Here’s the deal… a Mediterranean cruise to Algeria, all expenses paid, in your very own converted US Coast Guard cutter. Everybody aboard will salute and say “aye aye sir” to you. You don’t even have to bring the ship back! Interested? That was the situation for Frederick Fritz Peters as he headed for the North African port of Oran in November 1942.
16 year old Frederick Thornton Peters joined the Royal Navy in Esquimalt in 1905. The Canadian Navy was still a colonial dream. In those days, Canada was still under the wing of the RN, which had small Squadrons of ships at Esquimalt and Halifax to protect trade and keep some order in the Dominion of Canada.
The British clung to the idea of “one Commonwealth, one Navy” and took the position that the Colonies should send men and money to support Royal Navy operations. The idea had support in Canada, both from politicians looking to avoid the tax burden of setting up a new Navy, and from ex-pats reluctant to follow the American example and sever the ties. On the other hand, there were some visionaries who saw the need for a Canadian naval arm as an obvious need for a country with three huge coastlines.
Canada’s hand (and the Admiralty’s) was forced, when the British Naval budget constraints in 1904 led to a massive fleet re-shuffle, and the elimination of Regional squadrons and bases. The RN was engaged in a construction race with Germany, and needed to focus its resources on the new “Dreadnought” style battleships. These ships would make all older types obsolete.
The Pacific Squadron cleared harbor at Esquimalt for the last time in March 1905. This left Canada pretty much on its own in a very unstable world. The Russian Navy had just been wiped out by the Japanese during the Battle of Tsushima. Germany had strong colonial interests in the Pacific, even to the extent of a secret mapping expedition on the west coast looking for potential hiding spots and coaling bases. Teddy Roosevelt had just threatened to send in the Marines if the Alaska Boundary dispute wasn’t resolved in his favor.
With lightning speed, the Canadian government took action and by 1910, Canada had the beginnings of a Navy.
When young Mr. Peters arrived at Esquimalt in 1905, the Royal Navy was his only choice. He signed on as a cadet and began a long and interesting career. Including time as destroyer Captain and Commander of a secret agent training school, culminating with his one way trip to Africa in 1942.
His task was to capture the French-held port of Oran so that it could be used in the Allied invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch). This led to the famous series of battles between Rommel and Montgomery. Rommel’s eventual defeat was the first major setback in the German war campaign. It helped set the stage for Allied landings in Italy in September 1943, and then in France in June of 1944.
Oran was critical to the success of operation Torch, and Captain Peters knew the odds were not in his favor. The port was well defended by shore batteries and by 14 French warships ranging from cruisers to submarines, sent there after the German invasion of France.
The Vichy French garrison was not well-disposed to the Allies, or the British in particular. Just the year before, in July of 1940, Royal Navy units including the battle cruiser Hood had shelled heavy ships of the French Navy at Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar to prevent their transfer to the German side. The British Squadron sent an ultimatum to the French Admiral, asking that he turn his ships over to British control toute suite, or face the consequences. When no clear reply was given by the deadline, Hood’s 15 inch guns opened fire, the first time the old battlecruiser’s guns had been fired in anger. Unfortunately for Captain Peters, not all the French units were put out of action. A number of destroyers, cruisers and submarines remained in North Africa firmly in place.
Peters’ main assets were two former US Coast Guard Cutters, HM Ships Walney and Hartland. Built in 1930 as the Lake class cutters Sebago and Ponchartrain, these 1700 ton ships were powered by a turbine-electric steam plant giving about 17 knots. Ten of these ships had been transferred to the Royal Navy in 1941 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s lend-lease program. This allowed the Americans to support Britain without getting directly involved.
Peters led his force into the harbor at daybreak on November 8, 1942. Packed with US 6th Armoured Infantry. The plan was to lay the ships alongside the main jetty and disembark the troops, with covering fire from two other forces landed on each side of the main harbor. As they approached, both ships came under intense fire. The Walney was hit several times, killing all bridge personnel except Captain Peters. Blinded in one eye, Fritz Peters still managed to lay his ship alongside the pier, where she quickly sank. Hartland was sunk in the approaches, killing almost all of the crew and infantry force. Of the 393 Americans, 189 were killed and 157 wounded. British numbers were, 113 killed and 86 wounded.
The survivors were captured by the Vichy French garrison. They were held for two days until Allied forces landed on the beaches were able to overwhelm them. Captain Peters was put aboard an Australian Sunderland flying boat, to be returned to England for medical attention. The Sunderland crashed off the Plymouth coast and Peters’ body was never found. It was his 53rd birthday.
Fritz Peters was awarded both the Victoria Cross and the US Distinguished Service Cross.
Great Canadian War Heroes, Tom Douglas, Altitude
Veterans Affairs Canada, online archive