The largest ever consignment of precious metal found in the sea - 200 tons of silver worth £148m - has been discovered along with the wreck of a British cargo ship sunk during the Second World War by a German U-boat.
Odyssey Marine, an American underwater archaeology and salvage firm, will announce the discovery today along with plans to recover the bullion as part of a contract with the British Government which will see the company retain 80 per cent of the value of the cargo.
The SS Gairsoppa, an ageing steamer belonging to the British India Steam Navigation Company which was ordered into the merchant navy fleet at the outbreak of war, was sunk by a single torpedo in February 1941 as the heavily-laden vessel hit heavy weather in the Atlantic and tried to reach safety in the Irish Republic.
Some of the 85-strong crew are thought to have made it to lifeboats as they came under fire from machine guns on board the Nazi submarine but by the time the survivors reached the Cornish coast after drifting for 13 days and over more than 300 miles only one sailor - Second Officer Richard Ayres - was still alive.
The well-preserved wreck of the 412ft steel-hulled ship was found by Odyssey this summer nearly 4,700 metres below the notoriously inhospitable waters of the North Atlantic. Remarkably, the vessel settled on the seabed in a fully upright position with the cargo holds open, meaning it is possible to retrieve the bullion by accessing the hatches with remote-controlled robotic submarines.
The Gairsoppa was carrying seven million ounces or about 200 tons of silver to help fund the war effort after sailing from Calcutta on a voyage due to end in Liverpool. It sailed via Freetown in Sierra Leone, a major staging point for convoys in the Second World War.
Under a contract with the Department of Transport, which inherited responsibility for the ship, Odyssey will be permitted to retain 80 per cent of the value of the silver in return for taking on the commercial risk and expense of locating the Gairsoppa. If the company is able to bring to the surface all the bullion when the planned recovery begins next summer, it would make the company about £118m at today’s prices.
Andrew Craig, the senior project manager, said: “We’ve accomplished the first phase of this project – the location and identification of the target shipwreck – and now we’re hard at work planning for the recovery phase. Given the orientation and condition of the shipwreck, we are extremely confident that our planned salvage equipment will be well suited for the recovery of this silver cargo.”
The bullion was a mixture of privately-owned silver insured by the British government and state-owned coinage and ingots. Researchers working for Odyssey have used records including the Gairsoppa’s cargo manifest and documents from the Lloyd’s War Losses Register detailing an insurance pay out to establish the quantity of the silver on board.
Odyssey, which is currently locked in a court battle with the Spanish government over the ownership of 500,000 silver coins which it recovered close to the remains of a vessel claimed by Madrid, has previously attracted criticism from some archaeologists who argue that historical ship wrecks should be left untouched.
But the company insists its work is done to stringent archaeological standards and helps preserve knowledge that otherwise be lost when wrecks are in locations where damage is caused to the seabed by fishing trawlers.
The Gairsoppa was identified after a painstaking examination of the wreckage for tell-tale clues including the torpedo damage and the presence of large tea chests, part of the 1,700 tons of tea it was carrying.
The ship was part of a slow-moving convoy of ageing vessels which left Freetown on 31 January 1941 but the Gairsoppa, labouring under its heavy cargo, began to get left behind in heavy weather and, with coal supplies running low, its captain was forced to leave the convoy to try to reach sanctuary in Galway.
It was sunk at 10.30pm on 17 February 1941 by legendary U-boat commander Ernst Mengersen. The force of the torpedo explosion snapped the wireless antennae, leaving the crew unable to send an SOS message and forcing them to try to get into lifeboats under ruthless machine gun fire from the submarine.
It is not known how many sailors made it into the lifeboats but the icy North Atlantic conditions soon took their toll on the survivors. In a remarkable feat of endurance, Mr Ayres, who lived until 1992 and was awarded an MBE for his exploits, made it to the Lizard in Cornwall in a boat carrying the bodies of four comrades.
But the final moments of the voyage nearly ended in disaster when the drifting lifeboat overturned close to shore, throwing a semi-conscious Mr Ayres into the water. Fortunately, the incident was spotted by three schoolgirl evacuees watching from the cliffs above, who summoned help to pull the sole survivor from the waves.
Both Odyssey and the Department of Transport it was unlikely that any human remains would be found in the Gairsoppa because of the depth of the wreckage and the location of the silver in a cargo hold where none of the crew would have been present.
The company said it nonetheless had contingency plans in place to deal respectfully with any remains should they be found.
Neil Cunningham Dobson, Odyssey’s principal archaeologist, whose father worked for the same shipping line as the Gairsoppa, said: “Sadly most of the 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.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies