Savio River, Italy – October 21-22, 1944
The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada
In Italy on the night of 21st-22nd October 1944, a Canadian Infantry Brigade was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Savio River. The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were selected as the spearhead of the attack, and in weather most unfavourable to the operation they crossed the river and captured their objective in spite of strong opposition from the enemy.Torrential rain had caused the Savio River to rise six feet in five hours, and as the soft vertical banks made it impossible to bridge the river no tanks or anti-tank guns could be taken across the raging stream to the support of the rifle companies.
As the right forward company was consolidating its objective it was suddenly counter-attacked by a troop of three Mark V Panther tanks supported by two self-propelled guns and about thirty infantry and the situation appeared hopeless.
Under heavy fire from the approaching enemy tanks, Private Smith, showing great initiative and inspiring leadership, led his P.I.A.T.(1) Group of two men across an open field to a position from which the P.I.A.T. could best be employed. Leaving one man on the weapon, Private Smith crossed the road with a companion and obtained another P.I.A.T. Almost immediately an enemy tank came down the road firing its machine-guns along the line of the ditches. Private Smith’s comrade was wounded. At a range of thirty feet and having to expose himself to the full view of the enemy, Private Smith fired the P.I.A.T. and hit the tank, putting it out of action. Ten German infantry immediately jumped off the back of the tank and charged him with Schmeissers and grenades. Without hesitation Private Smith moved out on the road and with his Tommy gun at point-blank range, killed four Germans and drove the remainder back. Almost immediately another tank opened fire and more enemy infantry closed in on Smith’s position. Obtaining some abandoned Tommy gun magazines from a ditch, he steadfastly held his position, protecting his comrade and fighting the enemy with his Tommy gun until they finally gave up and withdrew in disorder.
One tank and both self-propelled guns had been destroyed by this time, but yet another tank swept the area with fire from a longer range. 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.
No further immediate attack developed, and as a result the battalion was able to consolidate the bridgehead position so vital to the success of the whole operation, which led to the capture of San Giorgio Di Cesena and a further advance to the Ronco River.
Thus, by the dogged determination, outstanding devotion to duty and superb gallantry of this private soldier, his comrades were so inspired that the bridgehead was held firm against all enemy attacks, pending the arrival of tanks and anti-tank guns some hours later.
Ernest Alvia Smith was born in New Westminster, British Columbia, on the 3rd of May 1914. He was educated at the Herbert Spencer Elementary School and the T.J. Trapp Technical High School. Before enlisting in the army he engaged in contracting work. He enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and served with that unit until the 13th of April 1945. For some time following demobilization Ernest “Smokey” Smith worked in a photographic studio in New Westminster. In 1951 he re-enlisted in the Permanent Force retiring in 1964 with the rank of sergeant as a member of the Tri-Service Recruiting Unit in Vancouver and served as a sergeant at Headquarters of the British Columbia Army Command in Vancouver. Ernest “Smokey” Smith was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in November 1995.
On August 3, 2005, Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, died peacefully at his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, surrounded by family and friends at the age of 91. Many thousands paid their respects when he lay in state in Parliament Hill in Ottawa and at his military funeral in Vancouver. His ashes were committed to the sea on August 15, 2005, as a fulfilment of one of his last wishes.