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group moved up to relieve British forces near the south bank of the Imjin River, an agreement seemed close at Panmunjom .

The Brigade was to hold the right flank of the 1st Commonwealth Division's front, with the R22eR on the extreme right flank.  Here they would link up with the 3rd US Infantry Division on the east who held Hill 355, nicknamed "Little Gibraltar."  At this point, the front line curved southward around the height, requiring the R22eR to hold an awkward position with A and D Companies on the western slopes, separated by a small valley from the remainder of the battalion.  D Company was the most vulnerable as it occupied the most northerly position, a saddle between Hill 355 and Hill 227 to the west, exposed on both the northern and western fronts.

As the R22eR prepared to move into its new positions, Lt-Col Dextraze issued a statement, that "in the event the battalion is attacked, there will be NO withdrawal, NO platoons overrun and NO panics.  All would be expected to perform their duties in a typical 'Vingt Deux' manner."[iv] Dextraze's statement was prescient because, unknown to him, his regiment was marching into the face of a determined Chinese assault that would test its determination.

The Chinese sensed that the truce talks were coming close to an agreement which would lock each side into their present positions.  They therefore determined to make a final attempt to seize the most favourable terrain on the western side of the front.  Hill 355 was the prize, commanding the terrain for twenty miles around.  With some momentum, the Chinese might even roll the United Nations line back across the Imjin River, gaining a great morale advantage in the final talks. 

Thus, as the R22eR were just settling into their new positions on November 22, the 64th Chinese Army opened up with a massive artillery barrage, engulfing Hill 355 along with the Vingt Deux.  On November 23, enemy attacks intensified, with elements of the Chinese 190th and 191st Divisions directed against Hill 355, and one battalion of the 190th attacking D Company.  For the next two days, desperate fighting occurred as the Americans first lost Hill 355, then fought to regain it after hastily gathering a counter-attack force.

As soon as they had captured Hill 355 on November 23, the Chinese were able to occupy Hill 227, uncovering both flanks of Company D.  This left the Company practically surrounded, but it managed to drive off all enemy attacks.  The mid-day hours of November 24 brought a lull to the fighting but, late in the day, the Chinese launched a new attack with two companies from Hill 227 against D Company and by 1820 hours had overrun the left flank platoon, No. 11.  When, in addition, the Chinese again recaptured the slopes of Hill 355, the remainder of D Company came under attack from all directions.

The situation was serious.  However, Dextraze coolly assessed the regiment's position and refused to consider giving up any ground.  While the Americans assembled a counter-attack force on his right, Dextraze decided to launch his own counter-attack to regain No. 11 Platoon's position and thus relieve the pressure on D Company.

His best reserve was the tough, aggressive scout platoon.  He used it to assemble an assault group under the command of Léo Major, including a signalman to maintain a link directly to himself.  Major equipped a large portion of his men with Sten guns and, wearing running shoes to mask the sound of their movement, they set out at
midnight over the snow-swept hills.  Proceeding slowly, in small groups, they followed an indirect route in order to come onto the objective from the direction of the enemy's own lines.  Once near the summit, at a signal from Major, they opened fire together.  The enemy panicked and by 0045 Major's force had successfully occupied its objective. 

However, about an hour later, the Chinese launched their own counter-attack and Dextraze ordered Major to withdraw from the hill.  Major refused, saying he would pull back only 25 yards to some shell holes which offered the only cover he could find.  From here, he directed mortar and machine-gun fire onto his attackers.  This he did throughout the darkest hours and bitter cold of the morning, bringing the mortar fire down almost on top of himself. 

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."[v] Forbes increased his rate of fire until the mortar barrels turned red from the heat.  He finally had to cease fire as the heat had permanently warped the tubes. 

As the citation described, so expertly did he direct the fire of supporting mortars and artillery that the platoon was able to repulse four separate enemy attacks.  Running from one point of danger to another, under heavy small arms fire from his flank, he directed the fire of his men, encouraging them to hold firm against overwhelming odds.  By dawn, Major's force had withdrawn 200 yards to the east, reporting that "nothing is left there to occupy...not a bunker or slit trench."[vi]  However, despite being attacked by superior numbers, Major's group had repulsed all attacks and succeeded in denying possession of No. 11 Platoon's position to the Chinese.  Léo Major's small force remained in position for three more days, holding their gains securely, as the Chinese made several last attempts to gain some ground.

Major's citation for the Bar to the DCM concluded: 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 were they by his personal bravery, his coolness and leadership.  For this action, Corporal Léo Major was awarded the Bar to the Distinguished Service Medal.

No further major attacks were experienced in the sector and Major's counter-attack ended what Charly Forbes called "the epic of Hill 355."  The Chinese had failed in gaining their objective and, on 27 November, agreement was reached for a tentative demarcation line to be established on the present positions.

Through the Second World War and Korea, the Canadian Army gained a reputation for being a tough, effective fighting force, based on ordinary citizens who rallied to the call to duty.  Léo Major, through the award of the DCM and Bar, has been recognized  as one of the best examples of the kind of man who established this reputation.  One of his former officers summed it up best: "What type of soldier was Léo?  He was tough minded...a man of action...always ready to undertake any task assigned to him with courage and determination."[vii]


End Notes

      i.. John Blatherwick, Canadian Army Honours - Decorations - Medals 1902-1968 (New Westminster : FJB Pubications, 1993) 2.                    
     ii.. John Gardam, Korea Volunteer (Burnstown: General Store Publishing House, 1994) 47.
     iii.. Correspondence from Lt-Col J. Charles Forbes (retd), January 1996.
     iv.. National Archives of
Canada , RG 24, Vol 18357, R22eR War Diary, Commander's
Conference,  19 November  1951 .
     v.. Charly Forbes, Fantassin (Sillery, Les Éditions du Septentrion, 1994) 315.
     vi.. NAC RG 24, Vol 18240, 25 Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary,
November 25, 1951 .

     vii.. Correspondence from Lt-Col O. Plouffe (retd), February 1966.

 

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