b. 03/08/1894 Christchurch, Hampshire. d. 20/10/1964 Chelsea, London.
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 23/02/1944 London.
Anthony Smith (1894-1964) was born in Christchurch, Hampshire on 3rd August 1894, one of six children for Anthony and Emma Smith. The family grew up at 8 Bury Street, Chelsea, and Anthony Senior was a ship’s stoker, and Emma was a charwoman. Anthony Junior left school aged 14 and began an apprenticeship with his father, who was now a chimney sweep. On the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted with the Royal Marine Light Infantry on the 28th August 1914.
He was allocated to the Chatham Division and was then drafted into the Royal Naval Brigade. He served in the Deal Battalion and he landed at Gallipoli on 29th April 1915 where he received a wound to the left foot. He later fought on the Somme, and lost three fingers on his right hand when a shell burst at Grandcourt on 17th February 1917. The wounds caused him to be invalided out of the Army later that year.
After being demobilised, he became a nightwatchman at the Holborn Viaduct Hotel, but soon gave it up and returned to his pre-war occupation of shoemaker. In 1926, he rejoined the family business of chimney sweeps. He became a familiar figure around Kensington and Chelsea on his bicycle. On the outbreak of World War II, he tried to enlist again in the Royal Marines, but he couldn’t serve due to his injuries to his right hand. He then decided to join the Heavy Rescue Service, and his squad consisted of 11 men, later reduced to 7.
The peak of the “Little Blitz” on London occurred between 18th and 25th February 1944 with the National Fire Service dealing with up to 650 fires per night. On the night of 23rd February, two days of the GC action of Leslie Fox, during an air raid, bombs demolished a number of houses at the World's End, Chelsea. Only the party wall was still standing, but in a precarious condition. The gas and water mains were fractured and the gas ignited, turning the wreckage into a raging inferno. Smith burrowed his way through the rubble and managed to reach Sam Mitchell, who was trapped in the basement, but by the time he had freed him the front of the building was a wall of fire, the upper floors were collapsing and his escape was cut off. Smith determinedly burrowed his way through the burning debris and brought the man out safely, just as the remaining wall fell into the basement. Smith's eyebrows and hair were burnt and he was almost overcome by smoke but, undeterred, he immediately went to the assistance of Albert Littlejohn, who was trying to rescue a woman trapped in the basement of an adjoining building, the walls of which were in a very dangerous condition. Smith worked for up to an hour in waist deep water, and with the walls and floors on the point of collapse, helping to release her. Littlejohn was awarded the BEM.
Smith was awarded the George Cross on 30th May 1944 and he received the medal from King George VI at Buckingham Palace on 10th October 1944. Alongside him at the investiture was another GC in Benjamin Gimbert and a VC in William Sidney. Smith would never wear his GC and was quoted in 1957 as saying “It was just a job, see. You get in there and do it, same as the other blokes.”
Smith remained a bachelor and returned to being a chimney sweep after the war. He lived in rented accommodation and would eat all of his meals with his sister who lived nearby. He didn’t believe in electricity and only had gas lights. He died at St Luke’s Hospital in Chelsea on 20th October 1964, aged 70, and was buried in an unmarked grave three days in North Sheen Cemetery, Richmond. In the spring of 1998, his grave was discovered by Doris Miller, who alerted the Royal Marines Museum. Eventually on 22nd May 1999, a formal dedication was held for Smith’s new headstone. A brass plaque was later unveiled on Dovehouse Green near the Chelsea Old Town Hall. Smith’s medals came up for auction in 1988 but were unsold. They were sold again in 2005 to a private buyer, but after a third sale, they are now owned by the Ashcroft Collection and displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: NORTH SHEEN CEMETERY, RICHMOND, SURREY.
Picture - Kevin Brazier
Anthony Smith's medals on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (December 2014).
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier