odyssey marine exploration

The tragic tale behind the Second World War's silver shipwreck

Crew from the Gairsoppa


By Jasper Copping - The Telegraph

It was a particularly tragic victim of Adolf Hitler’s U-boat campaign.

Running low on fuel and separated from the comparative safety of a convoy, the SS Gairsoppa was making a desperate bid for a neutral harbour when it was sent to the bottom of the North Atlantic by a German torpedo.

Under machine gunfire, dozens of the ship’s 85 crew scrambled onto a small lifeboat then spent two weeks adrift, gradually dying off one by one.

Just one survivor, Second Officer Richard Ayres, made it to shore, 300 miles away. On board the doomed ship had been 2,800 bars of silver bullion, thought lost for ever.

Now, almost three quarters of a century on - following the recovery of the cargo by explorers and just as the bars are to be made into a collection of silver coins by the Royal Mint - the full story of the sinking of the SS Gairsoppa, and the tragic fate of its crew, can be told.

The bullion was put on board the steamer in Calcutta in December 1940 for shipment to Britain, then standing alone in the war against Germany, to help to pay for the war effort.

As well as the metal, the boat was fully laden with iron and tea – a load of almost 7,000 tons – and struggled to reach its nominal top speed of ten knots.

It steamed around Africa to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where, in January, it joined Convoy SL64 for the perilous voyage across submarine-infested waters to Liverpool.

Then two misfortunes stuck. Heavy storms forced the captain, Gerald Hyland, to burn extra coal to keep up with the convoy.

Fearing he would not have enough fuel to reach Liverpool, he was forced to split off and head for Galway, on Ireland’s west coast.

But two days after setting off alone, the crew spotted a German long-range reconnaissance plane, a Focke-Wulf Condor circling above them, and their fate was sealed.


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