’s funeral is today. Canadian newspapers are respectfully carrying complete coverage of his life, his actions and his valour
. He is being commemorated today with a full state military funeral
. Smokey died August 3rd 2005
at age 91, the last surviving Canadian
recipient of the Victoria Cross medal, awarded for bravery and valour on the highest level in the face of the enemy.
Smokey Smith won his Victoria Cross in World War II during the Italian campaign. Allied forces, including many Canadians were slowly fighting their way up the mainland of Italy. They fought bitterly for every mile, through treacherous ravines and crossing unbridged rivers, all the time facing booby-traps and artillery lines left by the retreating Germans. As the Canadian Corps advanced slowly up the long, narrow strip of civilization that is Italy, jutting out from the mass of Europe, that Ernest (Smokey) Smith was stationed on the flooded swollen Savio River.
Due to the muddy, bog-like conditions, the troops face the reality of having to cross the flooded river and brave the steep ravine without the support of tanks. There was also the possibility that the riverbanks are heavily mined.
Smokey Smith was then a private with the Seaforth Highlanders regiment, who enlisted in the infantry in 1940 and had been fighting in the war for almost five years. He had landed himself in one of the most hazardous jobs in the war, the leader of a band of tank hunters. Responsible for destroying tanks from the ground, tank hunters would approach an enemy tank on foot and fire an armour piercing bomb from close range. Obviously, this method of attack left tank hunters in a very dangerous and deadly position within range of shells fired from the same tanks they were hunting.
In the early hours of October 21, 1944, Smith and his tank hunters crossed the raging Savio River as a support unit with a company of soldiers. Managing to find shelter from the German machine gun fire, they soon received a call that the main company of soldiers was under attack from German tanks and infantry. By this time though, the river was impassable haven risen during the night and preventing bringing in reinforcements, as well as making a retreat impossible.
Smith led two other men through the heavy rain and enemy fire, into the open field where they established a gun post. Leaving one man to operate the anti-tank gun, Smith and a close friend took a second gun and proceeded to cross the open field. Almost immediately a hail of grenades pinned them down and Smith’s friend was hit, while Smith received not a scratch. They managed to hold off the German infantry with their machine guns and anti-tank weapon, but attracted even more attention to the ditch they were lying in.
As a tank approached and opened up with machine gun fire at them, Smokey crawled to the edge of the ditch and carefully watched it approach. When it was within 10-meters, he fired on it with the anti-tank gun, managing to hit it in the side of its track and disable it. A handful of troops jumped off the back of the tank and opened fire at point blank range, but Smith held them off.
Within moments, a second tank approached and opened fire as enemy troops began to close in. Covering behind a pile of rubble, Smokey continued firing at the tank and approaching infantry. Eventually the enemy withdrew, though the tank continued firing from a distance as Smith moved his injured friend to a nearby medic station and then returned to hold his position. As he did, word quickly spread down the Canadian lines that he had single-handedly held off an enemy advance. Soon word also came back up the line that he was to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
Presented with the medal two months later by King George VI, Smokey Smith was hailed as a hero by Canadian newspapers, and instantly achieved the status of a minor celebrity. As his funeral procession crosses the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver today, Canadian CF-18s will fly by in a “missing man formation”, to commemorate that hero who is now falling: Canada’s last surviving holder of the Victoria Cross, and surely one of our few true heroes.
Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, VC ,CM, OBC, CD 1914 – 2005
“Mud, blood and valour”, Brad Badelt, August 13, 2005, Vancouver Sun, with files from Canadian Press