For one of the most courageous actions of the Second World War, Private Smokey Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross. On the night of 21-22 October 1944, the Canadian Infantry Brigade was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Savio River in Italy. Two companies of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, in which Private Smith was serving, with difficulty crossed the river and seized a shallow bridgehead. The weather was appalling and torrential rain had caused the river to rise by two metres in five hours, so making it impassable for tanks and anti-tank guns to cross in support of the Seaforths.
The next morning the Germans, recognising the vulnerability of the Seaforths' position, attacked in strength with three Panzer tanks supported by two self-propelled guns and about 30 grenadiers of the elite 26th Panzer Division. Smith, a born soldier and at his best in tight situations, led his team with their Piat anti-tank weapon across an open field. Keeping low, they established themselves in a ditch alongside the road the tanks would be coming up.
Realising the limitations of one Piat, Smith broke cover and raced across the road to recover another. Just as he returned, the first Panzer tank spotted his position and opened up with its machine guns, badly wounding one of Smith's team. Without hesitation and now under intense fire, Smith rose from the ditch, steadied himself and opened fire at a range of 30 feet, putting the tank out of action. About 10 grenadiers immediately jumped off the back of the tank and opened fire. Smith stood his ground, killing four of the advancing enemy with his tommy-gun, and drove the remainder back. Almost immediately, a second tank opened fire and more enemy closed in on Smith.
He continued to fire back all the time, protecting his wounded companion. When he ran out of ammunition, he ran to a ditch to obtain some abandoned magazines. He then continued firing and causing disarray among the enemy who, carrying their wounded, withdrew. "I was a pretty busy guy for a few minutes," said Smith, "but we disabled the tank and any Germans who were able to ran away." A few hours later, the rest of his battalion and division crossed the river and the Allied forces continued to fight their way up the Adriatic coast.
Smith received his Victoria Cross from King George VI at a private investiture at Buckingham Palace on 18 December 1944. The final paragraph of his citation reads: "By the dogged determination, outstanding devotion to duty and superb gallantry of this private soldier, his comrades were so inspired that the bridgehead was held firm against all enemy attacks. . ."
He was born Ernest Alvia Smith in New Westminster, British Columbia in 1914. The eldest son of the family, he was educated at Herbert Spencer Elementary School and the J.T. Trapp Technical High School . Before enlisting in March 1940 into the Seaforths he worked on building sites. After five months' training "Smokey" Smith sailed for England, where the Seaforths received further training until July 1943 when they were involved in the assault on Sicily and further action in Italy, where he was twice wounded.
After demobilisation Smith worked in a photographic studio in New Westminster but became restless for action and in 1951 enlisted in the regular army, where he became a sergeant. However he saw no further action and felt angry that he had not been sent to Korea. After retirement in 1964, along with his wife he ran a travel agency in Vancouver. He worked hard for the Royal Canadian Legion of Veterans and remained a hugely popular figure in Vancouver.
He was the last surviving Canadian holder of the VC.
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