November 8 marks the 70th anniversary of the Second World War Allied invasion of North Africa — an epic battle in which an Islander was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour awarded to Canadians.
Until recently, the story of Capt. Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters, VC, DSO, DSC and Bar (Sept. 17, 1889 – Nov. 13, 1942) was shrouded in mystery, but thanks to the discovery of hundreds of personal letters written by Peters to his family, and subsequent research, the legend of “The Bravest Canadian” has come to light.
Peters’ grandnephew, Sam McBride, discovered suitcases filled with letters and other family memorabilia when he returned to Trail, B.C. to help his mother, who was dealing with dementia, organize the family estate.
As the family steward, his intention was to put together a Peters family archive, but as McBride set out to transcribe the letters he realized he had something more on his hands, so he decided to turn his research into a novel, The Bravest Canadian: The Making of a Hero of Two World Wars, published this month by Granville Island Publishing.
“The whole story is a puzzle,” says McBride. “Fritz was very low profile — he worked with the secret service, he hated interviews and the media, and he didn’t leave much of a paper trail — but he did send these letters home, especially during World War One.”
The letters helped McBride, who often heard tales of his heroic great-uncle growing up, learn more about Peters’ personality and personal philosophies, making The Bravest Canadian much more than a historical tale.
Peters was born in Charlottetown, P.E.I. to Frederick Peters (P.E.I. premier, 1891-1897) and Bertha Hamilton Susan Gray (daughter of Col. John Hamilton Gray, P.E.I. premier and Father of Confederation). Peters senior resigned as premier to move his family west to Victoria in 1897 after the discovery of gold near Dawson City, Yukon.
Peters joined the Royal Navy in Esquimalt in 1905 at the age of 16, but retired in 1913 so he could earn some money to help his struggling family. When the First World War happened a year later, he quickly rejoined the service and set sail to England.
On Jan. 24, 1915, he would receive his first honours for valour in the Battle of Dogger Bank when he saved the lives of many sailors aboard HMS Meteor after it was torpedoed by a German cruiser. Peters became the first Canadian ever to receive the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) medal, second only to the Victoria Cross.
Three years later, Peters would receive the Distinguished Service Cross (the third highest British honour for valour) from King George V, for “showing exceptional initiative, ability and zeal in submarine hunting operations and complete disregard of danger, exceptional coolness and ingenuity in his attacks on enemy submarines,” according to the citation.
“Fritz was different — he was so restless, he hated boredom more than anything else,” says McBride. “In fact, he never complained about the prospect of being killed in his letters.”
Peters, then a Lt-Cdr, retired from the Royal Navy again in 1920. “The prospect of peacetime service wasn’t appealing to Fritz,” says McBride. “He had a lot of debt he needed to work off.”
With a shortage of jobs and an influx of veterans, there weren’t many prospects for Peters in B.C., so he followed a friend to Africa’s Gold Coast (in a colony now known as Ghana). He later farmed cocoa.
With war on the horizon, Fritz returned to England in 1939 and was seconded to be commandant of a British Secret Intelligence Service school at Brickendonbury Hall, training spies and saboteurs for anti-Nazi operations in occupied Europe. Very little is known about this time in Peters’ life.
There is only one letter in the Peters family collection from the Second World War, written by Fritz, now a captain, to his sister, Helen (McBride’s grandmother), dated March 31, 1942. It was their first communications in more than a decade. “… I can indeed give you little news,” he writes. “Censorship stops me from saying anything about my present job.”
But seven months later, Peters would find himself in charge of a risky attack on the the harbour in Oran, Algeria with a war correspondent on board. Code-named Operation Reservist, the mission was to capture the heavily-fortified harbour intact for Allied use in the invasion of North Africa. Operation Reservist was part of Operation Torch, the first combined operation of British and American forces and a turning point in the Second World War. Until this point in the war, it was the Germans who had initiative.
As special operations and naval planner, Fritz was hired for his offence-minded approach to organizing and executing harbour attacks. His role was originally only in planning and training, but he assigned himself to go on the lead ship, a Banff Class Sloop (a converted U.S. Coast Guard Cutter), HMS Walney, when the 53-year-old heard just how risky this mission would be.
There was a protective boom laying across the 160-yard-wide mouth to the harbour and eight French warships laying just beyond it when HMS Walney made her approach, steaming at top speed of 15 knots, smashing through the boom of coal barges. After shooting out shore search lights and with the use of a smoke screen, HMS Walney lowered crew and supplies by canoe, and continued to sail through the harbour, taking heavy gun and artillery fire from almost point-blank range.
With its engines destroyed, HMS Walney reached its destined landing site, but was only able to land some men before explosions forced an abandon ship order.
All survivors were arrested and taken prisoner, including Peters, who survived, even with a terrible head wound. The mission suffered 90-per-cent casualties. More than 300 died.
Oran surrendered to advancing American troops two days later and Peters and his fellow troops were celebrated in an impromptu parade through the streets of Oran.
Peters died three days later, on Fri., Nov. 13 on a fateful flight from Gibraltar to Plymouth England, where he was to brief Winston Churchill on what happened in Oran Harbour. Strangely enough, all five passengers on the Sunderland flying boat died, while all 11 crew survived. Peters’ body was never recovered.
Peters was awarded his second U.S. Distinguished Service Cross (a bar issued by Dwight Eisenhower), and the Victoria Cross from the British. A mountain in Nelson, B.C. was also named for Peters in 1946, where his mother was living when he died.
“The Americans went all out,” says McBride. “Two colonels came with a brass band and she was so bed-ridden, they had to bring the celebration into her bedroom.”
The Victoria Cross however, came in the mail as the British didn’t want to upset their French allies by celebrating the deadly attack.
“This is the one Canadian that managed to be a hero in both wars,” says McBride. “Canada doesn’t have a lot of heroes. We should make the best of the ones we have.”
McBride is doing just that this weekend at the Royal BC Museum. Join him and other presenters as they give free talks to honour our veterans, Nov. 10 and 11 from 10am to 5pm. McBride is also giving a presentation at the museum Sun., Nov. 11 at 2pm. Admission is free for military personnel.
McBride has also set up a blog where more information about Peters and his family can be found, including photos of the family home in Oak Bay: thebravestcanadian.wordpress.com.
For more information about the Royal BC Museum events, visit: calendar.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/2012/11/02/remembrance-week-at-the-royal-bc-museum. M