Friday, January 05, 2007

Fullbore Friday

There was one US ship that sunk a German warship in WWII. One.

What was her main armament? One 4" deck gun. One.

The SS Stephen Hopkins. Not USS; SS. A liberty ship.
The raider Stier, formerly the merchant ship Cairo, was built by Krupp in 1936, at 434 feet long, 56.5 feet broad, with a top speed of 14 knots. The Allied code name for her was "Raider J." She began operation as a raider in May 1942 under the command of Horst Gerlach, with a crew of 324 well-trained Navy men.

Her first three victims were: Gemstone (British), Stanvac Calcutta (Panama-flag U.S.-owned), and Dalhousie (British).

On the morning of September 27, 1942, the Stier was taking on supplies from the blockade runner Tannenfels off the coast of South Africa when she spotted a ship coming out of the mist not far away. It was the Liberty ship SS Stephen Hopkins, operated by the Luckenbach Steamship Co. out of San Francisco. Built by Kaiser Richmond No. 2, she was on her maiden voyage - San Francisco - Bora Bora - Auckland, New Zealand - Melbourne - Port Lincoln, Australia, Durban - Capetown - and bound in ballast for Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana.
First voyage, in the middle of nowhere away from the war, or so she thought.

As is usually the case; the battle started without warning.
At 9:30 AM that Sunday morning Captain Paul Buck, Chief Mate Richard Moczkowski, and George Papas, A.B., were on the bridge. Kenneth Vaughn, 3rd Assistant Engineer, Michael Fitzpatrick, fireman, and Andrew Tsignonis, wiper, were on watch in the engine room. Ford Stilson, the 32-year-old Chief Steward, heard a shot pierce the superstructure, then the general alarm. He grabbed his lifejacket and went to his battle station. He would set up a makeshift hospital in the officers’ mess.

The Armed Guard gunners and mariners assigned as loaders raced to their guns. Off the starboard bow, they saw a ship about the same size as the Hopkins firing at them. A larger ship was behind her. Explosions rocked the ship and machine gun fire was raking the decks. One of the first shells killed two mariners as they stepped on deck.

Moczkowski gave orders to steer so the stern of the ship - with its 4 inch gun - would continue to point at the enemy ship and at the same time present the smallest target.

Kenneth Willett, commander of the Armed Guard, was severely wounded in the abdomen by shrapnel, but he continued directing the men. Seaman Barker, in charge of the 4 inch gun, trained it directly at the waterline of the German raider, getting a shot off about every 45 seconds. They made every shot count, hitting the raider’s rudder and then damaging the raider’s forward guns.

In the forward tub, Wallace Breck, two other Armed Guard men, and Second Mate Joseph E. Layman, fired round after round at the smaller ship. All the guns aboard the Hopkins were firing as fast as they could be loaded and discharged. Hit after hit was scored on both enemy ships.

An enemy shell pierced the Hopkins' half inch steel hull, hitting directly in the engine room. Those above heard the explosion, then the roar of steam, as the black gang died at their posts.

A large caliber shell hit the forward gun tub just about the time the abandon ship signal was blown. Seaman Second Class Breck was the only survivor. He jumped overboard and climbed into a lifeboat, just as a shell hit the lifeboat, blowing it out of the water. Breck was the only survivor again.

The Stier was still putting shell after shell into the upper works of the Stephen Hopkins.The Tannenfels kept machine gunning the Hopkins. The Armed Guard fired their machine guns right back.

Cadet O’Hara saw the 4-inch gun deserted and dead men on the deck around it. O’Hara loaded and fired all 5 shells left in the ready box, scoring hits with all five. A few moments later he was killed by a shell which exploded nearby.
After the battle - that wasn't the end of it for the crew.
The battle lasted about half an hour. A total of 35 shells hit the Stier and she was in as much of a shambles as the Hopkins. Both ships were on fire and sinking.

Commander Horst Gerlach ordered his crew to set detonating charges to scuttle the Stier, and then to abandon ship. Saedie Ben Hassan, a severely wounded crewman from the Stanvac Calcutta, was among those transferred to the Tannenfels.

After an hour or so, the Stephen Hopkins also sank. The 19 survivors gathered in one lifeboat, which had little food and water, and began a 2,200-mile 31-day journey to Brazil. Fifteen men survived.
The Skipper of the SMS Stier paid her a great compliment.
In his battle report, which he turned in upon the Tannenfels' arrival in Nazi territory, Captain Gerlach reported he fought a "heavily armed cruiser."
She sure fought like one. This really could be a great movie.

Here are a couple of thoughts to leave you with; how is your cross training doing? How many people can crew your weapons if the primary and secondary go down or cannot get to their station? Are you ready to sail a distance equal to a drive from Jacksonville, FL to Bremerton, WA in an open boat? With 5 minutes warning? When was the last time you were trained to survive at sea with little or no water and food? Have you actually "gone over the side?"

If I took you by the arm and walked you over to the stern, could you load and fire just a simple M2 .50 cal? If I walked into the CIC and told everyone "you are all dead," and then I walked up to the bridge and told you that everyone on the bridge was dead but the helmsman and that the last thing he heard was the Skipper saying before he bled out something non standard like, "CIWS to auto and open flank speed to the south." - what would your ship do?


Hat tip Cap'n George.

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