The cargo ship Gairsoppa, 5,237grt, of the British India Steam Nav Co, London, was heading for London from Calcutta, and had called at Freetown where she joined the convoy SL-64 at the end of January, 1941. The ship’s cargo comprised 2,600 tons of pig iron, 1,765 tons of tea, 2,369 tons of general cargo, and 200 tons of silver ingots and coins, then worth £600,000. She carried a crew of 83 and two gunners.
As the convoy neared Ireland, it ran into bad weather and the ships were forced to slow down, and the Gairsoppa was forced to use a great deal of coal in keeping station. Her coal bunkers became dangerously low, and at dusk on Feb 14, she was given permission to head for Galway to take on sufficient coal to get her home.
Early on Feb 16, the Gairsoppa was circled by a German four-engines aircraft but late that evening, the U-101 intercepted the Gairsoppa and fired three torpedoes at her. Two missed but the third hit her on the starboard side in No 2 hold. The explosion brought down her foremast carrying the wireless aerials so she was unable to send an SOS. The torpedo explosion started a fire and she began to settle by the bows. The U-boat opened fire with a machine gun as the ship’s crew took to three lifeboats, and the ship sank about 20 minutes after being hit.
Two of the boats were never seen again. The third lifeboat, under Second Officer R H Ayres and carrying seven other Europeans and 23 Lascars, set off on a easterly course under sail and with a strong westerly wind. There was little water and only biscuits for food, and on the fourth day, the first men died of frostbite and from drinking sea water.
After 13 days, only four Europeans and two Lascars were alive when the lifeboat reached Caerthillian Cove on the Lizard, in Cornwall, on Mar 1 but the boat capsized in the surf as the men tried to beach her. Of the 85 who had been on board the Gairsoppa, only Second Officer Ayres survived. He was later awarded the MBE.
This autumn the wreck specialists Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc, of Tampa, said it had found the wreck of the Gairsoppa in international waters, 4,700m deep. Odyssey said official documents showed the ship was carrying £600,000 (1941 value) or seven million total ounces of silver, including over three million ounces of private silver bullion insured by the UK government making it the largest precious metal cargo ever recovered from the sea.
In 2010, the UK Department for Transport awarded Odyssey Marine Exploration the exclusive salvage contract for the cargo. Under the agreement, Odyssey will retain 80 per cent of the net salved value of the silver bullion recovered and the UK Government will get the other 20 per cent. The Odyssey team conducted ROV (remotely operated vehicle) operations from the research vessel Odyssey Explorer to inspect the site.
More on this and other news in Sea Breezes Magazine - December 2011 Issue
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