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Wizard
09-27-2010, 03:58 PM
September 27, 1942.

On this date sixty-eight years ago a small but extremely fierce naval battle was fought in the South Atlantic between a German Navy auxiliary cruiser and an American freighter. The Stephen Hopkins, an American Liberty ship, had delivered a cargo to New Zealand and was returning in ballast after calling at Cape Town, South Africa, to pick up a load of bauxite ore in Dutch Guiana. She was under the command of Captain Paul Buck, with a crew of eight officers and thirty-three men, plus a Navy Armed Guard contingent of one officer and fourteen men. The Stephen Hopkins was armed with a 4”/50 caliber gun on her stern, two 37 MM guns forward, and four .50 caliber, and two .30 caliber machine guns on her bridge wings. The Stephen Hopkins’ captain, Paul Buck, had remarked to his officers and crew that, should the ship encounter a raider, there would be no meek surrender; he intended to fight his ship.

The weather in the South Atlantic that day was misty with several rain squalls that reduced visibility to a few thousand yards. The captain of the German armed merchant cruiser, Stier, Fregattenkapitän Horst Gerlach, was taking advantage of the weather to transfer supplies from the support ship, Tannenfels. The Stier displaced 4,778 tons, was capable of a speed of 14.5 knots, and was armed with six 5.9” guns, two 37 MM guns, four 20 MM guns, and two torpedo tubes. Her main battery was controlled by a fire control system that was relatively sophisticated and allowed salvo fire.

Stier had broken out into the Atlantic on May 20, and since then had sunk two freighters and a tanker. The tanker, Stanvac Calcutta, had resisted and returned Stier’s fire, hitting Stier twice and killing the entire crew of one of her 5.9” guns. The Stanvac Calcutta was one of only eleven merchant ships to be awarded the title of “Gallant Ship” by the US Maritime Administration.

Details of the encounter between the Stier and the Stephen Hopkins vary quite a bit between various accounts, but the following seems to be fairly accurate. The three ships sighted each other shortly before 0900; the Stier and Tannenfels immediately gave chase, while the Stephen Hopkins turned away, presenting her stern to the raider. After firing a warning shot and ordering the Hopkins to heave to, the Stier opened fire with all guns that would bear.

Captain Buck ordered his crew to the guns and also opened fire on the Stier. Ensign Kenneth Willett, the commander of the Armed Guard contingent, was proceeding to his battle station at the 4” gun, when he was hit by splinters from one of the first shells to hit the Hopkins. Badly wounded in the stomach, Willet nevertheless assumed command of the gun and directed it’s fire. The fire of the Hopkins’ main battery was extremely accurate despite the fact that there was no sophisticated fire control system; at least fifteen, and possibly as many as thirty-five 4” shells slammed into the Stier. Two of the very first hits destroyed her steering gear and cut the fuel lines to her main engine, leaving her drifting in a circle.

CONTINUED......

Wizard
09-27-2010, 03:59 PM
CONTINUED FROM ABOVE..........

However, the superior firepower of the Stier was also beginning to tell on the Hopkins; her engines were also hit and several fires were started. The Stier’s gunners were concentrating on her 4” gun, hoping to knock out the weapon that was causing so much damage to their own ship.

But as the Navy gun crewmen were cut down, civilian crew members of Hopkins’ crew stepped forward to take their place; the Hopkins’ 4” gun continued firing, slamming shells into the Stier’s waterline, destroying her fire mains, damaging her emergency electrical generator, and starting fires forward and amidships. Not only was Stier drifting without power or steering, but without electricity, her shell hoists stopped and ammunition had to be manhandled to her guns. Moreover, her pumps could not staunch her flooding and there was no means to fight her growing fires.

Both ships were raking each other with their lighter guns and machine guns; the Hopkins’ second officer was directing the fire of the two 37 MM guns on the forecastle and the machine guns on the Hopkins’ bridge wings continued to fire at the Stier’s bridge. The battle went on for 20 to 30 minutes, during which time both ships sustained fatal damage.

Finally, the 4” magazine on the Hopkins’ blew up, killing the gun crew and silencing the gun. Captain Buck gave the order to abandon ship, as it was clear the Hopkins’ was sinking. Coming up from the blazing, flooding engine room, a young Merchant Marine Cadet named Edwin O’Hara rushed to the 4” gun platform to see if there were any wounded who might be saved. He found everyone dead, but noticed five rounds of 4” ammunition remaining in a ready box. Single handedly, he loaded and fired all five rounds, hitting the Stier with each one.

Only nineteen Hopkins’ crewman made it into a lifeboat, many wounded. They evaded a search by the Stier’s crew and, after a 31-day voyage, fifteen survivors landed on the coast of Brazil.

At the end of the Battle, the Stier was not in much better shape than the Stephen Hopkins. Stier’s main engine was briefly restarted, but her steering gear could not be fixed. Additionally she was flooding through shell and splinter holes near her waterline, and could not operate her pumps. Her fire mains were destroyed and her crew tried to fight her uncontrollable fires with buckets, but it was hopeless. With the fires nearing a hold where torpedoes were stored and no means of flooding that space, Captain Gerlach realized his ship could not be saved; he ordered abandon ship. Some accounts claim scuttling charges finished the Stier, others say the torpedoes were set off by the fires. Regardless, the Stier exploded and sank at noon, two hours after her intended prey.

Stier’s crew were stunned at the amount of damage which had been done to their ship by what appeared to be a harmless freighter. They were impressed by the courage of the Hopkins’ crew in facing the superior firepower of the raider and sticking to their guns. Upon his return to Germany, Gerlach claimed he had engaged an armed merchant cruiser or auxiliary warship armed with a 6” gun and several 4” guns. The US Maritime Administration awarded the Stephen Hopkins the title of “Gallant Ship”, and a destroyer escort was named after Ensign Willet. Captain Buck was honored by having a Liberty ship named after him. A building at the Merchant Marine Academy was named after Cadet O’Hara.

http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/Admin-Hist/173-ArmedGuards/173-AG-4.html

http://www.bismarck-class.dk/hilfskreuzer/stier.html

http://www.historynet.com/the-last-raider-july-97-world-war-ii-feature.htm

Deaf Smith
09-27-2010, 09:51 PM
Just goes to show you, it's not the size of the dog in the fight that counts, but the fight in the dog. And the Stephen Hopkins had alot of fight in her.

Deaf

Rising Sun*
09-28-2010, 08:20 AM
Coming up from the blazing, flooding engine room, a young Merchant Marine Cadet named Edwin O’Hara rushed to the 4” gun platform to see if there were any wounded who might be saved. He found everyone dead, but noticed five rounds of 4” ammunition remaining in a ready box. Single handedly, he loaded and fired all five rounds, hitting the Stier with each one.

Only nineteen Hopkins’ crewman made it into a lifeboat, many wounded. They evaded a search by the Stier’s crew and, after a 31-day voyage, fifteen survivors landed on the coast of Brazil.

Reminds me of Teddy Sheehan and the HMAS Armidale in WWII.


On 29 November [1942] Armidale sailed for Japanese-occupied Timor—in company with the corvette H.M.A.S. Castlemaine—to withdraw the exhausted Australian 2nd/2nd Independent Company, evacuate about 150 Portuguese civilians and 190 Dutch troops, and land soldiers to reinforce Dutch guerrillas on the island. Arriving off Betano before dawn on 1 December, the ships rendezvoused with the naval tender H.M.A.S. Kuru, which had already taken the civilians on board. When these people were transferred to Castlemaine, she sailed for Darwin, leaving the other two vessels to carry out the rest of the operation. From 12.28 p.m. Armidale and Kuru came under repeated attack from Japanese aircraft. Despite requests, no air cover was received.

Shortly before 2 p.m. on 1 December 1942 Armidale, by then separated from Kuru, was attacked by no less than thirteen aircraft. The corvette manoeuvred frantically. At 3.15 a torpedo struck her port side and another hit the engineering spaces; finally a bomb struck aft. As the vessel listed heavily to port, the order was given to abandon ship. The survivors leapt into the sea and were machine-gunned by the Japanese. Once he had helped to free a life-raft, Sheean scrambled back to his gun on the sinking ship. Although wounded in the chest and back, the 18-year-old sailor shot down one bomber and kept other aircraft away from his comrades in the water. He was seen still firing his gun as Armidale slipped below the waves. Only forty-nine of the 149 souls who had been on board survived the sinking and the ensuing days in life-rafts.

Sheean was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery. A Collins-class submarine, launched in 1999, was named after him—the only ship in the R.A.N. to bear the name of an ordinary seaman. http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A160265b.htm