Parish Notes

S.S. Gairsoppa
Photo: James Pasby

SS Gairsoppa

Photo: Hugh Ferguson with Thanks

The S.S. Gairsoppa was a British steam merchant ship built in Hebburn and launched in 1919. After a long civilian career, she saw service during the Second World War. The name Gairsoppa was given in honour of the stunning waterfalls in Karnataka, India.

Ordered by the British Shipping Controller as S.S. 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 in November 1919. Her port of registry was Glasgow. She was allocated the United Kingdom Official Number 141924. On 29 April 1930, she ran aground at Fulta Point, India. She was refloated, undamaged, later that day. Gairsoppa used the Code Letters GCZB from 1934.

War Service

She sailed with several convoys, before joining Convoy SL 64 in February 1941. Running low on fuel, she had left the convoy and headed for Galway, Ireland, when a German U-boat 101 torpedoed and sent her 4,700 metres below, killing 85 people. The only survivor was Richard Hamilton Ayres who was the second officer.

"Richard Hamilton Ayres survived the sinking of Gairsoppa but almost drowned when his lifeboat capsized in the surf off The Lizard, Cornwall. Ayres was rescued unconscious by the coastguard, Brian Richards, who had been alerted by three evacuee schoolgirls who saw the lifeboat sink. He returned to sea after 9 months and later joined the RNR." He was awarded on the 18 Nov 1941 Lloyd's War Medal and the MBE.

Source: U Boat net

The wreck of the Gairsoppa was located 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 2012 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.

The Royal Mint has now made available a SS Gairsoppa Britannia UK quarter-ounce silver coin for £30, which comes with a DVD of Silver Rush, the three-episode TV series that was made about the finding of the SS Gairsoppa and the recovery of her cargo.

SS 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 1⁄4 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.[2] It could propel the ship at 10.5 knots (19.4 km/h).

Sources: Naval net; U Boat Net; Shields Gazette.

Research: James Pasby, BBC People War WW2 Hugh Ferguson

People War WW2 BBC