70 Years Ago Gen. Eisenhower Awarded U.S. DSC to Capt. Frederic Thornton Peters

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ABOVE: Nov. 29, 1942 letter from Eisenhower (Peters Family Papers).

In the letter above, dated Nov. 29, 1942, Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, overall commander of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, advises the British Admiralty that he is awarding the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross to Acting Captain Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters of the Royal Navy.

The letter was forwarded to Peters’ mother as next-of-kin as a memento of her son who tragically died when the flying boat transporting him back to England crashed in heavy fog in Plymouth Sound in the evening of Nov. 13, 1942. It was likely sent to Mrs. Peters in 1943 by either Adm. A.M. Peters (no relation to Fritz) or Adm. Sir Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton, both of whom served terms as Secretary of the Admiralty and wrote letters to Mrs. Peters in response to her inquiries after Fritz’s death. While A.M. Peters was a casual acquaintance of Fritz, Dalrymple-Hamilton was a longstanding friend and naval colleague who was a fellow student with Fritz at Cordwalles Boys School in Maidenhead in the 1901-1904 period. The letter was retained by Mrs. Peters and her descendants, and is part of the Peters Family Papers on which the new book “The Bravest Canadian — Fritz Peters, VC: The Making of a Hero of Two World Wars” is based.

In the letter Eisenhower applauds Peters for “extraordinary heroism during the attack on Oran, Morocco in the early morning of 8 November 1942”. It is interesting that Eisenhower mistakenly says Oran is in Morocco, when it is actually the second largest city of Algeria. This may have just been a clerical oversight, or it may be a reflection of Eisenhower’s poor knowledge of North Africa geography.

It is also interesting that Eisenhower says Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, in command of the Centre Task Force to capture Oran in Operation Torch, had made the recommendation for Fritz’s American DSC medal. Fredendall strongly disliked his British allies and encouraged his staff to mock them with fake English accents. At the time this letter was written, Eisenhower was still a strong supporter of Fredendall, but in February 1943, after the humiliating defeat at Kasserine Pass, Fredendall was replaced as commander of II Corps by Gen. George S. Patton, and sent back to the States.

Seventieth Anniversary of Fritz Peters’ Victoria Cross Action of Nov. 8, 1942

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Capt. Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters, at Cleish Castle in Scotland, circa spring 1942. (McBride Collection)

November 8, 2012 will mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of North Africa, code-named Operation Torch, a turning point in the Second World War.

The date is also the 70th anniversary of the action in the harbour of Oran, Algeria which earned Canadian Capt. Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters, VC, DSO, DSC and bar, DSC (U.S.), RN the Victoria Cross and the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross – the highest awards for valour offered by Britain and the United States.

Born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and raised in Victoria, British Columbia before joining the Royal Navy at age 15 in 1905, Peters is unique among Canadian war heroes in receiving multiple awards for valour in both World War One and World War Two.

The story of Fritz Peters is told in the new biography “The Bravest Canadian – Fritz Peters, VC: The Making of a Hero of Two World Wars”, by Trail, B.C. writer Sam McBride. The main sources used by the author are a recently-discovered collection of personal letters, photographs and other documents that reveal Peters’ personality, motivations and remarkable fearlessness and cool demeanor in battle.

Published by Granville Island Publishing of Vancouver, B.C., the book will be available in book stores, through amazon.com and in electronic formats in November 2012.

The invasion of Vichy French territory was the first large combined operation of British and American forces. The initial targets of the invasion were the two largest cities and ports in Algeria, Oran and Algiers, as well as Casablanca in Morocco.

The harbour attack began on Sunday, November 8, 1942 at 3 am — two hours after the first Allied troops landed on beaches on the west and east flanks of Oran — as the cutter HMS Walney at top speed smashed through the harbor boom, followed immediately by its sister ship HMS Hartland. Despite heavy fire from all directions and 90 per cent casualties among the crew, Peters was able to maneuver Walney close to its target landing site a mile and a half within the congested harbour.

Peters and other survivors were taken prisoner by the French defenders, but released two days later when the city surrendered to advancing American troops. Peters was carried through the streets of Oran as a hero, but tragically he died in the evening of Friday, November 13, 1942 when the flying boat transporting him back to England to report on the action to Prince Minister Winston Churchill crashed in heavy fog in Plymouth Sound.

The surrender of the last Nazi forces in North Africa in May 1943 in the French colony of Tunisia secured Allied shipping lanes in the Mediterranean and gave the Allies bases for subsequent invasions of Sicily, mainland Italy and France.

Biography of Canadian War Hero Fritz Peters ,VC

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A new book 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 collection of recently-discovered personal letters that reveal his personality, motivations and chivalric ideals.   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.

Published by Granville Island Publishing, The Bravest Canadian will be released in print and online in Canada and internationally in November 2012.

Book release coincides with 70th anniversary of Operation Torch

November 8, 2012 will mark 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 though 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.

The surrender of the last Nazi forces in North Africa in May 1943 secured Allied shipping lanes in the Mediterranean and gave the Allies bases for subsequent invasions of Sicily, mainland Italy and France.

Born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1889, Peters moved with his family in 1898 to Victoria, B.C., where he lived until joining the Royal Navy in 1905, aside from time in England at naval prep school.

He 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, a heroic general of the Crimean War, and his maternal grandfather Col. John Hamilton Gray, who was a career officer in the British Army before taking on a central role in the founding of Canada as a P.E.I. Father of Confederation and chairman of the Charlottetown Conference of 1864.   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.

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ABOVE: clockwise from top left, Fritz as a baby in 1889; Fritz at right with sister Helen and baby brother Jack in 1892; two photos of him as a young naval cadet in about 1906; and in Bedford, England in about 1900.  (McBride Collection)

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 battle.  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.

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.  His staff at the school included the Soviet spies Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, who liked and admired their commander despite their personal political differences.  Philby’s memoirs are a major source on Peters as a planner, colleague and leader.

Peters’ admirers also included Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Allied commander-in-chief U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, and British naval commander Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham.  However, several of Eisenhower’s American underlings were bitter opponents of Peters in the planning and carrying out of the Oran harbor attack, and blamed him for heavy casualties suffered by U.S. troops.

Tragically, Peters died 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.

Clockwise from top left: Fritz as a lieutenant in about 1912; Fritz at Cleish Castle; photo of him soon before his final mission in 1942; and Fritz in about 1930. (McBride Collection)

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)

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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