Sergeant Léo Major, the Nazi Killing Machine
Sergeant Léo Major was a French Canadian soldier in the Régiment de la Chaudière during the Second World War. He was the only Canadian and one of only three soldiers in the British Commonwealth to ever receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal twice in separate wars.
Major’s first military action came in June of 1944. During a reconnaissance mission on D-Day, Major captured a German armoured vehicle single-handedly. 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 but continued to fight.
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”.
Major single-handedly captured 93 German soldiers during the Battle of the Scheldt in Zeeland in the southern Netherlands. 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 land 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 did not answer, but loaded him onto a truck so he could be transported to a field hospital 30 miles (48 km) away, stopping every 15 minutes to inject morphine to relieve the pain in his back.
A doctor at the field hospital informed him that he had broken his back in three places, four ribs, and both ankles. Again they told Major that the war was over for him. A week went by and Major seize an opportunity to flee. He managed to get a ride from a passing jeep that drove him to Nijmegen. He went back to his unit in March 1945. Technically, Pte Major would have been AWOA (Absent Without Authority). There is a lack of sources regarding how Major was able to avoid punishment.
In the beginning of April, the Régiment de la Chaudière were approaching the city of Zwolle, which presented strong German resistance. The Commanding Officer asked for two volunteers to reconnoitre the German force before the artillery began firing at the city. Private Major and his friend Corporal 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 reconnoitre 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 civilians’ 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 the 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 the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Léo Major also fought in the Korean War, where he was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal for capturing and holding a key hill (Hill 355).
This position was being controlled by the Third US Infantry Division (around 10,000 men) when the 64th Chinese Army (around 40,000 men) lowered a decisive artillery barrage. Over the course of two days, the Americans were pushed back by elements of the Chinese 190th and 191st Divisions.
They tried to recapture the hill, but without any success, and the Chinese had moved to the nearby Hill 227, practically surrounding the US forces. In order to relieve pressure, LCol J.A. Dextraze, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion Royal 22nd Regiment, brought up an elite scout and sniper team led by Léo Major. Wielding Stenguns, Major and his 18 men silently crept up the hill. At a signal, Major’s men opened fire, panicking the Chinese who were trying to understand why the firing was coming from the center of their troops instead of from the outside. By 12:45 am they had retaken the hill.
However, an hour later two Chinese divisions (the 190th and the 191st, totaling around 14,000 men) counter-attacked. Major was ordered to retreat, but refused and found scant cover for his men. There he held the enemy off throughout the night, though they were so close to him that Major’s own mortar shells were practically raining down on him.
For three days his men held off multiple Chinese counter-assaults until reinforcements arrived. For his actions, Major was awarded the bar to the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Major died in Longueuil on 12 October 2008 and was buried at the Last Post Fund National Field of Honour in Pointe-Claire, Quebec. He was survived by: Pauline De Croiselle, his wife of 57 years; four children; and five grandchildren.