Dual wielding. It looks great in the movies. Some flint-eyed hero gets pushed into a tactical corner. The situation is dire, and all hope seems lost. The Bad Guys are anonymous, relentless and everywhere. They have taken his wife, his kid, his dog, and his priceless collection of decorative porcelain figurines. The poor guy has nothing left to lose.
Now depicted in slow motion our hero draws two matching autoloading handguns and leaps into the fray. He dives dramatically in a horizontal maneuver that defies the laws of both physics and anatomy while holding both weapons out sideways. The left arm is extended and the right tucked in tight. He cycles off rounds alternately as fast as he can squeeze the triggers.
The hero collapses to the ground exhausted, the slides locked back on his two smoking pistols. Once he hauls himself to his feet he finds that he has dispatched fully three dozen faceless villains and earned the eternal affection of some preternaturally curvy vixen whose figure stands in mute testament to the skills of her breathtakingly gifted plastic surgeon. Fade to black and prep the marketing department for the inevitable sequel.
I once penned an article on dual wielding. I obtained a matching pair of high-end gas-powered HK MP7 airsoft guns and went to town doing just such foolishness as was previously described. At the end of the day, I had shot myself in the arms so many times I looked like I had some kind of pox. Like most everything, it seems movies bear scant similarity to real life. However, in 1945 a one-eyed French Canadian named Leo Major did indeed snatch up a matching pair of Sten guns to shoot the holy heck out of a bunch of Waffen SS troopers defending the Dutch town of Zwolle. His story is one of almost insane bravery spanning two wars.
Leo Major was actually born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1921 to French-Canadian parents. The family moved to Montreal prior to his first birthday. Leo got along poorly with his father and subsequently moved in with an aunt at age 14. In 1940 he joined the Canadian Army in a likely fruitless effort to prove to his father that he was “somebody to be proud of.”
Major landed in Normandy with the Regiment de la Chaudiere on D-Day. During a reconnaissance mission on the day of the landings, Major captured a German SdKfz-251 armored halftrack filled with commo equipment and secret codes. A few days later Leo Major met the Waffen SS for the first time. During a spirited exchange of fire, Major killed four of the SS troopers, but one of them touched off a white phosphorus grenade.
This diabolical stuff burned out one of Major’s eyes, but he nonetheless stayed in the fight. He refused evacuation and continued to serve as both a scout and a sniper, insisting that he only needed one eye to run a weapon. Later in life, he bragged that his injury “made him look like a pirate.”
As is frequently the case, Leo Major’s reputation expanded with the further telling of his story. The details of his exploits have been clouded by time and the fallibility of man’s recollections. However, there’s enough meat here to intimate some extraordinary battlefield valor. One of his alleged forays in the Netherlands indeed seems larger than life.
During the Battle of the Scheldt in Zeeland in Southern Netherlands, Major purportedly found himself separated from his unit on a recon patrol. The weather was cold and rainy, so the young Canadian took refuge in an abandoned house. While there he spotted a pair of German soldiers walking nearby.
Major killed one and captured the other, using the survivor to determine the location of the unit headquarters. Once there he captured the German commander and killed a further three. His audacious action led to the surrender of the local garrison. He ultimately captured a total of 93 enemy troops singlehandedly.
While marching contingents of these Wehrmacht troops to captivity, Major and his charges were fired upon by nearby SS soldiers. In the attack seven of the captured Germans were killed. Major later located an Allied tank and directed the crew to obliterate the SS position with cannon fire.
For his actions in Zeeland Major was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He supposedly refused the award when he found out it was to have been presented by General Bernard Montgomery. Major said Monty was incompetent and in no position to be giving out medals.
Major was later riding in the back of a Bren carrier when it hit a landmine. The resulting explosion threw him out of the vehicle and rendered him unconscious. While he eventually recovered, this event left him with a significant back injury.
The Distinguished Conduct Medal, For Real This Time…
On April 13, 1945, the war in Europe had a mere three weeks left before it burned itself out. Leo Major’s Regiment de la Chaudiere drew up before the Dutch city of Zwolle to assess their options. The Germans had garrisoned the city for a proper fight, but the Canadian commander would sooner not blast the place to pieces with artillery if he could help it. It was decided to dispatch a small two-man combat patrol into the town to determine enemy strength and attempt to contact the local resistance. Leo Major and a buddy named Corporal Willy Arsenault volunteered.
Around midnight, Major and Arsenault encountered a mounted German patrol. Arsenault inadvertently gave away their position and was killed. Major killed two of the Germans, but the rest escaped in their vehicle. Major retrieved Arsenault’s Sten gun along with his complement of grenades. Now with a satchel full of frags and a pair of Stens Leo Major went full Chuck Norris on the Nazis.
At around 0100 Major arrived at the town square alone to find a pair of German soldiers asleep at a machinegun position. He killed them both and captured another German soldier along with a staff car. Inside a nearby tavern, he found the German officer to whom the staff car was assigned and disarmed him. It turned out the kraut officer was from Alsace-Lorraine and spoke French. After a spirited discussion, it became obvious that the German had lost his enthusiasm for Hitler, so Major returned the man’s pistol and let him go. He explained that the Canadians were poised outside the town and that the assault would begin promptly at dawn in hopes that the liberated kraut would spread the word to his comrades.
Major then forced the captured driver to escort him around town in the staff car as he shot up stuff with his two Sten guns and a further liberated MP40. He did this for the next several hours. Eventually Major happened upon the local SS headquarters and surprised eight SS troopers inside. In his own words—
“They pulled a gun on me,” Major said. “But you know, with one eye, I can see better than most people at night. I killed four of them; the other four ran away.”
The following morning Major returned to his lines utterly exhausted. He retrieved the body of his friend Arsenault prior to leaving the city. The chaos he fomented was adequate to cause the occupying Germans to flee and save Zwolle from destruction.
The Sten Gun
We have discussed the background and origins of the Sten gun in this venue before. Today I thought we’d explore how it runs. The Mk II and Mk III Stens, though fundamentally disparate designs, feel about the same. The Mk V with its wooden furniture and improved sights is markedly more comfortable. All of the guns tend to be somewhat left-side heavy due to the lateral orientation of the magazine. However, this architecture makes it much easier to run the weapons from the prone than might be the case with a German MP40 or American Grease Gun.
The Sten is an open bolt design that lacks a mechanical safety. There is a notch in the raceway for the bolt handle that can be used to secure the bolt to the rear, but it has no mechanical safety in the traditional sense. Despite the gun’s relative crudity, it is selective fire via a pushbutton fire selector on the trigger housing. The double-column, single-feed magazine is the mechanical equivalent of a war crime. Double-column, double-feed sorts like those that fed the Thompson or Beretta 38A were hugely preferable.
The accuracy of the fixed sights on the Sten is determined by the comportment of whoever installed them that day. However, like most submachine guns once you start shooting the sights are little more than adornments. The Sten’s comatose 500 rpm rate of fire makes it one of the most controllable SMGs of the war. I have always been a fan. Keeping short bursts on a man-sized target is not a challenge with even the most rudimentary attention to technique.
The Rest of the Story
Leo Major left the Army after WW2 only to be recalled to active duty for the Korean War despite having only the one functional eye. While fighting over Hill 355 during the First Battle of Maryang San, Major led an eighteen-man scout/sniper team that held the hill against an attack by two full Chinese divisions. Major ultimately called mortar fire adjacent his own positions, earning for himself a second Distinguished Conduct Medal and securing the hill.
Leo Major returned from Korea determined to raise a family. He was married for 57 years to Pauline De Croiselle and had four children and five grandchildren. He died in Longueuil in October of 2008. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe the Canada Post issued a stamp in his honor titled, “The One-Eyed Ghost.” What a freaking stud.