It was August 6, 1942 and the wheelhouse area of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Assiniboine was on fire, pierced by explosive shells fired by German U-boat 210 during a fierce battle.
Max Bernays, a young sailor from Vancouver, was Assiniboine’s coxswain, a position usually held by a much older seaman.
Assiniboine, along with other allied warships, had been escorting a convoy in the North Atlantic when its radar picked up U-210 in the fog. Assiniboinewent in pursuit at full speed.
Visibility fell dramatically as the destroyer closed in.
For almost 40 minutes the two combatants played a deadly game of hide-and-seek in the murky haze. U-210 attempted to get within Assiniboine’s turning circle while Commanding Officer John Stubbs tried to gain position to ram the submarine.
Guns on both ships opened fire at close range in a murderous storm of bullets and high explosive shells. The U-boat’s guns pounded Assiniboine’s superstructure, causing a fire which swept across the deck and parts of the forecastle.
From Assiniboine’s after action report:
Surrounded by smoke and flames in the wheelhouse (a room located under the open bridge and containing the helm and engine telegraph), Acting Chief Petty Officer Max Bernays ordered the two junior sailors working as telegraph operators to get clear, leaving him alone at the helm and trapped by the blaze.
He executed all helm orders as Stubbs manoeuvred for position against the U-boat.
Bernays also carried out the work of the two telegraph operators, dispatching 133 telegraph orders to the engine room. Several bullets and shells penetrated the wheelhouse as the Germans concentrated their machine gun and cannon fire on the bridge.
While the damage control crew tried to subdue the blaze, the duel continued unabated. The destroyer’s machine guns slowly began to make inroads against U-210. Bullets finally silenced the deadly flak gun and the range opened sufficiently for Assiniboine’s 4.7-inch aft gun to register a direct hit on the submarine’s conning tower, killing most of the bridge crew.
On fire amidships and riddled with shell holes, Assiniboine rammed U-210 twice and sunk it with depth charges.
One Canadian was killed and 13 wounded during the hard-fought battle.
Bernays miraculously survived the bombardment of wheelhouse and bridge, but shell fragments and splinters had reportedly struck him in the face, leaving a permanent memento of the action embedded in his temple.
Bernays was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his heroic actions. He displayed such a degree of courage that a prominent flag officer in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) recommended him for the Victoria Cross.
Rear-Admiral L.W. Murray remarked that “the manner in which this comparatively young rating remained at his post, alone, and carried out the 133 telegraph orders, as well as the many helm orders necessary to accomplish the destruction of this submarine, whilst the wheelhouse was being pierced by explosive shells from the enemy’s Oerlikon gun and his only exit was cut off by fire, is not only in keeping with the highest traditions of the service, but adds considerably to those traditions. I am proud of the privilege to recommend Acting Chief Petty Officer Bernays for the Victoria Cross (VC).”
The RCN's Honours and Awards Committee considered Murray’s recommendation and confirmed his selection of Bernays for the VC. However, United Kingdom authorities decided that the recommendation did not meet the standard usually required for the VC, and awarded him the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal instead.
In honour of a true Canadian naval hero who exhibited outstanding leadership and heroism in the face of danger, the third of the RCN’s new Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships will be named after Max Bernays.