Private Ernest ‘Smokey’ Smith

Private Ernest ‘Smokey’ Smith
Victoria Cross awarded for actions on the Savio River, Italy, 21-22 October 1944

By Andrew J Lucas

Private Smith’s battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders regiment and elements of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were pushing towards a German stronghold on the Savio River in Italy. The town of Cesena was situated near a strategic bridge that allowed the advancing Canadians to cross the Savio River. The weary Canadian’s had been fighting against some of the most seasoned troops the Wehrmacht had to throw against them and it had taken its toll on morale. Weary and anticipating stiff resistance the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (‘Pats’) and Seaforth Highlanders moved to take the bridge, drawing heavy fire from machine-gun emplacements positioned on the bridge. 

Knowing how much depended on this objective probably didn’t occur to Smokey Smith at the time, all he saw was his buddies holed up in a church across from the bridge pinned down by heavy German fire. It was only a matter of time before a German counterattack arrived to push the fight into the town.

The Germans had removed all brush and obstacles on their side of the river giving them clear firing lines into the Canadian positions. Adding to the difficulties was the rain-swollen river itself which at 100 yards in width and bordered by 12 foot thick mud embankments that made a tank fording impossible and an infantry rush suicidal. Already two companies had been repulsed trying to take the bridge and now it was up to the Highlanders to secure the prize. The Germans were not slow to respond and had begun a strong counterattack. Their attack pinned the two Canadian units on the bridge that had fought so hard to take it.

Arrayed against the Canadians were 30 odd Panzergrenadiers, and two self-propelled guns. These were raking the bridge and church with machine gun fire. Now a unit of three Panthers had been sighted moving towards the Canadian positions. It looked like the night would get much worse for the ‘Pats’ and Highlanders.

Taking matters into his own hands Private Smith gathered up his anti-tank squad of three men, as much ammo and weapons as he could carry, and led them down the steep muddy banks into the icy waters of the Savio.

Candians in Italy with PIATs
Private Ernest ‘Smokey’ Smith Waist deep and weighed down with two heavy PIATs, a Bren Gun, Thompson SMGs and wrapped in extra bandoleers of ammunition, the three soldiers slid and slogged their way across the river. Many times the three soldiers were nearly swept away by the fast current that had swollen from 4 to 5 feet with the evening’s heavy rain. Soaked to the bone and freezing Smith’s squad took position in a ditch bordering the road to the bridge on the German’s side of the river. 

From their new vantage point the squad looked out over an exposed field at a German staff car leading three Panthers and two self-propelled guns supported by an advancing line of infantry. Surprised by the strength of the advancing force and their exposed position, the three soldiers rushed across the field to a nearby ditch that provided some cover. The move drew fire form the lead Panther wounding one of Smith’s comrades. In full view of the tank Smith stood up and fired a PIAT round into the beast’s flank. The shot blew out a track and immobilized the Panther. In the following lull Smith helped his companions into the meager cover provided by the ditch where they took stock of the situation. The rest of the company across the river tried to provide as much covering fire as they could, but they were also under attack by the same German column.

From behind the protection of the tanks ten Germans fired their submachine-guns at the three Canadians, exchanging fire and grenades. They were unable to advance or clear out the determined Canadian soldiers. Then the Artillery began to drop shells around Smith’s position. It was only a matter of time before they ranged in and eliminated his small squad. Faced with the threat of an imminent barrage and the aggressively advancing tanks and infantry Smith’s situation appeared hopeless. In defiance of their inevitable fate the three Canadians concentrated all of their fire on the lead staff car and its complement of officers. Under a fury of machine-gun and PIAT fire the car exploded into flames and was soon followed by the second Panther tank. 

The Gothic Line

There was little time for celebration as German infantry push foward using the tanks as cover. Submachine-gun rounds peppered the area and grenades exploded around the Canadians badly wounding Smith’s two companions. The Germans seeing two of their three opponents fall rushed forward expecting to quickly take the position. Smith had other ideas however. Swathed in smoke from the German’s own ordinance and consumed in a bloody minded rage, he plunged toward the Germans, mowing down four in seconds and sowing confusion and fear as he charged screaming at them. The German squad broke toward the remaining tank, which pivoted towards Smith and fired ineffectually through the smoke at the crazy Canuck. Smith continued forward driving the enemy before him. In the confusion they routed, abandoning the last Panther to the deep mud, which its last maneuver towards Smith had mired it in. Smokey then returned to care for his friends. He bound their wounds and waited as the PPCLI and Seaforth Highlanders crossed the bridge. The Canadians knew the hard-fighting efforts of  Ernest Smith, now forever branded ‘Smokey’, had saved countless lives.

A few weeks later Private Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross. Under Military Police ‘escort’ was taken to London where King George VI presented the medal him. The hard fighting, hard drinking, soldier was notorious for his irreverence and a constant source of trouble. Just before the Italian campaign began he had been busted down to private and docked a month’s pay. The MP's were along to make sure the war hero made the ceremony, and did so sober.


Smokey Smith

A player fielding a late war Canadian Rifle Company in Italy may field Smokey Smith for an additional +3 points.

Treat Smokey Smith as a Command Card with the following key words: British, Warrior, Unit (Canadian Rifle Platoon).

Andrew's Private Ernest ‘Smokey’ Smith model

Special Rules

This Unit Leader may elect to use a Bren Gun team, PIAT anti-tank, or Sten SMG team weapon. Only one type of weapon may be used each Shooting or Assault step.

This Unit Leader may re-roll any of its failed To Hit rolls when Shooting with a PIAT.

Last Updated On Thursday, December 23, 2021 by Wayne at Battlefront