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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

British shipwreck with a fortune in silver on board discovered in Atlantic


The wreck of a British cargo ship containing silver worth £155 million, sunk by a German U-boat during the Second World War, has been discovered on the Atlantic sea bed.

Expert underwater archaeologists will attempt to salvage the treasure, handing
20 per cent of its value to the British Government.

The SS Gairsoppa set sail from India in December 1940 carrying a consignment
of 240 tonnes of silver, iron and tea.

It was headed for Liverpool but was forced to break away from its military
convoy off the coast of Ireland as weather conditions deteriorated and it
began to run out of fuel.

As the merchant steamship tried to make it to Galway it was attacked by the
German submarine U101, 300 miles southwest of the Irish harbour.

On February 17, 1941, a single torpedo sank the ill-fated vessel, killing all
85 crewmen except one.

Of 32 survivors who managed to clamber onto lifeboats, Second Officer Richard
Ayres was the only one who, 13 days later, made it to the Cornish coast
alive. He was awarded an MBE for his attempts to rescue his fellow sailors
and lived until 1992.


The wreck of the 412ft-long Gairsoppa, owned by the British Indian Steam
Navigation Company, was discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration, an
American underwater archaeology and salvage firm, this month.



The Department of Transport had awarded the Florida-based treasure hunters a
contract to conduct the search, allowing the company to retain 80 per cent
of the profits of any silver salvaged.


Greg Stemm, chief executive of Odyssey, said: "We were fortunate to find
the shipwreck sitting upright, with the holds open and easily accessible.


"This should enable to us to unload cargo through the hatches, as would
happen with a ship alongside a cargo terminal."


Odyssey's tethered robot took three and a half hours to descend 2.9 miles to
the seabed. There, it found a gaping hole where the torpedo had struck 70
years ago.


The company said it had confirmed the shipwreck's identity from evidence
including the number of holds, the anchor type, the scupper locations and
red-and-black hull colours.


Although none of the precious metal has yet been found, the shiny tin linings
of the tea chests were initially mistaken for silver bars, according to the
New York Times.


The Odyssey team is expected to begin the "recovery" stage of the
operation when the weather improves in spring.


Mr Stemm said: "While some people might wonder about the potential
complexity of salvage at this depth, we have already conducted a thorough


analysis of the best tools and techniques to conduct this operation and are
confident that the salvage will be conducted efficiently and on a timely
basis.


"Hundreds of modern cargo ships like this have been salvaged since the
mid-20th century, some at depths of thousands of metres.


"We were fortunate to find the shipwreck sitting upright, with the holds
open and easily accessible. This should enable us to unload cargo through

the hatches as would happen with a floating ship alongside a cargo terminal."

Neil Cunningham Dobson, Odyssey's principal marine archaeologist, added: "By
analysing 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."


The precise value of the ship's treasure is unclear because the wartime
government did not disclose the true nature of its transportation records.

But Odyssey discovered that it had paid out an insurance claim on silver
amounting to around 120 tons owned by private parties and it believes the
government's hidden share would be about the same.


The Government will be hoping that the search does not prove controversial.

A federal appeals court in Florida this month upheld a ruling that Odyssey
must hand over an estimated £250 million worth of gold and silver coins to
the Spanish Government after a four-year legal battle in which it was
accused of plundering Spain's national heritage.


The coins had been recovered from a Spanish frigate laden with bullion from
the Americas that was sunk by the British off the coast of Portugal in
October 1804.

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