Undaunted by fire: the legacy of Chief Petty Officer Max Bernays

Max Bernays

Chief Petty Officer Max Bernays. Photo: Canada.ca

Lt(N) Anastasiya Karakoy, 
HMCS Max Bernays UPAR

Many of us who have held the privilege of living in relative peace and stability find great challenge in appreciating the full magnitude of adversity faced by the generations who came before us.

For the thousands of members currently serving in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), walking into work at HMC Dockyard on a calm, sunny Halifax morning makes it difficult to imagine this same place, less than a century ago, as an assembly point for the countless ships serving in the Battle of the Atlantic, the success of which fundamentally supported Allied victory in the Second World War.

The hardship faced during the Battle of the Atlantic gives rise to some of the most inspiring stories of courage and heroism Canada has ever known. The story of Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Max Bernays is just one of these stories. It serves as an indispensable example of bravery which will continue to inspire generations of Canadians. 

Who was Max Bernays?

Born in 1910 in Vancouver, Max Bernays was from a sea-faring family. He spent his early years in the merchant marine before joining the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) in 1929, being mobilized for the Second World War a decade later.

With only limited experience in the position on smaller ships, Max Bernays was promoted to Acting Chief Petty Officer in March 1942 and appointed as Coxswain of the River-class destroyer HMCS Assiniboine, a position normally held by a more experienced sailor.

Young Max Bernays and his ship would soon be engaged in North Atlantic convoy escort operations under the leadership of Lieutenant-Commander John Stubbs.

Fire aboard HMCS Assiniboine

On Aug. 6, 1942, just several months after CPO Bernays’ appointment as Coxswain, HMCS Assiniboine engaged in a fierce surface gun battle against the German submarine U-210. Both the bridge and wheelhouse of Assiniboine were engulfed by fire from shells launched by U-210 at close range.

Steering the ship as flames and smoke surrounded him, CPO Bernays ordered the two telegraph operators in the wheelhouse to leave for safety. Alone, injured, and trapped by the fire, CPO Bernays continued executing all helm orders while dispatching over 130 telegraph orders to the engine room.

CPO Bernays’ tenacity in the face of this seemingly insurmountable adversity guaranteed HMCS Assiniboine’s defeat of U-210, with minimal losses sustained to Assiniboine’s ship’s company.

Recognising Bernays

For his bravery during Assiniboine’s confrontation with U-210, CPO Bernays was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM), a medal awarded to himself and only one other individual in the RCN during the Second World War.

The courage shown by CPO Bernays onboard HMCS Assiniboine was so impressive it caught the attention of prominent RCN flag officer Rear-Admiral L.W. Murray. He recommended CPO Bernays be awarded the highly prestigious Victoria Cross (VC). Although, at the time, authorities in the United Kingdom decided the recommendation did not meet the strict criteria required for the VC, strong feelings remained that CPO Bernays’ bravery deserved this higher award.

In September 2014, the Government of Canada announced each vessel in the RCN’s new class of Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) would be named in honour of prominent Canadian heroes who had served the RCN. Subsequently, CPO Bernays became the namesake of Canada’s third AOPS.

HMCS Max Bernays named

The RCN accepted HMCS Max Bernays from Irving Shipbuilding Inc. on Sept. 2, 2022. The current inaugural crew of HMCS Max Bernays comprises a relatively small team of highly competent and highly-motivated sailors. All of them take great pride in the origin of their ship’s name.

The ship’s motto, ‘Interriti Impetus’, translates from Latin as ‘Undaunted by Fire’, a tribute to the heroism Max Bernays displayed while under enemy fire and surrounded by flames onboard the Assiniboine.

The pride for HMCS Max Bernays felt by its crew has its roots in the heroic actions of CPO Bernays. His legacy has inspired many East Coast sailors during the ship’s short time in the Halifax Dockyard. It will undoubtedly inspire many more sailors for years to come with the transfer of HMCS Max Bernays to Esquimalt soon.

HMCS Max Bernays

HMCS Max Bernays. Photo: Canada.ca

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