Private Ernest “Smoky” Smith

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Private Ernest “Smoky” Smith was not your typical soldier.

A member of the Seaforth Highlanders, Smith earned a reputation for being an insubordinate soldier and hellraiser who didn’t believe in taking orders. As a result of his cavalier attitude, he was promoted to the rank of Corporal and then demoted back to Private nine times!

However, when push came to shove, Smith was unflinching. He heroically defended a vital bridgehead across Italy’s Savio River during an enemy counterattack on October 21-22, 1944. Armed with a Tommy gun and anti-tank weaponry, he eliminated two German self-propelled guns and a Panther tank, repelled advancing enemy soldiers, carried a wounded comrade under fire to medical aid, and then returned to guard the road until reinforcements arrived. All in a day’s work!

Smith’s heroism earned him an audience with King George VI, who personally awarded him the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace. He was the only Canadian Private to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War. In fitting fashion, he refused to bow, as is customary, and simply saluted the King. The night before he received the award, he was placed inside a jail cell in Naples, with a couple of beers, in order to “keep him out of trouble”.

After the war, Smith left the military but rejoined in 1951 and served until his retirement in 1964. He passed away in 2005 and was Canada’s last living Victoria Cross recipient. He received a national hero’s burial, including a funeral parade. Smith might have been a garrison commander’s worst nightmare, but in a fight, with everything on the line, there was no other man you would want beside you.

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