A new book released in Canada and abroad this month 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 treasure trove of recently-discovered personal letters that reveal his personality, motivations and zest for battle. 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.
Book release coincides with 70th anniversary of Victoria Cross Action in Operation Torch
November 8, 2012 was 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 through 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.
Born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1889, Peters moved with his family in 1898 to Victoria, British Columbia, where he lived until joining the Royal Navy in 1905, aside from time in England at naval prep schools. The Peters family resided in Oak Bay and then Esquimalt before moving to Prince Rupert.
Loyalist Heritage Shaped Fritz Peters’ Character
Peters 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, and a prominent general of the Crimean War. 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.
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 the Battle of Dogger Bank in the North Sea. 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.
Duties With Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service
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.
Peters’ admirers included Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Allied commander-in-chief U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, and British naval commander Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. However, several level American officers were bitter opponents of Peters in planning and conducting the Oran harbor attack, and blamed him for heavy casualties suffered by U.S. troops.
Tragically, Peters died as a passenger in an air crash 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.