People may not know him, but what he did during WWII—it shouldn’t be forgotten

December 9, 2017 1:20 pm Last Updated: December 9, 2017 1:20 pm

The wartime feats of this French Canadian are more astounding than any Hollywood war film. Rambo is nothing compared to this fella.

Léo Major’s actions during World War II earned him repeated accolades. At Normandy on June 6, 1944, after running through a shower of bullets on the beach, he captured a German Hanomag half-track, a tank-like vehicle that was filled with communications equipment and the enemy’s secret army codes. Big score for the allies.

(-/AFP/Getty Images)

A few days after that, he was injured from a phosphorus grenade thrown by a German soldier. The blast caused him to lose sight in his left eye. Major could have gone home, but he refused. He wanted to stay and continue fighting. As a sniper, he said he only needed one eye to aim anyway. Apparently no one doubted him.

While on a sole reconnaissance mission later that year during the Battle of the Scheldt, he decided to engage the enemy and ended up capturing 93 German soldiers. This earned him the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

He declined the medal, however, because Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was to be the one presenting it to him—and Major considered Montgomery “too incompetent.” That’s some gumption right there!

But that’s still not the pinnacle of his achievements. What Major is most famous for is liberating the Dutch city of Zwolle from the Nazis throughout the course of a night. And guess what? He did it completely by himself.

In April 1945, the 3rd Canadian Division had plans to attack the city, which was occupied by the Germans. Major and Corporal Willie Arseneault volunteered to conduct reconnaissance, and they were ordered to return by 6:00 a.m. the next morning before the raid would start.

Léo Major stopped at this farm before liberating Zwolle. (Public Domain)

Around midnight, Arseneault was killed by German soldiers. Arseneault was a good friend of Major’s, and his death seems to have triggered his decision to continue the mission alone. He killed two of the attackers while the rest fled.

Major then went on to ambush an enemy vehicle, capturing its driver. With his prisoner, he entered a tavern where he came upon a German officer. After disarming the officer, he discovered they could both speak French.

Major warned the officer that Canadian troops were coming to the city with heavy artillery, and German soldiers and civilians will be killed. He returned the officer’s gun in good faith and hoped that the German officer would spread the word around.

What did Major do next?

He decided to fool the Germans into thinking a large force was upon them, and for the next several hours Major ran along the streets firing his weapons and throwing grenades. Along the way, he killed, captured or scared away German soldiers.

He also set the local Gestapo headquarters aflame. After that, he chanced upon the headquarters of the SS. When he entered, there were eight SS officers. He killed four of them and the rest ran off.

By around 4:30 a.m., there were no more German soldiers in the city. Those who had not been killed or were captured left the city.

Major reported back to his regiment by 5:00 a.m., informing his commanders of the situation. The raid was called off.

For his courageous actions, Major was offered the Distinguished Conduct Medal again, and this time he accepted.

Major would go on to receive another Distinguished Conduct Medal when he later served in the Korean War.

After he retired from the military, he did return to Zwolle a few times. The city named a street after him. And rightly so!

Major passed away at the age of 87 on October 12, 2008.

A street sign in Zwolle, Netherlands. The street was named after Léo Major. (Photo by Jmajor, CC BY-SA 3.0)


(Main photo by Jmajor, CC BY-SA 3.0)