ZWOLLE, OVERIJSSEL – saved by a Canadian?


Disneyland, Overijssel? No it’s real. The Sassenpoort gate to the city dates from the 14th century.

Mevrouw T and I have changed trains at Zwolle dozens of times in the past few years, on our way to see family and friends in the northern Dutch provinces. Not once have we ventured outside the station.

Our friend Hans had a significant birthday to celebrate, so with him as our guide we took the time to spend a day in the town where he went to school. He showed us an interesting art museum, quiet squares with cafes under the plane trees, and a bookshop which ranks with the world’s most spectacular.

According to slightly dubious story, Zwolle could have been a pile of rubble but for the heroism (or sheer craziness?) of a Canadian soldier in WWII.

I say the story is dubious, because Wikipedia questions the details, and all the versions I could google used similar language, suggesting they came from one source. The facts themselves are scarcely credible, reading like the plot of a Rambo movie*.


Leo Major Lane. The inscription translates as ‘First Canadian Liberator of Zwolle.’ Photo: Wikipedia.

On April 14, 1944, the Canadians were preparing to bombard the German defenders in Zwolle, presumably leading to heavy German and civilian casualties. A French-Canadian corporal named Leo Major and a fellow scout volunteered to sneak into the town to suss out the enemy’s positions and to make contact with the local Dutch Resistance.

Around midnight, Major’s mate was killed by a German sentry and Major got mad. Damn this sneaking business- let’s get us some Krauts! He killed sentries, captured a vehicle and forced the driver to take him to his commanding officer, whom he discovered drinking in a bar. They had a chat in French (the German was from Alsace) and Major warned him that resistance was futile and any sensible German would make himself scarce a.s.a.p.

For the rest of the night Leo rampaged through Zwolle, tossing grenades, taking prisoners and shooting any Germans who were slow to get their hands up. The bombardment was called off, and when the Canadians drove into the town they found the occupiers had indeed fled for their lives from the one-man army.

Zwolle was liberated with minimal casualties and property damage. A street bears Leo Major’s name and the man himself received a Distinguished Conduct Medal. Whatever the truth of the tale, we now have a lovely town to stroll around.


Grote Kerkplein, Zwolle. It’s the church that’s big; the square next to it is modest and relaxed.

Museum Fondatie, Zwolle

The Museum de Fundatie, on top of which a controversial space egg appears to have landed. We really like it, for the building itself and for the current exhibition of German Expressionist work.

Glass Angel

Of course this sculpture was controversial too. The Glass Angel, by Rotterdam artist Herman Lamers, was unveiled in 2010 and now dominates the square Grote Markt in front of the gothic St Michael’s Church.

The highlight for us. The spectacular bookshop Waanders in de Broeren. Three floors of books, a cafe, information centre and performance/lecture space in the former Broeren Church. Note the organ and beautiful vaulted, painted ceiling still in place. Who in Zwolle would buy from Amazon when they can drop in here?

For more information about Zwolle (in Dutch and English), see

*Disclaimer: I’ve never actually watched a Rambo movie, let alone read the plot of one; I’m just searching for a colourful metaphor here.


Filed under Holland

6 responses to “ZWOLLE, OVERIJSSEL – saved by a Canadian?

  1. Sounds like Clint Eastwood in “Where Eagle’s Dare”!

    • One of my favourite Alistair MacLean books, Andrew. And I read there have been attempts to get the Leo Major story filmed, though perhaps it’s too incredible even for an action movie.

  2. Looks like an amazing place, Richard, and what an awesome story! Love it!

  3. Dick Glaser

    I do so need to go there. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s