The SS Gairsoppa was a British steam merchant ship launched in 1919 and built in Jarrow by Palmers Shipbuilding & Iron Co Ltd at the request of the British India Steam Navigation Co Ltd. Initially called the War Roebuck she was renamed after a waterfall – Gerusoppa Falls – on the Sharavathi river in Western India.
For the next 21 years, the 412-foot ship sailed between Britain and India and frequently visited Australia, Africa and the Far East. During the Second World War, all ships including the SS Gairsoppa came under control of the British Navy.
In 1940 Britain stood largely alone against Germany who had conquered many parts of Europe. U-boats waged savage attacks against Allied shipping which struggled to bring supplies to a beleaguered island. As fast as the Allies built ships, the U-boats sunk them. In 1941, U-boats sunk 38 ships including the SS Gairsoppa. Carrying a cargo of iron and tea, the ship was also transporting 240 tonnes of silver bullion desperately needed to finance the war effort.
In December 1940 the Gairsoppa left Calcutta in India and steamed around the African coast to Freetown in Sierra Leone to join convoy SL 64 heading for Liverpool. On 31st January 1941 the unescorted convoy set sail and all was well at first. Many of the ships were elderly and the convey was limited to a speed of about eight knots. Nearing the British Isles the weather worsened and the Gairsoppa carrying nearly 7000 tonnes found it hard to maintain even this slow speed without burning more and more fuel oil. Captain Gerald Hyland became very worried about the situation so much so that he doubted that he would be able to reach Liverpool at all. As his fuel slowly started to dwindle he sent a signal to the convoy leader and requested permission to leave the convoy and proceed as best he could to the nearest port in, Galway. The Gairsoppa broke away from the convoy on 14th February 1941 and headed for Ireland. Two days later she was picked up by a Focke Wulf Condor, a long-range spotting plane. The aircraft circled the ship whilst sending out her position to the nearest U-boats. One of the closest was U 101 commanded by Ernst Mengerson. Ernst sped to the area, ordered his crew to start the attack and fired his torpedo at the vulnerable ship blowing apart the ships No 2 hold and snapping off the Gairsoppa’s foremast which carried the radio aerial. As fire and smoke raged through the ship, Captain Hyland, unable to send a distress gave the order to abandon ship.
The crew started to lower the three lifeboats as the U-boat surfaced and sprayed the upper deck with machine gun fire. Dozens of men leapt overboard to escape the fire, including Second Officer Richard Ayres. As soon as Ayres and some of the men got into the lifeboat, they began to frantically row away from the sinking ship fearful of being pulled down with it. They managed to get clear and watched as the Gairsoppa sunk beneath the waves barely twenty minutes after it had been torpedoed. There had been 85 men on the Gairsoppa, but only 31 were in his lifeboat with no others to be seen. Most of the survivors were Indian seamen known as Lascars. Nobody else knew how to sail a small boat, so Ayres immediately got to work organizing things. After fitting an oar to take the place of the damaged rudder he set course to the east and hopefully land.
The lifeboat contained very few provisions; just tins of condensed milk and some dry biscuit they had great difficulty swallowing as they had very little freshwater. Each man was limited to half a pint of water a day and some of the Lascars started drinking the seawater in an effort to swallow the biscuit and relieve their thirst. Drinking seawater causes problems with kidneys due to the salt content and eventually dehydration occurs. After eight days the water completely ran out and as Ayres could not stop the Lascars drinking the seawater, they started to die from dehydration and also frostbite.
Incredibly after thirteen days at sea one of the men spotted a dark outline on the horizon and a faint blink of light. As the boat edged nearer they could see clearly the outline of the Lizard Lighthouse. They had sailed over 300 miles from where the Gairsoppa had sunk. Richard Ayres sailed the boat towards a small rocky cove and as he got to the entrance a huge wave swept in and overturned the little boat tipping all of them into the water drowning all but three of the crew. The next wave partially righted the boat and Ayres managed to scramble on board helping Thomas and Hampshire onto the upturned keel only to have another wave capsize the boat again. Hampshire was washed away to his death but Ayres and Thomas were thrown up onto the rocks. As they scrambled up the rocky beach to safety another larger wave thundered in and knocked Thomas over and he drowned yards from safety. Overwhelmed Ayres gave up all his will to live and was on the point of surrendering to his fate when he heard voices urging him not to give up.
Three girls Betty Driver, Olive Martin and her sister who were evacuees from Tottenham had been walking on the cliffs when they had spotted the little boat and the drama that followed. One ran to get help and the other two raced down to the beach and shouted to the men, begging them to keep swimming. Soon the first girl arrived with Brian Richard, a coastguard, who threw Ayres a rope and pulled him to safety. Later the bodies of Thomas, Hampshire and two Lascars were recovered and buried close by in St. Wynwallows Church. Nobody ever discovered what happened to the other life rafts and the men in them.
Ayres was awarded an MBE in recognition of his outstanding efforts to keep his fellow survivors alive as well as Lloyds War Medal for bravery at sea. He served out his war service in the Royal Naval Reserve and carried on into civilian life dying in 1992.
In 1989, the British government invited tenders to salvage the cargo and after a further tender in January 2010, they awarded Odyssey Marine Exploration, a US company, a two-year contract to find and salvage the 7,000,000 ounces (200 t) of silver.
On September 26, 2011, Odyssey Marine confirmed the identity and location of the Gairsoppa. The wreck of the ship was found on the seafloor at a depth of 2.9 miles off the coast of Ireland. In 2012 Odyssey Marine reported that its recovery yielded 1,218 silver ingots weighing approximately 1,400,000 ounces (40 t), with a further 21 tons of silver bullion being recovered in 2013.
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