Biography: Chief Petty Officer Max Leopold Bernays

Chief Petty Officer Bernays was born in Vancouver, BC in 1910.  He joined the merchant marine at an early age, later in the 1930s serving with Canadian National Steamships. In 1929 he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) and was mobilized for the Second World War in 1939.  

Serving in small ships, in 1941 he became the Coxswain in the corvette HMCS Matapedia conducting convoy escort duties in the Atlantic. In March 1942, he was promoted to Acting Chief Petty Officer and drafted, as the Coxswain, to the River-class destroyer HMCS Assiniboine, also engaged in Atlantic convoy escort, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander John Stubbs RCN. 

On 6 August 1942, in an intense surface gun action against the German submarine U-210, HMCS Assiniboine maneuvered in and out of fog attempting to ram and sink the enemy submarine.  Both vessels were firing high explosive shells at very close range, causing a fire which engulfed the bridge and wheelhouse of Assiniboine. Surrounded by smoke and flames, while steering the ship, CPO Bernays ordered the two junior sailors to get clear, leaving him alone at the helm and trapped by the blaze. Besieged by flames, he executed all the helm orders as Assiniboine maneuvered 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 enemy concentrated their machine-gun and cannon fire on the bridge. Eventually Assiniboine rammed and sank U-210 in what was considered to be an extremely hard fought action, during which the Canadians suffered one fatality and 13 wounded.

He was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM) for his valour and dauntless devotion to duty during the action. There remained some controversy with this award, as the Flag Officer Newfoundland Force, Rear-Admiral L.W. Murray RCN, initially recommended him for the Victoria Cross (VC).  While the RCN Honours and Awards Committee upheld this recommendation, British authorities decided the recommendation did not meet the strict criteria of a VC and he was awarded the CGM instead – he was one of only two members of the RCN to receive the CGM during the Second World War.  Regardless, there remains a strong feeling that he deserved the higher award.

Post-war he stayed in the RCN and retired as a Chief Petty Officer on February 20, 1960. He died in North Vancouver, BC on 30 March 1974.