By lex, on June 10th, 2008
On the one hand, SS Stephen Hopkins, a 14,000 ton transport carrying a single 4-inch gun mounted right aft along with an assortment of light anti-aircraft machine guns and manned by a crew of 40 merchant mariners augmented by a 15-man US Navy security detachment. On the other, the German auxiliary cruiser Stier, of 11,000 tons but carrying 6-115 mm (~4 inch) cannon, 1 twin 37mm gun, 2 twin 20 mm guns and two torpedo tubes.
In a meeting engagement on 27 September 1942, well – let the American Spectator‘s Hal Colebatch tell it:
(The) Stier was taking on supplies from the German armed support-ship Tannenfels in the South Atlantic when she spotted the Stephen Hopkins. Because of rain-squalls and poor visibility, the ships were very close together before they sighted one another.
Instead of surrendering to its overwhelmingly more powerful enemy when the first German shells arrived, the Stephen Hopkins turned its stern to the Stier to bring its 4-inch gun to bear and started shooting back.
The smaller forward gun, which would not bear on the Steir, was firing at the Tannenfels. With the distance down to about 1,000 yards, every machine-gun on the three ships was also firing, the Stier and the Tannenfels sweeping the Stephen Hopkins’s decks and the exposed gun-positions.
The Stier concentrated its fire on the freighter’s stern gun. As one gun-crew was mown down or blown to pieces, another took its place, the merchant seamen replacing the “armed guard” men as they died, until there was no one left, and the gun fell silent.
Cadet Edwin O’Hara saw the 4-inch gun deserted and its crews dead and dismembered on the deck around it. O’Hara loaded and fired all 5 shells left in the ready box. A few moments later he too was killed by a shell-burst.
With all the ammunition gone, and the Stephen Hopkins on fire from end to end, the last 19 men somehow got away in the only surviving lifeboat.
Plucky. No other word for it. Fifteen of the Stephen Hopkin‘s survivors would survive the journey to Rio in an open boat.
Unable to make headway due to flooding and engine damages, and with her helm not answering, Stier‘s commanding officer – who thought he had been engaged by a heavy cruiser – scuttled his ship and joined his crew aboard the heavily damaged Tannefels. So far as Colebatch has determined, this was the only surface engagement between US and German maritime forces in World War II.
(And a grateful tip o’ the tam to occasional reader Snake Eater, who dredged up this bit of under-reported heroism)