Sgt. (Ret’d) Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, the last surviving Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC), died this August at age 91.
Smith was awarded the VC, the most prestigious medal in the British Commonwealth, following a critical battle on the banks of the Savio River in Italy on October 21, 1944.
After crossing the rising river to secure the far bank, his small company of Seaforth Highlanders was cut off and attacked by three German tanks and about 30 soldiers. In a daring display of bravery, the young private disabled one Panther and held the position, all the while protecting an injured comrade, until reinforcements arrived.
Smith returned to Italy last year where he was greeted with a standing ovation as a plaque commemorating his bravery was unveiled. Since 1856, just 94 Canadians have received the VC. Smith was the only private to receive the award in WWII.
“His family knew that the commemorative trips to Italy land the Netherlands this Spring might take their toll on Smokey’s health. But they also knew he wanted to go,” said Lt.-Gen. Marc Caron, Chief of the Land Staff. “Sgt Smith loved to be with his friends and to meet people of all ages.”
Though regarded as a national hero — he was made a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia — Smith remained humble. “When asked how the VC changed his life, he said, with his wry sense of humour, that the story bought him drinks every time he went into a bar,” said Caron.
Less noted among the many accolades was Smith’s remarkable skill as a leader. Though he often clashed with military brass — he was promoted to corporal and demoted back to private on nine separate occasions — he was, according to those who knew him, an independently minded leader who disdained pomposity and earned the respect of those around him.
“In this, the year of the Veteran, and the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Smokey’s passing is perhaps even more poignant — he will always be a symbol that reminds Canadians of the sacrifices made by millions of men and women, throughout these past years, who wore the uniform of our country in war and in peace,” said Gen. Rick Hillier, Chief of the Defence Staff.
“His passing marks a milestone in Canadian history and we will forever be indebted and grateful as a nation for his conspicuous bravery,” said Bill Graham, Minister of National Defence.
Born in New Westminster, BC, on May 3, 1914, Smith enlisted with the Seaforth Highlanders, a regiment he served in until April 13, 1945. He re-enlisted in 1951 with the Permanent Force and retired in 1964 with the rank of sergeant.
Smith is survived by his two children, grandchildren and great granddaughter. His ashes were scattered on the Pacific Ocean from the HMCS Ottawa.


Sgt. (Ret’d) Ernest alvia “Smokey” Smith, vc, cm, obc, cd 1914-2005