By Ferdy Belland
During Canada’s performance in World War II, many individual soldiers stood out from the rest with feats of raw courage and daring do. Sixteen Canadians were presented with the Victoria Cross — the British Commonwealth’s highest award for valor in battle. The ferocity and tenacity of the Canadian soldiers (whether at platoon level or divisional level) was well-respected and well-feared by the Axis adversaries in occupied soil of Sicily, Italy, Normandy, the Low Countries, and Nazi Germany itself.
German misconceptions of Canada and Canadians at the time played an inadvertent plus in Allied Propaganda, and many thousands of Wehrmacht troops thought of wild, untamed Canadians as North America’s version of the Russian Cossacks.
And when studying the wartime exploits of Sergeant Leo Major, it’s easy to see why such misunderstandings could be, well, understood. This is the true story of the man who modern war historians regard as the “Quebecois Rambo.”
Leo Major was born in 1921 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to French-Canadian parents who moved the family back to Montreal while he was an infant. Major enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1940 following the outbreak of hostilities in Europe and found himself in the 2nd Canadian Division’s Regiment-de-la-Chaudière, where the hunter-stalker skills he learned chasing deer in the Laurentians saw him assigned as an elite Scout Sniper.
Pictured: Canadian troops at Juno Beach, June 6, 1944.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Leo Major’s unit was one of the first to hit the surf and sand at Juno Beach — the easternmost target area and considered a vital blocking hinge against German counterattack. The Canadian forces splashing ashore through the murderous German gunfire made the deepest penetration inland out of any of the Allied forces attacking the other beachheads along the Normandy coastline by D-Day+1, but the cost was still 340 killed in action, 574 wounded, and 47 captured.
Major survived his Juno Beach experiences physically unharmed, and after his unit had secured their beachhead objectives, he was sent out alone to probe the German defensive positions.
The area around Juno Beach was occupied by alert elements of the Wehrmacht’s 736th Infantry Division, with more serious support from the 21st Panzer Division — veterans of Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps, now reassigned as defensive reserve along the Atlantic Wall (the Axis coastal-defense system of trenchworks, pillboxes, gun emplacements, minefields, and barbed wire that stretched from the border of Denmark down to the border of Spain).
Undaunted, Lance-Corporal Leo Major stalked his way through the tight, brambly bocage hedgerows and found his next target of opportunity: a Hanomag SdKfz-251 halftrack on slow patrol along a dirt road paralleling his hiding place. With no consideration for his personal safety, Major sprang into action.
Major burst from the bushes, jumped up onto the hood of the halftrack, and opened fire on the ten-man Wehrmacht squad riding in the open troop bay with his Sten submachine gun at point-blank range, killing all of them with one long hosing burst that emptied his clip. The terrified German driver — seeing nothing but Major’s combat boots and the 9mm shell casings clattering to the deck all around them, and hearing nothing but the hammering of Major’s Sten and the screams of his dying comrades — brought the halftrack to a screeching halt, sending Major thudding to the hood while he fumbled to reload. The driver struggled to shove the barrel of his Mauser rifle through the view-slit to shoot Major, but Major reloaded his Sten first, shoved the muzzle one-handed through the view-slit, and killed the driver.
Pictured: A German SdKfz 251 halftrack.
Major spent the next hurried minutes dragging the dead Germans clear to search the Hanomag, and discovered the vehicle was carrying vital communications equipment and secret codes. Knowing this booty would be invaluable to the Normandy Campaign with intercepting and deciphering German messages, Major rigged a white flag to the Hanomag’s radio aerial, took his place behind the blood-stained wheel, and drove the halftrack clanking and rumbling back to the Canadian lines. Major was personally praised by his regimental and divisional commanders for pulling off such a coup.
A week after capturing the Hanomag, Major was once again alone on reconnaissance patrol in the dense forests around the French town of Bernieres when he stumbled into an eight-man squad of Waffen-SS troops — the toughest soldiers the Germans could field. Again, Major instantly erupted into action with his Sten Gun while the snarling SS tore and shattered the bushes and trees surrounding him with their MP-44s. Major dropped seven of the SS without taking any wounds and laid a killing burst on the eighth one, but not fast enough to stop the German from arming and flinging a white-phosphorus grenade — which exploded at Major’s feet.
Dazed and bleeding, Major stumbled back to the Canadian lines with horrific burns along his face, his arm, and his side, and all sight was lost forever in his left eye. His commanders insisted that he had done more than his fair share for the Canadian War Effort (only ten days beyond D-Day!) and offered to send him home to Canada with an Honorable Discharge, but Major refused outright — protesting that, as long as he had one good eye to shoot with, he would not abandon his comrades and would see the war to its end.
Already a big, brawny man, Leo Major now went into battle wearing a pirate’s eyepatch, making his appearance that much more fearsome — to friend and foe alike.
Following the collapse of Axis resistance in northern France in August 1944 after the Allied breakout from the Normandy beachheads, the Canadian Army was issued the dubious honor of clearing the German-held seaports along the North Sea coast in Nazi-occupied Belgium and Holland (the so-called “Cinderella Campaign”) while the main American and British Armies bashed it out with the mobile armored Wehrmacht formations inland. Leo Major’s unit took part in the Battle of the Scheldt, where the Allies aimed to capture the vital Belgian port of Antwerp; the battle became one of the longest and bloodiest the Canadian Army ever faced.
This was where Major pulled off yet another audacious stunt: capturing 93 German soldiers single-handedly.
Pictured: Canadian troops process German prisoners captured by Leo Major.
For his actions, Major’s commanders recommended him for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, which he sternly declined after being informed that none other than Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery (one of the senior-most Allied Commanders-in-Chief) was to be the officer presenting him with the medal.
Montgomery was not universally adored by every British Commonwealth soldier under his command. Major, embittered by the heavy losses suffered by the Regiment-de-la-Chaudière by what he believed was Montgomery assigning more strategic priority to the doomed Operation Market-Garden airborne-assault and not the Battle of the Scheldt, informed his shocked superiors in no uncertain (ie. profane) terms that Montgomery was beyond incompetent and in no position to be awarding medals.
Rather than discipline the battle-hardened Canadian hero for gross insubordination, Major’s superior officers simply shrugged their shoulders, shelved away the DCM (for later, as it turned out) and let the ever-obstinate Leo Major get along with his one-man war against the Wehrmacht.
Even fighting through some of the worst combat on World War II’s Western Front with only one eye didn’t show the true depths of Leo Major’s mettle. In February 1945, Major was assisting a Military Chaplain with the recovery of the dead crewmembers of a destroyed German Tiger tank. The bodies were placed in a Bren Gun Carrier (a small armored-personnel-carrier then common to British Commonwealth forces), and Major rode along as the Chaplain delivered the Tiger’s fallen crew to Allied Graves Registration. The Bren Gun Carrier drove over a hidden anti-tank mine; the explosion broke Major’s spine in two places, and he was rushed to a field hospital in semi-conscious agony.
Again, Major’s exasperated commanding officers offered him the choice of being sent home to Canada as a celebrated hero who had done his duty. Again, Major steadfastly refused to leave his men or his unit. Again, his commanders shrugged their shoulders. Again, Major pulled off a startling recovery – and was back in the field after only a few weeks’ convalescence.
By 13 April 1945, advance units of the Regiment-de-a-la-Chaudière had reached the outskirts of Zwolle, a city of 50,000 garrisoned with over 1,500 combined Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS troops. Leo Major was ordered on a midnight reconnaissance patrol to probe the German defenses and was sent along with his good friend Corporal Willy Arsenault.
Neither of them knew that they were both to be the entire Canadian Order of Battle in what erupted into the Battle of Zwolle.
Major and Arsenault crept their way closer through the darkness to the outskirts of Zwolle when they were spotted by a German machine-gunner hidden in a camouflaged nest. The Germans opened fire with their MG-42 and Arsenault was instantly mowed down. Berserk with grief and rage, Major charged through the incoming fire (it must be noted that the MG-42, nicknamed “Hitler’s Buzzsaw” by the Allies, fired 22 shots per second) and attacked the sandbagged machine-gun emplacement with his Sten Gun blazing away, killing the machine-gunner and his assistant loader. Two other German soldiers dropped their rifles, bolted from the emplacement, jumped into a nearby Kubelwagen jeep hidden behind a tree, and roared off into the town, crouching as low as they could with Major’s 9mm bullets punching holes into the quarter-panels and blasting out the windshield. Major, shaking with adrenaline and rage, gathered up Arsenault’s Sten Gun, spare clips, and grenades, adding them to his own — and then he charged alone into Zwolle to avenge his friend’s death.
Accounts of the details of the Battle of Zwolle differ from historian to historian, but these are the salient points.
It was 0100 hours when Major made his way into the winding cobblestoned streets of Zwolle, running hunched over in the moonless dark, a loaded Sten Gun held out in each hand, expecting the alarm to be sounded any moment by the German garrison, but instead finding everything deserted.
He came across a sandbagged checkpoint at a street intersection, where he found both Germans carelessly asleep behind their MG-42; Major grabbed one of their Mauser rifles and bashed in their skulls with the heavy wooden butt so as not to make any noise. He gathered the Germans’ grenades, took an MP-40 submachine gun to beef up his arsenal, and moved on. Two blocks later, another Kubelwagen jeep was idling at the curb, with the driver casually smoking a cigarette and flipping through a copy of Signal (the German wartime news magazine).Major forced the driver at gunpoint to speed the Kubelwagen fast and furious through the streets of Zwolle with the headlights out, forcing him to identify German positions and offices around the city, and for the next hour he raised Hell — ambushing unsuspecting German soldiers loitering along the sidewalks, flinging grenades into checkpoints and parked Wehrmacht military vehicles, blasting out streetlights to increase the cover of darkness, and screaming out commands in English to give the impression that Zwolle was under attack by Canadian troops in force.
Several times Major forced the Kubelwagen driver to pull over and wait under fear of summary execution, while he charged out on foot to tackle several Points of Interest.
Major kicked in the door of the SS Officer’s Club, where a Standartenfuhrer and three Obersturmbannfuhrers were busy playing cards; the blaring phonograph in the corner of the room had muffled the chaos of Major’s crosstown assault. The four SS men barely had time to look up from their hands as Major shot them all down with both Sten Guns blazing. Six more SS troops rushing downstairs to respond to the racket were all gunned down as well. Major ran back outside and flung three grenades one after the other back into the Officer’s Club to discourage pursuit from anyone he’d hadn’t already shot. He shook his smoking Sten Guns menacingly at the shaking Kubelwagen driver to keep him staying put, and then ran across the street to the Gestapo Headquarters. Major kicked in the door there as well, shot down three sleep-stumbling SS officers struggling to come awake with all the noise, and then flung more grenades into every office door he could find. The building’s gas main went up and within minutes the Gestapo Headquarters was a towering inferno.
By this time, all Zwolle was in confusion and chaos. The terrified Dutch citizens hid trembling in their cellars while the streets churned and rattled with running, shouting German rifle platoons, clattering halftracks with sweeping searchlights, zooming staff cars taking frightened Nazi officers to safety, and the occasional Panther tank, positioned in town square with the turret cannon swinging about, all on the lookout for the Canadian regiment that sure sounded like it was there, but wasn’t.
And then there was Leo Major’s commandeered Kubelwagen, racing at top speed with the headlights off – running down lone German sentries, T-boning unsuspecting checkstop emplacements, sideswiping a panzer or two, with Leo Major himself standing tall and emptying his weapons into anything that moved. Dozens of German soldiers were now sprawled dead on the cobblestones across the town. Nearly half of the buildings that had been requisitioned by the Germans for command centres were either burning down or busy being set on fire, and the Wehrmacht and/or SS occupants of said buildings were either gunned down or were on fire, jumping screaming to their blazing deaths from third-story windows.
All this hellish racket had finally caught the attention of the Dutch Resistance fighters in Zwolle who had been hiding patiently in their secret lairs across the city. Assuming that the main Allied attack was underway, Resistance leader Frits Kuipers and three of his men emerged from their cell, came out into the blazing, bullet-pocked, glass-shattered street, and flagged down Major as his battered Kubelwagen roared up to them; by this time, he was on his tenth or twelfth pass through town. At this point the Germans were panicking and fleeing the city en masse.
Although shocked to realize that Major was unleashing all this chaos on his own, Kuipers booted the Kubelwagen driver out of the vehicle, took the wheel, and hauled ass with Major and his fellow Resistance fighters to Zwolle’s Town Hall (miraculously undamaged by Major’s rampage) to urge the citizens of Zwolle into the streets to take back their town. By this time, dawn was beginning to break, and the Germans were either dead, captured, or running for their lives.
With the help of Kuipers’ Resistance fighters, Leo Major recovered the body of Corporal Willy Arsenault and returned to his unit, where his commanders realized that he had driven a 1,500-man force of crack Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS troops out of a major Dutch city — by himself. The Canadian commanders called off the planned artillery barrage of Zwolle and entered the city without a fight, to the rapturous joy of the liberated Dutch civilians, who lined the streets in their thousands and cast tulips and tearful cheering on the rolling columns of Sherman tanks and jeeps bearing the Maple Leaf.
Pictured: Canadian Troops enter the liberated Dutch city of Zwolle following Major’s assault.
This time, Leo Major didn’t refuse when he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (it wouldn’t be the last time he won the DCM, either, but that’s another story).
World War II in Europe ended a month after the Battle of Zwolle, and Leo Major returned home to Montreal to a Hero’s Welcome. He married his sweetheart Pauline de Croiselle in 1951, raised four children with her, and finally passed away peacefully in his home in 2008.
To this day, Leo Major is fondly remembered by the people of the Netherlands as the Sole Savior of Zwolle, and a street in town centre is named for him. Leo Major is known to various war historians as “The One-Eyed Ghost” or “the Quebecois Rambo.” He even has a Stellar Constellation named after him.
Commemorative Canada Post stamp of Leo Major