SS Gairsoppa

tower hill memorial taken 27/11/03 by a brady

Tower Hill Memorial (Image via Wikipedia)

Interesting news item yesterday, when it was reported that the wreck of the wartime merchant vessel the SS Gairsoppa had been located and positively identified in the Atlantic, at depths of over 6,000 feet.

The Gairsoppa was built in 1919, originally named War Roebuck. She was taken over by the British India Steam Navigation Company and renamed the SS Gairsoppa. Weighing in at 5,237 tons, she operated out of Glasgow. Her crew numbered 86, made up of British Seamen and Indian Lascars.

In 1941 she was returning from Calcutta in India to Britain, via the Cape of Good Hope, carrying a mixed cargo, but more interestingly, hundreds of tons of silver bullion. Off Sierra Leone she joined Convoy SL-64. Slowed down by poor weather and running low on coal, on 15 February the Gairsoppa detached from the convoy and headed for Galway in southern Ireland. At 1800 on 16 February she was spotted by U-101. After trouble keeping up with the Gairsoppa in the deteriorating weather, at 2328 that evening the Commander Ernst Mengersen fired three torpedoes.  The freighter was heavily damaged, and settled in the water burning. The survivors abandoned ship, and she sank within 20 minutes, 300 miles south west of Galway.

Out of three lifeboats, two were lost without trace. One, containing the second officer and 31 men, survived. After seven days most had died of exposure. On 1 March only the second officer, four british sailors and two lascars were alive when the boat reached the Lizard in Cornwall, after two weeks at sea. Tragically, all but the second officer perished when the lifeboat was swamped in the surf. The Master, Gerald Hyland, 82 crew members and 2 gunners were lost.

The Third Master was a Portsmouth man – Campbell Morrison, aged 24, an old boy of St Johns College in Southsea. He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London to Merchant Seaman with no grave other than the sea.

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Filed under merchant navy, Uncategorized, World War Two

5 responses to “SS Gairsoppa

  1. John Erickson

    How many other stories are there like this one, without the silver haul to bring her fame?
    What’s the old saying? “There is no friend and no enemy, just man against the sea, and the sea always wins”?
    Thanks for the story!

    • James Daly

      Lots, I suspect John. Between 1939 and 1945 3,500 merchant vessels were lost in the Battle of the Atlantic. As you mention, its only the ones with valuable cargoes that tend to be discovered. Years ago I used to do a lot of fishing, and wreck fishing was what you might call the marathon of sea angling. Part of that involved researching wrecks on charts, looking up their history, seeing if divers have been down to them, etc. Most metal-built ships have almost completely decomposed within 50 or so years, in many cases only the engines are resonably intact, with debri strewn around what used to be the superstructure and hull. Obviously metal corrodes badly in salt water.

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