Margaret Brooke was recognized as a hero for trying to save her friend when the ferry in which they sailing was torpedoed during the Second World War, but her life shows that heroism and valour are not merely acts of the moment.
Brooke died Jan. 9 in Victoria in her 101st year. But she will long be remembered — one of the navy’s new Arctic patrol vessels will bear her name.
HMCS Margaret Brooke is one of the six new ships to be named after naval heroes. Another — HMCS Max Bernays — will carry the name of a late Colwood resident in honour of his heroism during the war.
Brooke was born in April 10, 1915, in the tiny community of Ardath, Sask. Uncharacteristically, for that time and place, she went to university, thanks to a determined mother who believed in education. She earned a bachelor of health sciences degree from the University of Saskatchewan, then went on to an internship at Ottawa Civic Hospital to earn her clinical-dietitian designation.
In 1942, she joined the navy, serving as a nurse/dietitian in navy hospitals at various bases, including Esquimalt.
While serving at HMCS Avalon in Newfoundland, Sub-Lt. Brooke and her friend and fellow nurse, Sub-Lt. Agnes Wilkie, were returning from leave on Oct. 14, 1942, when their ferry, the Caribou, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the middle of the night.
This is Brooke’s account, given in a hospital interview:
“When the torpedo hit, it stunned me. Agnes got up quickly, however, and we rushed to our lifeboat on the port side. It had been shot away. Agnes didn’t know how to put her lifebelt on, so I did it for her. They helped us onto a capsized lifeboat.
“There were about a dozen of us. We clung to ropes. The waves kept washing us off, one by one. And eventually, Agnes said she was getting cramped. She let go, but I managed to catch hold of her with one hand. I held to her as best I could until daybreak.
“Finally, a wave took her …. When I called to her, she didn’t answer.”
For her bravery in trying to save her friend, Brooke was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire, the highest honour a woman could receive at that time.
She served in the navy for 20 years, retiring with the rank of lieutenant commander. She returned to the University of Saskatchewan, earning a PhD in paleontology. She stayed at the U of S as an instructor and researcher.
When serving in Esquimalt during the war, she fell in love with the Island, so when she retired in 1986, she moved to Victoria.
Retirement for her was not a sedentary life — she kept busy with a variety of interests, including volunteering at Craigdarroch Castle and Government House, the residence of B.C.’s lieutenant-governor.
Last year, on her 100th birthday, she received a phone call from then-defence minister Jason Kenney, informing her of the decision to honour her wartime valour and naval service by naming one of the new ships after her.
While pleased with the honour, she was still haunted by the loss of her friend in Cabot Strait. “I try not to think of that day too often, though,” she said. “It’s too hard.”
Bernays, the Colwood war hero, didn’t live to see his name on a ship — he died in 1974. However, family members said he would have been humbled by the honour, but happy.
“It’s so well-deserved — he was a hero,” said his daughter-in-law Marilyn Bernays when Julian Fantino, then-associate minister of defence, announced the naming of HMCS Max Bernays at CFB Esquimalt last May.
Bernays was at the helm of HMCS Assiniboine during the Battle of the Atlantic on Aug. 6, 1942, when enemy gunfire started a fire in the wheelhouse. He sent two junior sailors away from the smoke and flames, and as bullets and shells from machine-gun and cannon fire pierced the wheelhouse, he sent the orders that drove the ship into the German submarine, sinking it.
Bernays was originally recommended for the Victoria Cross, but was instead awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal by the British Admiralty for his courage, making him one of only two members of the Royal Canadian Navy to receive the honour during the Second World War.
Rock stars, movie stars and highly paid professional athletes seem to grab most of the headlines these days, while in the obituaries, we see the passing, almost daily, of quiet heroes who made a difference. They should not be forgotten — HMCS Margaret Brooke and HMCS Max Bernays will help ensure they won’t.
At a time when we are assailed by so much shallow glamour and empty celebrity, it’s gratifying to see honours awarded for lives of substance and true heroism.