Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith (May 3, 1914 – August 3, 2005) was the last living Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) and the only private in the Canadian Armed Forces to receive this decoration during the Second World War. It is the highest military honour awarded to British and Commonwealth Forces.
Private “Smokey” Smith earned this distinction 70 years ago—on October 21 and 22, 1944—in Savio, Italy, where he was fighting with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. His unit was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Savio River, which had risen significantly due to torrential rain, making it impossible for tanks and anti-tank guns to cross. Having successfully crossed the river, the unit’s right flank was attacked by the German 26th Panzer Division. Smith, an experienced member of the anti-tank platoon, had participated in the amphibious Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy, been wounded twice, and been part of fierce street fighting during the advance in Italy. Sheltering in a ditch as a German Panther tank rolled toward him and machine guns raked his position, Smith waited until the tank was within 30 feet of his PIAT (Projector, Infantry Anti-Tank, a.k.a. “tank-stopper”) and then stood up, fired, and disabled the tank. Still in full view of the enemy, he drove back the Germans who leapt from the burning tank, along with a second Panther and 30 infantry soldiers, all the while protecting a wounded comrade. According to his VC citation, “Private Smith, still showing utter contempt for enemy fire, helped his wounded friend to cover and obtained medical aid for him behind a nearby building. He then returned to his position beside the road to await the possibility of a further enemy attack.” (The London Gazette, no. 36849, December 20, 1944). Smith’s unit consolidated the bridgehead position and paved the way for the capture of San Giorgio Di Cesena and a further advance to the Ronco River.
As Smith later told it, he was placed in a Naples jail by Military Police to keep him out of trouble until he could be sent to London to receive his VC. He was, by his own words, a man who didn’t like to take orders but who believed firmly in the job he had to do. Following the war, Smith re-enlisted in the army but did not see combat. He later served as a recruiting sergeant in Vancouver and remained in the army until his retirement in 1964. Smith received the Canadian Forces Decoration and was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1996 in recognition of his service to Canadian veterans’ organizations.
To learn more about Canada’s military past, visit the Military Heritage pages.