« Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista Social Club | Main | Swimming Holes »

August 8, 2005

Canadian Victoria Cross winner Ernest (Smoky) Smith, dies

Ernest (Smoky) Smith was as tough as nails. Rest in peace, Smoky.

Last surviving Canadian Victoria Cross winner, Ernest (Smoky) Smith, dies


(CP) - Hordes of German troops couldn't take him, but time finally did. Legion branches across Canada, in the United States and Europe lowered their flags to half mast Wednesday after Ernest Alvia (Smoky) Smith, Canada's last winner of the Victoria Cross, died at home in Vancouver. He was 91.

He was born in New Westminster, B.C., on May 3, 1914, just weeks before the start of the First World War and earned his fame in the Second World War.

He was a joyful man with an impish smile who savoured a good cigar, a well-aged scotch and the attentions of ladies the world over.

Far from a natural-born diplomat, however, it was his fierce fighting ability that vaulted Smith - nicknamed Smoky in school because of his running ability - into the company of royalty, presidents and prime ministers.

Last fall, Italians and Canadians gathered beneath the walls of an 800-year-old castle in Cesena, Italy, to honour Smith for unleashing a few minutes of fury that saved untold lives and changed his own forever.

In a warm ceremony filled with tales, tears and tributes, officials unveiled a plaque commemorating the night of Oct. 21-22, 1944.

His actions that rainy night, when he singlehandedly fought off German tanks and dozens of troops on a road beside the Savio River, were hailed as an inspiration to all his countrymen for time immemorial.

To Smith, it was simple: kill or be killed. He was scared but he couldn't let his fear gain the best of him or he would die.

"If you're not afraid, there's something wrong with you," he said. "You've got to do it. Don't worry about it.

"Do it."

Thanking Smith's family on behalf of "a grateful and indebted nation,"
Prime Minister Paul Martin said he was "deeply saddened by the passing of a true Canadian hero."

Smith's "conspicuous bravery, initiative and leadership in the face of enemy fire during World War II inspired fellow Canadians everywhere - in action and on the home front," Martin said.

"To generations of Canadians, Smoky Smith stood for courage and resolve at a time of great need, an example of strength of character, loyalty and duty.

"We are a better nation because of men like Sgt. Smoky Smith. He was - and will always be - a much-respected and remarkable Canadian hero."

Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson, who developed a rapport with Smith over countless veterans' ceremonies, said his feats that night resonated far beyond the moment into the hearts of generations of Canadians.

"Every Remembrance Day he came for tea (and scotch!) and was a vivid reminder of our country's heroism," Clarkson said in a statement Wednesday.

The fight for freedom was "a daunting task," said Clarkson, "but he did it like his comrades - without fanfare, without hesitation, with great pride and determination."

Clarkson called his courageous acts "extraordinary."

They "stood out against the dignity, bravery and perseverance of our Canadian Forces," Clarkson said. "Smoky Smith . . . is no longer the enthusiastic and smiling presence among us, but his spirit carries on."

Although his comrades called him "a soldier's soldier," Smith's relationship with the army was stormy.

He built a reputation as an independent-minded man suspicious of authorities. They made him a corporal nine times and busted him back to private nine times. That was his rank when he was awarded his VC, the only Canadian private to win the medal in the Second World War.

Irreverant, sharp-witted and something of a trouble-maker, Smoky Smith and his deeds that night are the stuff of legend.

Already wounded once in Sicily, he had returned to cross the Savio River with his Seaforth Highlanders, the spearhead of an attack aimed at establishing a bridgehead in the push to liberate Cesena and ultimately break through the Germans' Gothic Line.

But the rains were so heavy the river rose two metres in five hours. The banks were too soft for tanks or anti-tank guns to cross in support of the rifle companies.

As the right forward company consolidated its objective, the Germans counter-attacked with three Panther tanks, two self-propelled guns and about 30 infantry.

"The situation appeared hopeless," said Smith's citation.

Then 30, Smith led his three-man anti-tank group across an open field under heavy fire. Leaving an anti-tank weapon with one of his men, he led Pte. Jimmy Tennant across the road for another.

"We got grenades thrown all over us," Smith recalled. "He (Tennant) got hit in the shoulder and arm.

"So I said: 'Get in that ditch and stay there. Don't move."'

Smith had two machine guns, an anti-tank gun and hundreds of rounds of machine-gun ammunition strung around his neck and hanging off his body.

The pair were no sooner into a ditch when a Panther came toward them, firing all the way. Smith waited until the 45-tonne vehicle was less than 10 metres away before he jumped out from his cover, laid down and fired back.

He scored a direct hit, disabling the tank.

Immediately, 10 German soldiers jumped off and charged to within three metres.

"I killed four of them with my tommy gun. That scared them off."

Another tank opened fire. More enemy began closing on Smith's position.

Smith grabbed more magazines and "steadfastly held his position," said the citation.

He fired another round at an approaching tank. It turned away. As each German neared him, Smith fired.

The rest eventually turned and withdrew "in disorder," the citation said.

"Even Germans don't like to be shot," Smith said.

From a distance, a tank continued firing. Smith helped a badly bleeding Tennant up and the two of them made their way back across the road to a church, where Smith left his buddy in the care of some medics.

Dead Germans lay strewn all over the road.

"I don't take prisoners. Period," Smith said 60 years later. "I'm not paid to take prisoners. I'm paid to kill them.

"That's all there is to it."

Smith heard he'd won the Victoria Cross - the Commonwealth's highest, decoration for heroism - about seven weeks after the fight. His reputation as a party animal preceded him. Military police were sent to take him to the ceremony with King George VI in London.

"They picked me up in Naples or somewhere and they put me in jail," Smith recalled with his trademark grin.

"'Don't let him loose in this town.' I liked to party. I'd have a big goddamn party and they'd say: 'Where is he now? Oh, he's drunk downtown."'

After the war, Smith worked in civilian life a couple of years before he rejoined the army to fight in Korea.

"After I got in the army, they wouldn't let me go. They said: 'You got a VC, you're not allowed to fight any more.'

"I said: 'Why didn't you tell me before I rejoined?"'

He was promoted sergeant, then retired with full pension at 50. He became a newspaper photographer before starting his own travel business with wife Esther.

Smoky Smith, he said, was "the only boss I know who's good to me."

He retired at 82. In recent years, he was pretty much confined to a wheelchair. He had a emphysema. His beloved cigars and scotch took their toll.

Jimmy Tennant survived the war. He had lost a chunk of bone in his arm so it was shorter than the other by about five centimetres. Smith helped him find a job when they returned to Canada.

Tennant lived a long and happy life, not far from Smith in Vancouver. The two remained friends until Tennant died of lung cancer years ago.

After that night in 1944, Smith's life was never the same.

Strange women kissed him. Countless men wanted their pictures taken with him. Children smothered him with affection. He met kings and queens and prime ministers and presidents.

As much as he loved the attention, he never forgot the joys the simple things in life could provide.

Master Cpl. Bud Dickson, Smith's aide de camp on overseas trips for 10 years, remembered taking a seat with Smith six years ago on a hotel balcony in the Mediterranean town of Catania.

It was early morning and there were two scotches on the table.

"What's going on, Smoky?" he asked.

"Nothin'," Smith replied. "I just wanted you to come over and watch the sunrise."

So Dickson, then a 33-year-old army signaller, and Smoky Smith, who had probably seen more war than all present-day Canadian soldiers put together, sat back, sipped their drinks and watched a spectacular sunrise.

They barely spoke a word.

About 10 minutes passed. By then. the sun was big, blazing, orange ball. To this day, Dickson says he will never forget Smith's words.

"Try to do this as often as you can," said Smith, who used to kill enemy troops with a half-metre-long, warclub bristling with nails.

"You never know when your last sunrise is going to be."

The war, Smith said last year, didn't darken his soul and weigh on his heart the way it did some veterans.

"Once it's over, it's over," he said. "It was a good life."

A military funeral was being planned.

Posted by Peenie Wallie on August 8, 2005 at 7:49 PM


Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)