Chief Petty Officer Max Leopold Bernays.<br/><br/>Photo courtesy of the Bernays family.

Born in 1910 in Vancouver to a seafaring family, Max Bernays went to sea at an early age with the merchant marine and joined the Royal Canadian Navy's Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) in 1929. During the 1930's, he served with Canadian National Steamships.

Recalled by the RCN at the outbreak of the Second World War, he had achieved the rank of Acting Chief Petty Officer by March 1942 when he was elevated to coxswain of Assiniboine, a position usually held by an older sailor.

During the summer of 1942, German U-boats preyed on Allied shipping in the North Atlantic. Fierce battles were fought around the convoys, and Canadian warships sank five U-boats during that summer, none in more dramatic fashion than the destruction of U-210 by Assiniboine.

Under the command of Lieutenant-Commander John H. Stubbs, RCN, the River-class destroyer, plus three Canadian corvettes and three British corvettes, formed the close escort of the slow convoy SC-94, which comprised 33 merchant ships laden with cargo for war-torn Britain. The convoy steamed east in fog and calm seas, just beyond the range of Allied aircraft based in Newfoundland.

Six or seven U-boats shadowed the convoy on the afternoon of August 6, waiting for nightfall to close and attack. The Canadian and British escort was not idle. Assiniboine and the corvettes, driving off the U-boats and pummelling sonar contacts with depth charges. Late in the afternoon, Assiniboine's radar picked up U-210 in the fog at 1,200 yards and Assiniboine went in pursuit at full speed. Visibility fell dramatically as the destroyer closed in.

Stubbs manoeuvred to ram, but U-210 evaded him by the narrowest of margins. For almost 40 minutes the two combatants played a deadly game of hide-and-seek in the fog. U-210 attempted to get within Assiniboine's turning circle while 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 engulfed the bridge and parts of the forecastle. Surrounded by smoke and flames, Bernays ordered the two junior sailors working as telegraphmen to get clear, leaving him alone at the helm and trapped by the blaze.

Besieged by flames, Bernays executed all the helm orders as Stubbs manoeuvred for position against the U-boat, and did the work of the two telegraphmen, dispatching over 130 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 damage-control crew subdued the blaze, the duel continued unabated. The U-boat's 20 mm cannon hammered Assiniboine's forward 4.7 inch gun, killing one Canadian, Ordinary Seaman Kenneth Watson, and wounding several others. 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 the 4.7 inch gun aft to register a direct hit on the conning tower, killing much of the bridge crew.

As U-210 prepared to dive, Stubbs rammed it just abaft the conning tower. The U-boat submerged to 18 metres but water surged in through the shattered hull. The engineer officer, now in command, had no choice but to give the order to blow tanks and abandon ship. Stubbs rammed the submarine a second time and fired a shallow pattern of depth charges. One last hit on the bow and the Germans abandoned ship. Assiniboine and HMS Dianthus rescued 38 of the 48 German crew.

The hard-fought action cost the Canadian crew dearly: 13 wounded and one killed. Bernays miraculously survived the bombardment of wheelhouse and bridge but shell fragments or splinters had struck him in the face, leaving a permanent memento of the action embedded in his temple. Assiniboine herself sustained extensive damage and had to return to St. John's, Newfoundland for urgent repairs.

The successful destruction of U-210 was a testament to the skill and perseverance of Stubbs and his crew.

Several of the crew were recommended for awards. Rear Admiral L.W. Murray, RCN, Flag Officer, Newfoundland Force, remarked of Bernays 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 shell 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."

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 come up to the standard usually required for the Victoria Cross, and awarded him the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal instead. For whatever reason, the Canadian government was not willing to challenge the British on this issue, although there remains strong feeling that Bernays most definitely deserved the higher award.