Heroism: On The North Atlantic

May 1, 2002 by Legion Magazine

by Robert C. Fisher

German U-boat U-210 as seen from the deck of the Canadian destroyer Assiniboine during a deadly encounter on the North Atlantic in August 1942.

The Battle of the Atlantic, which is commemorated the first Sunday in May, was the longest continuous battle of World War II. It began In September 1939 and ended in May, 1945. The Royal Canadian Navy’s main role was to enable as many merchant ships as possible to reach their destinations, which was achieved by forming merchant ships into convoys protected by warships. This effort was designed to prevent Germany from squeezing the United Kingdom into submission and to build up the machinery of war so the Allies could take the fight to Germany.

The escorts were manned primarily by the volunteers of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and the merchant ships by thousands of volunteers. The RCN lost 28 ships and approximately 2,000 men during the war. Most fought and died in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Canadian Merchant Navy lost more than 70 ships and more than 2,000 sailors. Along the way there were many individual acts of bravery, one of which is described in the following story.

We do not know our own naval history, but it holds a rich legacy of heroism at sea that deserves to be told. Only one member of the Royal Canadian Navy was awarded the Victoria Cross during World War II. He was Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, a Fleet Air Arm pilot serving in a British aircraft carrier. Gray lost his life in a deadly attack on a Japanese warship in the last days of the Pacific war. Strikingly, no Canadian received a VC for an act of valour while serving in an RCN ship.

In 1942, however, the Canadian government had strongly recommended that heroism by Chief Petty Officer Max L. Bernays, Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Assiniboine should be recognized with a VC. The government even took the extraordinary step of issuing an order-in-council, a move that may have marked the first and only time in Canadian history that such an order was issued for a VC. It is hard to know for sure because the method of indexing generally did not include separate entries for awards of the VC.

In spite of this unusual step, the British refused to put the order before the King for his approval; a refusal apparently based upon their interpretation of the strict criteria for the award but which may also have been influenced by service politics. Instead of the highest decoration, Bernays received the highly coveted Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. He was one of only two members of the RCN to receive this award—available only to non-commissioned officers and ratings serving in the Navy—during WW II.

Bernays was born in 1910 in Vancouver to a seafaring family. His father, Leopold Bernays, served in the Royal Navy during WW I and died at sea in 1917 when his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Max went to sea at an early age with the merchant marine and joined the RCNR in 1929. During the lean years of the 1930s he served with Canadian National Steamships.

The RCN called him up on the outbreak of war and he served in small ships until June 1941 when he was transferred to the corvette Matapedia as coxswain, having earned a reputation as efficient and highly conscientious. He had risen to the non-commissioned 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.

The story of his Conspicuous Gallantry Medal dates to the summer of 1942 when German U-boats preyed on Allied shipping in the North Atlantic. Fierce battles were fought around the convoys, and the RCN was in the thick of the fighting. Canadian warships sank five U-boats during that summer, none of them in more dramatic fashion than the destruction of U-210 by Assiniboine. The River-class destroyer, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander John H. Stubbs, RCN, who later went down with HMCS Athabaskan, had sailed at the beginning of August 1942 with three Canadian corvettes and three British corvettes to form the close escort of the slow convoy SC-94, which consisted of 33 merchant ships laden with cargo for war-torn Britain. The convoy steamed east at seven knots in thick fog and calm seas into the midst of 11 U-boats just beyond the range of Allied aircraft based in Newfoundland.

On Aug. 6, enemy submarines converged on the convoy. Six or seven
U-boats shadowed the convoy by the afternoon, waiting for nightfall to close and attack. The Canadian and British escort was not idle. Assiniboine and the corvettes darted about the convoy driving off U-boats and pummelling sonar contacts with depth charges. Late in the afternoon, Assiniboine’s radar picked up U-210 in visibility that fluctuated between several miles and a few hundred yards when patches of fog enveloped the destroyer. Stubbs altered course to intercept and opened fire when the enemy came into view. The startled U-boat accelerated rapidly and disappeared into the fog. Its captain, Lieutenant Rudolf Lemcke, was a veteran destroyer officer who had recently transferred to the U-boat arm to take command of the medium-size U-210. It was its first and last war patrol. Assiniboine made radar contact again at 1,200 yards and went in pursuit at full speed. Visibility fell dramatically as the destroyer closed to ram. Dr. Gilbert Tucker, the official naval historian on board for passage to England, observed what happened from the bridge: “She suddenly appeared out of the mist, and there she was, some 50 yards away, and about to cross our bow. She was a big boat, black as the night, and was less than the distance of a city block from Assiniboine’s bridge where I stood.”

Stubbs manoeuvred to ram, but Lemcke evaded the destroyer by the narrowest of margins. For almost 40 minutes the two combatants played a deadly game of hide-and-seek in the fog. Lemcke attempted to get within Assiniboine’s turning circle while Stubbs attempted to gain position to ram U-210. Guns on both ships opened fire immediately at close range in a murderous storm of bullets and high explosive shells. The close range, never more than 300 yards, prevented Assiniboine’s main armament, three 4.7-inch guns, from depressing to fire on the low silhouette of the U-boat. German gunners attempted to reach its large 88-millimetre deck gun forward of the conning tower but the destroyer’s multiple 0.5-inch machine-guns raked the deck and prevented them from bringing it into play. The U-boat’s 20-millimetre and 37mm guns more than made up for it, pounding Assiniboine’s superstructure. An early round hit gasoline tanks on the upper deck, igniting a fire that swept across the deck and engulfed the bridge and parts of the forecastle. Smoke and flames surrounded the wheelhouse where Bernays manned the helm with two telegraphmen. As the flames licked at the entrance, Bernays ordered the two junior sailors to get clear of the wheelhouse, leaving him alone at the helm as the blaze cut off his only exit. Lieutenant Ralph L. Hennessy, RCN, on Stubbs’s orders took charge of the damage control party. He recalled that he “leaped for the ladder down to the next deck to be met with a wall of flame and lots of smoke. Well, that was no good so we went over to the port side of the ship, by which time, fire had gone through the sick bay flat and was coming up that way. So we went off the back of the bridge on to the mast, and shimmied down to the deck that way.”

From his vantage point, Stubbs could see Lemcke “on the conning tower bending down occasionally to pass wheeling orders” as the two opponents battled.
U-210 took constant evading action and Stubbs “was forced to go full astern on the inside engine to prevent him getting inside our turning circle, which he was obviously trying to do.” Several times Assiniboine came close to ramming the sub only to watch the elusive target escape unscathed.

Besieged by flames in the wheelhouse, Bernays executed all of the helm orders made by Stubbs to manoeuvre for position against the U-boat and did the work of the two telegraphmen, dispatching over 130 telegraph orders to the engine room to raise or lower steam to change speed, essential for the tight manoeuvres at close quarters. To add to his discomfiture, several bullets and shells penetrated the wheelhouse during the action as the Germans concentrated their machine-gun and cannon fire on the bridge.

The destroyer’s survival depended upon the ability of Hennessy’s damage control party to get the fire under control. Tucker watched as “flames reached up three feet above the bridge railing.” Chief Petty Officer C.G. Vander Hagen remembered the heroic efforts of one sailor to battle the blaze: “Nobody was getting out in that fire wreck, and he was there laying out hoses right there in the fire.”

Gradually, the crew subdued the blaze. The gun duel continued unabated, however. The U-boat’s 20-millimetre cannon hammered Assiniboine’s most forward 4.7-inch gun, killing one Canadian, Ordinary Seaman Kenneth Watson, and wounding several others. The superior numbers of the destroyer’s machine-guns slowly began to tell 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 Lemcke and much of the bridge crew. The Germans had had enough. Stubbs watched the crew leave the conning tower one last time and, as the U-210 held a steady course to dive, he rammed it “just abaft the conning tower.” The U-boat submerged to 18 metres but the screws and electric motors were damaged, and water surged in through the shattered hull. Sub-Lieutenant Heinz Sorber, the engineer officer, now in command, had no choice but to give “the order to blow tanks and abandon ship.” Stubbs rammed the sub a second time as it bobbed to the surface and fired a shallow pattern of depth charges for good measure. One last hit on the bow by the after 4.7-inch gun concluded the action. The Germans scuttled the U-boat and abandoned ship while it slipped beneath the waves. Assiniboine and His Majesty’s Ship Dianthus rescued 38 survivors from 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 he did not emerge unscathed. Shell fragments or splinters struck him in the face leaving a permanent memento of the action embedded in his temple. Assiniboine herself sustained extensive damage. The ship’s plating was punctured in dozens of places on the waterline, gun shields, bridge, range finder, funnels and searchlight platform. The crew counted 58 shell holes. Stubbs wryly observed that “several bullets penetrated to the wheelhouse, which probably accounts for the lack of track charts for this particular period.” In addition, all of the compartments below the waterline, aft to the provision room, were flooded, and the sonar, radar, lighting and gun circuits were disabled. In this condition, Assiniboine had to withdraw from the battle and return to St. John’s, Nfld., for urgent repairs.

The successful destruction of U-210 was a testament to the skill and perseverance of Stubbs and his crew. Not surprisingly, Captain E.R. Mainguy, RCN, Captain (D) Newfoundland, recommended several of the crew for awards. Chief among these were Stubbs and Bernays. Rear Admiral L.W. Murray, RCN, Flag Officer, Newfoundland Force, endorsed the recommendations: “I consider the tenacity of Acting Lieutenant-Commander Stubbs, in facing fire from machine-gun and Oerlikon at from 100 to 300 yards range for 35 minutes, with his bridge structure on fire for a large portion of that time, is one of the outstanding feats of the war. A man of lesser determination, or of lesser skill in handling his ship, would have been unable to press the action to its successful conclusion.” Murray recommended him for the Distinguished Service Order. Of Bernays, 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 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 award of the Victoria Cross.”

With the recommendation of the Victoria Cross, it is clear Admiral Murray felt that the young service had come of age.

Murray also recommended that two officers receive the Distinguished Service Cross, eight men receive the Distinguished Service Medal, and nine men be mentioned in dispatches. Murray based his recommendations on his familiarity with the award of honours to naval personnel during submarine battles in WW I. Indeed, he felt that using this criteria that Stubbs had also qualified for the VC and offered the choice between Stubbs and Bernays to Naval Service Headquarters. If Stubbs was nominated for the VC instead, Murray considered that Bernays should receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

The RCN’s Honours and Awards Committee considered Murray’s recommendations and confirmed his selection of Bernays for the VC. In doing so, it claimed that it was “fully aware of its responsibility and has given very careful consideration to this proposed award.” Without taking anything away from the bravery and skill displayed by Stubbs, the committee felt that because of his training and responsibility as captain of the ship “he would have been more aware of the high traditions of the Service” and was expected to perform in an exemplary fashion. It recommended he receive the Distinguished Service Order. With respect to the other recommendations for awards, the committee considered that the destruction of one U-boat did not justify the number put forward by Murray. Accordingly, it reduced them to one Distinguished Service Cross (for Hennessy), five Distinguished Service medals, and 13 Mentions-in-Dispatches.

Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles, RCN, the Chief of the Naval Staff, and Angus L. Macdonald, the Minister for the Naval Service, approved the recommendation of the VC for Bernays on Sept. 19, 1942 and put it before the Privy Council of Canada. The Privy Council confirmed the award of the Victoria Cross as P.C. Order 8601 and submitted it to His Majesty the King. The citation read in full: “For valour and dauntless devotion to duty. Acting Chief Petty Officer Max Leopold Bernays was steering H.M.C.S. Assiniboine during an action fought at close range with an enemy U-boat. A fire caused by enemy shells broke out on the flag deck, compelling the telegraphmen to leave the wheelhouse, leaving Acting Chief Petty Officer Bernays alone. With complete disregard for his own safety, with flames and smoke obscuring his only exit, with enemy explosive shell fragments entering the wheelhouse, this comparatively young rating remained at his post for nearly 40 minutes.

“Appreciating the crucial importance of his duties in an action, the success of which depended in a large measure on the precise steering of the ship and the execution of telegraph orders, he not only carried out exactly and effectively all the helm orders but also dispatched 133 telegraph orders, necessary to accomplish the destruction of the U-boat.

“The…success of the sinking of this U-boat was largely due to the high courage and determination of…Bernays who, in circumstances of the gravest personal danger carried out not only his own, but two other ratings’ duties in exemplary fashion….”

The Canadian government, for perhaps the first time, had formally recommended a Canadian for the most prestigious award available to British Commonwealth military personnel. It was a watershed in the history of the RCN.

It was also, perhaps, a surprise to the Royal Navy which expected that recommendations for the highest awards would be vetted by its own Honours and Awards Committee. This committee had requested on Sept. 23, 1942 that the RCN command in Newfoundland forward its nominations from the Assiniboine action for awards. Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa replied that recommendations had already been submitted to the King through the Governor General of Canada. Unknown to the Canadian government or the Navy, on the other side of the Atlantic the VC proposal began to unravel.

The first inkling Canada had that all was not well was a telegram on Oct. 9 from Vincent Massey, Canadian High Commissioner in London, for Norman Robertson, Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs: “Victoria Cross for Petty Officer Bernays. I learn quite unofficially from the authorities here that although the bravery shown by Petty Officer Bernays was outstanding, his case would not qualify for a Victoria Cross if he were in the Royal Navy, but rather for the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal which also is a rare and highly prized decoration. I have accordingly not yet asked for the case to be put before The King, as I felt that the Canadian authorities would wish to reconsider the recommendation in view of the importance of maintaining the standards necessary for the Victoria Cross.”

Murray had based his original recommendation on his knowledge of the honours and awards practices of the RN in WW I. By this standard, Bernays had qualified for the VC. Between the wars, however, the mystique of the VC had grown and the standards applied by the armed forces in Great Britain were much higher in WW II. For example, members of the RN were awarded 50 VCs in the 1914-1919 war and only 22 in the 1939-1945 war, even though the RN saw more action in the latter war. Perhaps more surprisingly, none of these 22 VCs were awarded to a sailor engaged in anti-submarine warfare. A “big ship” mentality permeated the upper levels of the RN, possibly affecting its criteria for bestowing this highest of awards. Indeed, most of the naval VCs were awarded for attacks on large warships or action in enemy harbours.

But there may have been other forces at work against the Canadian bid. The summer of 1942 had been a period of success for the RCN. It had destroyed four German U-boats in July and August and was justifiably proud of the vital role it played in the North Atlantic convoy system and its remarkable expansion. The RN, however, did not view its achievements or expansion in such a sanguine light, as leading historian Marc Milner has revealed in his book North Atlantic Run.

Since 1941, the rumblings had grown louder about the shortcomings of the RCN. British naval officers complained of its lack of training and professionalism and attributed much of what was wrong with the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942 to the performance of the RCN. Indeed, the Admiralty and the Western Approaches Command had just launched a campaign to have Canadian warships removed from the North Atlantic run for intensive training at the hands of the British masters.

British anti-submarine experts were not loath to share with others their criticism of the RCN. Captain H.C. Fitz, an American naval officer, returned home from meetings with the RN in September 1942 and reported with astonishment: “There is no doubt that the British naval officers as a class think the Canadians very ineffective. In all the time I was there I did not hear one single word in their favour.” After one convoy battle in July 1942, Commander C. D. H. Howard-Johnston, RN, Staff Officer, Anti-Submarine at Western Approaches, denounced the Canadian escort for exhibiting “the ignorance of inexperienced officers who think that they are being offensive by acting in a reckless manner and without real consideration of their obligation to protect the convoy.” It may surprise the reader that the convoy in question, ON-115, lost only two merchant ships to a wolf pack of 12 U-boats and the Canadian escort destroyed one of them in return, making the battle an Allied victory.

Commander Donald Macintyre, RN, condemned RCN vessels as “travesties of warships” that were “unbelievably dirty and unseamanlike” and a menace to their charges. In this climate of anti-RCN sentiment, the Canadian government’s recommendation of the VC for Bernays would have received a frosty reception at the Admiralty. The award of the VC to an individual could be seen as an official stamp of approval of a unit or a service as a whole, and this was a message the RN clearly did not want to send in the autumn of 1942.

It can be imagined that Massey’s message caused considerable consternation at External Affairs and Naval Service Headquarters, which was unwilling to let the matter drop so easily and drafted a reply for Massey asking him to pursue the matter further. The RCN said it was “naturally desirous that Petty Officer Bernays be awarded the Victoria Cross” but did not wish to “depreciate the standard” set for this award. The destruction of U-210 had “aroused in the minds of the Canadian public a feeling of increased pride in the operations of its Navy. The award of the Victoria Cross to a member of the RCN would be received by the Canadian public with the greatest enthusiasm. Knowing that you will keep this in view, the RCN feels that the matter may safely be left in your hands.”

Clearly, the navy had more at stake than a simple award to one individual. It may have been motivated by professional rivalry. The Canadian Army had just received its first VC of the war for the raid on Dieppe even though it had seen less action to date than the RCN. Lobbying for an award within the service was quite normal, lobbying by a national government was much more unusual. If the VC had been awarded, some observers today might consider it tainted by political interference. Others might argue that Canada’s peculiar constitutional status, a newly independent dominion but without its own system of honours and awards, made such lobbying essential.

It is not certain how much farther Vincent Massey pursued the issue. Official files do not hold the answer. The Canadian recommendation had gone from the Governor General to the King, following political rather than military channels. How the British discussed the recommendation and decided that it did not meet the criteria is not apparent. Massey refers only to British “authorities” in his messages, not “naval” authorities. It is not clear whether the recommendation was considered formally by the Royal Navy’s Honours and Awards Committee or not. The lack of documentation on the file and Massey’s emphasis of “unofficial” discussions suggest that it was not. If it had been presented to the Honours and Awards Committee, could it have put aside the prevailing negative impressions of the RCN and given Bernays a fair hearing? Or did the British simply apply the principle that bravery shown in naval anti-submarine actions did not merit the VC? Without firm evidence, we can only speculate.

In any event, Massey replied to the Naval Board on Oct.16 that it was “a privilege to be entrusted with a matter of such importance to the RCN. I have discussed the question very fully with the United Kingdom authorities and they advise, of course quite unofficially, that this recommendation definitely does not come up to the standard usually required for the Victoria Cross.” Massey instead proposed to put forward Bernays’ name for the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal which he asserted was a highly coveted decoration of which only 42 had been awarded in the RN since the outbreak of war. Naval Service Headquarters reluctantly did not push the matter any further. The government revoked Order-in-Council P.C. 8601 awarding the VC to Bernays on Oct. 24 and replaced it with Order-in-Council P.C. 9805 awarding him the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

Seen from the perspective of 60 years, the refusal of the recommendation of the VC for Chief Petty Officer Max Bernays raises the question of national sovereignty and the ability of the Canadian government to honour its citizens as it sees fit. For whatever reason, the government was not willing to challenge the British on this issue. The RCN would wait until after the war for its first and only VC, the one awarded posthumously to Hampton Gray.

During WW II, the RN, with a maximum strength of 863,000 men and women, was awarded 22 Victoria Crosses and over 60 Conspicuous Gallantry medals. In contrast, the RCN, with a maximum strength of approximately 93,000 men and women in January 1945, was awarded one VC and two Conspicuous Gallantry Medals.

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