Not one of the liberators, mind you. THE liberator.
May 6, 2018 6:53 PM   Subscribe

“On an April night in 1945, [Canadian soldier, Léo Major] single-handedly chased the Germans out of the town of 50,000 souls, and Zwolle has never forgotten it....Major [PDF see p. 113] and another soldier, Cpl. Willie Arsenault, entered the German-held town on a reconnaissance mission sometime after sunset on April 13, 1945. The area was crawling with German occupiers, but many had gone to bed. Major returned at 9 the next morning and announced the town had been liberated, but that Arsenault had been killed.”
posted by If only I had a penguin... (20 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
This whole story is an example of the kind of thing I adore in history. Thank you.
posted by Alensin at 7:14 PM on May 6, 2018

Hey, that's my hometown! Of course I know the it was the Canadians who liberated the town, and I know Major's name, but I guess I was only dimly aware he did it pretty much all by himself, Rambo-style. Awesome.
posted by monospace at 7:26 PM on May 6, 2018 [13 favorites]

A bit of a hothead? Really?

As if I needed an excuse, but my next drink goes out to Léo.
posted by wotsac at 7:52 PM on May 6, 2018

What a fucking boss.
posted by dazed_one at 12:10 AM on May 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is there anything Canadians can't do?
posted by zaelic at 1:29 AM on May 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

Reading with Six Million Dollar Man soundtrack as mental soundtrack. I'm sure I'm not the only one.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 2:08 AM on May 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Named individual heroes from WWII seem to be relatively rare, off hand I can only remember Douglas Bader, the British pilot and on looking was reminded of Odette, Von Stauffenberg and Leonard Cheshire. But how does a man like this get forgotten?
posted by epo at 3:29 AM on May 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Every generation, each Dutch city gets the Canadian it deserves.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:54 AM on May 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

"Léo Major"! Even the name says "Hollywood action hero"!
posted by ardgedee at 5:05 AM on May 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Is there anything Canadians can't do?"

Win the Stanley Cup?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:35 AM on May 7, 2018 [13 favorites]

But how does a man like this get forgotten?

A good question. The article says that the "fact that Major’s life reads like a rather implausible movie script may be one of the reasons why he isn’t nearly as well-known in Canada" which doesn't seem to explain much.

Another noteworthy individual actor was the Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä with his mitten ensemble.
posted by exogenous at 5:51 AM on May 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

It’s shaping up to be Winnipeg’s year.
posted by notyou at 5:52 AM on May 7, 2018

Major would go on to become the only Canadian ever to receive a Distinguished Conduct Medal in two separate wars (the second earned in Korea).

No automatic discharge for lacking binocular vision, I see. Reminds one of Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart.
posted by BWA at 6:08 AM on May 7, 2018

Then — as the pièce de résistance — he lit the Gestapo headquarters on fire.

This is a man who knew how to deal with Nazis.
posted by SonInLawOfSam at 6:40 AM on May 7, 2018 [10 favorites]

you only need one eye to shoot a rifle, he argued

Can't fault that logic, really.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:06 AM on May 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

> The article says that the "fact that Major’s life reads like a rather implausible movie script may be one of the reasons why he isn’t nearly as well-known in Canada" which doesn't seem to explain much.

After WW II some of these guys bounced from conflict to conflict for as long as they could, finding peacetime life too boring or at least harder to cope with than life in battle.

Many more didn't want to draw attention to themselves. There might be as many reasons for that as there are soldiers, but I'm willing to assume PTSD was a motivating factor, even if it wasn't considered a diagnosable issue at the time. There might also have been a degree to which the wartime and post-war media might have found them personally lacking, whether they weren't good on camera, or their off-hours behavior wouldn't have endured close public scrutiny, or they were simply unable to engage productively with the entertainment industry of their day.

Audie Murphy, as a counter-example, had a hero's pedigree as well as the looks, which translated well to his movie and TV career after the war. But even for him PTSD made his postwar life hard; his penchant for lashing out in sudden violence led to one divorce and he was addicted to sleeping pills and erratic behavior.
posted by ardgedee at 7:14 AM on May 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

There's this mefi trope that whenever someone posts something good there will always be someone explaining that this is the worst thing ever.

I tried looking into what actual historians, and not patriotic journalists, think about this.

Good news! It's still apparently somewhat good. But. Historians: "Missing data problem, but as far as we can tell, It was far more mundane than that, and the local resistance did most of the work."

posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:35 PM on May 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Doesn't the article say he found the resistance fighters and worked with them? Did anyone imagine he was carting 50 prisoners around by himself?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:26 PM on May 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes, but then what exactly was his role as the single handed liberator exactly? His partner was killed, he tricked a nazi in a pub, then ran along streets firing a rifle. Then met resistance fighters and they did the job together.

Also, that story about giving the gun back to the officer in a pub. Other than his words, there's no reason whatsoever to think that this had any impact in subsequent events, as if that was the signature tough guy thing and then the nazis all surrendered. Maybe instead a nazi saw a drunkard in a pub and said, well I don't need this shit, and just went home?

Also fuck me for thinking about nazis as persons right now and typing all this in.... I just prefer actual history to myths, I guess.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 5:25 PM on May 7, 2018

Did anyone imagine he was carting 50 prisoners around by himself?

There are half a dozen passages in Rommel's Infantry Attacks describing engagements in WWI that read like "And then I and my scout team of four men ran into an entire enemy battalion, who surrendered to us. Only by immediately separating the officers from the enlisted men did we maintain control of the situation." Weird shit happens in war, especially when one side has been taking a beating for a while and is running low on supplies.

So, I dunno. It was April 13, 1945, the war was definitely decided by that point. "We have your village surrounded, you'd better surrender" is an extremely believable threat for an Allied soldier to make at that point in the war, and I doubt the German unit had much fight in it by that point anyway.

That said, the PDF link doesn't mention the officer story at all. It does, however, make clear that Major took out a Germany sentry outpost during the engagement where Corporal Arsenault was killed, then took out a machine gun nest whose crew were sleeping, and then captured another German (maybe the officer in the story?) who he forced to drive around town in a scout car with a white flag. Only after doing all that and then shooting up the town at random to create the impression of a large-scale attack did he stumble on the local Resistance cell, which numbered four men. So, still pretty impressive for a single guy.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:46 PM on May 7, 2018

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