War Veteran’s amazing story will live on
- Credit: Nick Butcher
He fired some of the first shots of the Second World War, and was seriously injured just a few days before the conflict ended.
And when Edward Smith returned home in 1945, he was told he would be unlikely to live more than five years.
But the veteran was laid to rest last week aged 97.
His nephew Terry Boast said Mr Smith led a remarkable life and had countless tales to recount from the war, although he frequently had to be persuaded to share them.
Born in 1918, Ted, as he was affectionately known, was a chicken farmer in St James South Elmham and signed up to the Territorial Army in 1936, feeling that if war was on the horizon, he should be prepared.
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Aged 21 when it did break out, he was one of the first to be called upon due to his TA training and served as a signaller for the Royal Artillery in France.
“He fired some of the first shots of the war,” said Mr Boast. “He had a Boys anti-tank rifle, it was a massive rifle and it was made to stop a tank.
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“Because of the Versailles Treaty, the Germans weren’t supposed to have any weapons, they told the army they were wooden with a motorcycle inside.
“Apparently he fired and it bounced back off the side of the tank. He said to his sergeant ‘it’s a hell of a grade of plywood’.”
Mr Smith, also known as Oxo, then went to Dunkirk, fighting on the rear guard and holding the enemy off.
He escaped on a destroyer, which then sank, forcing Mr Smith to swim to shore.
He took off his uniform and dressed as a French gypsy to try and make his escape but was taken prisoner by German forces anyway.
Mr Smith was put on a train heading for a prison camp in Germany, but this then came under fire from allied planes and crashed into another train.
In the battle and confusion, he was able to switch trains, stealing the spare uniform of a drunk train guard, and head back into France.
“When he got to a suitable railway station he got a bike and cycled 3,000 miles to Andorra,” said Mr Boast. “But he kept getting captured by French police but he managed to keep escaping, ducking and diving.”
Once in Andorra, he was helped by MI9, the Second World War department of the War Office which helped prisoners of war escape, and organised the return of soldiers who evaded capture in enemy occupied territory. He spent a few months back in England in 1940, and then was sent to fight in North Africa, where he served during the battle of El Alamein, taking dispatches from Field Marshall Montgomery.
After that, he fought in Sicily, Salerno and Monte Cassino, and it was then he was severely wounded when he stood on an SS mine.
The debris from the mine hit him in the chest, and caused him to lose most of his left lung.
But throughout his time overseas, he continually wrote home to his mother, who had lost her four brothers in the First World War.
Accompanying his letters were pencil sketches he had drawn, usually under fire, which Mr Boast has kept, along with Mr Smith’s many medals.
In 1950, he got tuberculosis on his wounds and spent three years in a sanitorium, where he spent most of his time fixing the hospital’s lawn mowers and fixing up a projector to show films for the patients.
Doctors gave him only a few years to live, yet he came back to St James South Elmham where he worked in a garage, and looked after Mr Boast as a child.
“I had the weirdest upbringing, but I wouldn’t have changed it,” he said. “He was totally unconventional.”
He had a passion for cars, particularly Formula One, and it was hard to find a subject he was not an expert in, being self taught in many areas. Mr Boast said: “He had thousands of books, he always said your knowledge was only as big as your library.”
Mr Smith died on January 24, and his funeral was held at Waveney Memorial Park and Crematorium at Ellough last Friday, when he made his final journey in a Bedford ML radio truck, exactly like the one he drove for four years during the Second World War.