Monday, 8 January 2018

Eccentric Earth Episode Two Show Notes

Welcome to the latest show notes for Eccentric Earth, where I will include the research for each episode (essentially my script), along with a number of photographs and documents.

Episode Two - The Unstoppable Leo Major

Leo Major was born on January 23, 1921, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to French-Canadian parents, while his father was working for the American Railroad Company. Before his first birthday his family returned to Montreal, taking Leo with them.

Due to a poor relationship with his father, he moved to live with an aunt from the age of 14. This strained relationship, combined with a lack of available work, led Major to join the army in 1940, allegedly to prove to his father that he was "somebody to be proud of".

Major started his overseas tour in 1941, serving in Le Regiment de la Chaudiere. He later went on to become part of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. On June 6, 1944 he was among the Canadian forces that landed on the beaches in the Normandy Invasion.

A German half-track armoured vehicle, similar to the
one captured by Major.
During a reconnaissance mission on D-Day, Major captured a German half-track armoured fighting vehicle singlehandedly. The vehicle contained German communication equipment and secret German Army codes, providing the allies with important intelligence information.

Later that same day Major came across an SS patrol. Major managed to kill the four soldiers; however, one of them ignited a phosphorus grenade, which exploded beside him. Major lost most of the vision in his left eye as a result.

Whilst doctors in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps tried to have Major sent back home to Canada, he refused, insisting that whilst he still had one good eye he could still aim down his sights and carry on fighting. This is something that he would go on to prove true, as he was placed in a scout platoon, where he earnt himself a reputation as an excellent sniper.

It is also reported that at the time of his injury Major remained in good spirits, especially when he began wearing a patch over his injured eye as, according to him, ‘he looked like a pirate’.

Canadian forces at the Scheldt estuary.
In October 1944, Major found himself a part of the Battle of Scheldt, a military operation by Candian, British and Polish forces to try and gain control of both sides of the Scheldt estuary in order to open the port of Antwerp to Allied shipping lanes.

During this month long operation Major was sent out on reconnaissance alone. Whilst scouting the area 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."

Following the two soldiers at a distance he waited until they split up. He then captured the first German and attempted to use him as bait so he could capture the other. The second German soldier attempted to use his gun on Major, but Major
quickly killed him. Forcing the captured soldier to lead him to the rest of his garrison. Infiltrating the garrison, he captured the commanding officer and forced him to surrender. The German garrison surrendered themselves after three more were shot dead by Major.

Major took the remaining soldiers prisoner and began to escort them to the Canadian front line.  As the procession of prisoners passed a nearby village, SS troops witnessed German soldiers being escorted by a lone Canadian soldier and opened fire on them. They managed to shot their own soldiers, killing seven and injuring a number. Unwilling to give up his prisoners, 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, eliminating them.

Major refused to accept a medal from General
Bernard Montgomery.
When he arrived back at camp he had 93 German soldiers prisoner with him. As a result of his actions Major was awarded the DCM, the Distinguished Conduct Medal, a British medal for gallantry. Major refused the invitation to be decorated, however, because according to him General Bernard Montgomery, the commander of the British Eight Army, who was to present him with the award, was "incompetent" and in no position to be giving out medals.

In February 1945, Major was helping a military chaplain load corpses from a destroyed Tiger tank into a Bren Carrier. After they finished, the chaplain and the driver seated themselves in the front whilst Major jumped in the back of the vehicle. The carrier 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 on his back. He lost consciousness and awoke to find two concerned medical officers trying to assess his condition. He simply asked if the chaplain was okay. They did not answer his question, but proceeded to load him onto a truck so he could be transported to a field hospital 30 miles 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, as well as four of his ribs and both ankles. Again, Doctors told Major that the war was over for him, and that he would have to return home to Canada. A week went by with Major recovering from his wounds at the field hospital, then Major took the opportunity to flee.

He managed to get a ride from a passing jeep that drove him to Nijmegen, a Dutch town beside the Waal River, where he had previously met the Van Gerner family. He stayed with that family at their farm for almost a month in order to fully recover from his injuries. When he was well enough he went back to his unit in March 1945. Whilst technically, Private Major would have been AWOA (Absent Without Authority) no action was ever taken against him, how he was able to avoid punishment for his actions is unknown.

At the beginning of April that same year, Majors regiment was approaching the city of Zwolle in the Netherlands. Information indicated that Zwolle was shown to have strong German resistance. The commanding officer asked for two volunteers to reconnoitre the German force before the artillery began firing on the city. Private Major and his friend Corporal Willie Arseneault stepped forward to accept the task. They were also tasked to get in contact with the Dutch resistance as the Canadian regiment was to start firing on the city the next day. At the time, Zwolle had a population of around 50,000 people and it was likely that innocent civilians would number among the casualties.

Around midnight, Arseneault was killed by German fire after accidentally giving away the pair's position after they ran across a roadblock. Reportedly, Willy was able to kill his attacker before dying himself. Enraged, Major picked up his friend’s machine gun and ran at the enemy, killing two of them, but the rest of the group fled in a vehicle. Despite only being tasked with ascertaining the German numbers and returning to his own forces Major decided to pursue the fleeing Germans.

Leo Major beside Willie Arseneault's grave many years later.

He entered Zwolle near Sassenpoort and came upon a staff car. He ambushed and captured the German driver and then led him to a bar where an armed officer was taking a drink. After disarming the officer, he found that they could both speak French. Major told him that at 6:00 am Canadian artillery would begin firing on the city, which would cause numerous casualties among both the German troops and the civilians. The officer seemed to understand the situation, so Major took a calculated risk and let the man go, hoping they would spread the news of their hopeless position instead of rallying the troops. As a sign of good faith, he gave the German his gun back.

Major then proceeded to run throughout the city firing his sub-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. He made sure, however, to place the grenades where they wouldn’t cause much damage to the town or its citizens.

As he was doing this, he would attack and capture German troops. In the early hours of the morning, he stumbled upon a group of eight soldiers. Though they pulled a gun on him, he killed four and caused the rest to flee. Major himself escaped the confrontation without injury and only one regret: he later stated he felt he should have killed all of them. About 10 times during the night, he captured groups of 8 to 10 German soldiers, escorted them out of the city and handed them over to French-Canadian troops waiting in the vicinity. After transferring his prisoners, he would return to Zwolle to continue his assault.

Four times during the night, he had to force his way into civilians' houses to rest. He eventually located the Gestapo HQ and set the building on fire. Later stumbling upon the SS HQ, he engaged in a quick but deadly fight with eight Nazi officers: four were killed, the others fled. He noticed that two of the SS men he had just killed were disguised as Resistance members. The Zwolle Resistance had been (or was going to be), infiltrated by the Nazis.
The citizens of Zwolle celebrate their liberation alongside
Canadian troops.

By 4:30 am, the exhausted Major found out that the Germans had retreated.  An entire garrison—estimated to have been made up of several hundred soldiers—had been made so afraid of nothing more than a single, one-eyed man that they fled the town. 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. Canadian forces were able to 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, having singlehandedly liberated an entire city.

At this point, he finally accepted his Distinguished Service Medal, though reportedly still complained about American and British forces getting all of the credit and glory for the Allied victories.

Major continued to fight in the war, however, his actions remained relatively normal until the conclusion of the conflict. Following the conclusion of the War, Major returned to civilian life in Canada, where he became a pipe fitter.

In June 1950 the Korean War began. The Canadian government decided to raise a force to join the United Nations in repelling the communist invasion of South Korea. Major, who had retired from the military after World War Two, was called back into service. He joined the Scout and Sniper Platoon of 2nd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment of the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 1st Commonwealth Division.

Canadian soldiers during the Korean War.
In October 1951 Major fought in the First Battle of Maryang San where he received a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal for capturing and holding a key hill in November 1951. Hill 355, nicknamed Little Gibraltar, was a strategic feature, commanding the terrain for twenty miles around, so the communists were determined to take it before the truce talks came to an agreement which would lock each side into their present positions.

Hill 355 was held by the 3rd US Infantry Division, who linked up with the Canadian's Royal 22nd Regiment on the Americans' western flank. On November 22 the 64th Chinese Army, consisting of around 40,000 men, lowered a decisive artillery barrage. Over the course of two days, the Americans were pushed back from Hill 355 by elements of the Chinese 190th and 191st Divisions.

The 3rd US Infantry Division tried to recapture the hill, but without any success, and the Chinese had moved to the nearby Hill 227, practically surrounding the Canadian forces.] To relieve pressure, Lieutenant Colonel J.A. Dextraze, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion Royal 22nd Regiment, brought up an elite scout and sniper team led by Léo Major. Armed with Sten sub machineguns, and wearing sneakers, Major and his 18 men silently crept up Hill 355. At a signal, Major's men opened fire, panicking the Chinese who were trying to understand why the firing was coming from the centre of their troops instead of from the outside. By 12:45 am, they had retaken the hill.

Canadian officers at Hill 355.
However, an hour later, two Chinese divisions, the 190th and the 191st, totaling around 14,000 men, counter-attacked and tried to retake the hill. Major was ordered to retreat, but refused and found scant cover for his men. He held the enemy off throughout the night, he even called in regimental mortar fire on his own position,so close to him that Major's own mortar bombs were practically falling on him.

The commander of the mortar platoon, Captain Charly Forbes, later wrote that Major was "an audacious man ... not satisfied with the proximity of my barrage and asks to bring it closer...In effect my barrage falls so close that I hear my bombs explode when he speaks to me on the radio." The mortar firing was so intense that the mortar tubes glowed red hot and ultimately became useless.

After three days of repeated attacks from over ten thousand Chinese soldiers, reinforcements arrived. Major and his 18 men, had successfully held the hill against 14,000 enemy soldierss. Major received his second Distinguished Conduct Medal, becoming on of only three soldiers to ever receive the medal twice in separate wars, and the only Canadian to do so. He summed his exploits up by saying, “I fought... with only one eye and I did pretty good”.

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.

The citizens of Zwolle celebrate Leo's visit to the town.
The Dutch citizens of of Zwolle never forgot Leo Major. Starting in the 1970s and until his death in 2008, he periodically returned to Zwolle and was given a hero's welcome each time, cheered by its citizens. The children are taught in school about the one-eyed liberator who saved their city from destruction. He became an honorary citizen of the city in 2005 and has been the subject of news articles and documentaries.

When Leo Major died in 2008 at the age of 87 in Montreal, the town hall flag of Zwolle flew at half-mast and townspeople recorded their condolences in a special register. Later that year, the city renamed a street in his honour.

Leo Major's grave at  the Last Post Fund National Field of
Honour in Pointe-Claire, Quebec.


You can find Eccentric Earth on a number of podcast providers, including:
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