For Real Heroes

In northern Italy the Savio River, fed by incessant, hard-driving rain, was in full spate as an advance party of Canada’s Seaforth Highlanders floundered and swam across to establish a bridgehead for a following army of tanks, heavy artillery and battle hardened infantry in pursuit of a retreating German Army.
It was October 21, 1944, and the Seaforth’s infantry spearhead, crossing the river in what official reports described as “weather most unfavourable to the operation”, was carrying only light arms. They had a few hand-carried Projected Infantry Anti-Tank (PIAT) weapons, automatic rifles, a few Tommy guns, and some side arms
One of the soldiers advancing across the Savio was a cheerful, happy-go-lucky Private Ernest Alvia Smith, born May 3, 1914, and raised in New Westminster and known for ever as “Smokey” since he ran high school track. “Smokey” Smith was 30 when he crossed the Savio and later that October day watched with other Seaforths as the river behind them rose six feet in five hours. They were cut off from the main force; their tanks and heavy guns stranded on the wrong side of the river.
”Smokey” was part of small detail “consolidating its right flank objective” when on the morning of October 22, the German 26th Panzer Division launched a counter attack. For his part in repelling that attack “Smokey” was awarded the Victoria Cross, the most prestigious military award for bravery.
The calm words of the official citation describing how “Smokey” earned his VC tell us that on that rain-swept night and day in northern Italy Private Smith and two other Seaforth soldiers were “suddenly counter-attacked by three MarkV panther tanks supported by two self propelled guns and about 30 infantry.”
The situation facing the trio of Seaforth’s “appeared almost hopeless.”
But:“Under heavy fire from the approaching enemy tanks, Private Smith, showing great initiative and inspiring leadership, led his PIAT group of two men across an open field to a position from which the PIAT could be best employed.(Then) Leaving one man on the weapon Private Smith crossed the road with a companion and obtained another PIAT.
“Almost immediately an enemy tank came down the road firing its machine guns along the line of ditches. Private Smith’s comrade was wounded. At a range of 30-feet and having to expose himself to the full view of the enemy, Private Smith fired the PIAT and hit the tank, putting it out of action. Ten German infantry immediately jumped off the back of the tank and charged him….Without hesitation Private Smith moved out onto the road and, with his Tommy gun at point blank range, killed four Germans and drove the remainder back.”
The last volleys of that encounter had hardly died away when a second tank thundered into view with all guns blazing.”Smokey” held his position “protecting his comrade and fighting the enemy…..until they finally gave up and withdrew in disorder.”
The citation notes a third tank opened fire but “from a longer range” and “Private Smith, still showing utter contempt to enemy fire, helped his wounded friend to cover…obtained medical aid for him……then returned to his (forward) position to await the possibility of further enemy attack….”
“….Thus, by the dogged determination, outstanding devotion to duty and superb gallantry of this Private soldier, his comrades were so inspired that the bridgehead held firm against all enemy attacks” until the main army caught up.
When it did catch up the spearhead Seaforths, inspired by “Smokey”, had knocked out two tanks, two self-propelled guns, a half track, a scout car and convinced a third tank to stay out of range of the PIATs.
When he died aged 91 several British newspapers paid tribute to the Canadian hero. During his military life “Smokey” was several time “busted” from non-commission officer rank back to private – the rank he held when he won his VC. He was restored to “Sergeant” after that event.
But the last line in Britain’s Guardian newspaper’s lengthy obituary would have made him prouder than his sergeant’s stripes. It read: “Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, soldier, born May 3, 1914; died August 3, 2005.”
He would have liked that, as, I think, do most of us when we read of heroes. Real heroes, their tribute earned, not carelessly bestowed by politicians currying a fatherly image, or journalists creating hysterical headlines to sell a few more newspapers.


  1. A minor point: PIAT stood for “Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank. A wicked weapon to cock and fire as I recall as a young man in the infantry. More that one probably needs to know about its development may be found at:
    A fine story about a brave soldier!

  2. This is so moving, Jim, and so captures the spirit of what “service to your country” is all about.

  3. Thank you for this impressive column about Private Smokey Smith. I was twelve years old when he was awarded the Victoria Cross and while I didn’t have the detailed information that you have provided, I was moved to the point of writing to Private Smith and requesting his autograph which he graciously provided.

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