August 6, 1942. Thirty-two year-old Vancouver, B.C. native Chief Petty Officer Max Bernays is the coxswain of HMCS Assiniboine, plowing her way towards England as part of a group of escorts protecting a convoy of badly needed supplies. He comes from a naval family, his father having been killed when his ship was torpedoed while serving with the Royal Navy during the First World War. Max enlisted in the fledgling RCN in 1929 as a member of the Volunteer reserve, spending the interwar years sailing on merchant ships, but was recalled when hostilities broke out in 1939.

The war to this point is not going well at all for the Allies, and is referred to by Germany’s U boat crews as the “happy times.” By December, hostile forces will have sunk over 1,000 merchant and naval vessels, not only sending hundreds of thousands of tons of materiel to the bottom, but more importantly, inflicting heavy losses amongst the merchant marine and military crews at a time when they are most desperately needed. Even though U boats are running rampant through the convoys, they are not always able to escape unscathed.

The weather is miserable with visibility affected by low scudding clouds and fog banks. One minute, lookouts can see several miles; the next, no more than several metres. Assiniboine has been busy driving off the enemy and pounding solid sonar contacts with a flurry of depth charges and then racing back to her position, ready to do it all over again.

In one of the brief moments when not wrapped in a thick blanket of fog, the escort spots the submarine U 210 on the surface less than a mile away. Max is at the helm as the order comes down for full ahead. Within seconds the engine room crew responds and the ship throbs with power as the screws churn the water hard, pushing Assiniboine ever faster toward her target.

The intention is to ram the sub but at the last possible second the U boat swerves away, sparing herself the collision by the narrowest of margins.

Now hunter and hunted twist and turn on the angry sea, Assiniboine trying to open the gap enough to engage her main weapons and the sub trying to stay in tight as she hammers the Canadian vessel with her anti-aircraft guns. The frigate answers back with everything at her command, the crew even using rifles and pistols. In the wheelhouse Max is flinging the helm back and forth as the Captain struggles to get some manoeuvring room. Some of the shells from the enemy set a storage rack of gasoline cans on the upper deck on fire, so Bernays sends the two men who are with him to help deal with the new threat, knowing that if they don’t succeed in dousing the flames, he won’t survive.

For the next forty minutes he handles the helm, engine telegraph and engine speed indicators flawlessly even as bullets whistle through the portal, showering him with hot splinters as they hammer into the bulkhead. Max does the job of three men dealing with 130 separate course and speed changes all by himself.

Finally, Assiniboine gets the upper hand, and U 210 meets a watery grave. The fight is over but the cost is high. Thirteen men are wounded and one killed during the intense firefight. The frigate is also badly shot up and must return to port for repairs, remaining out of action until January of the next year.

For dedication to duty and total disregard for his own personal safety Max is recommended for the Victoria Cross. The government even goes so far as to take the unprecedented step of issuing an order in council in support of the recommendation, but the request is declined. He is awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry medal instead.

CPO Bernays continues his naval career after the war, serving again in Korea and even getting a chance to greet his 18-year-old son, also called Max, who is serving on HMCS Souix, while at sea in the Marshall Islands. It is a poignant but all too brief meeting between the two and caps the chief’s long and event filled career before finally retiring to a well-deserved life ashore.

Nick Vandergragt, of CFRA and a former navy seaman, is the author and narrator of Answer the Call.