Hilfskreuzer

HK Stier

Hilfskreuzer (Auxiliary Cruiser) Stier
General Details
Nationality German
Type Auxiliary Cruiser (Raider)
Ship Number 23
HSK Number VI
British Admiralty Letter I
Builder Krupp-Germania Werft, Kiel.
Launched 1936
Previous Owner Deutsche Atlas - Levant line
Previous Name Cairo
Conversion Wlton-Fijenoord Werft Schiedam and Oder Werken Stettin.
Additional Information Her Commander, Fregattenkapitän Horst Gerlach, named her after his wife’s Astrological Sign.
General Cruise Details
Commander Fregattenkapitän Horst Gerlach
Sail date 9 May 1942
End date 27 September 1942
Fate Sunk by the ‘Liberty Ship’ Stephen Hopkins, her last victim
Performance
Ships Sunk / Captured 4 sunk
Tonnage Sunk 30,728
Days at Sea 140
Tons per Day 219.48
Displacement
Displacement 4.778 tons
Dimensions
Length 133 metres
Beam 17,3 metres
Weapons
Main Armament 6 x 150 mm
Secondary Armament 2 x 37 mm Flak, 4 x 20 mm Flak
Torpedo Tubes 2 x 53,3 cm (8 torpedoes)
Mines None
Aircraft
Aircraft 2 x Arado Ar-231
Smaller Boats
Light Speedboat None
Propulsion
Engine Type One 7-cylinder two-stroke MAN diesel
Horsepower 3.750
Endurance 5.000 nautical miles at 12 knots
Speed 14 knots
Fuel Type Oil
Complement
Wartime 325

Hilfskreuzer (Auxiliary Cruiser / Raider) Stier
The History

Launched on October 7 1936 at the Krupp-Germania-Werft in Kiel , for the  Bremer Atlas-Levante line, the 4,778-ton motor-freighter Cairo was one of four sisters, the identity of one of which, the Ankara , she adopted as her first disguise.

133m long and 17.3 at the beam, powered by a 7-cylinder 2-stroke MAN diesel engine, producing 3,750 horse-power, driving a single shaft for a top speed of 14.5 knots and a range of 5,000 sea-miles at 12 knots.

Officially classified as the Handelsschützkreuzer 6 (HSK VI) a ‘Trade Protection Cruiser’, Schiff 23 first entered service as an Ice-Breaker and Escort Vessel for coastal convoys in the Baltic in November 1939.

Earmarked by the SKL as a minelayer for ‘Operation Sealion’, the proposed invasion of Britain in 1940, Schiff 23 was taken out of service on April 21 1941, and sent first to the Wilton-Fijenoord Werft in Schiedam, Holland, and later to the Oder-Werken yard in Stettin, for her conversion into the HSK VI.

Armed with six 150mm L/48 guns, in torpedo-boat mountings, two 37mm anti-aircraft guns, four 20mm anti-aircraft guns, two 53.3cm underwater torpedo tubes, with eight torpedoes, she carried two Arado Ar-231 seaplanes.

Appointed captain on June 1 1941, Fregattenkapitän Horst Gerlach re-named Schiff 23, the Stier, the Bull, after Taurus, his wife’s Astrological Sign.

With 11 Officers, 3 Prize Officers and 310 Petty Officers and crew, most of whom were young and inexperienced, Schiff 23 / Stier was formally commissioned into the Kriegsmarine on November 11 1941.

Gerlach knew the ship well, having been appointed her captain in May 1940, and commanding throughout her Baltic minesweeping and convoy escort days.

A slim good-natured, optimistic man with a good sense of humour, and a talented musician, he was proud to have been given a command, even though he wryly described it as ‘A Ticket to Heaven’, Gerlach was popular with his crew.

He was pleased with his ship, and with his young crew, even though their training had been hampered by icy conditions during the Stier’s working up period.

Disguised initially as her own sister-ship the Ankara , and later as the Auxiliary Minesweeper Sperrbrecher 171, she left Kiel on May 9 1942, and proceeded through the Kaiser-Wilhelm canal, reaching Rotterdam on May 10.

On May 12, as she headed through the ärmelkanal, she was preceded by sixteen motor minesweepers, from the 2nd and 8th Flotillas, in three large V formations.

She was also ‘surrounded’ by four torpedo-boats of the 5th Torpedo-Boat Flotilla, the 933-ton Wolf-class Iltis, and three 924-ton Möwe-class boats, Kondor, Falke and Seeadler, each armed with six 53.3cm torpedo tubes, three 100mm guns and four 20mm Flak guns, deployed in a diamond-shaped box formation around her.

The large escort convinced the British that she was important, and in the early hours of May 13, she was attacked, first by the 14-inch batteries at Dover , which couldn’t reach her, and later by motor torpedo boats, which had surrounded the convoy under cover of fog, and came from both sides, off Cap Gris Nez.

In the ensuing chaos, with all the ships involved firing indiscriminately in all directions, the Stier and her escorts fired starshells, in the light of which two of the M.T.B.s were hit and set on fire, with one, the M.T.B.220, later going down.

As the British pressed home their attacks, the Iltis (Kptlt. Jacobsen) which had had to slow down to keep station, was hit by a torpedo fired by the M.T.B.221 which narrowly missed the Kondor, passed by the Stier, and broke her in two.

She sank within three minutes, taking 115 members of her crew with her.

The Seeadler (Kptlt. Strecker) having successfully put one of the attacking MTBs out of action, was likewise resuming her position, in front of the Stier, when she too was torpedoed, this time by the M.T.B.219, and also split in half.

As the raider ploughed past the drifting forward part of the boat, her gunners, who had been ordered to fire at every suspicious shadow, raked the wreckage and the desperate men clinging to it, killing their own.

In all, eighty-five members of the Seeadler’s crew lost their lives.

Escorting the undamaged raider into Boulogne , the surviving torpedo boats, the Kondor and the Falke, went back out to look for survivors, rescuing eighty-eight Germans and three men from the M.T.B.220.

Leaving again that evening for Le Havre , Gerlach slowly worked his way down the coast to Cherbourg , arriving at the estuary of the Gironde on May 19.

On May 20, he left the port of Royan , undisturbed, for the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean , the last of the raiders to do so unscathed.

Arriving at her designated operational area in the waters midway between the coasts of Africa and South America, on May 26, both Gerlach and his experienced First Officer, Leutnant Ludolf Peterson, realised that at this stage in the war their chances of success were slim and the risks greater than ever.

Peterson, who had served as a prize-officer on the heavy cruisers Lützow and Admiral Scheer as well as under Ernst-Felix Krüder on the raider Pinguin, for whom he had taken a flotilla of captured Norwegian whaling vessels from the Antarctic Ocean to Bordeaux, was concerned that the Stier was too slow, that her disguises were inadequate and that none of her guns were below deck.

He also felt that the crew was too young, the lookouts wanting, and had grave misgivings about the ship’s insufficiently-trained gun crews.

On June 1 Horst Gerlach was promoted to the rank of Kapitän zur See.

Early on the bright morning of June 4, the Stier’s lookouts spotted a freighter just under two hundred miles east of St. Paul ’s Rocks off the coast of Brazil .

Approaching from ‘out of the sun’ Gerlach fired a warning shot across her bow.

Unable to see his attacker, the freighter’s captain turned his ship stern-on to present the smallest target, and instructed his radio operator to send a QQQ signal, which was picked up by a nearby ship and acknowledged on land, despite attempts by the Stier’s operators to jam it.

As the raider closed to 8,300 metres, firing several more salvos, all of which missed, the freighter’s captain, who had initially assumed that he was being attacked by a U-Boat, could see his assailant for the first time.

When he saw that he was being attacked by a heavily-armed auxiliary cruiser, he couldn’t understand how all of her opening salvoes had failed to hit his ship.

Realising however, that it was pointless to resist with just one ancient 4-inch gun at his disposal, he ordered its crew to stand down, and prepared to abandon ship.

As the boarding party identified the ship as the 4,986-ton Alva Steamship Co., freighter Gemstone, en route to Baltimore , Maryland from South Africa with a cargo of iron ore, her crew was taken on board and she was sunk by a torpedo.

Spotting a large tanker, close to the equator, on June 6, Gerlach approached out of a rain squall, fired two warning shots across her bows and signalled to her to heave to and shut off her engines.

Seeing no reaction to his signal, he ordered another shot fired and ran up his battle ensign, in the belief that once the enemy captain realised that he was being attacked by a German warship, he would obey the command and stop.

Instead, her captain, calling for full speed, turned his ship sharply to starboard, and, hoping that his empty ship might outrun the raider, ordered his gunners to open fire with their 4-inch gun, mounted on the stern and their ancient 3-inch anti-aircraft gun, mounted for’rard.

During the ensuing chase, the tanker steered a zig-zag course to enable both her guns to be fired at will.

The battle raged for over ten minutes, with the Stier registering over a dozen hits, to the tanker’s two, the first one going through the raider’s foremast and the second scoring a direct hit on one of her guns, killing it’s entire crew.

Gerlach instructed his gunners to concentrate their fire on the fleeing tanker’s gun, which continued firing even after its magazine had blown up under the crew and all around them was a blazing shambles.

As the badly-damaged tanker began to list her chief engineer tried unsuccessfully to correct it by shifting ballast, and on returning to the bridge to report, he discovered that his captain, helmsman and radio officer had all been killed by a direct hit, so no distress signals had been transmitted.

Realising that the position was hopeless, he gave the order to abandon ship.

Between them, the tanker’s two guns had fired nearly thirty rounds, registering just the two hits on the raider, while the Stier had fired 123 rounds from her 150mm main armament, registering over forty hits during the prolonged action.

Eleven members of the tanker’s crew had lost their lives, including the three officers on the bridge and two of the forward gun crew, who had fired one final parting shot at the raider, only to receive a direct hit in return.

Identified as the 10,170-ton Panamanian-registered American Standard Vacuum Oil Company tanker Stanvac Calcutta, in ballast from Montevideo to Caripito , Venezuela , with sealed orders, the sinking ship was finally abandoned.

Gerlach stopped the raider alongside the lifeboats, and the Chief Engineer and thirty-six other surviving members of her fifty-two man crew, fourteen of them wounded, were hauled aboard.

One of them later lost his life on board the Stier.

* In recognition of her resistance against the Stier, the Stanvac Calcutta was honoured as one of the eleven United States ‘Gallant Ships’, by The Maritime Administration, the award incorrectly stating that one of the raider’s guns had been put out of action, yet the Stier’s war diary states that many of the tanker’s crew were angry at their Captain for having recklessly endangered their lives.

On June 10, Gerlach rendezvoused with the tanker Charlotte Schliemann, and transferred sixty-eight prisoners to the supply ship, with only Captain Griffiths of the Gemstone and the Stanvac Calcutta wounded remaining on board the Stier.

While re-fuelling, it was discovered that due to an error by the tanker’s Chief, the ‘oil’ the raider was receiving into her tanks was 98% water!

Normally a mild-mannered man, Gerlach was furious, and imposed a stiff fine of 150 Reichmarks on the officer.

The Stier re-fuelled from the tanker again, this time without any problems, on July 15, after which Gerlach decided to employ his two Arado seaplanes to locate potential victims, but with no success.

The tiny aircraft, two of the only six ever manufactured, and which were originally intended to be carried on U-Boats, proved far too fragile, and were in his view “Totally unsuited for the Atlantic, even under the most favourable circumstances”.

On July 27, he rendezvoused once more with the Charlotte Schliemann, and transferred his remaining prisoners.

Captain Griffiths of the Gemstone, who had been well treated on board the Stier, and who had come to enjoy the company of both Gerlach and Petersen, was given the choice of either remaining on board or of transferring to the tanker, chose to leave, a decision he would later regret.

The next day, July 28, the Stier rendezvoused with fellow-raider Michel, under the command of Hellmuth Von Ruckteschell, to the north of the island of St Helena .

Following the usual social comings and goings of officers and men between the two ships, Von Ruckteschell suggested that they try hunting together as he was convinced that two raiders could be more successful than one.

Sailing northwards, deployed twenty kilometres apart, the two ships met with no success, but availed of the opportunity to carry out drills and exercises, during which Gerlach and Petersen were encouraged to discover that their gunners had improved considerably, but after which, Gerlach, who had been doing quite well hunting alone, rejected the joint operations idea.

Agreeing to meet a week later, the captains parted and went their separate ways.

Early on August 9, the day of the new rendezvous, the Stier’s lookouts spotted a freighter on the horizon sailing on a parallel course.

Maintaining his own course so as not to arouse suspicion, and keeping out of sight, Gerlach gradually overtook the ship, and in an attempt to reduce the distance between them and to get within range, turned to cross her bow.

To his amazement, instead of turning away the ship headed straight at the Stier, on a course that would have them passing one another in opposite directions.

Approaching to within 17,000 metres of the vessel, Gerlach ordered a warning salvo fired and signalled to her to stop and maintain radio silence.

Aware that he was still out of range of the raider’s guns, the ship’s captain, called for full speed and tried to escape, while his radio operator sent QQQ distress signals stating that the ship was under attack by a surface raider.

As he did so his gun crew opened fire with their totally out-ranged 5-inch gun.

Following a chase that lasted nearly thirty minutes, during which the raider’s gunners fired twenty salvos, repeatedly hitting the ship and setting her on fire, Gerlach signalled to her captain to heave to and to abandon ship.

Realising the futility of resistance and trying to escape, he obeyed.

Identified by the boarding party as the 7,072-ton Dalhousie Steam & Motor Ship Company freighter, Dalhousie, in ballast from Capetown to Trinidad, her entire thirty-seven man crew were taken on board the Stier.

Anxious to leave the area as quickly as possible, due to the distress calls, Gerlach had her finished off with a torpedo.

At this point, the Michel suddenly arrived on the scene, causing some alarm on the Stier when she did not observe the correct identification procedures, but just in time for her crew to witness the capsized freighter going down by the stern.

Concerned that the area was likely to be severely compromised by the distress  signals, Von Ruckteschell soon departed.

The commander of the Michel had his doubts both about Gerlach’s character and tactics, and did not believe that he was suitable for the strenuous job of raiding.

He felt that Gerlach was too decent to be in command of a raider, and that as a solitary sort of man, who did not discuss his strategy and tactics sufficiently with his subordinates, there would probably be nobody to take over command, were anything to happen to him.

He subsequently shared these views with his superiors at the SKL.

The Stier’s officers, however, did not share Ruckteschell’s views, as, in the words of the realistic First Officer, Petersen, ‘What strategy? … What tactics? … They were forced on us by the enemy!

They did however, have concerns about his capabilities as a commander, with one officer wishing that in such a solitary and exposed position they had ‘a harder man’ for captain, another pointing out that their ‘faith in him as a strong leader was not sanguine’, and according to another, ‘He was simply not up to the job’.

These views were spoken not in anger, but in sympathy for their captain.

Frustrated by being in an area so devoid of targets, Gerlach urged the SKL to permit him try his luck on the west coast of the South American continent, or in the Indian Ocean, but without success.

Instead, they instructed him to investigate the remote Gough Island, south of Tristan da Cunha, and to report on it’s suitability as a base for raiders.

Reconnoitering the waters around the island, Gerlach reported that it was a safe and suitable place, and decided to remain there so that some long overdue maintenance and essential repairs could be carried out to the ship, and to set up a re-fuelling appointment with the Charlotte Schliemann.

On August 27, just to the north of the island, Gerlach once again rendezvoused with the Charlotte Schliemann, and transferred his latest batch of prisoners.

On learning that the tanker was due to sail to Batavia (Jakarta) where they would be handed over to the Japanese, whose appalling neglect and abuse of prisoners was well documented, he had the Gemstone’s captain, returned to the Stier.

Griffiths , for his part, was delighted to be returning to his ‘clean old bunk’.

The Stier’s lookouts sighted a large passenger-ship on September 4, which turned out to be the 29,253-ton French Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique liner, Pasteur, being used as a troop transport under Allied control, and capable of a top speed of 25 knots*.

Gerlach turned towards it, but as it was travelling at a speed well in excess of the raider’s top speed of 14 knots, he quickly realised that it was pointless trying to intercept it, and turned away again, hoping he had not been spotted.

* Purchased by the Norddeutschen Lloyd after the war she served as the liner Bremen until 1972.

When the lookouts spotted another vessel on September 19, which was pursued for twenty-four hours, but again without the raider being able to catch up with it, the already palpable frustration of everyone on board, intensified.

Following another meeting with the Michel on September 24, after which Ruckteschell took his ship off to keep a rendezvous with the tanker Uckermark, the Stier met up with the blockade-runner Tannenfels on September 25, taking delivery of a Japanese Nakajima seaplane, which on closer examination, proved to be useless.

* The Tannenfels was a sister-ship of the Goldenfels, which was converted into the HK Atlantis.

Early on September 27, while lying stopped with the Tannenfels, and with most of the crewmen who had been working outboard, scraping, cleaning and re-painting the ship’s sides, just recalled on board due to the deteriorating visibility and rising seas, a ship was sighted nearby emerging from a rain squall.

As she had appeared so unexpectedly, leaving the two ships suddenly almost alongside one another, Gerlach immediately called for full speed, ran up the battle flag and signalling to the ship to stop, cleared his gun crews for action.

Within minutes of ordering full speed, the Stier opened fire on the stranger with a warning shot across the bow, which Gerlach believed would lead her captain, realising he was hopelessly outgunned, to obey his command to stop.

Instead, he turned his ship, as if attempting to escape, and returned fire, with his stern-mounted World War One era 4-inch gun, two 37mm anti-aircraft guns and six machine guns, leaving Gerlach with little option but to open fire in earnest.

With the Tannenfels keeping her distance, concentrating on jamming the vessel’s frantic distress signals, the Stier, firing at will, moved to cut off her retreat, but instead sustained two hits herself, one jamming the rudder hard to starboard, the other cutting the oil-supply line to the engines, causing them to stop.

Drifting in a half-circle, Gerlach found that while he could now bring his port side armament to bear, he could not fire torpedoes, as the raider’s electrical power plant had also been knocked out of action.

Lying no more than 1,000 metres apart, close enough for the lighter anti-aircraft weapons of both the Stier and the Tannenfels, which now joined in, to become effective, raking the freighter’s decks and gun positions, the two ships hammered shells into one another at a devastating rate.

Despite the fact that the  shells were being supplied to her guns by hand, as the ammunition hoists were out of action, the raider’s superior firepower soon had the freighter firmly ablaze, but she too was now also ablaze, with several fires completely out of control being fed by the leaking oil in the engine-room.

Concentrating all his firepower on the freighter’s stern gun, which was wreacking such havoc on his ship, Gerlach could not believe the tenacity with which the enemy gunners continued to resist.

As one crew was mown down or blown to pieces, it was immediately replaced by another, until there was simply no one left, and the gun fell silent.

Firing several more salvos, one of which destroyed the freighter’s engine room, Gerlach finally ordered his gunners to cease firing.

With the two crippled ships drifting, side by side in the squally rain, their machine gunners still raking each other with murderous fire, what remained of the crew of the shattered freighter started getting off their burning, blood-spattered ship.

Their ‘conqueror’ was little better off.

Holed below the water-line and taking water in several places, fires raging out of control all over the ship, including in her coal-bunker, no fire-fighting capability, her electrical power-plant out of action, and her helm jammed hard over, the raider Stier was doomed.

With the flooding valves out of reach, there was no hope of preventing the fires from reaching the nineteen torpedoes stored in Number 2 hold, and as the rudder was still hopelessly jammed, and the ship was likely to blow up at any moment, Gerlach informed his officers that he had decided to abandon ship.

Despite the fact that his engineers had managed to get the engines restarted, he  instructed them to set the scuttling charges.

Informed of Gerlach’s decision, Kapitän Haase of the Tannenfels manoeuvred the supply-ship in as close as he dared to the burning raider, her officers and crew still stunned by what they had witnessed.

As he did so, the enemy radio operator was, incredibly, still calling for assistance.

A couple of well aimed shells blew the radio cabin away, killing him instantly.

Unlike those on the raider, who believed they had been engaging an auxiliary cruiser of some sort, the crew of the Tannenfels could clearly see how few weapons the freighter had brought to bear, and could not believe that they had reduced such a well-armed ship as the Stier to a smouldering sinking wreck.

As the survivors of the Stier’s crew, plus the wounded from the Stanvac Calcutta and other ships who had had to remain on board, took to the boats, the blazing hulk of their shattered adversary slid slowly beneath the waves.

Picked up by the Tannenfels, they watched, as the fires, now engulfing their ship in flames, finally reached the torpedo storage compartment, causing a massive explosion, after which the Stier sank quickly.

The battle had lasted just over an hour, during which the Stier had fired over fifty 150mm salvos, plus nine hundred rounds of anti-aircraft fire, and had sustained fifteen hits from the freighter’s 4-inch stern gun.

Three of her men had lost their lives, including her doctor, Dr Meyer-Hamme, Leutnant Petersen’s best friend, who said, “It’s easy to die … greet our friends”, and thirty-three others had been wounded, three seriously.

Searching for survivors from the sunken freighter in the squally conditions, which reduced visibility considerably, and finding none, Haase and Gerlach, reported that ‘Due to poor visibility, no prisoners were picked up’.

Thirty-one days later however, fifteen of the nineteen men, who had taken advantage of the same poor visibility to avoid rescue and escape in a lifeboat, landed in a remote fishing village on the coast of Brazil, after a horrific thirty-day, 1,800-mile journey.

Thirty-eight of their shipmates had died during the battle with the Stier.

With scarcely sufficient food to cater for the large number of people on board, the Tannenfels, which was also low in fuel, set course for France, reaching Bordeaux on November 2, where Gerlach immediately reported that he had engaged an ‘Unidentified American warship’.

When informed that his opponent was a lightly-armed cargo ship, he refused to believe it, stating that no cargo vessel with one 4-inch gun could have inflicted the damage his ship had sustained.

He later stated that he had believed her to be an Armed Merchant Cruiser or at least an auxiliary warship, and that she had replied with 6-inch and 4-inch guns as well as anti-aircraft and machine gun fire. 

The ‘unidentified American warship’ was in fact the 7,181-ton, four-month-old American ‘Liberty Ship’, the Stephen Hopkins, of the Luckenbach Steamship Company, in ballast on her maiden voyage, en route from Capetown to Bahia and on to Paramaribo in Dutch Guiana, where she was to pick up a cargo of bauxite.

The last word from First Officer Ludolf Petersen: "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". "She may have sunk us, but she saved most of our lives”. “We would not have lasted much longer out there in those days, and there would not always have been a Tannenfels, around to pick us up".

The raider Stier had spent one hundred and forty days at sea, covering 50,000 sea miles and sinking just four ships, for a total of 30,728 tons.

Kapitän zur See Horst Gerlach
Commander HK Stier

Horst Gerlach was born on August 11 1900 in Erfurt, and served on the battle cruiser SMS Seydlitz while still a teenager during World War One, rising to the rank of ensign by the age of eighteen.

Between the wars, he served at Naval Headquarters in Berlin , and also served as commander of an anti-submarine vessel.

He was appointed captain of Schiff 23 in May 1940, and served throughout her Baltic mine-sweeping and convoy escort days before taking her to Holland for conversion into a commerce raider, with the work being completed in Germany .

He named her Stier, the Bull, after Taurus, his wife Hildegard’s astrological sign!

While happy to get a command position, he described it as ‘a ticket to heaven’.

A slim good-natured man with a good sense of humour, who quickly became popular with his crew, and an optimist by nature, Horst Gerlach had little hope of achieving much success, as his crew were young and inexperienced.

It was clear to everyone at that stage of the war that the days of the commerce raider were numbered, and with the United States joining in, conditions at sea had become more hazardous than ever.

Simply getting to the open seas had become almost impossible, particularly in the aftermath of ‘the Channel Dash’ of the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen.

Having run a savage gauntlet, the Stier sailed for her designated zone of operations on May 19 1942, the last German raider to do so.

The Stier spent the next two months patrolling the Africa - South America shipping lanes without success, not helped by a top speed of only 14 knots.

On July 29, having rendezvoused with Helmuth Von Ruckteschell in HK Michel, the two captains tried to operate jointly, but success evaded them.

Ruckteschell did not believe that Gerlach was suitable for the strenuous job of raiding, and had serious doubts about his tactics and character.

He felt he was too decent a man to command a raider, and that if anything were to happen to him, there would be nobody to take over, as, being a solitary man, he did not discuss his strategy and tactics sufficiently with his subordinates.

These views he subsequently made known to his superiors at the SKL.

First Officer Ludolf Petersen maintained that his officers did not share these views, adding, ‘What strategy? What tactics? Theyre forced on us by the enemy!

They did however, have concerns about his capabilities as a commander, one wishing that in such a solitary and exposed position they had ‘a harder man’ for captain, another pointing out that their faith in him as a strong leader ‘was not sanguine’, and according to another, he was simply ‘not up to that job’.

These views were spoken not in anger, but in sympathy for the man.

On September 27 1942, a day of very poor visibility, the Stier engaged the ‘Liberty Ship’ Stephen Hopkins at close range, and as the two ships traded shots, with Gerlach convinced his opponent was an Armed Merchant Cruiser due to the volume of gunfire, the Stier was badly damaged and the Stephen Hopkins sunk.

With fires out of control and threatening the torpedo compartment, it was obvious that the  Stier was doomed, and with a heavy heart, Gerlach abandoned her. He, his crew and their prisoners were rescued by the blockade-runner Tannenfels, and safely returned to France .

The Stephen Hopkins, in fact armed with only one 4-inch, two 37mm, four 50 cal and two 30 cal machine-guns, was later named a ‘Gallant Ship’.

Ordered by the SKL to form a pre-commissioning detail for the captured freighter Glengarry, as Schiff 5, Horst Gerlach was joined by 80% of his former crew, who volunteered for another cruise with him.

The only Hilfskreuzer commander not to receive the Knight’s Cross, Gerlach relinquished command of Schiff 5 to serve as Naval Commandant at Leningrad, then in the Peloponnese, and finally in Holland in October 1944.

Treated ‘indifferently’ in captivity after the war, with his wife having to go on relief amidst increasing misery and adversity, Gerlach drove trucks to stave off poverty, and having finally succeeded to a bearable life, and risen to take part in NATO manoeuvres as a Reserve Officer, he suffered a stroke.

He died in 1970.

‘I admired him no end, he never complained’ - Frau Hildegard Gerlach

Primary Sources
Das Grosse Abenteuer - Deutsche Hilfskreuzer - Jochen Brennecke
Deutsche Hilfskreuzer des Zweiten Weltkriegs – Zvonimir Freivogel
The Secret Raiders – David Woodward
German Raiders of World War II – August Karl Muggenthaler
Hitler’s Secret Pirate Fleet – James P. Duffy

Stier - War Records from 09-05-1942 to 27-09-1942
Number Name Type Flag Date Tonnage Fate
1 Gemstone Freighter United Kingdom 04-06-1942 4.985 Sunk
2 Stanvac Calcutta Tanker Panama 06-06-1942 10.170 Sunk
3 Dalhousie Freighter United Kingdom 09-08-1942 7.070 Sunk
4 Stephen Hopkins Freighter USA 27-09-1942 8.500 Sunk
Total Stier Prizes 30.725
Notes to:
1 Sunk by torpedo.
2 Sunk by torpedo after gunfire.
3 Sunk by torpedo. Meeting with the supply ship Tannenfels. Stier supplied with a Nakajima seaplane.
4 Sunk by gunfire after a short battle. Stier suffers a number of 105mm hits which set her on fire and finally sink her. Her commander and crew are rescued by the Tannenfels, which later safely reaches Bordeaux.

Notes on Ships Captured or Sunk by Hilfskreuzer Stier - 9 May 1942 to 27 September 1942
1 - Gemstone

On June 4, approaching unseen out of the morning sun, the Stier fired the warning shot from 8,300 metres, but this 4.986-ton British freighter, outward bound from South Africa to Baltimore with a cargo of iron ore, signalled QQQ, which was picked up by a nearby ship and acknowledged on land.

Having initially thought he was being attacked by a U-Boat, and despite the fact that the raider’s opening salvoes had failed to hit his ship, the Gemstone’s Captain considered it pointless to fight, and so ordered his gun crew to stand down as he prepared to stop and abandon ship.

His entire crew were taken on board the raider as their ship was dispatched by a torpedo.

2 - Stanvac Calcutta

Two days later, this 10,170-ton Panamanian tanker in ballast from Montevideo to Caripito, Venezuela, opened fire with between twenty and thirty rounds of 3 and 4-inch, and tried to escape when ordered to stop, registering two hits.

The Stier replied with one hundred and forty-eight rounds of 150mm and a torpedo, which shattered the tanker aft, causing her to list and eventually sink.

Having tried to correct this by shifting ballast, her Chief Officer discovered that his Captain and Radio Officer had been killed.

Eleven more crewmen were to die before the sinking tanker, hit forty times, was finally abandoned and sunk by a torpedo.

The Chief and thirty-six other survivors, fourteen of them wounded, were picked up, with one of the more seriously injured later losing his life on board the Stier.

In recognition of her resistance against the Stier, the Stanvac Calcutta was honoured as one of the eleven U.S. ‘Gallant Ships’ by The Maritime Administration, the award incorrectly stating that one of the Stier’s guns had been put out of action.

The Stier’s war diary states that many of the tanker’s crew were angry at their Captain for having so endangered their lives.
3 - Dalhousie

Having refuelled twice from the tanker Charlotte Schliemann, and having briefly, but unsuccessfully, operated jointly with fellow raider HK Michel, Gerlach set a date for a further rendezvous with her captain, Ruckteschell, and resumed his solo cruise.

On the day of the new rendezvous, August 9, she approached and opened fire on this 7,072-ton British freighter, in ballast from Capetown to Trinidad, and signalled for her to stop.

Despite the fact that she returned fire with a 5-inch radioed for help, and tried to escape when ordered to stop by a 150mm salvo, within thirty minutes the Dalhousie was on fire and abandoned, with her entire thirty-seven man crew on board the Stier.

The raider Michel arrived in time to witness the torpedoed and capsized freighter sinking, stern down.
4 - Stephen Hopkins

On September 27, while lying stopped at a rendezvous with the blockade-runner Tannenfels, which had presented Gerlach with a fairly useless Japanese Nakajima E8N1 seaplane, and with crewmen busy cleaning and re-painting the ship’s sides, a ship was sighted and signalled to stop.

With all gun-crews ready for action, within three minutes of ordering full speed ahead, the Stier opened fire at close range.

The enemy was the four-month old, 7,181-ton, American ‘Liberty Ship’, Stephen Hopkins, of the Luckenbach Steamship Company, in ballast on her maiden voyage en route from Capetown to Bahia and on to Paramaribo in Dutch Guiana, returned fire with her solitary 4-inch gun, light anti-aircraft weapons and machine guns.

Gerlach later stated that he believed she was an Armed Merchant Cruiser or an auxiliary warship, and that she had replied with 6-inch and 4-inch guns as well as anti-aircraft and machine gun fire!

With the Tannenfels jamming the American’s distress signals, the Stier moved to cut off her retreat, but sustained two hits herself, one of which jammed the rudder to starboard, the other cutting off the oil supply to the engines, causing them to stop.

With his ship drifting in a half circle, Gerlach found that while he could now open up with his port side armament, he could not fire torpedoes, as the raider’s electrical gear had also been knocked out of action.

With the ammunition being supplied to the guns by hand, the raider’s firepower soon had the freighter ablaze and stopped, and having secured several more hits, Gerlach ordered his gunners to cease firing.

After an hour, during which the two crippled ships lay motionless, side by side in the squally rain, their machine-gunners raking each other with murderous fire, the American ship, with only nineteen survivors of her fifty-six man crew managing to get into the lifeboats, finally sank.

On board the Stier, which had sustained at least fifteen hits, the fire from the shattered oil tanks was spreading towards Number Two hold, and with nineteen torpedoes stored there, the German crew tried frantically by every means possible to stop it.

But with the flooding valves out of reach, the rudder still hopelessly jammed, and the ship now likely to blow up at any moment, and despite getting the engines briefly restarted, it was decided to set scuttling charges, and to abandon ship.

With three men dead and thirty three wounded, the Captain and his surviving crew were picked up by the Tannenfels, which arrived safely at Bordeaux on November 8.

Having reported that he had encountered an American warship, Gerlach initially refused to believe that a lightly-armed Liberty Ship, with a single 4-inch gun, could have inflicted the damage that led to the sinking of his ship.

The nineteen survivors of the Stephen Hopkins, taking advantage of the poor visibility, escaped in their boats, despite attempts by the crew of the Tannenfels to rescue them.

Only fifteen of them survived the horrific 32-day, 1,800-mile journey that ended in a remote village on the coast of Brazil.
These notes were researched and compiled mainly from - German Raiders of World War II by August Karl Muggenthaler (1977) and The Secret Raiders by David Woodward (1955).

Gallery

Credits
Alfonso Arenas, Spain Got the idea and founded the Hilfskreuzer section.
Jonathan Ryan, Ireland Creator of the Hilfskreuzer section, as it is today, based on his knowledge and private archive.