Updated: Jun 4, 2019
With a reputation as a hellraiser, Ernest “Smokey” Smith had a knack for pissing off his superiors—he was promoted to corporal and then demoted back to private nine times. But when it came to battle, he more than earned his reputation as one of Canada’s greatest soldiers.
Born in New Westminster, British Columbia, Smith came of age during the Great Depression and along with many others struggled to find steady employment. He was 25 when he joined the Canadian Army on 5 March 1940, becoming part of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.
In 1943, he first entered into combat. On 10 July 1943, he was part of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division landing in Sicily, remaining active throughout the Sicily and Italian campaign between July 1943 and February 1945.
On the night of 21/22 October 1944 at the River Savio, in Northern Italy, Private Smith was in the spearhead of the attack which established a bridgehead over the river. With a PIAT anti-tank launcher he disabled a 44-ton Panther Mark V tank at a range of just 30 feet (10 metres), and while protecting a wounded comrade, he killed four panzergrenadiers and routed six others.
When another tank was sent to take out his position, he used another PIAT to damage it enough to retreat. He then carried his wounded comrade, and joined a counter-attack to disperse the Germans still attacking his previous position. The squad destroyed three Panther Tanks, two self-propelled artillery pieces, a half-track, a scout car, and a few German soldiers.
His bravery was recored in the after action report that has now been published.
"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 Private James Pennant 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, Private Tennant was wounded. At a range 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 (Messerschmidt) 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 Private Tennant 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."
Hilariously, the army later had to lock Smokey in an Italian post office overnight, just to make sure the “wild man” wouldn’t vanish before being flown to London to meet the King and receive the Victoria Cross. Years later, he cheerfully confirmed his crazy reputation: “Oh, yeah. I didn’t take orders. I didn’t believe in them.”
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-mast 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.