The year 2014 marks the centennial of the start of the First World War, and also the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War — global conflicts that killed 112,000 Canadians and radically changed life for Canadian families.
Captain Frederic Thornton “Fritz“ Peters, VC, DSO, DSC and bar, U.S. DSC, RN (1889-1942) was one of very few Canadians to serve in active combat in both world wars. And he is the only Canadian to receive three awards for valour in each of the world wars, including the highest decoration of British Commonwealth, the highest decoration from the United States, and the second highest decoration of the British Commonwealth. For military honours received over a 35-year period, Canadian medals authority John Blatherwick concluded Fritz Peters was “the bravest Canadian“.
As a lifelong bachelor, the only family Fritz had for many years was his mother Bertha Peters (1862-1946) and his sister Helen Peters Dewdney (1887-1976) and her family. As a widow, Bertha moved in 1919 to live full-time with Helen`s family, first in New Denver, and then, successively, in Rossland, Trail and Nelson as Helen`s husband Ted Dewdney was transferred by his employer, the Bank of Montreal. Bertha and Helen were well-known in the region as organizers of bridge tournaments and community theatre productions and music performances.
While the family was proud of Fritz`s many awards for heroism, any talk of his medals inevitably led to grieving memories of his younger brothers Private Jack Peters and Lieutenant Gerald Peters who died early in the First World War serving with the 7th B.C. Battalion in fierce battles in the Ypres Salient in Belgium.
Fritz`s boyhood was split between his early years in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where the Peters were descendants of United Empire Loyalists and a Father of Confederation, and Victoria, B.C., where his father, P.E.I. Premier Frederick Peters, moved the family for better financial prospects in 1898 when Fritz was eight. His family gave him the nickname “Fritz“ as a toddler because of his German-like enthusiasm for toy soldiers and marching.
Fritz Peters at age 11 in Bedford
Watching Royal Navy warships from his Oak Bay backyard as they sailed to and from the naval base at Esquimalt inspired young Fritz to choose a career in the navy. He went to a prep school for future naval officers in England in 1901, and four years later enlisted as a cadet in the Royal Navy. As a midshipman, he won his first medal for rescue work following the Messina Earthquake in Sicily in 1908. After extensive service in China, he retired as a lieutenant in 1913 and returned to B.C. where he worked as a CPR engineer in the B.C. Interior before rushing to England to re-join the Royal Navy when war broke out in 1914.
On January 24, 1915, as first officer on the destroyer HMS Meteor, he received the highest honour for bravery awarded in the Battle of Dogger Bank, the first clash in the North Sea of the fleets of Britain and Germany. Braving flames and scalding water from damaged boilers, he was credited with saving the lives of two sailors after the Meteor`s engine room was hit by a German shell. At Buckingham Palace to receive the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) medal, second only to the VC as an award for valour, from King George the Fifth.
Peters` letters home during the war show the only thing he feared was boredom at sea. One of his colleagues said Fritz had “massive courage”, and another said he was “tough as old rope”.
In 1918, Lieutenant-Commander Fritz Peters received the third-level award for valour, the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for “complete disregard of danger, exceptional coolness and ingenuity in his attacks on enemy submarines“, according to the citation. After the war, the navy wanted to keep him in the peacetime force, but he decided to retire once again and join some naval colleagues in the Gold Coast colony in West Africa now known as Ghana, where he managed a cocoa plantation. He later ran an engineering works in England that produced pumps for midget submarines.
The arrival of the Second World War in September 1939 led Peters to re-join the Royal Navy once again, at age 50. Commanding a force of converted trawlers that sank two U-boats, he received a bar to the DSC he won the previous war. In June 1940 he was seconded to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) to command a school for spies and saboteurs in Hertford. The students at the school included the Czech resistance fighters who assassinated the high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.
Capt. Peters in 1942
Detesting a desk job, Peters resigned from the school in fall of 1940, and began alternating between service on warships, naval intelligence and secret intelligence work. One of his colleagues at British Naval Intelligence was Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books. This has led to some speculation that Fleming may have based the Bond character partly on the fearless bachelor Fritz Peters, who, like Bond, held the rank of Royal Navy Commander.
After years of trying , his relatives in Nelson, British Columbia were finally able to contact him in England in early 1942. In his last letter home, dated March 31, 1942, he said was involved in war work that he could not write about, but he was well and looking forward to taking the offensive against the Nazis. He was pleased to hear that his nephew and godson Peter Dewdney was a sub-lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Navy.
In the summer of 1942 Fritz was put in charge of a commando mission named Operation Reservist to capture the harbour of Oran, Algeria from Nazi-controlled Vichy French in the Allied invasion of North Africa. On November 8, 1942 he led a 600-man force consisting mostly of American soldiers in two armour-plated Coast Guard cutters which broke through the harbour barrier at full speed. Winston Churchill later described the attack as “the greatest naval action since (The Battle of) Trafalgar“. The attackers hoped the French defenders would not fire on their former allies, but they responded in full force with fire from shore batteries and warships in the harbour – much of it at point blank range. With most crewmen injured, Fritz had to secure the ship`s landing lines himself. The ship reached its target berth, but casualties were so high that survivors were taken prisoner by the French. Two days later they were released when the City of Oran surrendered to American troops. Tragically, Fritz died on Friday, November 13th 1942 when the flying boat transporting him back to England crashed in heavy fog in Plymouth Sound off the southwest coast of England. Due to the secrecy associated with his mission, his next-of-kin were not immediately notified of his death. His sister Helen was listening to her radio in Nelson on November 17th when a war report said “Captain T.F. Peters“ of the Royal Navy had died in an air crash. Suspecting it was her brother Fritz with his initials transposed, she contacted the Nelson Daily News, who made inquires through the Canadian Press and Associated Press. Two days later, the family received a telegram from the British Admiralty saying Fritz was lost at sea after an air crash, and presumed to have died. Later, one of Fritz’s long-time naval colleagues said it was ironic that Fritz survived hundreds of brushes with death in his lifetime, only to die as a passenger in an air crash that did not involve conflict with the enemy.
All five of the passengers in the air crash died, but the 11 crew members from the Royal Australian Air Force survived. The pilot, Wynton Thorpe, found Fritz still alive in the water and tried carrying him along for about an hour as he swam towards shore, but then let go of the body when it was obvious that Fritz had died. A rescue boat from Plymouth picked up survivors about half an hour later. Fritz`s body was never found. He joined his brothers Jack and Gerald among the unidentified dead of the world wars.
For extreme bravery in the face of enemy fire, Fritz posthumously earned the VC and the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). At the time, the awarding of the VC was played down by the British government, partly because Peters had been involved in spy work, and partly to avoid offending the French who had rejoined the Allies against the Nazis after Allied victories in North Africa.
Fritz’s` VC was the only one since the VC was established by Queen Victoria in 1856 to be won in action against the forces of France. At age 53, he was the oldest of the 181 VC recipients in the Second World War.
On February 2, 1944 a delegation of U.S. officers and a brass band representing General Eisenhower and President Roosevelt came to the Dewdney home in Nelson to officially present Fritz`s mother Bertha Peters, as his next-of-kin, with the U.S. DSC, the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The event was front-page news in Nelson and Trail newspapers, which noted it was the highest military decoration ever presented in the region. Bertha, a strong Anglophile who generally disliked Americans, was amazed that they would go to such lengths in presenting her with their medal, while the British authorities just sent her the VC medal in the regular mail without even a cover letter.
Bertha died in Nelson at age 82 in 1946. Her daughter Helen Dewdney travelled to Windsor Castle in England in 1956 to represent her late brother at ceremonies commemorating 100 years since the VC was established by Queen Victoria. Helen moved from Nelson to Trail in 1969, and died in Trail at age 89 in 1976.
Mount Peters on the west side of Nelson, B.C. was named in honour of Fritz Peters in 1946. The Trail, B.C. branch of the Royal Canadian Legion has a plaque honouring Fritz, and there is a painting of him along with other B.C. VC winners in the Legislature Buildings in Victoria. In Canada, Peters is best-remembered in his native Charlottetown, where the Veterans Affairs office building has a substantial museum-style display that tells his story. His medals are on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery of the Imperial War Museum in England.