A new book tells the story of one of Canada’s most decorated – and least known — military heroes, Capt. Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters, VC, DSO, DSC and bar, DSC (U.S.), RN.
Previous attempts at biographies of Peters were stymied by a lack of information in official records, but The Bravest Canadian – Fritz Peters, VC: the Making of a Hero of Two World Wars by Sam McBride is based on a collection of recently-discovered personal letters that reveal his personality, motivations and chivalric ideals. They also answer many questions about his mysterious life, including service with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, exploits in the Gold Coast colony of west Africa in the inter-war years, three stints of Royal Navy service over a 37-year period, and his tragic death in a flying boat crash returning to England after miraculously surviving heavy fire from all directions when he led a charge into the Vichy French-held Algerian port of Oran.
Published by Granville Island Publishing, The Bravest Canadian will be released in print and online in Canada and internationally in November 2012.
Book release coincides with 70th anniversary of Operation Torch
November 8, 2012 will mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of North Africa, code-named Operation Torch. The invasion of Vichy French territory was the first large combined operation of British and American forces, and would prove to be a turning point in the war against Nazi Germany. The initial targets of the invasion were Oran and Algiers in Algeria, and Casablanca in Morocco.
Fritz Peters’ courage in leading an attack by two converted Coast Guard cutters though barriers and inside Oran harbor at 3 a.m. on Nov. 8, 1942 in the face of point blank fire from French shore batteries and moored warships was honored with the highest awards for valor offered by Britain and the United States.
The surrender of the last Nazi forces in North Africa in May 1943 secured Allied shipping lanes in the Mediterranean and gave the Allies bases for subsequent invasions of Sicily, mainland Italy and France.
Born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1889, Peters moved with his family in 1898 to Victoria, B.C., where he lived until joining the Royal Navy in 1905, aside from time in England at naval prep school.
He was determined to live up to his family’s tradition of military leadership and courage in battle, going back to United Empire Loyalist leaders in the Revolutionary War, a heroic general of the Crimean War, and his maternal grandfather Col. John Hamilton Gray, who was a career officer in the British Army before taking on a central role in the founding of Canada as a P.E.I. Father of Confederation and chairman of the Charlottetown Conference of 1864. Peters’ father, P.E.I. Premier Frederick Peters, was a close grandson of shipping magnate Sir Samuel Cunard, one of the reasons why his son Fritz chose a career in the navy.
ABOVE: clockwise from top left, Fritz as a baby in 1889; Fritz at right with sister Helen and baby brother Jack in 1892; two photos of him as a young naval cadet in about 1906; and in Bedford, England in about 1900. (McBride Collection)
At age 53 in 1942, Fritz Peters was the oldest Victoria Cross (VC) recipient in the Second World War. Twenty-seven years earlier, in January 1915, he received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) medal, second only to the VC as an award for valor in battle. He was also Mentioned in Dispatches, earned a British Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in 1918, and then a bar to his DSC in 1940. His Oran gallantry was recognized with the Victoria Cross and the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross, the highest medal for valor awarded by the U.S. to non-Americans.
In the inter-war years he developed technology for miniature submarines, and was an early user of plastic explosives and time-delay fuses in his work with secret intelligence. In 1940 he commanded a school for spies and industrial sabotage for expatriates who later returned to their native countries in Occupied Europe to fight the Germans from within. His staff at the school included the Soviet spies Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, who liked and admired their commander despite their personal political differences. Philby’s memoirs are a major source on Peters as a planner, colleague and leader.
Peters’ admirers also included Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Allied commander-in-chief U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, and British naval commander Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. However, several of Eisenhower’s American underlings were bitter opponents of Peters in the planning and carrying out of the Oran harbor attack, and blamed him for heavy casualties suffered by U.S. troops.
Tragically, Peters died before he had a chance to tell his side of the story. Later, British authorities chose to downplay the Oran action to avoid antagonizing the French when they resumed as allies against the Nazis. Some government documents were destroyed, and others were kept secret for 30 years. As a result, the personal story of Fritz Peters – recipient of six medals for valor in two world wars – remained a mystery until the author’s discovery of the Peters Family Papers.