Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Corporal Léo Major

Corporal Léo Major (1921 – 12 October 2008) was a Montrealer soldier in the Régiment de la Chaudière in World War II. He was one of only three Canadian soldiers in the British Commonwealth to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the only Canadian to have been awarded the honour twice (Bar to the DCM), and the only Allied soldier to be awarded two DCMs in two different wars (WWII and Korea).

During a reconnaissance mission on D-Day, Major captured a German armored vehicle by himself. The vehicle contained German communication equipment and secret German Army codes. 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. The medical doctor told him, "My friend the war is over for you. You are going back to England." Major replied, "No way! Sorry, but I have a war to finish." He refused to be evacuated. He continued his service as a scout and a sniper by insisting that he needed only one eye to sight his weapon. According to him, he "looked like a pirate."

In 1944 Major single-handedly captured 93 German soldiers during The Battle of the Scheldt in southern Holland. During a reconnaissance, whilst 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." 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, injuring a few and killing seven. 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 DCM. He declined the invitation to be decorated, however, because according to him General Montgomery (who was giving the award) was "incompetent" and in no position to be giving out medals.

In February 1945, Major was helping a padre load corpses from a destroyed Tiger Tank into a Bren Carrier. After they finished loading the bodies, the padre and the driver seated themselves in the front whilst Major jumped on the back of the vehicle. The carrier soon struck a tank mine. Major claims to have remembered a loud blast followed by his body being thrown into the air and smashing down hard as he landed on his back. He lost consciousness and awoke to two concerned medical officers trying to assess his condition. He simply asked if the padre was okay. They didn't answer, but loaded him onto a truck so he could be transported to a field hospital 30 miles away, stopping every 15 minutes to inject morphine to remove the pain from his back. A doctor at the field hospital informed him that his back was broken in three places, he broke both ankles, and that he had four broken ribs. Again they told Major that the war was over for him. A week went by and Major had the opportunity to flee. He managed to get a ride from a passing jeep that drove him to Nijmegen, a town where he had previously met a family. His stay with the family was close to a month. He went back to his unit in March 1945.

On the night of 13 April 1945, Major single-handedly liberated the city of Zwolle in the Netherlands from German army occupation. On that night, the Régiment de la Chaudière were approaching the city of Zwolle, which presented strong German resistance. The Commanding Officer asked for two volunteers to recon the German force before the artillery began firing at the city. Major and his friend Willie Arseneault stepped forward to accept the task. In order to keep the city intact, the pair decided to try to capture Zwolle alone, though they were only supposed to recon the German numbers and attempt contact with the Dutch Resistance.

Around midnight Arseneault was killed by German fire after accidentally giving away the team's position. Enraged, Major killed two of the Germans, but the rest of the group fled in a vehicle. He decided to continue his mission alone. He entered Zwolle near Sassenport and came upon a staff car. He ambushed and captured the German driver, and then led him to a bar where an officer was taking a drink. Inside he found that they could both speak French (the officer was from Alsace), and Major told him that at 6:00 am Canadian artillery would begin firing at the city, causing numerous casualties among both the German troops and the civilians. As a sign of good faith, he gave the German his gun back.

Major then proceeded to run throughout the city firing his machine gun, throwing grenades and making so much noise that he fooled the Germans into thinking that the Canadian Army was storming the city in earnest. As he was doing this, he would attack and capture German troops. About 10 times during the night he captured groups of 8 to 10 German soldiers, escorted them out of the city and gave them to the French-Canadian troops that were waiting in the vicinity. After transferring his prisoners to the troops, he would return to Zwolle to continue his assault. However, four times during the night he had to force his way into civilian's houses to get some rest. He eventually located the Gestapo HQ and set the building on fire. Later stumbling upon the SS HQ, he got into a quick but deadly fight with eight ranking Nazi officers: four were killed, and the other half fled. He noticed that two of the SS he just killed were disguised as resistance members. The Zwolle resistance had been (or were going to be) infiltrated by the Nazis.

By 4:30 am, the exhausted Major found out that the Germans had retreated, Zwolle had been liberated, and the Resistance contacted. Walking in the street he met four members of Dutch Resistance. He informed them that the city was now free of Germans. Major found out later that morning that the Germans had fled to the west of the River IJssel and, perhaps more importantly, that the planned shelling of the city would be called off and his Régiment de la Chaudière could enter the city unopposed.. Major then took his dead friend back to the Van Gerner farm until regimental reinforcements could carry him away. He was back at camp by 9:00 am. For his actions, he received his first Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Major received his second DCM during the Korean War for leading the capture of a key hill. (Another good story, but this was already too long – Josh)

Major died in Montreal on 12 October 2008, survived by: Pauline De Croiselle, his wife of 57 years; four children; and five grandchildren.