Stier (Ship 23)
Stier," was a 4,418 ton ship- formerly the "Cairo," from the Deutche Levante Line, on the 12th. of May, 1942, under Captain Gerlach, she sailed from Rotterdam, pretending to be "Sperrbrucher 171," one of the armed Merchant ships, the Germans used to sweep up magnetic mines- and provide close cover to coasting convoys.
Escorted by 4 Torpedo Boats, and 16 Motor Mlnesweepers, she crept out of the Maas estuary. The convoy deployed as follows:- 6 Motor Minesweepers in the van, then, one mile astern, 10 more Motor minesweepers, 600 yards astern, "Stier," plus the 4 Torpedo Boats. As this convoy approached the Straits of Dover, radar warning was received to expect attacks from British M.T.B's.
In the middle watch, at 0200, (2AM) the sound of motor boat engines was heard both to starboard and astern Although star shell were thrown up, nothing was in sight. At 0300, (3AM) as the Straits were entered- the Dover 14 inch batteries opened fire, two or three salvoes fell short, again, M.T.B. engines were heard, and it was apparent that the German convoy would soon be attacked. By 0325, (3.25AM) abreast of Gris-Nez starshell from "Stier," flushed out British M.T.B.'s on both sides of the Germans, and the starboard Boats attacked.
They were, in turn, engaged, and one set alight, the port group now closed in, but, one was hit, and clearly put out of control. One of"Stier's" Torpedo Boat's was torpedoed, she exploded, breaking in two pieces, and soon sank, "Seadler," another German Torpedo Boat was caught by a torpedo, she too, broke in half and sank. The last 2 T.B.'s escorted "Stier" into Boulogne, then set off to sea again, to search for survivors, 88 German sailors, and 3 British from M.T.B. 220, were collected, the German losses over 200.
As night fell, "Stier" left for Le Hayre, working down the coast to Gironde on the 19th. of May, later that month she was, at last, able to leave European waters behind her, and claimed her first success on the 4th. of June.
The British 4,986 ton "Gemstone," was fired on at 8,300 yards, the crew then removed, and a torpedo completed the task of despatching another Allied ship to the Atlantic depths. At 0915, (9.15AM) on the 6th. of June, the Panamanian "Stanvac Calcutta," of 10,170 tons was chased, 148 rounds of 5.9 inch ammunition used, but a torpedo was still necessary to sink her. This Tanker was on her way to load oil at Aruba, close to the Eastern entrance of the Panama Canal, 37 of a crew strength of 52, were rescued, the Captain and Radio operator, killed by "Stier's," first salvo.
Another 4 days, found "Stier" oiling from "Charlotte Schliemann," not without incident, this operation difficult, the hose pipe connections to allow oil transfer, did not fit, and needed much modification, then it was discovered that the supposed oil the Tanker was pumping, was 98% water, a mistake made by the Tanker's Chief Officer. Gerlach was not impressed, and fined him 150 Reichinarks- about 14 Pounds sterling at pre war rates.
For the next 5 weeks, nothing of any interest happened, an intercepted signal from the British "Tordene" showed she should pass close by, "Stier" waited, stopped in the dark- nothing happened, it was too rough to use the seaplane- no action, and the Raider again oiled. Kruder noted in his War Diary:
"That, as in Germany, people doing no work had reduced rations, so did his prisoners, on board."
As recorded in "Michel's" story, she met "Stier" on the 28th. of July, Ruckteschell came on board, they quickly decided there was little point in staying in their present area. They sailed Northwards, in a few days time, keeping about 20 miles apart, to widen the ocean area they could scan. During this quiet period, "Stier's" Captain, made his gun crews practise constantly, his reserve crews could manage 14 rounds a minute, and the best crew achieved 18 rounds a minute, during one spell.
Still no action by the 9th. of August- and the two Raiders parted, within 6 hours, a one funnel ship with 3 masts was sighted, steering a parallel course. "Stier" gradually worked her way ahead, and then coming closer to her, at 17,000 yards he opened fire, and the QQQ alarm was read. This ship was soon set on fire, and stopped, it was "Daihousie" 7,250 tons in ballast, a torpedo was used to sink her quickly. Gerlach was eager to quit the area, but another ship came in sight, after some doubt, she was recognised as "Michel," who had turned back to ascertain what was going on.
"Stier" now covered the Cape/River Plate route. Gerlach wanted to round Cape Horn and work West of South America, but SKL chose to ignore any of his requests- bad weather prevailed, although revolutions were recorded for 10 knots, his ship, only made good 3 knots. In his diary, Gerlach grizzled about the lack of ships in the area to which he had been sent, he noted:
"Despite sinking 3 ships that he had found, and 2 tough Channel actions, only 20 Iron Crosses, and second class at that, had been awarded to his ship after 100 days sea time."
On the 20th. of August, he heard that from "Michel's" action with "Arabstan," 10 survivors had been rescued. His diary notes:
"The auxiliary Cruiser must in every case make sure that no men of a crew prematurely escapes to friendly territory- otherwise the enemy will get substantially accurate, if exaggerated, details of the auxiliary Cruiser."
He inspected Gough Island, deciding it was suitable for a self refit, and "Charlotte Schliemann," supplied enough oil to last until almost the end of November, by which time he must have arrived at Gironde.
The 1st. of September was the 3rd. anniversary of war's commencement, again, Gerlach was complaining in his diary, this time:
"On the lack of a message from the Fatherland, to keep them in touch with home." he also reiterated his charge about, "The lack of decorations for his ship- this was a suitable date for awards, it would assist his task of Command." Nothing of importance from SKL, it would seem that Gerlach did not, perhaps, have sufficient on his hands to fully occupy his mind.
In the early morning of the 4th. of September, the lookout reported a ship, in sight, into the sun, she was fast, about 21 knots, then from 12 miles away, she was identified as the 29,000 ton French liner, "Pasteur" operating under Allied control, she was much too fast for "Stier" who hoped he had not been spotted.
Running out of coal, used to operate the fresh water manufacturing equipment Gerlach was ordered to meet in early October, the supply ship "Blake." He was also to meet "Michel" again7 plus the blockade runner, "Tannenfels," moving from Japan to a French port. Both ships were met- and off went "Michel," to oil from "Ackermark," "Tannenfels" gave "Stier" the dubious gift of a Japanese seaplane,. it did not have a radio, or bomb racks, and needed 3 to 4 weeks to prepare it for flying.
On the 27th. of September,. the ship was stopped, to allow scraping and painting of the ship's side. The wind started to rise, most men over the side at work, were recovered, but, visibility had dropped to only 2 1/4 miles~ At 0852,. ( 8.52AM) a ship was suddenly sighted on the starboard side. It seemed a large enemy steamer, it was ordered to stop, and the armament quickly closed up,. "Stier" opened fire,. the enemy soon responded.
At first, she was thought to be an Auxiliary warship, but, in fact was the American Liberty ship "Stephen Hopkins,." with a lonely 4 inch gun. The American turned hard to port, and "Stier" hard to starboard to prevent any escape, then "Stier" was hit by two shells,. the first, jammed her helm to starboard, and she started to turn in a circle; the second, passed through the main engine room, cutting off all oil supply to the engines. They stopped. Gerlach wanted to fire off his torpedoes'. but all electrics were out of action
"Stier" was able to maintain a good rate of gunfire, the Liberty ship was set on fire,. and she stopped. A rain squall now hid both ships from each other- when it cleared, further hits were made on "Stephen Hopkins,." both ships were stopped and crippled.The American sank at 1000, (10AM )- Gerlach's ship had been hit 15 times in over just 10 minutes, the engine room was on fire, all fire fighting equipment out of action,. burning oil was spreading around "Stier."
Buckets, tubs'. boats'. all filled with water, were employed in an attempt to quell the fires - still they raged out of control, they edged towards Number 2 Hold, here, 19 torpedoes were stored, the engines were again started, but the rudder was useless. In another 10 minutes,.again the engines stopped.
Gerlach consulted his Officers. All agreed the ship could soon be blown apart. "Abandon ship" was ordered, boats and rafts were lowered, "Tannenfels" came as close as practicable- with cries of:- "Sieg Heil" and with cheers for Hitler and the Fatherland, "Stier" was abandoned. As "Tannenfels" gathered up the survivors, the ship blew up.
Three men died, 33 were wounded, and from "Stephen Hopkins," 15 survived a 33 day boat voyage to the Brazilian coast, but 42 of their shipmates had died in this" fight to the death, sea battle."
Bordeaux was reached on the 8th. of November, with "Tannenfels" seeing "Stier' S" crew home.
This battle was quite unique in sea warfare, the American could only fire a 31 pound shell, whilst "Stier,." with fully trained Naval gun crews had a 400 pound broadside available to hurl at their opponents at every salvo.
This ship was amongst the first 20 of 2,750 Liberty Ships that were produced in the USA for use during WW2. She had been launched by Kaiser in California, on the 14th. of April, 1942, and delivered, ready to commence her service on the 11th. of May, the next month. "Stephen Hopkins," was on the return journey of her Maiden voyage, coming from New Zealand and Australia.
The American's single 4 inch guns crew, had succeeded in sinking the last but one Raider, this incredible fight by "Stephen Hopkins" a total contrast to many very easy surrenders made by Merchant ships when coming face to face with a German Raider.
Ensign Kenneth M. Willett of the US Naval Reserve, was awarded the Navy Cross, posthumously, and later, a Destroyer Escort, was named in his honour. Both Captain Paul Buck, and Cadet Midshipman Edwin 3. O'Hara were posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal. Finally, Buck and his Chief Mate Moczkowski had Liberty ships launched, carrying their names.
The last words came from Petersen, a German:
"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 many more ships~" but he added: "She may have sunk us, but she saved most of our lives. We would not have lasted much longer out there those days, and there would not always have been a "Tannenfels," around to pick us up."
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