Ernest Smith

Ernest Smith

:"For the cricketer Ernest James "Tiger" Smith, see Tiger Smith."Ernest Alvia ("Smokey") Smith, VC, CM, OBC, CD (3 May,1914 – 3 August, 2005) was a Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. He was the last living Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross.

Early life

Smith was born in New Westminster, British Columbia on May 3, 1914. He attended Richard McBride and Herbert Spencer public schools and TJ Trapp technical high school. He excelled in sports, notably soccer and track athletics. It has been said that he got his nickname "Smokey" due to his speed at running, although in later years Smith claimed he did not remember when, where or why he got that name. He graduated from high school just as the Great Depression hit North America. Smith, along with thousands of other men, regularly "rode the rails" seeking employment.

Army career

Smith enlisted as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, Canadian Army, in Vancouver on March 5, 1940, aged 25, and was initially stationed in Scotland and England during the Battle of Britain. He first experienced combat in the autumn of 1942. On July 10, 1943, he and his fellow Seaforth Highlanders landed with the 1st Canadian Infantry Division in Sicily and fought through the Sicily and Italian campaign in 1943 and 1944.

By the time of the action in northern Italy that earned him the VC, Smith was 30 years old and had been wounded twice. On the night of 21 October / 22 October 1944 at the River Savio, North Italy, Private Smith was in the spearhead of the attack which established a bridgehead over the river. With a P.I.A.T. anti-tank launcher he put an enemy tank out of action at a range of 30 feet (10 metres), and while protecting a wounded comrade, he destroyed another tank and two self-propelled guns, and routed a number of the enemy infantry.

He was an independent and strong-willed man who frequently questioned authority. He was promoted to corporal nine times, but subsequently demoted back to private nine times prior to his actions at the River Savio. He later achieved the rank of sergeant.

Account of bravery

From the "London Gazette", December 20, 1944:

:"In Italy on the night of 21st-22nd October 1944, a Canadian Infantry Brigade was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Savio River. The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were selected as the spearhead of the attack, and in weather most unfavourable to the operation they crossed the river and captured their objective in spite of strong opposition from the enemy.

:Torrential rain had caused the Savio River to rise six feet in five hours, and as the soft vertical banks made it impossible to bridge the river no tanks or anti-tank guns could be taken across the raging stream to the support of the rifle companies.

:As the right forward company was consolidating its objective it was suddenly counter-attacked by a troop of three Mark V Panther tanks supported by two self-propelled guns and about thirty infantry and the situation appeared hopeless.

:Under heavy fire from the approaching enemy tanks, Private Smith, showing great initiative and inspiring leadership, led his P.I.A.T. Group of two men across an open field to a position from which the P.I.A.T. could best be employed. Leaving one man on the weapon, Private Smith crossed the road with a companion and obtained another P.I.A.T. Almost immediately an enemy tank came down the road firing its machine-guns along the line of the ditches. Private Smith's comrade was wounded. At a range of thirty feet and having to expose himself to the full view of the enemy, Private Smith fired the P.I.A.T. and hit the tank, putting it out of action. Ten German infantry immediately jumped off the back of the tank and charged him with Schmeissers and grenades. Without hesitation Private Smith moved out on the road and with his Tommy gun at point-blank range, killed four Germans and drove the remainder back. Almost immediately another tank opened fire and more enemy infantry closed in on Smith's position. Obtaining some abandoned Tommy gun magazines from a ditch, he steadfastly held his position, protecting his comrade and fighting the enemy with his Tommy gun until they finally gave up and withdrew in disorder.

:One tank and both self-propelled guns had been destroyed by this time, but yet another tank swept the area with fire from a longer range. Private Smith, still showing utter contempt for enemy fire, helped his wounded friend to cover and obtained medical aid for him behind a nearby building. He then returned to his position beside the road to await the possibility of a further enemy attack.

:No further immediate attack developed, and as a result the battalion was able to consolidate the bridgehead position so vital to the success of the whole operation, which led to the capture of San Giorgio Di Cesena and a further advance to the Ronco River.

:Thus, 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, pending the arrival of tanks and anti-tank guns some hours later."

Later military career

Smith was personally awarded his VC by King George VI at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace. It is a long-standing legend that Canadian military authorities, concerned for the personal behaviour of their brand-new VC recipient en-route to London, placed him in a jail cell in Rome overnight. Smith himself would neither confirm nor deny this story.

After receiving the VC, Smokey Smith was made a "poster boy" for the Canadian War Bonds drive. Smith was demobilised after World War II, but returned in 1950 when he re-enlisted to serve in the Korean War.

Military authorities considered him too valuable an icon to risk in direct combat and he was not allowed at the front. He ended his military career as a recruiting sergeant in Vancouver, retiring from the military in 1964. As a result of his extended service, he received the Canadian Forces Decoration for 12 years of service. He was an honorary member of the Royal Military College of Canada, student # S132.

Civilian life

Smith married Esther Weston in 1947 with whom he had two children, David and Norma-Jean. Smokey and Esther established "Smith Travel" in downtown Vancouver in 1969 which ran successfully until it was closed in 1992 when the Smiths retired. Smokey regularly accompanied his clients to historical World War II venues. The two were married for nearly 50 years until Esther's death in December 1996.

In his later years, as the number of living veterans began to grow thin, Smokey found himself the last living Canadian VC recipient in 2000. By this time Smith was retired and devoted much of his time to helping his fellow veterans, making frequent public appearances all over the world to assist in remembrance day ceremonies and greeted the Queen after her arrival during an official visit. Smith was also on hand to unveil a Canadian postage stamp featuring both the British and Canadian versions of the Victoria Cross in 2004. The Canadian Pacific Railway dedicated a railcar in his honour on November 29, 2003.

He assisted in the negotiations with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the disinterment from Vimy Ridge and return to Canada of the remains of Canada's unknown soldier. He was a representative of all Canadian veterans in May 2000 in Ottawa at the consecration of Canada's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Smith was appointed a member of the Order of Canada on November 15 1995 and received the honour in a ceremony performed on February 15 1996. He became a member of the Order of British Columbia in 2002: Mr. Gary Pawson nominated him for the Order of British Columbia starting in 1997, and each year following, until he was finally so honoured. He was originally passed over for this honour until Clifford Chadderton, the Ministry of Veterans Affairs, and several other organizations, wrote letters to the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia in his support.

Death and funeral

Smokey Smith died at his home in Vancouver on August 3, 2005 at the age of 91. His body was placed in the foyer of the House of Commons to lie in state on August 9 2005, making him only the ninth person to be accorded this honour; government flags flew at half-staff on that day. He lay in repose at Vancouver's Seaforth Armoury on August 12, with a full military funeral in Vancouver on August 13.

The medal

Smith donated his VC to the Seaforth Highlanders in his will. The medal is on display at the Seaforth Armoury, located at the foot of the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Photo gallery

External links

* [ Obituary in] "The Globe and Mail"
* [ Obituary in] "The Toronto Star"
* [ 'Smokey' Smith's ashes flown to Ottawa]
* [ Order of Canada Citation]
* [ Smokey's page in the Order of British Columbia]
* [ CBC radio archives clip about Smokey]
* [ Veterans Affair Canada biography page]
* [ CBC transcript - Smokey is interviewed but the transcriber lists him as "Unidentified Veteran]
* ['Ernest%20Alvia%20Smith' new release about Smokey's OBC]
* [ VIDEO CLIP CBC news 29 October 2004 - Smokey returns to Italy 60 years later]
* [ Canada Veterans Affair photogallery]

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