Zwolle has a Canadian connection from the Second World War. In April of 1945, Private Leo Major of the Regiment de la Chaudière of the Canadian Army (3rd Canadian Infantry Division), single-handedly liberated the city from the Germans.

The Sassenpoort, part of the medieval defenses of Zwolle, that Leo Major and Willie Arsenault were determined to save.

It happened like this: Zwolle was a German stronghold, so when the regiment neared the city, the commanding officer asked for two volunteers to do a reconnaissance mission. Private Leo Major and his friend Corporal Willie Aresenault accepted. Leo already had a long history of taking on the Germans ever since he first landed on Juno Beach on D-Day, losing his right eye to a phosphorus grenade, but capturing a German armored half-track by himself. He refused to be evacuated, stating that he only needed one eye to aim a gun. And besides, he figured the eyepatch made him look like a pirate, and he liked the idea of that. Seriously badass.

Old map of Zwolle (swollen), the only land that didn’t flood in the region, showing medieval defence system.

From there he went to Belgium, where, long story short, he single-handedly captured and delivered 93 German soldiers to the Canadian army. For this General Montgomery was to award him the Distinguished Conduct Medal (second only to the Victoria Cross for enlisted men), but Leo turned it down. It was his opinion that Monty was too incompetent to be handing out medals.

So maybe what happened next is not so very surprising. After a quick look around, the two friends decided between themselves to capture Zwolle on their own.

Interior of St Michael’s with pulpit and organ. Prior to the reformation, the seats faced the altar, which is where I’m taking the photo from. After the reformation, all the seats were arranged to face the pulpit, as the Preaching of the Word of the Lord became more important than the “superstitious repetition of ritual” represented by the altar. Today the chairs face the organ for an upcoming concert.

St. Michael’s church in the centre. Is it a coincidence that the warrior angel is Zwolle’s patron saint?

Building dates from 1571.

At first, this didn’t go so well, and around midnight, Arsenault was killed by an enemy machine gun emplacement.

This made Leo mad.

Very, very mad.

Leo picked up his friend’s weapon and killed two of the enemy while the rest ran off. And that’s how he got three submachine guns (his own plus two of theirs slung over his back), a big bag full of grenades, and plenty of ammunition. But the rest of the city was still occupied by Gestapo, SS and regular German armed forces.

Evidence of some rare pre-reformation painted decoration in a hidden chapel at the front of the church. All catholic style statues and art were destroyed during the “iconoclastic fury” of the reformation in the 1500’s.

This fact did not bother Leo one bit. That night he stormed in and out of the city repeatedly, guns a-blazing and grenades exploding. He entered SS Headquarters, killing four of the eight officers who put up a fight there (saying later he wished he could have killed them all), captured and delivered several groups of German POWs and, for good measure, burned down Gestapo headquarters. The Germans believed they were under attack by a large Canadian force. By 4:00 a.m., the city was quiet – Leo couldn’t find any more Germans to fight.

I can only wonder about the history and interior layout of this narrow little house.

This time, the “One-Eyed One-Man Army” did accept the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the only Canadian ever so awarded. And went on to be awarded yet one more for action in Korea – the only person ever to be awarded two DCMs for action in two separate wars.

But that’s another story.