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Forgotten war hero had Kootenay connections

He’s one of Canada’s most decorated soldiers, with multiple medals for bravery from two world wars. His death-defying adventures sound like something out of a spy novel.

Yet for all that, as well as family ties to West Kootenay and a local mountain named in his honour, you’re probably unfamiliar with Capt. Frederic T. (Fritz) Peters. It’s not surprising given that his story was obscured when it wasn’t actively suppressed.

Now Trail author Sam McBride has finally sorted out the extraordinary life of his great uncle in a new book, The Bravest Canadian. Two years ago he came across a cache of letters from and about Peters that shed new light on his mysterious relative.

“It really filled in a lot of gaps,” McBride says. “He said he didn’t like writing, but wrote with wit and style. It showed a lot of his personality. I thought it gave insight into what made somebody, and the motivation for courage.”

McBride transcribed the letters, passed down through his family for generations, and realized they could be the basis of a book answering questions that vexed other would-be biographers.

His grandmother attached a note that said: “These can be burned, but they should be read first.” Fortunately, no one listened to the first part of her instructions.

‘Moving in the shadows’

Fritz Peters was born into a prominent Prince Edward Island family with strong political and military connections: his father and uncle took turns as premier and his grandfather was a career officer in the British Army and a father of confederation.

Determined to follow in his family’s footsteps, Fritz joined the Royal Navy and served as a destroyer officer during World War I. He received the Distinguished Service Order, British Distinguished Service Cross, and was mentioned in dispatches.

Afterward, his life became even more intriguing, with exploits in Africa and work with the British secret intelligence. Peters developed miniature submarine technology and pioneered the use of plastic explosives and time-delay fuses. At the beginning of the Second World War, he taught industrial sabotage to expatriates from occupied countries, who returned home to fight the Nazis from within.

His staff included Soviet spy Kim Philby, whose memoir was one of McBride’s more unlikely sources. McBride also notes it’s possible Peters knew James Bond creator Ian Fleming, involved in espionage at the same time: “Bond might have been partly based on Fritz Peters, a lifelong bachelor moving in the shadows who survived hundreds of close calls.”

Peters’ finest hour came in 1942, during an attack on the harbour of Oran, Algeria, the first large combined operation between British and American forces. Peters somehow escaped heavy fire from Vichy French warships that nearly wiped out his unit. At 53, he was recognized with the Victoria Cross and US Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s highest medal for non-Americans — ironic given that Peters was a staunch Anglophile.

But he wasn’t around to receive the honours: he died five days after the Oran offensive in a plane crash on his way back to England. His mother Bertha, by then living in Nelson with her daughter and son-in-law, accepted the cross on his behalf. A US delegation and brass band came to her home at 820 Stanley Street to formally present it.

By contrast, the Victoria Cross arrived in the mail without even a cover letter. The reason for this nonchalance only emerged decades later: France had rejoined the Allies and Britain didn’t want to antagonize them over the battle of Oran harbour. Political sensitivities dictated that Peters’ honour be kept quiet.

Further clouding his story, Peters’ intelligence files were destroyed or declared secret. While he received six medals in all and had a peak between Nelson and Taghum named after him, he remained a cipher to most.

McBride’s book should change that. He’ll sign copies at Touchstones Nelson on Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m.

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