A Wartime Wreck Bound For Liverpool, Finally Gives Up Its Cargo of Silver.
Above Photo: Entering the wreck of the SS Gairsoppa, three miles down in the Atlantic Ocean.
Oddly, this tale of wartime shipping woe is relevant to themes in my Punk and New Wave memoir, Bombed Out!, being part of Liverpool’s rich and sometimes tragic maritime history. Most of the accompanying photos were taken from the Gairsoppa’s website.
In 1940, to contribute to Britain’s war effort, the decision was taken to import silver from India, because the British Royal Mint’s supply was running low.
The silver, in large ingots, was loaded onto the SS Gairsoppa in Bombay, India. She was laden with tea and pig iron as well as silver, and then set off in a convoy, under naval escort, bound for Liverpool.
Because of bad weather and insufficient coal, the ship was forced to break away from the convoy off the coast of Ireland, and the captain headed for Galway. A German plane spotted the ship and shortly afterwards the Gairsoppa and its crew of 86 men were hit by a torpedo from a Nazi U-boat.
She sank in icy seas within 20 minutes.
Most of the crew members and two gunners died immediately. The impact of the torpedo also instantly destroying the wireless antennae, so the crew couldn’t even send a distress call.
Two of the ship’s lifeboats were later swamped in the stormy waves, and though the third made it to Cornwall in England, 13 days later, only one man survived. The other lifeboat occupants drowned when the boat capsized within sight of the shore.
A few years ago, almost 100 tonnes of silver were recovered from the wreck by US salvage firm, Odyssey, working under contract to the UK government. This was no small feat, because the ship lay three miles down, deeper even than the Titanic. An underwater robot used in the salvage operations took three and a half hours to descend to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to access the wreck.
The recovered silver was valued at £150m, the largest quantity of precious metal ever recovered from such a depth.
The well-preserved wreck of the SS Gairsoppa is still sitting upright on the seabed 300 miles off the west coast of Ireland, its cargo hatches open and the gaping hole left by the torpedo clearly visible in its side.
Correspondence between the Royal Mint and the Bank of England at the time of the sinking revealed that there was such concern over the loss of the bullion, valued in 1940 at £600,000, that it was feared the Mint might run out of silver completely and be forced to suspend production of coinage.
Some records suggest that more silver may still remain in the ship’s hold, but Odyssey has found no trace of it, nor of human remains from the men killed in the attack when they carried out their recovery operations.