It was a dark, ice-cold February. The merchant ship SS Gairsoppa was seeking refuge in Ireland when a Nazi U-boat sunk her. She was loaded with seven million ounces of silver. That's worth $202.74 million in today's dollars.
According to the ship's manifest, she also carried 1700 tons of tea and a fair amount of pig iron. The Gairsoppa was on its way to Galway, Ireland, after leaving Convoy SL 64 because of low fuel. The convoy departed Freetown, Sierra Leone, on January 1941. Almost all of its 30 ships and ten escorts arrived to Liverpool on February 22. Some of them had to turn to other ports. Only the Gairsoppa was sunk.
Being alone at sea meant she was a good target for the Nazi sharks. A long-range German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 airplane found her at 08:00pm on February 16, 1941. About 14 hours later, the Kriegsmarine VIIB-class submarine U-101 commanded by Korvettenkapitän Ernst Mengersen spotted her on the open sea, 300 miles southwest of Galway Bay.
Mengersen, who you can see in the photo above wearing his Knight's Iron Cross, was one of the stars in the team of sea wolves created by Admirals Raeder and Dönitz. He sunk almost 70,000 tons of ships, most of them British cargo ships. He also sunk the HMS Broadwater, a Royal Navy destroyer.
After making contact with the Gairsoppa, Mengersen submerged his 66.5-meter-long U-boat—carrying 14 torpedoes and 26 mines—and prepared to kill the unsuspecting British ship. The commander ordered fire on the Gairsoppa's starboard side, sinking her in just 20 minutes. Most of the crew—88 sailors and officials, plus two gunners—died during the attack. As survivors of the initial barrage abandoned the ship, Mengersen mowed them down with the U-boat's machine gun. The only survivor was R.H. Ayres, the second officer, who reached the English coast 13 days after the attack.
Now, 70 years later, the treasure hunters at Odyssey Marine Exploration have found the Gairsoppa almost intact 4700 meters under water.
According to Odyssey, the seven million ounces of silver is "the largest known precious metal cargo ever recovered from the sea." They will keep 80%, while the British government would grab 20% of the total booty. They will start the recovery in 2012. The SS Gairsoppa had emergency stern steering which included a stern compass on the top of the poop deck. The binnacle housing the stern compass of the SS Gairsoppa shines in the lights of Odyssey's Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) during a visual inspection of the site approximately 4,700 meters deep.
Odyssey's crew is also excited by the finding itself. As Odyssey's Principal Marine Archaeologist Neil Cunningham Dobson puts it:
Being the son of a merchant mariner who worked for the same shipping line as the Gairsoppa's and as a former merchant mariner myself, the visit to the site via ROV was particularly personal. By analyzing the known configuration and research about the Gairsoppa and her final voyage and painstakingly exploring the shipwreck site to record each element and item, our team of experts was able to positively identify the site as the Gairsoppa. Even though records indicate that the lifeboats were launched before the ship sank, sadly most of her crew did not survive the long journey to shore. By finding this shipwreck, and telling the story of its loss, we pay tribute to the brave merchant sailors who lost their lives.
Indeed, it's exciting. Everything is exciting when there's seven million ounces of silver waiting for you. [Odyssey]