Updated: Wed. Aug. 3 2005 1:04 PM ET
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
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."
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 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.'''
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
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
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.
"Try to do this as often as you can" - good advice if you ask me.