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9/22/2017 12:11:25 AM
Posted: 8/3/2005 5:34:01 PM EDT
Last Cdn. Victoria Cross winner dies
Canadian Press

Hordes of German troops couldn't take him, but time finally did.

Ernest Alva (Smoky) Smith, Canada's last winner of the Victoria Cross, has died at his home in Vancouver. He was 91.

Born in New Westminster, B.C., on May 3, 1914, Smith 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 that 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.''

Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson, who developed a rapport with Smith over four Remembrance Days and many other ceremonies, said his feats that night resonated far beyond the moment into the hearts of generations of Canadians.

"Someone once said that courage is rightly esteemed as the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others,'' she said.

"It is the underlying, rock-like base on which we can live truly human lives. (It is) something he did not only in one battle, not only in the campaign of Italy but for all of us.

"We are more human because one of our members is capable of such a thing.''

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 announcing he had received the Commonwealth's highest military honour almost 61 years ago.

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 hit with grenades,'' Smith recalled. "We got grenades thrown all over us. I don't know how I didn't get hit. He (Tennant) got hit in the shoulder and arm.

"So I said: `Get in that ditch and stay there. Don't move.' So we stayed right there and I never got a mark.''

Smith had a tommy gun -- a close-range submachine-gun -- a Bren gun machine-gun and a PIAT, or Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank gun.

He also had hundreds of rounds of machine-gun ammunition strung around his neck and hanging off his body.

"We had tried to get a German bazooka, which we figured was twice the weapon we had,'' he said. "But they wouldn't let us have it. You know why?

"It wasn't British.''

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.

"I hit it in the side or the track,'' said Smith. "A tank is pretty hard to hit. Sometimes the round would just bounce off it.

"I could see it face-on.''

Immediately, 10 German Panzergrenadier troops jumped off and charged him.

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

"They were up close -- about 10 feet or so.''

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

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

"It was just a bunch of rocks,'' Smith said. "You're not fighting on the prairies, you know. You try and keep out of sight.

"You find yourself a hunk of ground you can hang on to. That's the way you win wars, I think.''

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

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 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. Don't let him loose. He's a dangerous fellow.'

"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 a couple of years before he rejoined the army to go and fight in the Korean War.

"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.

"I worked for Smoky Smith,'' he said. "He's 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 bad cough. His beloved cigars and scotch took their toll.

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

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 again.

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 getting dressed six years ago in the Mediterranean town of Catania when a knock came on his hotel room door.

Dickson opened the door and there stood Smith.

"Come here, Bud, I've got something to show you,'' Smith said.

Dickson finished dressing and went to Smith's room. The door was ajar and Dickson walked in, calling Smith's name.

"Out here,'' came the reply. And there sat Smith on the balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, two of his beloved scotches on the table in front of him.

Dickson sat, still a bit confused. The sun was just cresting the horizon to the east.

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

"Nothin','' said the then-85-year-old veteran. "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 scotches and watched a spectacular sunrise.

They barely spoke a word.

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

"Try to do this as often as you can,'' said Smith, who used to kill enemy troops with a half-metre-long, Indian-style 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 is being planned.
Link Posted: 8/3/2005 5:51:26 PM EDT
Wow. Sounds like an amazing man who enjoyed his long life to the fullest.

Rest in peace, sir.
Link Posted: 8/3/2005 7:32:49 PM EDT

Link Posted: 8/3/2005 8:01:01 PM EDT
These are the times when we lose a lot of good men.
Link Posted: 8/3/2005 8:10:12 PM EDT
They dont give the VC to just anyone.
Link Posted: 8/3/2005 8:10:27 PM EDT

Originally Posted By R6551GNR:

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

Link Posted: 8/3/2005 8:21:48 PM EDT
Wow! Rest in peace soldier!

Link Posted: 8/3/2005 8:27:57 PM EDT

Bigger version here.

Link Posted: 8/3/2005 8:54:06 PM EDT
[Last Edit: 8/3/2005 9:02:07 PM EDT by scrum]
I met him some years back. He was probably only 80 or so then, but still looked like he could fight to me. Of course, he could have been blind and missing all his limbs - a man who has one the VC might as well have a halo over him and angels singing in the background because it wouldn't add to the awe I felt meeting him. He told me to enjoy sunsets too.

The Seaforth Pipes and Drums will be practicing long and loud tomorrow.

Link Posted: 8/3/2005 9:07:16 PM EDT
Many MoH winners were interesting characters.

Often when you read the words "Disregarding orders for his own safety" in the citation, it means the guy just decided to go his own way and do what needed to be done, totally on his own.
Link Posted: 8/3/2005 9:07:56 PM EDT
Many MoH winners were interesting characters.

Often when you read the words "Disregarding orders for his own safety" in the citation, it means the guy just decided to go his own way and do what needed to be done, totally on his own.
Link Posted: 8/3/2005 9:12:19 PM EDT
What an awesome guy.
Link Posted: 8/3/2005 9:15:50 PM EDT
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