Loss of the Liberty S.S. Stephen Hopkins

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Angus Mac Kinnon
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Loss of the Liberty S.S. Stephen Hopkins

Post by Angus Mac Kinnon » Wed Sep 29, 2010 7:28 pm

The Loss of the Liberty S.S. Stephen Hopkins in 1942

The German Raider ‘STIER’, officially Schiff 23, was the last of the nine WWII surface raiders to set out from Germany on her raiding role. She had previously been the 1936-built Atlas-Levant’s ‘CAIRO’, a 4,778 ton freighter whose diesel engine propulsion gave her a speed of 14.5 knots. Conversion of the vessel for her raiding role commenced in April 1941 at the Wilton yards in Holland and was subsequently completed in German yards, under the supervision of her appointed commander, 42-year old Captain Horst Gerlach. Born at Erfurt on 11th August 1900, Horst Gerlach had always wished for a naval career and this wish was granted whilst still in his teens and on being posted to the battle-cruiser ‘SEYDITZ’. It was Captain Gerlach who chose the vessel’s new name – ‘STIER’ – after his wife Hildegard’s sign of the zodiac, when he commissioned the converted ship on 11th November 1941. Her complement when she sailed from Kiel on 9th May 1942 numbered 324 officers and men.

On 20th May 1942, the Raider (Raider ‘J’ using the British recognition system) broke out into the Atlantic having sailed out of Gironde for her patrol area of the Atlantic central area.

On 4th June 1942, the Raider stopped and sank the 4,986 tons British freighter ‘GEMSTONE’ of the Alva Steam Shipping Company in a position North of the equator and Southwest of Ascension Island. Captain Griffiths and his entire crew were taken on board the Raider as POW’s.

On 6th June 1942, the Raider stopped and sank the 10,000 tons American oil tanker ‘STANVAC CALCUTTA’ which had been on a passage from Montevideo to Caripito in ballast. Captain Gustaf Karlsson put up a spirited resistance but it was in vain, 11 crew being killed in the action and the remaining 37 taken on board the Raider as POW’s.

On 10th June 1942, the Raider was in rendezvous with the German supply oil tanker ‘CHARLOTTE SCHLIEMANN’ and transferred 60 POW’s, all she had with the exception of ‘GEMSTONE’s Captain Griffiths and the injured from ‘STANVAC CALCUTTA’.

On 27th July 1942, a further rendezvous took place and the remaining POW’s were transferred over to the German supply vessel. Captain Griffiths was offered his choice of transferring over or remaining on board the Raider. He elected to remain with his crew but later recorded his regret due to the horrendous conditions on board the supply vessel.

29th July 1942, Raider ‘STIER’ met up with another of the Raiders (‘MICHEL’) and they decided to try pairing up in a joint operation. This was unsuccessful and quickly disbanded, the Raiders proceeding independently. They agreed to meet up again on 9th August 1942.

On 9th August 1942, in the morning of the day when the two raiders were to meet up again, ‘STIER’ gave chase to a vessel that was still out of range, signalling her to stop, and firing a warning salvo that was intended to miss the quarry. Her target was the new 7,070 tons British freighter ‘DALHOUSIE’ of the Dalhousie Steam & Motorship Company, on a passage from Cape Town to Trinidad in ballast, under the command of Captain Davies. The quarry immediately started to take evasive action and transmit her distress, at the same time returning her attacker’s fire. However, after some hours the Raider had caught her up and ordered her to stop and abandon ship. Shortly later the entire 37 man crew of the Allied vessel were on board the raider as POW’s. As the Raider ‘MICHEL’ arrived on the scene, ‘DALHOUSIE’ was sinking, bottom up and stern down. Aware that ‘DALHOUSIE’ had successfully transmitted her ‘QQQ’ signals ( “ ….. am under attack by enemy surface raider ….” ) the two Raiders cleared the area at speed.

On 27th August 1942, Raider ‘STIER’ was again in rendezvous with the supply oil tanker ‘CHARLOTTE SCHLIEMANN' in a position North of Gough Island. Captain Griffiths of the ‘GEMSTONE’ was recalled over to the Raider by Captain Gerlach, who knew that the supply vessel was proceeding for Batavia then on to Japan, and wanted to spare Captain Griffiths the fate of falling into Japanese hands. Captain Griffiths was very happy to accept the offer and transferred back to the Raider.

On 4th September 1942, the Raider spotted the fast British liner ‘PASTEUR’ on a passage from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, but due to the latter’s speed of 22 knots was unable to intercept the British vessel.

On 25th September 1942, having met up once again with Raider ‘MICHEL’, and with the blockade-runner ‘TANNENFELS’ now acting as a supply vessel.

On the morning of 27th September 1942, ‘STIER’ and ‘MICHEL’ were carrying out their search patrols, some distance apart, but with ‘STIER’ in close company with ‘TANNENFELS’. Raider ‘STIER’ suddenly spotted a slow-moving merchantman with a very familiar shape – a Liberty ship. This was the Luckenbach Steamship Company’s vessel ‘S.S. STEPHEN HOPKINS’ flying the American flag and on a passage from Cape Town to Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana in ballast, to load bauxite. The Raider, with armament sufficient to destroy a light cruiser, and STEPHEN HOPKINS with her single 4 inch gun aft, and two 37mm guns in her ‘tubs’, engaged in an unequal contest of David and Goliath proportions.

The battle raged on, the four inch aft gun of the Liberty versus six 5.9 inch guns of the Raider, supplemented by two 1.5 inch and four 0.8 inch guns, and other firepower, and before long death and destruction was evident on both ships as hit after hit was made. A 6 inch shell from ‘STIER’ penetrated the engine room of the Liberty ship, resulting in a huge explosion and the death of all the engineers down below who died at their posts. As the ‘STIER’ kept pumping shell after shell into the American vessel, the ‘TANNENFELS’ was raking her length continuously with machine gun fire. After about fifteen ‘hits’ on the Raider, the surviving American crewmen on board the ‘STEPHEN HOPKINS’ had the satisfaction of seeing flames rising from the hull of the Raider, which appeared to be in as much trouble as her victim.

With his ship clearly mortally wounded in the battle with the Liberty, Captain Gerlach gave the order for scuttling charges to be set and the ‘STIER’ abandoned. Whereas ‘TANNENFELS’ was able to save most of the German survivors, including thirty seriously injured men, only 15 of the 58 on board ‘STEPHEN HOPKINS’ survived. These fifteen still had an ordeal to face – 31 days in an open lifeboat with little in way of food or water, and a 2,200 miles voyage before making a landfall near a small fishing village on the coast of Brazil, without even a compass or any other aid on board.

Captain Gerlach, along with some other ex-STIER officers, who had survived the destruction of ‘STIER’, were later ordered to join Schiff 5, ‘HANSA’ the latest and last ship to be fitted out for a raiding role, and the heaviest armed vessel to date. This was none other than the 9,838 ton handsome liner being finished off for Alfred Holt by the Danish Yard of Burmeister & Wain when the German invasion took place – the GLENGARRY. However, the plan never materialised and the conversion work was running two years late due to shortage of materials and labour as well as constant hampering by Allied bombing raids.

At the end of May 1945, Lawrence Holt, the nephew of the Founder of that great company that had lost 52 of their ships during the war, instructed their Captain Frank C. Brown to “ … travel to Germany and find, and bring back the former GLENGARRY, in one piece …”. Following a lot of threats and challenges from the authorities and the inflexible bureaucracy of H.M’s. Admiralty top brass, the bold Captain Brown defied all and brought the ship back as instructed, despite having a writ nailed to his cabin door by “His Majesty’s People”. In due course the beautiful GLENGARRY dropped anchor at Buoy No. 10 in the Gareloch and no further was heard of his indiscretion, the writ and this infringement of Maritime Law.

Captain Gerlach had relinquished his command of HANSA to take up an appointment as Naval Commandant at Leningrad, then Peleponnese, then in October 1944 Northern Holland where his wife Hildegard, joined him as a Red Cross nurse. The couple were treated indifferently in captivity but in time they recovered and led a reasonable lifestyle. Captain Gerlach lived until 1970. He was the sole Raider Captain not to have been awarded the coveted Ritterkreuz decoration for services to the Fatherland.
Angus Mac Kinnon

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