Share This Article

It was a gloomy morning that greeted the crew of the 7,181-ton Liberty ship Stephen Hopkins on September 27, 1942. Rain squalls, high winds and poor visibility were cause enough for misery, even without the possibility of stumbling on a venturesome enemy submarine making her way from Cape Town to Paramaribo. Stephen Hopkins was somewhere in the southern Atlantic Ocean, east of Brazil, far from the crucial sea lanes between the United States and Britain that were then the object of a desperate struggle between the U-boats of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine and the Allied merchant fleets and their naval escorts. Even so, the German navy had a policy of keeping a worldwide presence, even if it was just a token presence. Whether one encountered a North Atlantic wolf pack or a lone sub taking a breather from the main action for easier pickings, one torpedo in the right spot was all that was required to bring an Allied merchant ship’s voyage to a violent end. If anything, though, the dirty weather was to Stephen Hopkins’ advantage, because it had an even more adverse effect on the visibility, speed and seaworthiness of a surfaced submarine.

At 8:52 a.m., Stephen Hopkins was warily approaching a squall that lay astride her path when the silhouette of another merchantman took shape within the curtain of rain, followed by yet another. As the strangers emerged from the squall, Third Mate Walter Nyberg, standing watch on Stephen Hopkins’ bridge, ordered hard right to avoid a collision, while the ship’s captain, Paul Buck, came up to look the strangers over. Suddenly, the two ships hoisted the swastika-bedecked ensigns of the Deutsches Kriegsmarine. As Stephen Hopkins turned and fled, the nearest German ship opened fire with a 37mm cannon. Six minutes later, Stephen Hopkins came under the fire of the deadly 5.9-inch shells of a light cruiser. Any hope of escape evaporated as the German ship gave chase at roughly twice Stephen Hopkins’ speed.

During Stephen Hopkins’ maiden voyage, Captain Buck had remarked to his men that he would fight if he ever encountered a German surface raider. Now he would have his chance, for the vessels whose paths he had crossed were the armed merchant cruiser Stier and the blockade-runner Tannenfels.

Stier, known in the German navy as “Schiff 23” and to her British enemies as “Raider J,” had originally been the 4,418-ton merchant ship Cairo. Built at the Krupp-Germaniawerft at Kiel, Cairo had a length of 408.5 feet, a beam of 56.6 feet and a draft of 21.4 feet. As a cargo vessel, she had served in the Atlas-Levant Line. Then, in April 1941, she was armed with six 5.9-inch guns, two 37mm and four 20mm guns, two torpedo tubes and two Arado Ar-231 reconnaissance aircraft for a piratical existence in the service of the Third Reich. Formally commissioned on November 11, she was christened Stier (bull) by her captain, Kapitänleutnant Horst Gerlach, in reference to Taurus, which was his wife’s astrological sign.

Stier’s maximum speed of 14.5 knots was better than that of most of her mercantile counterparts, although one of her officers, Fregattenleutnant Ludolf Petersen, a veteran of earlier sea-raiding sorties, still thought her too slow to be as effective as her predecessors. Petersen also thought her crew to be too inexperienced. Her guns, mounted above decks, could not easily be disguised. Nevertheless, Stier was earmarked to take part in the second wave of disguised raiders that were to be unleashed in 1942. The earlier raiding campaign of 1940-1941 had been remarkably well-coordinated and brilliantly successful for the number of ships and the worldwide range involved. Although the number of Allied cargo vessels that the disguised raiders had sunk or captured was barely comparable to Allied losses to U-boats, the disguised raiders had accounted for far more Allied ships than had the regular warships of the Kriegsmarine. The disguised raiders also had been far more successful in accomplishing their other objective: to maintain a long-standing maritime menace that forced the Royal Navy to stretch its resources over the world’s oceans. In the course of that campaign, the daring and resourceful tactics of these lone privateers had put the names of the German vessels Orion, Widder, Komet, Pinguin, Thor, Kormoran and Atlantis in the newspapers and in the history books. And the devastation they wrought was not exclusively confined to unarmed or poorly armed merchantmen, either. Thor had sunk the British armed merchant cruiser Voltaire and damaged two others. When Kormoran was cornered and sunk on November 19, 1940, she managed to take her adversary with her–the damage she had inflicted on the Australian light cruiser Sydney caused it to blow up with all hands shortly after Kormoran sank.

By the middle of 1941, all the raiders had returned to their home ports except Kormoran, Pinguin and Atlantis, which had been caught and sunk by Allied cruisers. Then came a succession of setbacks for the German commerce raiding effort. On May 27, the five-day cruise of the mightiest warship in the Kriegsmarine, the battleship Bismarck, ended in a fiery spectacle. Even while the consequences of that disaster were being appraised, Hitler launched his invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22. As the Western nations began sending goods and materiel to their new Russian allies via Murmansk, Hitler concentrated his high seas fleet in the north to oppose the Arctic convoys. In February 1942, the major warships remaining in France–battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen–dashed up the English Channel to complete the concentration of German sea power in the Arctic. Their success was a profound embarrassment to the British, but it had also gathered the German surface warships in a much smaller area, enabling the Allies to concentrate their own forces to safeguard the convoys, keep the Germans under surveillance and hunt them down.

By early 1942, German hopes of reopening the commerce-raiding campaign were faced with the loss of one of their key routes for slipping by the Royal Navy–since Birmarck’s foray through the Denmark Strait, that passage between Iceland and Greenland was being more heavily patrolled. Furthermore, on December 8, 1941, the United States entered the war and added the ships of their powerful fleet to the Allied cause. On the other hand, Japan now offered sanctuary in her ports to any German raider that should break out into the open sea. If things got too hot for the German ship to slip home through the Allied gantlet to Kiel or Brest, then they could carry on the war from Singapore or Yokohama. In any case, with the Battle of the Atlantic reaching a new peak, the Kriegsmarine placed renewed hopes on the ability of new raiders in the southern oceans to divert Allied warships from more vital tasks. The German’s first challenge, however, would be getting the raiders out to sea–they would be sailing the route of the “Channel Dash” in reverse, via the Bay of Biscay ports, before making for open ocean.

The second wave of commerce raiding was inaugurated by two veterans of the first wave–Thor departed Bordeaux on January 14, and Michel left Kiel on March 9. Both ships made their breakouts smoothly.

Stier, on her first foray, was not so fortunate. The British were becoming more vigilant in the Channel. During Michel’s run down the Channel between March 13 and 20, the Germans had thought it prudent to send along a torpedo boat escort. As she left Rotterdam on May 12, Stier got an even bigger escort–six motor minesweepers, six larger vessels from the 2nd Minesweeper Flotilla and four from the 8th Minesweeper Flotilla preceded her in three V-formations, while Seeadler, Iltis, Kondor and Falke of the 5th Torpedo Boat Flotilla closely boxed her within a diamond formation. The Germans may have overdone it. The convoy was impossible to disguise, and one merchant vessel afforded so many consorts could only have led the British to conclude that she was a special target worth taking equally special pains to dispose of.

As the convoy passed within sight of Dover, the British batteries spotted them and opened fire but failed to score any hits. The British alerted all motor torpedo boats in the area to Stier’s presence, however, and at 4 a.m. on May 13, the lookouts on Iltis spotted a torpedo track to port. The German torpedo boat’s skipper, Kapitänleutnant Jacobsen, ordered both engines full astern, but it was too late. Another torpedo, launched by MTB-221, struck Iltis just abaft her forward funnel, and she broke in two. As she sank off Stier’s starboard side, a confused night battle erupted between German guns and British torpedoes. Nine minutes after Iltis had been hit, Seeadler, at the forward point of the protective diamond, took an amidships torpedo hit from MTB-219. Seeadler rolled over to port, hurling her captain off the bridge and into the sea, where he watched his ship go the way of Iltis–broken in two and quickly vanishing with heavy loss of life. Eventually, the British disengaged, after losing MTB-220 and failing to do any damage to Stier. As Stier left the port of Royan in the Gironde and headed southwest into the Atlantic on May 20, Gerlach and his crew hoped that they might avenge the sacrifice of their escorts. That could only be done by sinking enemy mercantile tonnage, while simultaneously attracting and evading Allied warships.

Their first opportunity came on June 4 when Stier encountered the 4,986-ton British Gemstone in the Atlantic narrows 175 miles east of Brazil’s St. Paul Rocks. Gemstone had been carrying a load of iron ore from Cape Town to Baltimore, Md., which ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic while her crew became unwilling guests of the Reich. That night, three aircraft flew over Stier, but Gerlach–who had been promoted to Korevettenkapitän on June 1–ordered her hove to in order to subdue her bow wave and wake and was not noticed.

Stier ran into a feistier victim on June 6. The 10,170-ton Panamanian tanker Stanvac Calcutta returned fire with a 3-inch bow gun and 4-inch after gun and was taken only after Stier had expended 148 rounds and a torpedo, killing the tanker’s captain, Gustaf O. Karlsson, and 15 of her crew. Fortunately for the Germans, they had destroyed the Stanvac Calcutta’s radio and killed her radio officer with their first salvo before a distress call could be sent. Stanvac Calcutta’s chief mate, Auge H. Knudsen, and 36 oil-soaked crewmen were recovered from the Atlantic; one would die of his wounds later, and another would later die in Japanese captivity.

These promising first successes were to be Stier’s last for more than two months. She managed to lose herself to her enemies in the vastness of the southern Atlantic Ocean, but the rare lone merchantmen were also lost to her. On June 10 and 15, she met and refueled from Charlotte Schliemann, one of the blockade-running cargo ships delegated to sustain her at sea. She also took the opportunity to transfer 68 prisoners to the supply vessel.

After a long dry spell, in early July Gerlach tried using his aircraft to locate victims only to declare that the Ar-231, an underpowered little contraption that had been designed to be stowed aboard U-boats, was “totally unsuited for the Atlantic, even under the most favorable circumstances.” Sergeant Karl Heinz Decker, the Ar-231’s designated pilot, found that he could not take off unless he removed the radio and a quarter of the fuel from its tank. During landing, the starboard strut broke and the fragile aircraft capsized. Decker tried again on July 5, but the Ar-231 broke an undercarriage strut and nosed over during landing. After that, Gerlach gave up on aerial reconnaissance.

On July 27, Stier put the last of her prisoners aboard Charlotte Schliemann, and the next day she effected a wary rendezvous with Michel north of the island of St. Helena. After establishing their identities, the two raiders tried to conduct a joint sweep, but lost contact with one another. As if the more successful Michel’s luck had rubbed off on her, however, Stier encountered the 7,072-ton British merchantman Dalhousie 250 miles east of Trinidad at 8:15 a.m. After a lengthy chase, Stier caught up with her quarry at 12:48, and Dalhousie’s 37 crewmen abandoned ship as it began to sink at the stern. The British vessel managed to get off a radio message before being caught, and with their presence compromised, Stier’s and Michel’s captains decided to go their separate ways.

At that point, Captain Gerlach wanted to round the Cape of Good Hope and try his luck in the Indian Ocean, but the operational staff at naval headquarters ordered him to remain in the Atlantic, astride the Cape Town­River Plate route, and to investigate Gough Island for suitability as a possible raider base. After completing that assignment, Gerlach again rendezvoused with Charlotte Schliemann on August 27 and transferred his latest bag of prisoners. That transfer was unfortunate for the prisoners, because Charlotte Schliemann was on a run to Japan and would leave them in Japan’s less-than-compassionate care.

On September 4, Stier sighted the French ship Pasteur, but that potential victim managed to escape. Another vessel was picked up on radar on September 19, only to be lost after a 24-hour pursuit. Following another rendezvous with Michel on September 24, Stier met the blockade-runner Tannenfels 650 miles north-northwest of Tristan da Cunha the next day. The two steamed together until the morning of September 27, when they emerged from a rain squall to the welcome sight of an American freighter, which Captain Gerlach promptly attacked.

His quarry, Stephen Hopkins, had been launched from Kaiser’s yard in Richmond, Calif., on April 14, 1942, delivered to the Maritime Administration on May 11 and subsequently managed by the Luckenbach Steamship Company. Among the first 20 of an eventual 2,750 Liberty ships to be mass-produced in the United States, Stephen Hopkins was on the final leg of her maiden voyage, which had taken her to New Zealand, Australia and Africa. She was carrying ballast from Cape Town to Paramaribo, where she was to pick up a load of Bauxite, when she crossed Stier’s path.

Capable of no more than 11 knots, the Liberty ship was rapidly overtaken. Captain Buck’s intention to fight seemed equally hopeless. To oppose Stier’s formidable firepower, Stephen Hopkins carried one World War I-vintage cannon aft, which fired a 4-inch, 33-pound projectile, along with two forward-mounted 37mm guns and six machine guns. Nevertheless, as the confident Germans closed to 1,000 yards range, Buck ordered his ship cleared for action, while his radio officer, Hudson Hewey, tried to get off a raider alert, but his transmission was jammed by Stier.

When the first shells hit, Chief Mate Richard Moczkowski fell with shrapnel wounds and Ordinary Seaman Roger H. Piercy ran to the 4-inch gun and found it being commanded by the ship’s youngest crewman, Cadet Midshipman Edwin J. O’Hara, who normally worked in the engine room. A student at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, N.Y., O’Hara had become friends with the commander of Stephen Hopkins’ 14-man naval armed guard, Ensign Kenneth M. Willett, USNR, and had practiced at the gun during his off-duty hours. That training now paid off, for Willett had been hit by a shell fragment while on his way to the gun. As Piercy helped man the weapon, however, he saw Willett, his entrails hanging from a stomach wound, approach to take charge.

As luck would have it, Hopkins’ first shot jammed Stier’s helm and her second cut a feed pipe in the raider’s engine room, leaving her unable to move or bring her torpedo tubes to bear. Gerlach, however, still managed to bring the American ship to a halt with his 5.9-inch guns, augmented by his 37mm weapons, and wrought devastation upon her. Tannenfels joined in the melee, raking Hopkins’ deck with machine-gun fire. Willett’s gun crew defended their ship as best they could, assisted by the 37mm guns under the direction of Second Mate Joseph Layman. Gun crewmen were cut down under a hail of German fire, but their places were filled by Stephen Hopkins’ crewmen, who kept up a steady fire that repeatedly scored hits on Stier, including several below the waterline. One American shell set the fuel bunker on fire, while others hit the officers’ quarters, both hospitals and the bridge. The seventh of 15 4-inch hits penetrated the crew’s quarters and landed on the diesel generator, setting fire to mattresses and wooden lockers in an adjoining compartment. Another shell knocked out Stier’s electrical power, paralyzing the ammunition hoists. When a hit on the fire mains rendered the fire hoses useless, Stier’s crew had to resort to fighting the blaze by forming a bucket brigade. As the raider’s main engine stopped, Petersen found his best friend, the ships’ doctor, dying. Two other crewmen were dead, five severely wounded and 28 suffered from minor wounds.

Despite the damage Stephen Hopkins’ gunners were inflicting, the Germans’ overwhelming fire was also taking its toll, blowing away one of the 37mm mounts, killing Layman and the other 37mm gun crew, and killing or wounding the entire 4-inch gun crew, save Ensign Willett. As he tried to man the gun alone, the magazine blew up, and he, too, fell. With Stephen Hopkins’ main defense silenced and her engine room ablaze, Captain Buck reluctantly ordered abandon ship.

While the crew was carrying out that order, they again heard the harsh bark of their 4-inch gun. It was being manned by O’Hara, who had seen Willett being carried away as he emerged from the burning engine room and immediately rushed to the gun tub. Finding five unexpended shells, he loaded and fired them at Stier and Tannenfels and managed to score hits with all five. Only after the last of the ammunition had been fired off did O’Hara join his comrades as they went overboard.

Chief Engineer Rudolf A. Rutz and 2nd Assistant Engineer George S. Cronk were engaged in carrying wounded and burned men from the engine room and their quarters. Rutz ordered Cronk to see to the boat decks, where he found only one lifeboat intact and helped lower it. As that was being done, Cronk saw Captain Buck throw Hopkins’ code book overboard and then walk to the other side of the bridge. Cronk went after him but did not find him and was himself cut off from his comrades by flames spread by the incendiary shells that continued to pelt the ship. He jumped overboard and swam for 20 minutes before finding the lifeboat. He managed to pick up nine other men from the sea and impromptu life rafts. Soon afterward, the survivors vanished into the same rainstorm out of which their attackers had appeared. At 10 a.m. the unequal contest ended as Stephen Hopkins sank in flames.

Thirty-one days later, the single lifeboat reached land, and the 15 men who remained of Stephen Hopkins’ crew of 57 stumbled ashore at the remote Brazilian fishing village of Barro de Stapanoana. Captain Buck was not among them; neither was Ensign Willett, Chief Engineer Rutz or Cadet O’Hara. Second Assistant Engineer Cronk, the only officer to survive, had lost more than 40 pounds but had kept the last of his crewmen going through the 2,200-mile ordeal. A U.S. Navy lieutenant sent to meet them commented that they “were never for one moment beaten. After 30 days of being battered together on a cramped lifeboat, they were still lavishing praise on one another, helping one another.”

Not until after the war did they learn the full story of what they had accomplished. Even as Stephen Hopkins sank, Stier was herself in serious trouble. Hit by 15 of the 35 4-inch shells fired at her by the Americans, she was on fire and sinking. Captain Gerlach ordered his men overboard, to be rescued by the damaged Tannenfels. At 11:57, a scuttling charge went off, followed by a second two minutes later, and Stier went down by the stern.

Tannenfels searched for survivors from Stephen Hopkins, but they had vanished in the rain squall. Encumbered with prisoners and Stier’s crew, she made for Europe, managing to slip through the Allied blockade and reach Bordeaux. There, Gerlach reported that his voyage had probably been terminated by “an auxiliary patrol vessel or even an armed merchant cruiser” with one 6-inch and six 4-inch guns. Even as the true identity of his last victim became known he refused to believe that she had not been secretly armed more heavily than reported. Peterson, however, gave credit where it was due. “We could not but feel that we had gone down at the hands of a gallant foe…that Liberty ship had ended a very successful raiding voyage. We could have sunk more ships.” On the other hand, however, he added: “She may have sunk us, but she saved most of our lives. We could not have lasted much longer out there those days and there would not always have been a Tannenfels around to pick us up.”

Stier was, in fact, the last German commerce raider to leave German territory for the open sea. Thor, berthing in Yokohama after sinking 10 ships totaling 56,037 tons, was burned out when her nearby supply ship Uckermark blew up. On October 14, 1942, Komet, escorted by torpedo boats T-4, T-10, T-14 and T-19 of the 3rd Flotilla, was attempting a breakout when she was ambushed off Cap de la Hague and sunk by a torpedo from British MTB-236. During another breakout attempt on February 10, 1943, Togo was hit by a bomb from a Westland Whirlwind fighter-bomber and forced to put into Boulogne. She was bombed again while at Dunkirk, limped back to Kiel on March 2 and never tried to run the Channel again. That left only Michel at large, and she sank 17 ships totaling 121,994 tons in the South Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. On October 18, 1943, three days out from Yokohama, where she was returning after a raiding sortie, Michel fell victim to a force that was effectively opposing Japan’s merchant marine–she was torpedoed and sunk by the U.S. submarine Tarpon. With her loss, Germany’s worldwide surface-raiding campaign ended.

Although Stier’s career was not the most illustrious in German naval annals, she did leave behind a considerable legacy in the U.S. Merchant Marine and U.S. Naval Reserves. Liberty ships were named after Stephen Hopkins’ Captain Paul Buck and Chief Mate Moczkowski, while a destroyer escort was named for Ensign Kenneth M. Willett. Stephen Hopkins and Stier’s earlier victim, Stanvac Calcutta–which had also chosen death over surrender–are listed among the U.S. Maritime Administration’s “Gallant Ships”–two out of only 11 American merchant ships to be so honored. Buildings at King’s Point were named after Willett and Cadet Edwin J. O’Hara, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy remains the only civilian institution in the United States that is allowed to fly a battle flag, in recognition of O’Hara and other cadets who served, fought and died for their country.