SS Gairsoppa

The SS Gairsoppa was a British steam merchant ship built in Jarrow and launched in 1919. After a long civilian career, she saw service during the Second World War. She was named in honour of the town of Gerusoppa on the banks of River Sharavati in Karnataka, India, which due to its easy access to water transportation and as a distribution centre for crops including pepper, was the commercial capital for centuries.

United Kingdom
Name: SS Gairsoppa
Operator: British-India Steam Navigation Company
Port of registry: Glasgow, United Kingdom
Ordered: by British Shipping Controller as SS War Roebuck taken over by BISN
Builder: Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company, Jarrow[1]
Yard number: 894
Launched: 12 Aug 1919
Completed: November 1919
Renamed: During construction
  • United Kingdom Official Number 141924
  • Code Letters GCZB (1934-41)
Fate: Sunk, 16 February 1941 after being torpedoed by a German U-Boat. 85 fatalities. Wreck now lies at a depth of 4,700 metres.
Status: Wreck
General characteristics
Class and type: Steam merchant ship
Length: 399 ft 3 in (121.69 m)
Beam: 52 ft 2 in (15.90 m)
Draught: 25 ft 8 14 in (7.830 m)
Depth: 28 ft 5 in (8.66 m)
Installed power: 517 nhp
Propulsion: triple expansion engine, coal
Speed: 10.5 knots (19.4 km/h)
Crew: 81
Location where Gairsoppa was torpedoed and sunk off Ireland.

She sailed with several convoys, before joining Convoy SL 64 in February 1941. Gairsoppa left the convoy when she exhausted the majority of her fuel and was making her way to Galway, Ireland, when a German U-boat fired a torpedo that sank her with the loss of 85 lives.

The wreck of the Gairsoppa was discovered in 2011, and it was announced that an operation to recover its cargo of silver bullion, with an estimated value of £150 million, would begin in 2012. On 18 July 2013 Odyssey Marine Exploration, of Tampa, Florida, reported that it had recovered 48 tons of silver, making this probably "the deepest, largest precious metal recovery in history" (as the Gairsoppa rests in 4,700 metres (15,400 ft) of water).[2]


Gairsoppa was 399 feet 3 inches (121.69 m) long, with a beam of 52 feet 2 inches (15.90 m). She had a depth of 28 feet 5 inches (8.66 m) and a draught of 25 feet 8 14 inches (7.830 m). She was propelled by a 517 nhp triple expansion steam engine driving a single screw propeller. The engine was built by Palmers. It had cylinders of 27 inches (69 cm), 44 inches (110 cm) and 78 inches (200 cm) diameter by 48 inches (120 cm) stroke.[3] It could propel the ship at 10.5 knots (19.4 km/h).[4]


Ordered by the British Shipping Controller as SS War Roebuck from Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company of Jarrow, she was taken over during construction by the British-India Steam Navigation Company, and completed as SS Gairsoppa.[4] Gairsoppa was completed in November 1919. Her port of registry was Glasgow. She was allocated the United Kingdom Official Number 141924.[3] On 29 April 1930, she ran aground at Fulta Point, India. She was refloated undamaged later that day.[5] Gairsoppa used the Code Letters GCZB from 1934.[3]


Attached to convoy SL-64 under master Gerald Hyland, she was returning from India to Britain in 1941 with a cargo of silver ingots destined for the Royal Mint, pig iron and tea.[6][7] She joined the 8 knot convoy in Freetown, Sierra Leone,[8] but while in a heavy storm and running low on coal off the coast of neutral Ireland, Gairsoppa split off from the convoy and set course for Galway harbour at a reduced speed of 5 knots.

A German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 aircraft circled her at 08:00 on 16 February, and at 22:30, U-101 under the command of Ernst Mengersen, spotted her. Torpedoed on the starboard side in No. 2 hold, she sank within 20 minutes (Note: German logbooks kept in German time state she sank at 00:08 on 17 February 1941), claiming the lives of 85 people.[8] Her last reported position was 50°00′N 14°0′W, 300 miles (480 km) southwest of Galway Bay.[6] The wreck lies 4,700 metres (15,400 ft) below the surface.[9]

It was thought that three lifeboats launched, but only one in the charge of the second officer, R. H. Ayres, with four Europeans and two Lascars on board, made it away; the rest of the crew was lost. By the 13th day only the second officer, the radio officer, and one seaman gunner remained alive. Ayres and his boat reached the Cornish coast two weeks later at Caerthillian Cove in the parish of Landewednack. The boat capsized before the Lizard lifeboat could reach them, and only the second officer was pulled from the sea alive. Two of the men aboard, Robert Frederick Hampshire (Radio Officer), and an unknown Indian seaman, died trying to get ashore. They are buried at St Wynwallow's, Church Cove, Landewednack.[8] Ayres was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his attempts to rescue his fellow sailors; he lived until 1992.[6]


The eleven crew members who died are commemorated on the 51st panel of the Tower Hill Memorial, and the seventy lascars who did not survive the Gairsoppa's sinking are commemorated on the Chittagong War Memorial.[6]


In 1989, the British government invited tenders to salvage the cargo and received just one, from Deepwater Recovery and Exploration Ltd.[10] After a further tender in January 2010, the government awarded a US company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, a two-year contract to find and salvage the 7,000,000 ounces (200 t) of silver, which when the ship was lost was worth £600,000 ($1.8 million US - $30.66 million in 2019).[7]

On September 26, 2011, Odyssey Marine confirmed the identity and location of the Gairsoppa after less than two months of searching. The wreck of the ship was found on the sea floor at a depth of nearly 4,700 metres (2.9 miles) off the coast of Ireland. Footage of the wreck was provided by the company on September 26, 2011 and published on the website.[11] Odyssey Marine later reported that its recovery effort in 2012 yielded 1,218 silver ingots weighing approximately 1,400,000 ounces (40 t), and that a further recovery effort had commenced operations on May 29, 2013. Odyssey Marine believes the site contains a residual 1,599 insured silver ingots and an unknown, possibly substantial, amount of uninsured silver.[12] Odyssey will retain 80% of the value of any recovered cargo, with the remainder going to HM Treasury.[13] On July 23, 2013 it was reported that a total of 61 tons of silver bullion had been recovered from the wreckage, with an estimated value of £137 million ($210 million US).

In 2014 the Royal Mint issued 20,000 commemorative Quarter Ounce Britannia coins, each coin struck with a denomination of 50p, using a portion of the silver recovered.[14]

“Voices from the Deep” – Date: 29 March 2018 – 13 January 2019 - a new exhibition at The Postal Museum London showcases some of the 85 documents, 226 envelopes, sets of stamps, cheques, photographs, postcards, Christmas cards etc recovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration from the wreck of the Gairsoppa.


  1. "SS Gairsoppa (1919)". Retrieved 15 June 2017.
  2. Miller, Daniel (24 July 2013). "A £23m payday: U.S. company recovers 48 tons of silver from British wartime shipwreck off Irish coast". The Daily Mail. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  3. "LLOYD'S REGISTER, NAVIRES A VAPEUR ET A MOTEURS" (PDF). Plimsoll Ship Data. Retrieved 27 September 2011.
  4. "SS Gairsoppa". Retrieved 23 January 2010.
  5. "Casualty reports". The Times (45500). London. 30 April 1930. col C, p. 29.
  6. "SS Gairsoppa". Retrieved 23 January 2010.
  7. Brooks, Richard (24 January 2010). "Hunt is on for SS Gairsoppa's £70m silver hoard". London: The Times. Retrieved 24 January 2010.
  8. "SS Gairsoppa". BBC. 25 January 2005. Retrieved 24 January 2010.
  9. "Shipwreck of SS Gairsoppa discovered with £155m silver haul onboard". London: The Telegraph. 26 September 2011. Retrieved 26 September 2011.
  10. "Salvage". Hansard.
  11. "The S.S. Gairsoppa". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 August 2013.
  12. "Odyssey Marine Exploration Begins 2013 Gairsoppa Operations". Press Release. 3 June 2009. Retrieved 19 August 2013.
  13. Davies, Lizzy (26 September 2011). "Atlantic wreck set to yield £150m haul". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 27 September 2011.
  14. "SS Gairsoppa 2014 UK Quarter-Ounce Silver Coin". The Royal Mint. Retrieved 1 January 2016.

Details of exhibition on material recovered from the Gairsoppa

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