Sea Stories

A Treasure Trove but not enough to buy a Small Wooden Cross

The story about the sinking of the Gairsoppa is ordinary, but the weight of the treasure it was carrying when sent to the bottom was one of the largest in the world. 

The British merchant vessel Gairsoppa was launched in 1919 in Newcastle and was owned by the British India Steam Navigation Company. The length of the vessel was 125 m, width – 16 m. The vessel could move at a speed of 10.5 knots. 

The merchant ship “Gairsoppa” in 1919

It was intended for commercial trade flights to the Far East, Australia, Africa and India. During World War II in 1940, the ship was requisitioned by the British War Department to transport military supplies.

On her last and fateful voyage, the ship departed in December 1940 from the Indian port of Calcutta. Onboard there were about 7 thousand tons of cargo, including cast iron, tea – and silver. 

On January 31, 1941, in the African port of Freetown, Sierra Leone, the ship joined the SL64 convoy bound for Liverpool, England. 

The convoy was not accompanied by warships. There was a further handicap as many of the merchant ships in the convoy, due to poor condition, could not reach speeds above eight knots. 

It was planned that convoy SL 64 would later join convoy HG 63, which was already under the protection of two warships. However, as a result of an attack by the German submarine U-37, the convoy was dispersed and seven ships were sunk. The ships remaining in the convoy reached northern latitudes, where, due to strong winds, Gairsoppa was forced to slow down,

German submarine “U-101” which sunk “Gairsoppa”.

On February 16, 1941, at 8 am, the ship was spotted from the air by a German air force aircraft. At half past ten in the evening, the German submarine U-101, commanded by Captain Ernst Mengersen, came out to intercept it. 

The submarine attack took place on February 17 at 00:08. The explosion of a torpedo blew hold No. 2 to pieces. The foremast broke down and fell to the deck, taking the radio antennas with it, so the crew could not even send a distress signal. 

After 20 minutes, the ship sank to the bottom. Only one boat survived with 31 sailors, the senior, among who was the second mate Richard Ayres.  On the eighth day of the voyage, food and water ended and people, using saltwater, began to die. 

On the 13th day, when seven sailors remained alive, the victims saw the Lizard Lighthouse on the southern tip of Cornwall, 300 miles from where the ship sank. 

While entering the bay, a wave overturned the boat and four sailors were drowned. The remaining three seafarers were thrown ashore, but only Ayres managed to stay afloat. 

Two, completely exhausted sailors scrambled on to the rocky shore.  Aires was helped to get ashore by local residents who noticed a boat approaching the shore.  Sadly, Richard Ayres was the only one of the 85 crew members to survive.  He was later awarded the Order of the British Empire for his bravery and attempt to save his comrades. 

In memory of the lost sailors, the name of the vessel and the names of the sailors are included in the list of those who died at sea in the First and Second World Wars, placed on the Memorial Tower in London.

Tower Hill Memorial. London.

The story of the death of Gairsoppa was forgotten for 50 years. Only in 1989 did the British government announce tenders for the search and lifting of the cargo. The contract was signed in 2010 with the American firm Odyssey Marine Exploration specialising in the search for marine treasures. 

Sonar image of Gairsoppa.
Damage to the ship by a torpedo

After two months of searching, the wreck was found 500 km off the coast of Ireland at a depth of 4,700 meters. However, before starting the underwater work, the crew decided to make sure that the found ship was Gairsoppa.  The Russian research ship Yuzhmorgeologiya was chartered. In September 2011, Russian experts took photographs and confirmed that the sunken ship was indeed Gairsoppa.

Carrying out work to raise silver.
Control station for an underwater robot.

Odyssey assumed the risk of finding and raising silver for 80% of its recovered value. Since during the war, the British War Office paid insurance compensation for the silver, it became the rightful owner of the sunken metal.  A hole in the hold from a torpedo explosion made it easier to work at such a great depth. Special robots only had to cut holes in the ship’s bulkheads, which were much thinner than the hull.

Silver ingots in the hold of a sunken ship.
The robot collects ingots at a depth of 4700 m.

On July 18, 2012, the first treasure hoisting operation was carried out. At that time, 1,203 silver bars of the highest standard 999 weighing 48.8 tons and worth $ 38 million were raised.  

Silver raised.
Washed up silver ingot.

In 2013, a renewed attempt to raise the treasure from the bottom of the sea was made. This time, the salvage team managed to extract 1,574 bars weighing 60 tons and cost $ 35 million. Thus, they managed to retrieve in total 2,777 bars weighing 108.8 tons worth $73 million. The silver made up 99% of the valuable cargo on the ship.

Silver 50 pence coin.
Australian coin.

Canadian silver bar.
Canadian coin.

In memory of the Gairsoppa disaster, collectable bullions and coins were made from raised silver in Canada and Australia. This marketing campaign itself raised a fortune not quite enough to rival that of Bill Gates. Alas, there wasn’t quite enough to place on the shoreline reached by its sole survivor a small wooden cross. Source edited by Michael Wash.

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