Friday, July 3, 2015

Robert William Smith (1925-1944): An All-too-brief Biography

Robert William Smith is the uncle we never knew. He was my mother's youngest brother, killed in Italy near the end of the War. We don't know a great deal about him. My mother rarely spoke of him. Given that he died at 19, there is perhaps not a lot to know. But I do have a few new details to share.

I now have his army service records. I've also researched the battle in which he was killed, the allied offensive to break the German "Gothic Line" in northern Italy in August 1944. 

The service records are frustratingly uninformative on the question of exactly how Robert died. They only say, "killed in action." But I have some clues from other sources about the circumstances. And the service records do shed light on a couple of other interesting questions.

Pte. Robert William Smith, date and location unknown

The story in the family was that Robert had lied about his age and enlisted when he was only 17. The sad truth is, he wasn't even 17, not quite. In the Department of National Defence Estates Branch form his mother filled out after he died, which was included with the other army records I received, she gave his birth date as July 21, 1925. (He told the army he was born on May 22, 1922.) Army documents show he enlisted on June 26, 1941. 

Why would a baby-faced not-quite-17-year-old risk claiming he was 19, almost 20, when he only had to be 18 to enlist? Hard to figure.

In any case, he was just 16. There is some confusion about what he was doing before he enlisted. Some of the army documents give his occupation as "student." But an "Occupational History Form," apparently filled in by Robert, says he had completed one year of high school, left school at 15 and was working as a packer at Imperial Cone Co., a local company that made ice cream cones and straws. 

I suspect the confusion and inconsistency about dates and occupations in the documents I was sent stems from the original lie about his age

We have a class picture in which Robert appears, dated 1938, showing he was in a Grade 8 Advancement Class that year, probably at Lord Roberts school, near where the family was living on Princess Ave. in London. If he was smart enough to be in the Advancement Class - presumably similar to the program still in operation in the London Board of Education when my wife and siblings were going through the elementary system 30 years later - it's a safe bet that he graduated without difficulty that year. And if the picture was taken in September, at the beginning of the school year, as I think is probably the case, then he would have graduated from elementary school in June 1939. 

Robert Smith (front row centre), 1938

That means he would have completed Grade 9 the next year, at the end of June 1940. So where was he between June 1940 and June 1941 when he enlisted? Working? Would an Advancement Class kid drop out after just one year of high school to work in a factory? 

It's possible he had to work, or felt he had to work, to help the family make ends meet. The family was certainly under considerable stress. His father had been in jail a few years before, and was not living at home at this time. Brother Jack was away, living up north with Ollie and baby Bobby. Tom had also left home. Both brothers were probably contemplating enlisting, if they hadn't already. Sister Kay was living with the family, with baby Leo, Ralph having already gone off to fight. Kay and Betty, also at home at this point, were supporting the family - six of them with Leo and Barbara - on wages from their clerical jobs. The Smiths may well have been struggling financially. 

But I'm guessing that in fact Robert lied about being out of school and working. I'm guessing he'd actually been at high school until the day before he enlisted. The form Edith filled out after he died bears this out. Under "Nature of employment before enlistment," she has written, "School." Telling the army he'd left school at 15 and was working was a more plausible story, given he was claiming to be almost 20. Or maybe it was a more plausible story the army concocted later, after it discovered he had been underage. We'll likely never know.

Another thing that puzzled me about the little we knew of Robert's military career was how he ended up in the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, the regiment he was attached to when he was killed. How could an under-age teen living in London, Ontario have enlisted with the Seaforths, a Vancouver-based regiment? The answer is, he didn't. According to his army records, he joined the Elgin Regiment in London, which makes much more sense. It was only after he arrived in Italy two years later that he transferred to the Seaforths.

The Elgins were originally an infantry regiment, formed in St. Thomas, but converted to an armoured unit in 1942, becoming the 25th Armoured Regiment. They were reorganized again in 1943 and became the 1st Canadian Tank Delivery Regiment, tasked with delivering tanks to other armoured units in the field, and finally became the 25th Armoured Delivery Regiment. Very confusing.

Robert did his army training in Sydney and Camp Debert, Nova Scotia and Sussex, NB. We don't know exactly what he trained to do, although there is a note that he qualified as a "driver I/C III. (W)." I have no idea what that designation means. He also qualified on "Water Duties" - possibly procedures for keeping troops in the field supplied with fresh water? 

He was granted furlough from January 5 to 18, 1942. He would undoubtedly have come home to London, having missed the family Christmas that year, probably for the first time. Then in late July he went AWL (absent without leave) for three days at the end of another shorter furlough. Did he dash home to London one last time, knowing he would be sent overseas soon? 

We have a picture of him, sitting on the front steps of a house, probably 2 Horn St., London, the family home at the time, with his mother and sisters Kay and Barbara. It's a sunny warm day. Robert is in battle dress and shirtsleeves, looking absurdly young. Was it taken on that last visit? It might explain the slightly pursed-lip looks on his mothers' and sister Kay's faces: they would have disapproved of him being AWL.

Front row, Barbara and Robert; standing behind, Kay and Edith

He was shipped to England in late August 1942. I'm not sure if any of his siblings would have been there by this time; my mother definitely was not, but Tom and Jack may have been. I don't remember my mother ever talking about meeting up with Robert in London. He seems to have moved from unit to unit a fair bit while in England. At one point, he took some training at Canadian Army HQ. In May, he had seven days paid leave. Was he able to hook up with one or both of his brothers on that occasion? 

Then on October 26, 1943, over a year after arriving, he was shipped to the front. He landed in Italy on November 6, two months after the allied invasion of the Italian mainland. It's not clear the route he would have taken or where he landed. Most of the initial invasion forces came from North Africa or Sicily, which the allies had already taken, and landed near Salerno on the west coast. It was likely near there that the force Robert was in landed. At this point, he was still in the tank delivery regiment.

Was Robert at the battle of Ortona between December 20 and 28, 1943? The fight for that small city on the Adriatic coast is famous in Canadian military history. It was one of the bloodiest of the war, known afterwards as "Little Stalingrad," after the desperate stand by the Soviets against invading German forces in late 1942 and 1943. At Ortona, Canada lost 1,372 dead, an appalling toll for a single week of fighting, a third of its losses in the entire Mediterranean theatre. Canadian soldiers helped take the town street by street, house by house. Some of the street-fighting techniques the Seaforths in particular developed during that battle are apparently still in use today.

Here's a first-hand account of the scene by CBC war correspondent Matthew Halton: "It wasn't hell. It was the courtyard of hell. It was a maelstrom of noise and hot, splitting steel...the rattling of machine guns never stops ... wounded men refuse to leave, and the men don't want to be relieved after seven days and seven nights... the battlefield is still an appalling thing to see, in its mud, ruin, dead, and its blight and desolation." 

Seaforth Highlanders of Canada fighting at Ortona

It is certainly possible Robert was there or nearby, but at this point he was still in a service unit, delivering tanks, and likely wouldn't have been involved in direct combat. This is more or less confirmed by a Christmas Airgraph1 Robert sent home to his mother that December of 1943 - about the time the Seaforths, his future regiment, were fighting street to street in Ortona. The postcard survived among documents and memorabilia my mother saved.

Robert wrote, "Dear Mom - I'm not actually in the [censored], just a little [censored] of it. Details of course will follow. All the best for Xmas to the whole bunch, or what's left. Love to all. Robert." The message presumably originally read, "I'm not actually in the fighting, just a little [east/west/north/south] of it." The army would have redacted anything that might give away their positions in the event the mail was intercepted. The part about best to all "or what's left" is presumably a reference to the fact that by this time, as Robert would likely have known, all of his siblings, except pre-teen Barbara and new-mom Kay, were overseas with Canadian forces.

Over the spring and early summer of 1944, the allies moved steadily up the boot of Italy, encountering German resistance along the way. The Italian army was no longer a factor. It had been in effect disbanded after Mussolini's regime was toppled and the dictator arrested in July 1943. The German strategy at this point was to defend against the allied advance as far from their homeland as possible. The geographic obstacles presented by the Italian peninsula were ideally suited to this and they dug in in several places.

The last major line of defenses was the so-called Gothic Line across northern Italy. It stretched from Pesaro on the Adriatic, snaking north and west through the Appenine mountains, to a point on the Mediterranean just north of Pisa. The allies came to the Gothic Line in August 1944.

In June, for reasons not explained in his service records, Robert was "remustered" from the Canadian Armoured Corps, where he'd spent his entire time in the army, to the Canadian Infantry Corps. He was then attached to a unit of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. It would not be surprising if the Seaforths were depleted by Ortona and the march up the boot and needed reinforcements in preparation for the battle ahead. Was Robert just a spare body who was available - and expendable? Or did he volunteer?

It was in any case a fateful move. Now he was a foot soldier; he would be on the front lines of the fighting.

That June, the allies had invaded France on D-Day. The tide was turning, the war beginning to wind down. In Italy, the massive concentration of forces ahead of the attack on the Gothic Line that August was done in secret. Elaborate subterfuges were used to fool the Germans into thinking the attack would come elsewhere than planned, that the Canadians were somewhere else than they were. The first push would be against a point in the line southwest of Pesaro near the Adriatic coast. It began on August 25; the Seaforths went into action on August 26. Here's a description of the preparations from R.H. Roy's regimental history, The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada: 1848 to 1965:

"...the day before the attack was filled with quiet activity. Vehicles remained stationary whenever possible to reduce the amount of road traffic [to hide the fact an attack was imminent.] Arms and ammunition were checked, petrol tins topped, Bren gun magazines filled, iron rations distributed, aerial photographs studied, and a dozen last minute details attended to."

The Seaforths were to push through from the Metauro River north to the Foglia River, where the Gothic Line defences began in earnest. They would pierce the line and seize the town of Cattolica on the other side. Ahead of that, two other Canadian regiments, the Loyal Edmontons and Princess Patricias, would move forward on the left and right to secure their flanks. The attack began before first light with tanks and infantry moving forward under an allied artillery barrage. Three companies of the Seaforths set out at 4 am. Accompanied by tanks, A and C companies captured their objectives and took prisoners. There was little resistance and virtually no casualties.
German army photo of Canadian Sherman tanks approaching Gothic Line, August 26, 1944

Here is R.H. Roy's account of the point at which the attack that day went wrong for our unlucky uncle - or at least so I surmise: "During the afternoon Lt-Col. Thomson [the Seaforth field commander] ordered "B" Company, commanded by Major F.D. Colquhoun, to patrol about half a mile further northeast to the convent Beato Sante located on a steep knoll dominating the road leading into Mombaroccio [one of the Canadian objectives]. 'B' Company, mounted on tanks, closed up to the hill to make an attack on the small village near the convent. En route demolitions on the road held up the tanks. Advancing on foot the Seaforths, while manoeuvering for the attack, were suddenly subjected to heavy shelling and mortaring. Major Colquhoun and four others were killed while twelve others were wounded, among them Lt. J.L. Thirlwell."

Beato Sante convent today

"Major Colquhoun and four others." One of the "others" must have been Pte. Robert William Smith because these were the only fatal casualties among the Seaforths on August 26, and all the official records agree that Uncle Robert was killed on that day.


This impersonal, not entirely grammatical, wire is a far cry from the American movie cliché of the army sending an honour guard to the soldier's home to inform his family. Did Edith eventually receive a personal letter from an officer in the Seaforths? If she did, it hasn't survived. Major Colquhoun, Robert's company commander, was dead. Lt. Thirlwell, who took over for Colquhoun, and won a Military Cross for his efforts that day, might have written to Edith. But what could he say? He would hardly have known Robert, if he did at all. Our uncle had only been in the company for a month and a half.

One can only imagine the impact on the family, its youngest son cut down before he'd had a chance to live - and the next youngest, Tom, fighting in western Europe, a constant worry for his parents and siblings.

What motivated boys like Robert to lie about their age and join up before they were even men? Did they think it was a big adventure, a game? If his father had been at home, would he have dissuaded him? And what was the army thinking, taking boys so obviously underage? He should never have been where he was. If the army had done its job and screened enlistees properly, he might still be alive today. He'd only be 90. Jack lived well past that age.

Robert is buried at Montecchio British Empire Cemetery, eight miles southwest of Pesaro, Italy. His remains lie in Plot 3, Row D, Grave 5 - for anyone interested in seeking out the place. (To my knowledge, no one in the family ever has.) Here's a picture of the cemetery. More details are available online here

1. What is, or was, an Airgraph? It was a method developed by a UK subsidiary of Kodak for moving the mountains of mail between British (and other allied) troops and their homelands to reduce the cost and space required to ship paper mail, especially after the Mediterranean became a dangerous sea route and the British had to ship supplies to its armies in the Mediterranean by going around Cape Horn. The soldier wrote on an Airgraph form, which was fed into an Airgraph reader - essentially an early scanner - and photographed. The long, movie-size reels of Airgraph film were shipped in cans, saving enormously on weight and space required. At the other end, the film was printed, and the individual letters mailed from the UK.



  1. "What motivated boys like Robert to lie about their age and join up before they were even men? Did they think it was a big adventure, a game? If his father had been at home, would he have dissuaded him? And what was the army thinking, taking boys so obviously underage? He should never have been where he was. If the army had done its job and screened enlistees properly, he might still be alive today".

    It was different then...people did not have the understanding of the horrors of war that we have today. For one thing there was not the proliferation of visual media that we have today shows it all in living colour. But also there was a very conscious effort by the authorities to suppress the truth about the war in order to maintain public morale and the will to continue fighting. There was a mentality, that our own parents had even after the war, to turn a blind eye to the death and destruction and keep a stiff upper lip and always be the brave soldier. And that was all reinforced by the reluctance of veterans of combat to talk about their experience...a lot of them started opening up only in old age, and I suspect during the war a young kid would have heard very little about the ugliness, especially in the early stages before Robert went overseas.
    The other point about using young kids in combat roles is that the Canadian army was very short of men at that stage of the war, and most units were under strength. There was a big surge of volunteers at the beginning of the war but it dried up later...hence leading to conscription.