Fritz Peters’ first medal was for rescue work following Messina disaster

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Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters was a 19-year-old midshipman on the battleship HMS Duncan wintering at Malta when Italy was devastated by one of the worst natural disasters of the twentieth century.  In the early morning of December 28, 1908 a 7.2 earthquake and tsunami hit Messina, killing about 70,000 residents of the city and many thousands more on the Italian mainland.

Men on Duncan rushed to Messina to assist with the emergency, along with crews from other ships of the Royal Navy, as well as ships of the Italian navy and the navies of France, Russia and the United States.

damage from 1908 earthquake in Sicily (McBride Collection)

For leading shore rescue parties, Fritz Peters was awarded the silver Messina Earthquake Medal, personally presented by Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel.  The king gave out medals in gold, silver and bronze.  While in Sicily Peters acquired photographs of the aftermath of the earthquake (including the two presented here) and mailed them to his parents and siblings in Victoria, British Columbia.

Messina home destroyed (McBride Collection)

It was the first of a raft of medals Peters would earn in three stints of service in the Royal Navy over a period of 38 years.  His next medal was the Distinguished Service Order — an award for gallantry second only to the Victoria Cross — in March 1915.  He received the DSO from King George the Fifth for saving lives of crew members on the destroyer HMS Meteor at the Battle of Dogger Bank in the North Sea on January 24, 1915.

top: front and back of the Messina Earthquake Medal; bottom, standard formal portrait of Frederic Thornton Peters circa 1912, and detail that shows he is wearing the Messina medal

Ancestry of Frederic Thornton Peters, VC

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One of Canada`s greatest war heroes, Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters, was strongly influenced by his United Empire Loyalist roots.  Three of his four grandparents (Judge James Horsfield Peters, Mary Cunard and Col. John Hamilton Gray) were direct descendants of Loyalists who sided with King George against the colonial rebels in the American Revolutionary War.  The Loyalist ancestors were James Peters and his wife Margaret Lester of Hempstead, Long Island, New York; Col. Robert Gray of Norfolk, Virginia; and Abraham Cunard of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Loyalist James Peters in 1816 (McBride collection)

Frederic Thornton Peters ancestry chart

The fourth grandparent, Susan Bartley Pennefather (wife of John Hamilton Gray) was the daughter of Lieut. William Bartley and Margaret Carr, both of Anglo-Irish stock.  Susan was just a baby when Bartley died while serving in Jamaica.  Bartley`s commanding officer, Major Sir John Lysaght Pennefather, married Margaret and she became Lady Pennefather.

According to A Peters Lineage, this branch of the Peters originated in France and migrated through Flanders to Devon and Cornwall.  A distant ancestor, the Rev. Hugh Peters, was a Puritan who arrived in America in 1636 and was a founding governor of Harvard College.  He later returned to England and was a right-hand man of Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War.  The first Peters ancestor to permanently settle in North America was Dr. Charles Peters from London, who arrived in New York in 1703 and married Mary Hewlett, who was a third-generation New Yorker, as her Dutch ancestry went back to when the city was known as New Amsterdam.

The most famous ancestor was Abraham Cunard`s son Sir Samuel Cunard, who pioneered steam-driven passenger service across the North Atlantic and was a major factor in the economic development of Canada`s Maritime provinces.  Fritz Peters` father Frederick Peters (who served as Premier and Attorney General of Prince Edward Island from 1891-1897) was a grandson of Sir Samuel Cunard.  The Cunard ancestors –known at the time as Kunders — were among the first Germans to settle in North America, arriving in modern-day Pennsylvania in the 1680s.  A century later, Abraham and his brother Robert stayed loyal to King George in the American Revolution, but the rest of the Cunard family sided with the rebels.

Ancestry of the Cunards in Germany goes back to Duke John of Cleves (brother of Ann of Cleves, fourth wife of England`s King Henry the Eighth) in the 1500s.

ancestors of Fritz`s father, the Hon. Frederick Peters

Cunard ancestors going back from Loyalist Abraham Cunard of Pennsylvania

Biography of Fritz Peters, VC to be published in 2012

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Fritz Peters circa 1912 (McBride Collection)

Capt. Peters 1942 (McBride Collection)

Captain Frederic Thornton “Fritz“ Peters, VC, DSO, DSC and bar, DSC (U.S.), RN would rate among the greatest Canadian war heroes on the basis of his gallant exploits in either the First World War or the Second World War. The combination of these accomplishments – including three major honours for valour in each of the wars – give him a special place in Canada`s pantheon of military heroes.

Previous attempts to tell Peters` story have been stymied by the lack of a paper trail due to his   involvement in top secret and controversial projects, his detestation of publicity and self-promotion, and never settling for long in one place. The heart of The Bravest Canadian is a recently-discovered treasure trove of letters from and about Fritz Peters and his family that give insight into his life experience, what he was thinking, and what made him tick.

His Maritime establishment family revered war heroes in its ancestry, ranging from Loyalist officers in the Revolutionary War, through the wars and British Empire skirmishes of the 19th century.  Fritz was expected to live up to this tradition, which he did in spades. He was a loveable eccentric, in the best traditions of the Royal Navy in which he served.  He loved the Empire and the exhilaration of battle the way other men loved their wife and children.

His is a world-wide story, encompassing boyhood on both coasts of Canada, naval servicer at the romantic China Station, tense battles with German U-boats in both wars, a mysterious career in the spy world, and culminating as leader of a modern-day Charge of the Light Brigade inside an Algerian port against Vichy French guns lined up against him in every direction.

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