(Posting a few works in progress that I’ll get to soon, though probably not at full book length. There is a sweet spot for most non-fiction works, I think, beyond the long magazine article, but short of a full-fledged book. A length of 20,000 to 30,000 words tells most stories well The “book-length” required by a lot of publishers at 75,000+ often leads to bloated filler, imho.)
Editor’s Note: Here are the first two chapters telling the story of the Liberty Ship SS Stephen Hopkins and her confrontation with the German raider the Stier at close range near South Africa. Research so far includes German translations of logs and interviews with the last two survivors of the Hopkins. Tips, catches, comments and critiques welcome.
The Fox, the Wolf and the Ugly Duckling
A True Tale of Cunning, Pluck and a Fierce Ship-to-Ship Battle
By Robert R. Frump
Chapter One: The Fox and “Gentlemen Ships of War”
Rotterdam, May 10, 1942
When he was a young man in the German Navy in 1918, Horst Gerlach suffered the humiliation felt by all in the German surface-ship fleet. They sat out most of the war, bottled up by superior British fleets. The one real conflict was when imperious commanders ordered the fleet to attack overwhelming forces in the last month of the War. Sailors mutinied.
Now he faced the same fate in 1942. If he did not sail soon, he too would be locked up for the rest of the war.
He was the captain of a German raider, a merchant ship tricked out so it could appear just an innocent freighter – until it dropped hatch covers and wheeled out high powered canons and torpedo tubes.
And he badly wanted to go to war. He was a career navy man after all and he felt honored to accept the command of the “Stier” – or the bull – a sentimental reference to his wife’s astrological sign.
His enthusiasm, he knew, ignored the odds, odds that were reflected in his secret name for the ship. Quietly, so his wife and family could not hear him, and in his journal, he called the ship “Ticket to Heaven.” Raiders went out to sea, he knew. Often, they never made it back to port.
Most urgently now, stuck in Rotterdam in the third year of his war, he worried not whether he would return from war but whether he would ever get there.
Rapidly, the British were closing down German access to the Atlantic. Great guns above the White Cliffs of Dover lobbed shells the size of a car miles out into the English Channel. Britain’s superior navy was closing in. The pride of the new German Navy, the battleship Bismarck, was sunk nearly a year ago by a flotilla of British capital ships and by aircraft.
Now British torpedo boats were ever more present. Ever more boldly they pressed closer to the German-controlled ports of the continent.
So to actually get into the war, Gerlach had to make his move and make it very soon. He had to get to sea. Yes, the Stier needed its hull treated to protect against electromagnetic mines, which is why he was in Rotterdam. But if he dawdled in Rotterdam, the ship might just as well be dead. She would never see meaningful action.
Getting out would be epic. But coming back? No German raider captain really planned on it.
There was a pride in that among captain and crew born not of suicidal zeal but of a long and respected culture of raiders within the German Navy.
This seemed odd perhaps, but the rest of the world looked up to them as well. The ships were seen during World War I as gallant modern-day pirates of the sea with a sense of honor and compassion. Raiders played out in the press as the “gentlemen ships of war” as opposed to the “cowardly” U-boats, which struck from ambush and left innocents to die in their wake.
This casting of the raiders seemed unlikely. A raider, after all, was a deception, a clever lie.
It was a merchant vessel that had been crammed full of concealed cannons, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and torpedoes all camouflaged by trick walls turrets and hydraulically assisted gun mounts.
On the outside, the Stier looked like a harmless down-at-the-heels freighter. While the concept of course did not exist then, in today’s terms the transformation was almost like those portrayed in the popular movie series, The Transformers.
In all of about sixty seconds, she could show her teeth. Screens dropped, plates banged and skidded, tubes hissed and hard steal clicked into place. Suddenly the innocent freighter showed six 150 mm canon, two 37 mm anti-aircraft guns, two torpedo tubes, and four 20 mm guns.
Such were the teeth of the fox when she smiled. Her role was truly akin to that of a fox – to sneak cunningly under neutral flags and trick Allied ships to sail close to her. The skill required stealth and brains beyond that of a normal agent of war.
And so in popular imagination, raiders became more classic “tricksters” of the sea – descended from Loki and Hermes or the coyote of Native American myths. Whole squadrons of Allied war ships were diverted from convoy duty to find and catch them. This was the main sum of their strategy, not to damage merchant fleets beyond repair but to divert war ships from convoy protection.
When the raider attacks on merchant vessels worked perfectly, they were sights to see.
Out from the sun, a raider’s seaplane would swoop over the merchant ship and pluck with a trailing hook the merchantman’s radio antenna.
Down fell the sides of the German ship hiding the big guns. Off came the camouflage hiding the bristling machine guns. Up ran the German battle ensign.
Warning shots from the big cannons might bracket the merchant ship if she tried to run. Most times, the merchant ship surrendered quickly. A raider detail would then board and capture the crew and passengers, forage through the ship for fuel and food, and then sink the vessel. In rare occasions the raider might assign a “prize crew” to sail the captured ship.
In World War I, such raiders as the Wolf spent hundreds of days at sea and kept dozens of passengers, sharing the same rations and medical care as the crew and officers, and treating the captives so civilly that lifetime friendships were formed. Men and women imprisoned by the Germans wrote public letters of praise and gratitude.
In the Second World War, at least part of that tradition continued. One British officer imprisoned by the raider Michel wrote this about Christmas in captivity.
“Personally one of the best Christmas Days I could recall, and it had to be on a German raider,” he wrote.
He added that the prisoners were given Christmas trees decorated with cigarette-box tin foil and tiny candles. The Germans also treated the captives to cakes, strawberries and cherries, gave them five bottles of beer each, plus two bottles of cognac to share, two decks of cards, four harmonicas and a record player to use. Each prisoner also received a bag containing a large raisin-nut cake, a pound of dates, a pack of cigarettes, some Dutch chocolate, a can of Italian peaches, 12 chocolate bars and a quart of hair tonic.
In such a manner, did the gentlemen ships wage a gentlemanly war.
Of course, not all ships were so hospitable. And not all merchant vessels surrendered so easily.
If they ran, or in rare instances resisted, then the raiders responded with devastating gunfire and torpedoes. The ship and crew of the merchant ship felt the full wrath of war and the power of a light cruiser.
A raider’s luck ran out when it was identified and cornered by superior war ships.
But even then, Captain Gerlach and the other raider commanders knew the legends–– where the raider turned the tables on a full-fledged man of war.
Such was the glory of the Kormoran – a sister ship to the Stier, which was operating off Australia just a few months earlier.
The Sydney, a full-fledged and classic armored Australian cruiser, came sniffing about the Kormoran one evening in November of 1941 – just seven months ago – off the Western Australian coast.
What was this merchant ship doing there?
Searchlight signals were sent at first in Morse code. The officers of the Kormoran did not reply because – no deception here – they did not understand it.
For a half-hour, the Sydney repeated the coded queries. Then they added flag signals as well. Who are you and why are you here? Formally this translated as, “You should hoist your signals letters” to identify your ship.
The Kormoran replied in the guise of the Dutch merchant ship Straat Malakka and hoisted a Dutch ensign.
The Sydney closed in farther to 16,000 yards, big long-range guns trained on the Kormoran. The merchant ships flags seemed blocked by the funnels, but no one on the Sydney’s bridge thought this might be a ruse.
Make the flags more visible, the Sydney commanded as she closed in to around 8,700 yards. The Kormoran followed orders. The Sydney was still out of range of the Kormoran’s weapons, but the Sydney would easily destroy the raider.
What is your destination and cargo? the Sydney asked. And then the Kormoran captain played a clever card. He directed his wireless operator to appeal at large to the shipping community and fired off a distress signal. QQQQ was the signal. “Straat Malakka” being approached by suspicious ship that might be a raider was the message.
The Sydney was a mere 1,400 yards away now, perplexed by the series of deceptions. The raider Kormoran essentially had accused the cruiser Sydney of raiding an innocent Dutch cargo ship.
The Sydney bridge command seemed perplexed but not alarmed. Some big guns were trained on the smaller ship, but the night seemed routine. Finally, the Sydney broadcast to the “merchant ship” the letters “HK.”
These were the secondary set of secret call letters for the Dutch ship Straat Malakka and the German officers could make no sense of the transmission. Unknown to them, they were supposed to transmit a two-letter coded answer to confirm their identity as a Dutch merchantman. The Germans took no action.
The Sydney waited patiently and 15 minutes later broadcast, “Show your secret sign.”
There could be no more deception. The captain of the Kormoran raised the German battle ensign, dropped the camouflage and fired on the vastly superior larger ship while also launching two torpedoes.
The first salvo bracketed the Sydney but the next four salvoes in quick succession destroyed the command bridge, the gun direction tower, and the large forward gun turrets of the big Australian warship.
The raider raked the secondary guns of the cruiser with automatic weapons fire as the Australians scurried to mount a counter attack. A salvo from the Sydney punched harmlessly through the Kormoran’s exhaust funnel and wireless room, wounding just two sailors.
Another salvo from the Australian big rear guns struck home and started a fire in the Kormoran’s oil tanks, but by this time the Kormoran’s ninth salvo was concentrated on the Sydney’s waterline and punched through the hull.
The battle might have fared differently had the Sydney managed to bring all guns to bear on the outgunned raider. But about that time one of the two German torpedoes struck and the big cruiser shook and settled in the water.
The Sydney sank with more than 600 dead. The Kormoran limped away and was abandoned as fires crept toward the munitions. Of the 399 crew and officers, 318 survived. No survivors from the Sydney ever were found.
So that was the legacy of the German raiders. Foxes of the sea, gallant gentlemen, but the foxes had teeth, the gentlemen carried a sword in his cane.
The question of course was how that legacy would hold up under a brutal Nazi regime. Adolph Hitler had laid down strict general guidelines on how prisoners were to be treated –separately and unequally with no fraternization.
Would Horst Gerlach follow the tradition of the raiders or the fuehrer?
His men thought almost certainly their commander would be of the old gentleman school. The Navy and Gerlach were Nazi supporters and clearly so were the crew and officers. Their loyalty to the Third Reich was clear and enthusiastic. But in spirit, Gerlach was low key, a man who liked a good joke. They would be hundreds of days at sea. Morale was everything.
To combat the boredom, Gerlach played his clarinet, toodling out forbidden “swing” solos from Benny Goodman’s big band.
And he had a sense of humor. Perhaps even a dangerous one when some men died because of loose words.
His most famous punking of his officer corps came earlier in the war, when Gerlach captained mine sweepers.
The officers had approached him about staging a famous rite of passage as they crossed the equator. Wouldn’t it be fun and good for morale, they asked, if when we passed the equator, we initiated the rookie sailors?
King Neptune and sea nymphs would appear – costumed officers and crewmembers – and require the initiates to undergo mild forms of hazing. It was just the sort of good fun they knew Gerlach would endorse.
Instead, they found a furious and angry commander who let loose on them in words like these, which seemed close indeed to one of Hitler’s tirades:
“Who do you think you are to waste my time with such frivolity when we are at war? How can you distract me from my serious work? How can we wage war when you are distracted with such frivolity!”
The men were horrified. They had witnessed a complete personality change. Gerlach was facing away from them now, so furious that his entire body seemed to be quaking, subsumed in fury at them.
And then Gerlach could hold his laughter no longer and turned to his men, guffawing and pointing at them.
Yes, he told them, you must have your fun and I must have mine. Of course, let us meet King Neptune.
But for now, sitting in Rotterdam, there could be no joking and no frivolity.
Tomorrow, the ship had to run the guns of the White Cliffs of Dover and force her way through the superior British Navy. She had to break out to sea and had only a narrow window in which to do it.
Gerlach needed a small miracle. He could not be a fox of the high seas if he were stuck in a cage in Holland.
And even then, if he cleared the English Channel, he would have another challenge. Out there was Captain Hellmuth Von Ruktes, far more a wolf than a fox as raider captains go. Out there, he would rendezvous with Von Ruktes.
And he was everything Gerlach was not. Even his own crew and officers turned on him during World War I, so ruthless was he in treating survivors of his attacks. He was pursued as a war criminal after the first war.
In this war, he was so brilliant, so cunning, Von Ruktes already was honored for his exploits.
Raiders were famous for their treatment of prisoners.
What could Gerlach do, he wondered, if Von Ruktes ordered the machine gunning of prisoners in the water.
How could the fox and the wolf hunt together?
Moot question, he knew, if he could not break the British blockade. His mind turned from Von Ruktes to the challenge at hand.
Chapter Two: The Ugly Duckling
San Francisco, May 10, 1942
For a small man, Moses Nathaniel Barker Jr., 17-years old and a gunner in the United States Navy Armed Guard, walked tall. He seemed to “make an entrance” at the bars and hangouts in San Francisco and on-ship and off, he walked with the air of a confident brawler. He stood only 5 feet two inches, but with his sailor cap cocked onto his head, his view westward from the deck of the SS Stephan Hopkins in San Francisco Bay was clear and visionary and as if from a great height.
Japan. Land of the Rising Sun. Almost literally he could see the flag of wartime Japan and visualize shredding it with tanks, planes and warships – and with his own bare hands.
He and his buddies would push the Japanese out of the Pacific Ocean and they would not waste much time about. Of this, there was no doubt.
His one fear was the whole war would end before he could get into it. He was itching for action. It consumed him and had propelled him from Fort Worth, Texas, into the Navy and onto the Stephen Hopkins.
For many, she was not much to look at, but Moses had a sweet spot in his heart for the odd looking ship. She was one of thousands of the new welded vessels of a class called Liberty Ships. They were coming down launching ramps at a rate never seen in the industrialized world.
Moses did not care if the ships were nicknamed “Ugly Ducklings” or “Kaiser Coffins” or “Sea Scows.” Even President Roosevelt in an aside remarked that they were “dreadful looking objects.”
Something about them seemed not to square up. Something in the nautical lines of the ship offended aesthetics. They seemed to bob, not float. Squat, ungainly, perhaps a bit potbellied, the ships nonetheless were marvels of engineering. They could sail steadily through storms and carry tons of cargo from America’s shores to a besieged Great Britain, and they could win the war. And they could be stamped out and welded together like soda cans far faster than German raiders, subs or pocket battleships cold sink them. Four months ago, the Hopkins did not even exist. Now she was a weapon of commerce.
So in that sense, they were beautiful to Moses’ eye. Even more beautiful was the one spot where his eye wandered. back by the stern.
There, they had placed a big cannon. His big cannon.
Yes, it was a 4 inch 50 gun, a leftover from World War I, hauled off a destroyer that was refitted with more modern weapons. But the cannon, threw big shells and made big holes. A thirty-pound round could travel nine miles to punch through an enemy ship.
Moses was trained to shoot it, was “gun captain” of the team that would load, aim and fire the gun. When they were on their game, they could send out 8 to 9 rounds per minute. Two men sat in tractor-like seats behind the barrel. One spun a wheel to elevate and lower the barrel. The other spun a wheel to move the gun left to right. Others manned the magazine that raised shells from the below-deck locker. Others took the shells to the breach of the gun, popped out the old shells and jammed in new ones. Every six seconds or so, they would fire and fire again. And Moses got to oversee all that.
The Navy Armed Guard had been added to merchant vessels to help fight off attacks from submarines, war planes and surface raiders and Moses proudly wore the Armed Guard patch on his shoulder.
Yet again there were disparagers. Yet again there were nicknames. “Ugly Duckling” they called the Liberty Ships. Well, the rest of the regular Navy had a nickname for those in the Armed Guard. It was “fish food.”
Moses bristled each time he heard it. Not just a few brawls were prefaced by the term. The Armed Guard was considered one of the least prestigious parts of the Navy. You had your black shoe Navy running battleships. You had your brown shoe navy flying planes. You had your submariners and you had your grunts – the US Marines. And far, far down, belonging to no one really, you had the Armed Guard.
Why the disrespect? The weaponry was ancient, for one thing. One did not serve as a part of a regular Navy command, for another. The officers and enlisted men ultimately reported into the merchant marine master of the ship. And the Navy contempt for merchant mariners was well known – and returned.
But perhaps most of all, the chances for glory, for big battles in the Armed Guard seemed non-existent. The best you could do would be to scare a submarine away or deflect an air attack. The worst you could do was die anonymously, outgunned by subs and raiders and Zeroes or bombed by a Stuka.
Yet implicit in the nickname came backhanded respect. It reflected the danger of the job and the risks, and the terrible toll and beating taken by merchant mariners and the Armed Guard thus far in the war.
Moses and the others were not aware of the full story. Only the rumors. The truth was unprintable because it was unbearable. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor had lasted a few hours. The quiet but deadly warfare waged by German U-Boats off the coast of the United States lasted weeks and months into 1942. Submarines were rising to the surface and shelling merchant ships silhouetted by coast towns whose lights shone brightly. Tankers blazed off the shores of Florida, South Caroline, New Jersey, New York and Virginia and American crowds gathered to watch, curious about the beautiful offshore light show.
No one sounded a general public alarm because there was little America could do. Naval warships were at a premium in the Pacific. No one really knew if a Japanese invasion of the West Coast was in the cards. Only a few underpowered destroyers and escort vessels cruised the East Coast. And US officials were slow to learn from the Brits the advantage of convoys.
So just a handful of submarines were able to wreak real damage and terror among the merchant mariners. The official German name for the offensive was Operation Drumbeat. The U-boat commanders among themselves called it “Happy Times.”
It was against this onslaught the Armed Guard would battle. It was more beau geste — a brave but futile gesture – than an effective strategy. But it was a step above the fake plywood guns some freighters had concocted in a desperate measure to scare off subs. These guns were real. They fired.
Moses Barker knew little about this and cared less. “When you’re young, you’re just itching for action,” he said many years later.
“And then,” he said as his eyes shifted up and into the past. “Brother. You get it.”
He knew nothing about the dangers of getting what you wish for. On May 30, 1942, only the promise of glory lay ahead.
His other concerns were slight. He liked his buddies in the Guard. Ensign Kenneth Willett, his boss, was just 22 years old but that made him “the old man.”
And the merchant marine guys were okay. The captain of the ship, Paul Buck, was a veteran mariner and unlike some merchant mariners, seemed to embrace the Armed Guard.
There also was this cadet in the engine room, a kid from the Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy, the West Point of merchant mariners, named Edwin J. O’Hara, who seemed more navy than some of the navy men. He struck up a friendship with the Armed Guard and it seemed as if he could crawl out of the engine room and work the big gun, he’d be a lot happier.
What were Moses’ worries? Sometimes the kid cadet got too close to his gun! That could be annoying. If he wanted to shoot guns, why didn’t he join the Navy?
The other distraction was the rumor about Buck. There was a hint of a German accent in the captain’s speech and one of the officers confided that Buck was born in Germany.
Moses wondered whether Buck could be trusted if they were attacked by Germans. Of all Moses’ worries, as it turned out, this was the one he had exactly backwards.