TAYLOR: The Canadian naval hero who sank a German submarine

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They were known as the wolf packs – the the brainchild of Nazi Admiral Karel Donitz – the submarine fleet that struck terror into the hearts of Allied sailors, merchants and servicemen, throughout the Battle of the Atlantic in WWII.

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British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, « The only thing that really scared me in the war was the peril of submarines. »

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He was right to fear this enemy because the Atlantic was the main supply route that kept Britain alive during the war and early in the battle the Germans cut its blood.

As the author of the wolf pack strategy, Donitz watched with pride, from his land headquarters in occupied France, as groups of up to 30 or more German submarines banded together to hunt down Allied merchant shipping en route to Britain, send them to the bottom.

At first, the strategy worked too well and the losses piled up at an alarming rate.

By mid-1942, an average of 160 Allied ships were being lost each month, resulting in around 630,000 tons of naval equipment, life-saving appliances and supplies being denied to the UK by the time it had the time. Not needed anymore.

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In March 1943, with a fleet of some 400 submarines under his command, Donitz slamming the door on Britain’s only supply route, or so it seemed.

Fortunately, the allies had been working overtime to coordinate naval and air force efforts to counter the submarines by outfitting them with the latest technology.

This included installing newly invented long-range radar and 135-kilogram air-launched depth charges to blast submarines out of the water.

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Donitz continued to be the darling of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler even as the effectiveness of the wolf packs began to decline after May 1943, with some 30,000 German crewmen and 648 submarines perishing in the depths.

Indeed, after Hitler’s suicide at the end of the war and in accordance with his last will and testament, Donitz became the German head of state, having survived only to be convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg and serving 10 years in prison.

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On August 6, 1942, all hell broke loose for the crew of the Canadian destroyer HMCS Assiniboine.

Under the direction of Lt.-Cmdr. John Stubbs, the Assiniboine, along with three Canadian and three British corvettes, had escorted a slow convoy of 33 merchant ships en route to Britain.

On calm seas, in thick fog, the ships were just beyond Newfoundland air cover when a pack of six or seven Nazi submarines began to sniff their heels and wait for night before they set sail. ‘tackle.

Acting Chief Petty Officer Max Bernays was at the helm of the Assiniboine when the action began.

Born in Vancouver into a family of sailors in 1910, Bernays spent most of his life at sea, serving 10 years in the Merchant Navy and join the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1929.

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He was called up for active service during the war and when the Assiniboine was attacked he was in the ship’s wheelhouse as coxswain.

HMCS Max Bernays, pictured here conducting sea trials off Halifax, Nova Scotia, will enter active service in the Arctic in 2023.
HMCS Max Bernays, pictured here conducting sea trials off Halifax, Nova Scotia, will enter active service in the Arctic in 2023. Photo by National Defense / Canadian Armed Forces /Toronto Sun

The ship’s crew got their first glimpse of U-Boat 210 as it cruised across the bow of the Assiniboine, gliding like a ghost, in and out of the fog.

The two ships closed to about 200 meters, raking each other with high explosives and 50 caliber shells, inflicting serious damage on both sides.

Bernays stuck to his post, and as 20mm shells ripped through Assiniboine’s wheelhouse, setting it on fire, he ordered two junior telegraphers to run for their lives.

Alone amid the smoke and flames, he carried out his commander’s orders, maneuvering his ship into hand-to-hand combat with the enemy and ignoring the hellfire of hostile shells tearing through his wheelhouse.

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Within 30 minutes, Assiniboine destroyed U210’s conning tower, killing her commander and all those on watch with him, ramming the German submarine twice and sinking it.

It was a costly encounter for the Canadians. Although wounded, 18-year-old Leading Seaman Ken Watson continued to fight alongside his gunnery comrades until he was cut down by enemy fire.

He was buried at sea, along with 13 other injured crew, before the badly damaged Assiniboine limped back to Newfoundland harbour.

Royal Canadian Navy flag officer Rear Admiral Leonard Murray said he was « proud of the privilege » of recommending Max Bernays for the Victoria Cross, but the lords of the British Admiralty judged his acts « not up to the standard usually required for the Victoria Cross ». VC” and awarded him the Medal of Outstanding Bravery instead, one of only two awarded to sailors in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War.

Canada disagreed with the decision not to honor Bernays with the Victoria Cross, but recognized Bernays’ heroism in 2015, 41 years after his death, when an offshore patrol vessel from the Arctic was named in his honor. HMCS Max Bernays, currently in the final stages of preparation, will enter active service in 2023.

Bernays deserved nothing less for his gallant place in the annals of Canadian naval warfare.

— Colonel Gilbert Taylor, (Honorary Col. Retired) is Past President of the Royal Canadian Military Institute and the Last Post Fund Ontario Branch

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