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Naval Armed Guard Service: Engagements with German Surface Raiders

Related Resource: Naval Armed Guard Service During World War II

Source: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. "History of the Armed Guard Afloat, World War II." (Washington, 1946): 86-92. [This microfiche, identified as United States Naval Administrative History of World War II #173, is located in Navy Department Library, and can be purchased, or borrowed through interlibrary loan.]

The number of armed United States merchant ships lost to armed raiders is not definitely known. Several ships went out independently and were never heard from again. They may have been torpedoed, have suffered marine casualties, or have gone down before the guns of some fast surface raider. Six merchant ships, all carrying Armed Guards, are known to have encountered armed raiders. All of these ships were sunk, but some were able to fight back. The stories of the Stephen Hopkins and the Stanvac Calcutta rank with the great individual ship actions of all times.

The Germans converted some of their faster merchant ships to raiders. They gave them guns with greater fire power than any merchant ship. They also mounted torpedo tubes on the raiders. Generally there was a mother ship to furnish supplies. Japanese bases and facilities were used extensively by German raiders. They found their prey in the fast allied merchant ships which did not operate in convoy. The German raiders were able to slip through the allied blockade and survive for months in the open seas. These raiders were especially successful in the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic. Reports from Armed Guards sources indicate that Raiders No. 23 and No. 28 accounted for all six ships which were sunk in these areas.

The first known United States merchant ship to fall prey to Raider No. 28 was the Connecticut. This ship was sunk on April 28, 1942. There are no details on the sinking in the files of the Arming Merchant Ship Section in the Fleet Maintenance Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

The Stanvac Calcutta, under Panamanian registry, but carrying a four-inch gun aft and a three-inch gun forward, and having an Armed Guard [U.S. Navy] officer and eight [U.S. Navy enlisted] Armed Guards on board, was on a voyage between Montevideo, Uruguay, and Port of Spain, Trinidad, in early June, 1942. Shortly after 1000 on the morning of June 6, a vessel emerged from a rain squall about four miles distant on the port bow of the Stanvac Calcutta and opened fire. The vessel was Raider No. 23 (Schiff 23), the ex S.S. Cairo. She hoisted the international code flag signal to the Stanvac Calcutta to stop all engines. The German ensign was flying at the gaff on her mainmast. The Calcutta hoisted her international code flag number and the Panama flag at the gaff on the mainmast. She increased her engines to full speed and opened fire with both guns. Her three and four inch guns were no match for the six 6" (5.9") guns mounted on the enemy. Raider 23 opened fire with all guns and fired 153 rounds and one torpedo at the Stanvac Calcutta before that proud ship went down with her flag still flying. Each gun on the Calcutta fired more than twenty rounds before the ship was sunk. There was no surrender and no thought of abandoning ship as long as her guns would fire. Dead and wounded were lying at their stations. When her port rail was under water and it appeared that she would roll over any minute, a few members of the Stanvac Calcutta's crew were able to abandon ship. The vessel rolled over very quickly until she was bottom-up and then sank by the stern. This was the first of nineteen allied flag merchant ships which offered opposition to Raider No. 23. Survivors were picked up by the raider and eventually landed in Japanese prison camps [when the raider returned to a Japanese base via the Indian Ocean to replenish supplies], to remain until they were released when the war ended. She had fought back against hopeless odds and in the best tradition of the United States Navy.

The William F. Humphrey had an old 5"/51 gun [i.e., with a bore 5" in diameter and the barrel length of 51 calibers - approximately 21' 3"] on her stern, and a fighting coxswain [a U.S. Navy petty officer rating for specialists in boat handling] named Jennings Jack Bennett in charge of five Armed Guards when she met Raider No. 28 [or Michel, her actual nom de guerre] on the night of July 16, 1942, while en route from Capetown [South Africa] to Trinidad. The raider pulled up on the port quarter at about half past nine in the evening. She fired once and stopped. When the William F. Humphrey answered her fire, the enemy ship opened up with all guns, including her machine guns. As the Humphrey fired the third round, a shell from the raider hit underneath the gun deck and so raised the tun that it was impossible to fire again. Bennett was hit in both legs and in the left arm while loading the second round, but continued with the loading and pointing of the gun. When in a pointer position to fire the second round, a finger from his left hand was shot off. He continued his duties at the gun until it could no longer fire. He then threw out life preservers into the water and proceeded amidships to throw confidential papers overboard. Just as he left his room, a shell struck the bridge and the overhead caved in. As he was in the act of lowering a lifeboat a shell exploded between the davits [i.e., lifeboat cranes] and inflicted serious shrapnel wounds. Bennett was actually pinned to the deck by shrapnel, but managed to free himself and roll into the water. The Germans fired on the men from the Humphrey as they swam in the water. Two torpedoes which sent the ship down passed Bennett so close that he could had touched them and the concussion from their explosion blew him completely out of the water. Two ship-borne [German] motor torpedo boats cooperated in the attack. He [Bennett] swam to a life raft and was pulled aboard. Later he was transferred to a lifeboat. Fore seven days he lay on a piece of canvas over a couple of oars with many wounds, including shrapnel in his stomach. Finally a Norwegian ship rescued the survivors on the seventh day and Bennett began his long battle for life in a hospital at Freetown. For his heroic conduct, Bennett was awarded the Silver Star.

Two other United States merchant ships went down before the guns of Raider No. 28. The American Leader left Capetown on September 7, 1942, en route for the United States. At 1940 on September 10, Raider 28 began shelling this ship with heavy guns and machine guns and continued for twenty minutes. She sank her [the American Leader] with two torpedoes. Most of the Armed Guards and a large number of the merchant crew were picked up by the raider and some of the survivors were eventually liberated from Japanese prison camps.

The Sawokla was torpedoed and shelled by Raider No. 28 at 2035 on 10 November 1942. The ship was about 400 miles southeast of Madagascar, bound from Columbo, Ceylon [now Sri Lanka] to Capetown when the action took place. The ship took two torpedoes, about 68 rounds of heavy [artillery] ammunition, presumably six-inch, and considerable machine gun fire before she went down. J.J. Parrington, Coxswain in the Armed Guard crew fired two magazines of 20mm [cannon] ammunition at the raider. It is believed that four Armed Guards, including the Armed Guard officer, were killed at the time of the sinking. There were many survivors who were made prisoners on board of the raider. Not until 1945 were some of these prisoners released from Japanese camps. The ship sank in eight minutes.

The Stephen Hopkins fought one of the most gallant actions in World War II against two German raiders on September 27 about midway between Capetown and Rio de Janeiro. The vessel was proceeding on a northwesterly course at about 0935. The weather was hazy. From the north two armed raiders appeared on her starboard bow. The larger, a 7,000 ton motor ship, was a mother ship and apparently was unarmed forward. The smaller, a 4,000 ton motor ship, was heavily armed, probably with six 5.9" guns. She was probably Raider No. 23. The Hopkins had a 4" gun aft, two 37mm guns forward, four .50 cal. And two .30 cal. machine guns.

Upon sighting the raiders, the Hopkins turned away to port. The larger raider immediately drew ahead. At about 1,000 yards the smaller raider opened salvo fire. Throughout the action the larger raider strafed the decks of the Hopkins with machine gun fire. Ensign Kenneth M. Willett, USNR, came out on deck as the first shell struck. He was seriously wounded immediately in the stomach by shrapnel from the bursting shell. Nevertheless, he continued to direct the firing of the 4" gun at the heavier armed raider until the [ship's ammunition] magazine blew up. Most of the 35 projectiles [fired by the 4" gun] struck the raider along the water line. The Cadet fired the five remaining four inch shells at the other raider. Meanwhile, the machine guns from Hopkins were sweeping the decks of the raiders and the second mate was directing the fire of the two 37mm guns forward at the larger ship until his shell handlers were killed and the gun platform was wrecked. At the end of 20 minutes the Stephen Hopkins was done for and the order was given to abandon ship. When last seen, the Armed Guard officer was covered with blood but was helping cut loose the life rafts. For his action he was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously. The remaining Armed Guards were commended by the Secretary of the Navy. Only five, all wounded, survived the sinking. In addition, the destroyer escort No. 354 was named for Ensign Willett [destroyer escorts were not usually named]. The Stephen Hopkins was awarded the Gallant Ship Citation by the War Shipping Administration.

The second engineer, Mr. George D. Cronk, took charge of the one lifeboat which escaped and brought 15 survivors to a safe landfall on the coast of Brazil, although he had neither navigating instruments nor charts. The weary survivors witnessed the dying gasp of Raider No. 23 as her crew was removed and she was covered in smoke [a smoke screen?]. Later an explosion was heard. The ship went down. This exploit equals anything in John Paul Jones' experiences. It is one of the few cases in Naval History where a lightly armed ship was able by gunfire to sink a vessel with virtually the armament of a cruiser.


10 April 2001