- Historic Sites
The Gallantry Of An “ugly Duckling”
Outgunned by the Nazi raider, the Stephen Hopkins could have struck her colors. Instead she elected to fight
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
The fire that the Stier and the Tannenfels were pouring into the Stephen Hopkins was now intense, but instead of producing the panic that Kommandant Gerlach presumably intended, it jarred the merchant seamen and armed guard into action. Second Mate Joseph Layman’s 37-mm. guns on the bow fired first, their shells thumping into the Stier . Amidships a .50-caliber machine gun joined the battle. One by one, five other machine-gun crews fired their weapons, the scattered bursts growing into a steady roar as tracer bullets guided the aim of the inexperienced gunners. Soon a storm of machine-gun bullets was raking the Slier and the Tannenfels .
On the Stephen Hopkins ’ stern Ensign Willett had reached his battle station at the 4-inch gun. With one hand clutched to his stomach wound, he rallied his young armed guard crew. His orders were short and crisp. Reacting, one seaman grabbed a shell from the ready magazine and shoved it into the breech. Another relayed the range, one thousand yards. Willett ordered his gunners to fire at the raider’s waterline. The 4-inch gun roared. Seconds later the shell exploded inside the Stier .
Again and again the gun crew loaded and fired. A fourth, then a fifth shell hit the Stier . Very soon white smoke was pouring from holes near her waterline. Willett, straining to see his target through the smoke, yelled for the pointer and trainer to keep aiming at the hull.
Engineer Cronk no longer needed his headphones to hear the battle. Explosions echoed down the funnel into the engine room. Like every other man there, Cronk dreaded the shell that might explode a boiler. Then the deck shuddered and the lights went out. Cronk stood rigid, watching the boiler fires, until dim emergency lights flickered on, casting eerie shadows.
Topside, a high-explosive shell hit the freighter’s bow. As the smoke drifted away, Captain Buck could see the gy-mm. gun platform wrecked and burning, the gun handlers killed or wounded. Another shell wrecked the radio room, ending the radioman’s frantic SOS signals. Lifeboats along the port side dangled, splintered and torn, from their davits. The accurate German gunnery continued to rip gaping holes in the hull, and incendiaries started new fires.
But Buck still commanded a fighting ship. His machine-gun fire peppered both the Stier and the Tannenfels . When the raider tried to maneuver into position for a six-gun broadside, Buck saw to it that the helmsman kept his ship stern on. At regular intervals, above the din, he could hear the 4-inch gun crack.
At 1,000 yards’ range Ensign Willett’s crew furiously loaded and fired. In less than twenty minutes they had fired thirty-five 4-inch rounds, most of which had hit the Stier near the waterline. Between shots Willett praised his men or leaned down the ammunition hoist and shouted encouragement to the seamen passing powder and shells up from the magazine. Through the smoke he could clearly see the effects of his gunnery. The raider was listing slightly to port and settling by the stern. Fires burned from her bow to her stern.
On Gerlach’s bridge, the hope of a quick, easy victory had vanished. A shell from the merchantman’s lone gun had disabled his torpedo tubes, and a fire was threatening his magazine. Below decks his men struggled in waist-deep water to plug holes below the waterline. The Stier was fighting to stay afloat, but with his vastly superior firepower Gerlach had no intention of breaking off the battle. He ordered his gun director to silence the enemy’s 4-inch gun.
Exploding shells seeking the gun tub immediately began to rock the Stephen Hopkins ’ stern. One that missed its target smashed into the engine room. The starboard boiler burst. Steam billowed into every crevice of the darkened engine room, rolling up ladders, scalding men.
Her power plant crippled, the Stephen Hopkins lost headway until she was finally lumbering along at one knot. All Buck’s signals for more speed remained unanswered. Instead, out of passageways and escape tunnels the burned and choking survivors of the engineroom inferno began to stumble onto the open decks. Among them was George Cronk.
With their target almost dead in the water, Gerlach’s gun crews sent salvo after salvo into the Stephen Hopkins , turning the stern into twisted, burning wreckage. Still the 4-inch gun fired back. One by one, the armed guard crew were killed or wounded, until Willett manned the gun alone. He was struggling to load again when a shell hit the magazine below the gun tub.
The harried German captain, seeing the explosion, must have assumed that the gun was out of action and that he could at last finish off his adversary. His own ship was settling at the stern, and a telephone talker relayed a story of fires fore and aft, one dangerously near a magazine. Moreover, the sea was rising, a light, intermittent rain was falling, and visibility was deteriorating. Gerlach ordered his gun crews to hurry and sink the merchantman. But he had barely turned his attention to saving his ship when the Hopkins ’ 4-inch gun fired again.