The Gallantry of An “Ugly Duckling”

Whenever an unescorted American freighter encountered strange ships in the South Atlantic in 1942, her master knew that within minutes he might face a bitter decision: to surrender and have his vessel captured—probably scuttled—or to fight and be sunk. This was the quandary of Paul Buck, captain of the Liberty Ship Stephen Hopkins , when two unidentified vessels appeared out of the morning mist at 9:35 on September 27 of that year. A smaller object, possibly a small boat, seemed to be moving in the water between them.

Within minutes, any hope that the two ships might be American or British vanished. German colors were raised on both, and gun flashes broke from the bow of the smaller, appearing simultaneously, as if aimed by a central gun director.

Buck quietly ordered the general alarm sounded and called for hard left rudder to bring his ship from her heading of 310° true to 260°, directly away from the danger. If he had to fight, he wanted to offer the smallest possible target, his stern.

Unluckily, Buck and the Hopkins had encountered the German auxiliary cruiser Stier and her escort, the blockade runner Tannenfels. Built as the Atlas Levante Line’s 4,778-ton Cairo, the Stier had been fitted out in December, 1941, as an armed commerce raider and placed under the command of Fregatten Kapitän Horst Gerlach. At the time of her encounter with the Stephen Hopkins she was known to American and British naval intelligence only as Raider “J.”

Outwardly the Stier was a dirty-gray freighter, somewhat lighter than standard war color, with a clipper bow and cruiser stern. Red-lead splotches dotted the superstructure and sides of her 322-foot length. In the words of one of the Hopkins ’ crew, “She appeared like a converted fruit ship which runs from the West Coast of the U.S.A. to Europe.” But underneath the disguise lay a modern arsenal. The central gun director controlled six 5.9-inch guns located behind shields just forward of the bridge structure and in the after well deck. Her firepower also included smaller directorfired guns, a twin 37-mm. mount, and 20-mm. anti-aircraft guns. She carried two torpedoes.

The second German ship, the Tannenfels, was a former Hansa Line freighter now operating out of occupied France through the Allied cordon to deliver supplies and take off prisoners from surface raiders in the South Atlantic. At 7,840 tons she was larger than the Stier, but she was armed only with 20-mm. anti-aircraft guns. The Tannenfels had evidently been keeping a scheduled rendezvous with the raider when they were surprised by the Stephen Hopkins. When the equally surprised Liberty Ship was recognized, both Germans turned to pursue her.

The Stephen Hopkins was one of the war’s first mass-produced U.S. Emergency Cargo vessels, or EC-2’s, popularly known as Liberty Ships. She was strictly a work horse with a work-horse ancestry, for the Maritime Commission designers had patterned her, with few significant alterations, on a prewar British freighter type, the “Sunclerland tramp.” They had replaced the traditional coal-burning plant with oil-burning boiler furnaces. Steam from these drove already obsolescent triple-expansion “up-and-down” engines, since the demand for more modern turbine and diesel equipment had already strained war production capacity to the limit. Further, in the race to launch cargo ships faster than Axis submarines could torpedo them, American yards had substituted welded for riveted hull construction.

Almost identical with each of her 2,700 sister ships, the Stephen Hopkins had a displacement of 7,181 tons; her 441-foot hull resembled, one critic said, “half a watermelon.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, announcing the emergency shipbuilding program in January, 1941, had dubbed the standard ship “a dreadful-looking object,” and Time magazine had reported it under the heading “Ugly Duckling.”

The Stephen Hopkins was now sailing in ballast on a northwesterly course, en route from Capetown, South Africa, to Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, to load a vital war cargo of bauxite. She carried a crew of forty, one passenger, and a fifteen-man naval armed guard. High on her stern, ringed by a waist-high circle of gray-painted steel plate, sat her main firepower, one 4-inch gun. Perched on the bow was a dual 37-mm. mount, while two .30-caliber and four .50-caliber machine guns were scattered about her superstructure. She was hardly a match for the heavily armed German raider and her escort. These guns, predicted the naval authorities who had them installed, might protect a merchantman from a German U-boat in the Atlantic, perhaps from a Stuka dive bomber along the freezing wartime lanes to Murmansk. Realistically, however, the greatest value of even the 4-inch gun was psychological: at least, if attacked, the naval armed guard and the crew could shoot back.