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The legendary liberator of Zwolle - Excerpt

Private Léo Major captures 93 POW’s

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Léo Major, one of the unsung heroes of the Canadian army, get's plenty of praise in the Netherlands. In fact, Léo Major is billed as the liberator of the Dutch provincial capital of Zwolle, then home to about 50,000 people. When Canadian troops approached the city Leo and his army buddy Willy Arsenault volunteered to penetrate the enemy-held town to assess it in advance of the impending attack. Leo’s reconnaissance is a must read. Canadian retired Nick Veenhof who was there when Zwolle was liberated, researched the story of Léo and saw it published in the 2007 Christmas / New Years supplement of the Windmill Herald. Below is an excerpt covering another episode involving Léo Major, long before he got to Zwolle.

During the battle of the Scheldt, Léo again became deeply involved when, around midnight, his commanding officer told him "Private Major, I want you to check and see if you can find the 50 'zombies' (inexperienced young soldiers fresh from England) I sent out on patrol this afternoon. They haven’t returned yet, and I’m getting a bit worried".

Willy Arsenault had been hospitalised for an injury, so Léo set out alone in the pitch-dark night, feeling light footed as he wore his PT sneakers instead of his heavy army boots, as he always did while scouting. He crossed the rubble of a blown up bridge and entered a village around 0630 where he spotted the faint glint of rifles stacked against a house. As he came nearer, he noticed an array of soldiers’ equipment, helmets, radios and back-packs which were strewn across the area. He entered a nearby house and after sneaking through every room at the lower level, he muttered to himself, "Nobody here!".

Silently, he mounted the stairs to the upper level where he cautiously peeked through a window that overlooked bomb-cratered pastures to the north. The early light of dawn filtered through the glass in the windows, but he couldn't see a trace of the missing 'zombies'. He then went to the opposite window, which offered a view along a canal and over the immense flat countryside. He strained his one good eye and noticed the trenches which had been dug beside the canal, and also observed the many German soldiers who apparently were sound asleep beside the ditches. A daring plan formed in his mind as he carefully studied the Germans. He muttered to himself: "I am going to capture the whole gang of them!" He knew that this daring act would be a dangerous gamble, but, if properly executed, the risky mission would bring his regiment a handsome payoff.

Soundlessly, he sneaked downstairs, out the front door and around to the rear near where he’d seen the sleeping Germans. Just as he was about to turn around the corner of the house, he spotted a German officer snoring loudly while sitting in a spread-eagled position leaning with his back against the wall. Quickly, Léo slapped a hand over the mouth of the officer who quickly awoke, shocked at what was happening to him. Léo, pointing his menacing Sten gun at the officer, motioned him to get up and in a commanding voice he ordered him briskly: “Wake up your men. You are all coming with me”. Being outmanoeuvred, the German decided he should obey the order as he had no other choice. He barked an order directed at his troops who, like all well disciplined German soldiers, immediately responded except for one, who started to raise his rifle. Léo killed him instantly. This served as a warning to the others. “Achtung” he shouted, “Handen hogh!” at which point they all raised their hands and marched off in front of Léo and over the road in the direction which Léo pointed his submachine gun.

But the little fracas was not yet over as Léo and his prisoners then proceeded to walk into the cross hairs of a nearby German artillery battery. The soldiers had been alerted by Léo’s gunfire and suddenly opened up with several artillery rounds, but Léo kept moving forward while several of his prisoners lay wounded or dying from the flying shrapnel. Just then, an Allied Sherman tank appeared on the scene and stopped to ask Léo if he needed help. “No” he replied, “but I would sure appreciate it if you could silence those guns for me”.

“No problem” the tank commander replied, “just watch this!” Léo did and enjoyed the sight of some very accurately fired shells putting the German artillery out of action. He continued his daring mission, marching his captives to his command post where he handed the 93 POW’s over to his commanding officer.

For them, the war was over, but for Léo it was just another wartime experience, a bold and successful one, which was to enrich his future military reputation.

A few weeks later, Léo refused to be decorated for bravery for the capturing of the 93 POW’s. When his commanding officer told him that he was considering submitting a request for a medal of valour to Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, the Chief Commander of the British Army which included the Canadian Army, Léo was not impressed. He was adamant in his rejection of the award and replied: “No Sir. Thank you, but I don’t want this Chief to honour me, since he has caused the deaths of many civilians and so many of my soldier-countrymen with his ill-conceived military decisions”.

“As you please, Private Major, I understand”, his commander replied.

Copies of 'The legendary liberator of Zwolle' can be ordered by contacting The Windmill Herald, tollfree, at 1-800-881-0705.