The elder son of John Alvia and Barmarie Smith’s four children, he grew up in a working-class family. His father was a truck driver and his mother a homemaker.
After elementary school he went to T. J. Trap Technical High School.
Sitting behind a desk was not nearly as interesting to him as athletics, especially track and soccer. His nickname “Smoky”(which later became “Smokey” in the popular press) may date from those days because of the speed with which he left rivals in his wake, or smoke, as he raced around the track. On the other hand, he was a smoker who only gave up cigarettes in his fifties, although he continued to indulge in a nightly cigar. Smith, who knew the value of a smokescreen, always claimed he didn’t know how he acquired the moniker.
Smith entered the workforce just as the Depression had ground the economy into dust. He worked sporadically in a cannery, a cedar shake mill, and an electrical shop and even rode the rails from one community to another looking for work. The Second World War offered him an opportunity to serve his country and earn a steady paycheque. He enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders in Vancouver on March 5, 1940, at the age of twenty-five. After basic training he was shipped overseas and was stationed in England and Scotland in the early years of the war. His real fighting came with the bloody Italian campaign.
The Seaforths landed in Sicily on July 10, 1943, as part of the First Canadian Infantry Division attached to the Eighth Army. They spent the next eighteen months pushing German forces back up the boot of Italy. Smith suffered a shrapnel wound in the chest in the fighting and spent two months in hospital in North Africa before he was back in the line.
By October 1944 the Seaforths had made their way as far north as the Savio River. That’s when Smith entered the history books. The Canadians needed to establish a crossing over the river but the enemy and the weather were against them. Torrential rain had caused the water to rise some six feet in five hours and turned the riverbanks into mush.
To advance, the troops would have to wade or swim through the raging current and rising water levels and then fight the Germans without the protective cover of their tanks. “It had been raining for days and the rain pelted down in sheets,” Smith said in a cbc interview in 1956, one of the few times he talked publicly about his wartime experiences. “The ground was one big bog.”
That was the situation on the eastern bank of the Savio late in the afternoon of October 20, when the first troops were sent into the river. A shower of gunfire and grenades came from the opposite bank, pinning down the troops until they were able to retreat under cover of darkness. The next morning the enemy began pounding the Canadians on the eastern approaches to the river.
That night another group of soldiers, including Smith, made it across the river and took cover.
That’s when Smith learned that the forward company was under attack from three German Mark V Panther tanks supported by two self-propelled guns and some thirty infantry. With cunning ingenuity, he led his piat (a British-designed anti-tank weapon that had been introduced only the year before in the Sicilian campaign) team of two men across an open field, positioning the weapon in a ditch alongside the road so it could be trained on the enemy. Leaving one man there, Smith crossed the road with his comrade Jimmy Tennant and obtained another piat. At that moment a German tank came clanking down the road, firing its machine guns into the ditches and wounding Tennant.
Showing defiance and a complete disregard for his own safety, Smith started firing his piat, scoring a direct hit and putting the tank out of commission.
Ten German infantrymen jumped off the back of the tank and charged him with Schmeisser submachine guns and grenades. Undaunted, Smith moved out onto the road and started mowing them down with his Tommy gun. He killed four Germans and drove the rest back. Another tank rumbled into view and opened fire, and more infantry were closing in on Smith. When he ran out of ammunition, he ran back to the ditch and grabbed some of Tennant’s and held the enemy at bay while protecting his comrade.