Fritz Peters’ Cadet Report in 1906

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by Sam McBride

The Peters Family Papers contain a wide array of personal letters, photographs, family history notes, and original documents such as the following report on his performance as a Royal Navy cadet on the training ship HMS Britannia from when he started with the navy on Jan. 15, 1905 until May 14, 1906.

Memorabilia such as this is the basis for my new book “The Bravest Canadian — Fritz Peters, VC: the Making of a Hero of Two World Wars”, to be released by Granville Island Publishing in September 2012.

November 8, 2012 will be the 70th anniversary of the action against Vichy French forces in the harbour of Oran, Algeria which earned Peters the Victoria Cross and the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross.

Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters in about 1906 (McBride Collection)

1914 Christmas card from Frederic Thornton Peters on HMS Meteor

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by Sam McBride

Among the memorabilia of Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters, VC, DSO, DSC and bar, DSC (U.S.), RN that exists today in the family collection is a Christmas card he sent home to his parents and siblings in Prince Rupert, British Columbia in December 1914.

Scans of the front and inside of the card are shown below.  The back of the card was blank.  The pre-printed message in the card is “With Christmas Greetings and all Good Wishes for the New Year.”  Then, in Fritz’s handwriting, is a personal message which I have not yet been able to figure out.  It looks like “Your hangle mongle”.  Members of the family often used nicknames and pet phrases in letters to each other, but this is not repeated in any other correspondence.

front of 1914 Christmas card

Fritz had served in the Royal Navy from 1905 until retiring in 1913, and then rejoined the navy at the outbreak of war in August 1914, serving as a lieutenant second-in-command of the destroyer HMS Meteor out of Devonport.  His service on Meteor drew front page news coverage on two occasions.  First, in October 1914 Meteor stopped the German hospital ship Ophelia after a sea battle off Texel Island.  After search and interrogation, Fritz and other Meteor officers concluded the ship was scouting for German submarines, and directed it to Yarmouth where it was converted for British use.

inside 1914 Christmas card

In January 1915 in the Battle of Dogger Bank in the North Sea, Meteor ‘s engine room was hit by an 8.2-inch shell from the German cruiser Blucher.   In the face of flames and bursting boilers, Fritz courageously rushed straight to the engine room, saved the lives of two ratings and prevented further damage to the ship from explosions.  He was Mentioned in Dispatches and then in March 1915 received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) medal from King George the Fifth.  For a naval officer, the DSO was second only to the Victoria Cross as an award for valour.

There was talk among Fritz’s naval colleagues and friends that his actions at Dogger Bank could have qualified for a Victoria Cross.  It may have made a difference if he was in command of the warship rather than a “Number One” (second-in-command).  In November 1915 Fritz was placed in command of the HMS Greyhound.

In 1918 Fritz received his next major award for valour in battle, the Distinguished Service Cross, for anti-submarine heroics.  Returning for Royal Navy service in the Second World War, he won a bar to his Distinguished Service Cross in 1940, and then won the Victoria Cross and U.S. Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in leading the attack through the boom of Oran harbour in the Allied invasion of North Africa of November 1942.

My book The Bravest Canadian about the extraordinary two-world-war naval career and mysterious life of Frederic Thornton Peters in his native Canada — as well as exploits in Britain, Africa and around the world — will be published later this spring.

Naming of Mount Peters near Nelson after Canadian war hero Fritz Peters, VC

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by Sam McBride

Many residents of Nelson, British Columbia see Mount Peters every day but have no idea of its name or the Canadian war hero it is named after.  Located between Mount Nelson and Taghum, the mountain of modest height is identified on backwoods and topographical maps but not on road maps or tourist literature.  The car pullout near the intersection of  Highway 3a, Granite Road and Government Street has a sign about Historic Baker Street, but no mention of Mount Peters across the river.

Fritz Peters, circa 1935 (McBride Collection)

It is named after Captain Frederic Thornton “Fritz“ Peters, VC, DSO, DSC and bar, U.S. DSC, RN.  The initials after his name reflect his status among the most decorated Canadians ever, including the highest honor of all, the Victoria Cross, which he received for leading an extremely hazardous attack on the harbor of Oran, Algeria in the Allied invasion of French North Africa on November 8, 1942.  For the same action, he won the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the highest honor bestowed on a non-American by the United States.  He miraculously survived the Oran action in the face of point blank fire from Vichy French shore batteries and warships in the harbor, but died five days later in a plane crash near Plymouth, England on his way back to England to report on the mission and receive medical treatment for injuries to an eye and shoulder he suffered at Oran.

Born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1889, Peters moved with his family to Victoria, B.C.  in 1897 and lived there until joining the Royal Navy in 1905 – five years before the formation of the Royal Canadian Navy.  He served with the Royal Navy, primarily on destroyers and gunboats, until resigning as a lieutenant in 1913; then rejoined when war came in August 1914, serving on destroyers, initially as a first lieutenant and later in command, until retiring in 1920; and rejoining again at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, when he alternated between anti-sub naval operations and work with Britain`s Secret Intelligence Service, including command of a spy school for expatriates from Occupied Europe who returned to their home countries to combat the Nazis with sabotage.  He is believed to be the only Canadian to receive multiple awards for valor in both world wars, and the only person in the history of the Victoria Cross to receive it for action against France.

In the First World War Peters was mentioned in dispatches and received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) medal for courageous action as a lieutenant on the destroyer HMS Meteor that saved lives after a shell from a German cruiser hit the engine room in the Battle of Dogger Bank in January 1915.  He received the British Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in 1918 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.” He won a bar to his DSC in 1940 for leading a flotilla of anti-sub trawlers that sank two enemy submarines.

The only time Fritz Peters was in Nelson was passing through while working as an engineer with the CPR in 1913-14, but his mother Bertha Peters lived in Nelson from 1929 until her death in 1946, and his sister Helen Dewdney was in Nelson from 1929 until 1969.  Bertha lived with her daughter Helen`s family in New Denver after the death of her husband Fred Peters in 1919, subsequently moving with them to Rossland, Trail and then Nelson as Ted Dewdney was transferred by his employer, the Bank of Montreal.

Nelson newspaper report of U.S. DSC presentation to Mrs. Peters in Feb. 1944.

On February 2, 1944 a delegation of American officers representing President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower came to Nelson with soldier musicians in a brass band to formally present the U.S. DSC medal to Mrs. Peters as next-of-kin of her late son.  With Nelson Mayor Stibbs and representatives of civic organizations in attendance, the ceremony was held in the Dewdney house at Stanley and Mill streets.  In stark contrast to the extravagance of the American presentation, the Victoria Cross – which Bertha Peters, as a granddaughter of  a United Empire Loyalist and ardent Anglophile, valued far more than the American medal – arrived in the regular mail with no ceremony or even a cover letter.  At the time, the casual delivery of the VC was thought to be an administrative mistake during busy wartime conditions, but British military files that became public in the 1970s show it was intentional, as France had resumed as an ally against the Nazis and the British wanted to avoid antagonizing the French with reminders of their vigorous action against the Allies in Oran harbor.  British Admiral Andrew Cunningham, who directed naval operations under Allied Commander Gen. Eisenhower, issued an order in December 1942 that “silence is the best policy“ regarding the Oran VC.   The awarding of a VC was normally cause for celebration, so the news media of the time were surprised that only a terse statement of commendation for the medal was released.  Publicity of the medal in Canada was mainly generated by Peters` friends and relations in letters and interviews.

The idea of naming the mountain first arose at a meeting of the Nelson Board of Trade in December 1945, a month after it was announced that the late Lieutenant Robert Hampton “Hammy” Gray, VC, DSC, RCNVR had posthumously been awarded the Victoria Cross for sinking a Japanese destroyer.  According to Nelson Daily News reports, Frank Putnam, the provincial minister of agriculture, mentioned to a board member that a new topographical map of the Nelson area was coming out soon, so it was an opportune time to propose the naming of geographical features in the Nelson area in honor of local war heroes.  A committee consisting of H.M. Whimster and H.W. McMillan was set up to make inquiries and present recommendations to the board.  Their discussions with the government naming authorities found there would be difficulty in changing the name of mountains already named after someone else, and the standard at the time was to have just one name for a mountain, so “Hampton Gray Mountain“ would be unacceptable.

view of Mount Peters from Stanley and Mill Streets in Nelson. At left is the Dewdney home, site of the U.S. DSC medal presentation, as it looks today. (Sam McBride photo)

Following the committee`s recommendation, the board proposed that a peak in the south end of Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park that can be seen on a clear day from Rosemont be named Grays Peak (honoring Hammy`s brother RCAF Flight Sergeant J.B. `Jack` Gray, who was the first Nelson boy to die in World War Two, as well as Hammy, who was the last), and the mountain west of Grohman Creek based on the Kootenay River be called Mount Peters.  The names were approved by the provincial government in March 1946, but there has been little follow-up since then to advise residents and visitors of the mountain names, especially Mount Peters.

Whimster`s daughter Lois Arnesen remembers the naming of Grays Peak but not Mount Peters, as she knew the Grays but had never known Peters.  She is not surprised her father, who was a printer by trade, would recommend that mountains be named in honor of the heroes, as he was a keen mountaineer and member of the Alpine Club.

For Nelson`s Victoria Cross winner from World War One, Lieutenant Rowland Bourke, VC, DSO, RNVR, there is a Bourke Rock on the B.C. coast near Bella Bella named in August 1944, and Bourke Mountain (later changed to Mount Bourke) north of Tofino, named in July 1946.

There are interesting connections between the three Victoria Cross winners with links to Nelson.  Some war correspondents called the Oran harbor action “another Zeebrugge“, referring to the famous British attack in 1918 on the heavily-defended port of Zeebrugge-Ostend, Belgium to trap German submarines by blocking the entrance with scuttled warships.  Bourke`s was one of eight VC`s awarded for the Zeebrugge attack, which was similar to the Oran operation in audacity but with a very different objective, as the Oran attack attempted to keep the harbor in good condition for delivery of supplies needed for the Allied invasion.  Peters was able to break through the boom protecting the harbour and reach the target landing site, but the defenders sank the two attacking ships with intensive fire and sabotaged the harbor facilities. Born in 1885, Bourke was close in age to Peters and held a similar rank in the Royal Navy, with Bourke rising later to Lieutenant-Commander and Peters to that same rank and then Acting Captain.  While there is no record of Bourke, Peters or Gray encountering each other, Mrs. Peters knew Hammy Gray well because he was best friend and fishing buddy of her grandson Peter Dewdney and a regular visitor to the Dewdney house before the pair went to war as officers with the Royal Canadian Navy.  Bertha Peters` maiden name was Gray, but the two families were not related.

view of Mount Peters from the parking lot across the Kootenay River. (Sam McBride photo)

Further information and photographs and other memorabilia of Peters and Gray can be seen in the Virtual Memorial of the Veterans Affair Canada web site.  Bourke isn`t in the Virtual Memorial because he had the good fortune of surviving war service, passing away in retirement in Victoria in 1958 at age 73.  Information on mountains and landmarks named after Kootenay war heroes is on the 54th battalion web site.

Nelson Daily News article Nov. 1945

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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