Fw: Last Cdn. Victoria Cross winner dies
- Forwarded to me. Out of period, but still quite appropriate.
Last Cdn. Victoria Cross winner dies
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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.