Sergeant (Ret’d) Ernest “Smokey” Smith, VC

During the Second World War, Ernest “Smokey” Smith became the only Canadian private to earn the Victoria Cross after he almost single handedly fought off German tanks and soldiers during the Italian Campaign.

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Sergeant (Ret’d) Ernest “Smokey” Smith, VC

Ernest “Smokey” Smith was born on 3 May 1914 in New Westminster, British Columbia. He enlisted with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in March 1940 and began basic training with the Royal Canadian Regiment in Toronto. He went on to complete his training at Camp Borden before sailing out of Halifax to join the war effort in Europe.

In July 1943, Smith was part of the first successful Allied amphibious landing in the Second World War. Canadian soldiers came ashore near Pachino, Sicily, during the invasion of the Mediterranean island which took place less than a year after the failed Dieppe Raid of August 1942. “I thought for a while there when they were going in for that landing they were never gonna’ make it, because it was so rough, that water was just crazy,” explained Smith when asked about it in his Heroes Remember interview, “as soon as we hit the shore we … as soon as everybody got there we just took off right straight ahead.” In the months that followed, as the Canadians pushed their way from the south to the north of Italy, the fighting was particularly bitter.

“… so we'd blow holes through the wall so we go through that way. Cause if you walk out into the street they'd get ya.”

Once the Canadians arrived in the town of Ortona in mainland Italy, its steep, rubble filled streets limited the use of tanks and artillery. During several days of brutal street fighting in December 1943, the Canadians smashed their way through walls and buildings—"mouse-holing" as they called it. “It was a terrible place. You know it, it was practically door to door,” explained Smith in an interview. “For miles, they had everything close together … so we'd blow holes through the wall so we go through that way. Cause if you walk out into the street they'd get ya’.”

“They must have figured there was a whole army there because they could have wiped me out in no time if they'd known I was practically all by myself.”

Victoria Cross

Mr. Smith describes the encounter with German troops across the Savio River in Italy for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He goes on to tell of receiving his medal from King George VI in his private apartment at Buckingham Palace. The video concludes as he speaks about his return to Vancouver and the hero's reception he received.

Victoria Cross - Transcription

We were across the Savio River; we'd taken up our position, which is, our objective was to cross the river and that's what we did and we got in there and we weren't there too long before we were attacked by tanks and... the first tank we knocked out. We knocked out, I think, one tank and two S.P. guns (Self-Propelled Guns), a German staff car and we were attacked by Germans, but we drove them off. Interviewer: When you say we... Well, at this time I had my, I had a section of men. You know... I had a P.I.A.T. man; I had a 2IC for the P.I.A.T. we had a couple of guys you know around, see when you're firing a P.I.A.T. gun you have no way of protecting yourself so you have to have somebody along side of you, at that time we had Tommy Guns to protect the guy that was firing that weapon. And so we had them, but these things... so I say, Kenny Vallar lost an eye so that was the end of him and I don't know what happened to the others. I know they got wounded, or you know mostly wounded, and then in the end there was just Jimmy and I, and then he got wounded so that left only me. So, I had to stay out there by myself while everybody else was in the church. So I stayed there, where else do you, you got no place to go, anyway. By this time, we'd wiped out all the tanks. I don't think really, I could see tanks the next day you know in daylight, but they didn't really know what was really going on, they must have figured there was a whole army there because they could have wiped me out in no time if they'd known I was practically all by myself. Because I had nothing from C Company up the road and no, that was A company and on the other side was C Company and they were all in the church. Cause when I went in the church and I took Jimmy over and I knew Major Lynch, Stu Lynch I knew; he was a hell of a guy, he said, "I think we're surrounded, what should we do?" And I said "I suggest you all take a window if you're surrounded and keep your head down." So I think that's what they did. They'd take advice from a Private so they could live through, but they stayed there and in time the Germans pulled out, but I say I don't think they actually knew who was there. Interviewer: When they first counter attacked, there were three Panther V tanks, and as I understand it there was just the one P.I.A.T.? I only had, that's all I had left, yeah. Interviewer: And you knocked out...? I knocked out one. Interviewer: And the section of men, the German infantry that were on the back of the tank swarmed around to the front and came towards you. That's right. Interviewer: How far away would they have been Smoky? Oh, thirty feet, twenty-five feet, something like that. Interviewer: So who was firing with you? Just me. Because Jimmy was still in the ditch, he was wounded. Interviewer: So these ten or so German infantry men were coming down on you and you fired at them? Yeah, I opened up. Interviewer: What happened then? Well, I got four of them and the rest of them took off. Thank the Lord. Interviewer: And for that...? For that I got the V.C. Interviewer: Victoria Cross. Yeah, I didn't know I was going to get it, I didn't know I was going to get anything. But later on after that was all over and after the (inaudible), about a week later after everything was investigated by the top brass, they never could talk to me at all. The colonel sent for me and asked me how long I been there and I said "Two years" he said "You must be getting tired" and I said "I was tired when I got here." So he said, "I've got a job for you." They took me out of the front line. So I figured they're being nice to me, there was something going on. But you don't know, nobody tells you. So I sat there until then. I think I left Italy, well I left around the first part of December. The 12th of December I was taken from the regiment and taken down to Naples. Then they flew me to England on the 18th and then I was presented with the VC and then they flew me back to Vancouver. Interviewer: Now, you were presented with the VC. By King George the Sixth. Interviewer: Where? Buckingham Palace in his private apartments. Interviewer: And what was that like? Oh, well (laughs) I'd never met a King before. He was great to get along with. But it was only the second time in history that a VC had been presented in his private apartments at night. Then after I got it, they told me to put it in my pocket and say nothing. I had it for three days and nobody knew it until they told me that I could wear it. And they said the reason for this was so that Canadian papers would have it the same time as the British. So I walked around for three days in London, in and out of pubs with a VC inside my pocket and nobody knew about it. And then I was sitting there one day and the sergeant major came in, he says, "Smoky Smith, you can wear that medal if you want." And I put it on and I never bought another drink that day. Interviewer: So that was the real reward? That was the reward. Interviewer: Now you say that you were then flown to Vancouver? I was taken up to Scotland first to Prestwick and... I flew in a Liberator Bomber from there down to Azores and then across and they dropped me off in Laval, Quebec. And then I was taken there by TCA (Trans-Canada Airlines). Well, actually, from Laval I went in a fighter pilot into that time it was Kapuskasing, is it? Yeah, because I'd missed the flight and they flew Major Severts and I in this fighter plane into Kapuskasing and the guy flew in there and I said, "Gee you just missed that Semi? And he said, "Well I'm a fighter pilot, I'm not used to these things." "Thank God I'm in this thing" So I flew from Scotland to Vancouver in 40 hours, broke a record. Interviewer: What kind of a welcome did you get in Vancouver? Well, I was from New Westminister so they came to see me at the airport and then I went home and they had a ticker parade in New Westminister, I don't know how long after, a few days, anyway Because don't forget, there was two VC's from New Westminister. Jack Manning and myself, and he was ahead of me... but they had a big parade for me and then in Vancouver, they were all treating me pretty good. I figured it's all gotta end sometime.

On the night of 21-22 October 1944, Smith’s unit attempted to establish a bridgehead across the Savio River in northern Italy but was counter-attacked by three Mark V Panther tanks and about 30 German infantry soldiers. “Our objective was to cross the river and that's what we did. We got in there and we weren't there too long before we were attacked by tanks,” recalled Smith. With an infantry anti tank weapon, he put one Panther tank out of action and drove back the enemy infantry. “In the end there was just Jimmy and I, and then he got wounded so that left only me. So, I had to stay out there by myself while everybody else was in the church.” As the attack continued, Smith held his position until the enemy withdrew. “They must have figured there was a whole army there because they could have wiped me out in no time if they'd known I was practically all by myself.” Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross for his brave actions.

After the war, Smith became actively involved in his community. He volunteered his time to commemorative activities and events on the local, national and international scales. Smith was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1995. At the time of his death on 3 August 2005, Smith was the last surviving Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross.

In honour of the 75th anniversary of the Italian Campaign, Ernest “Smokey” Smith is one of our Faces of Freedom. He is also featured in our exhibit in the Visitor Education Centre at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. His service and sacrifices will never be forgotten.

Interested in hearing more from Smokey? Watch his Heroes Remember interviews.


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