In his richly illustrated new book The SS Gairsoppa and the Great Silver Treasure, Q. David Bowers explores the cultural scene and political and military developments that led up to the Second World War. Bowers, one of America’s preeminent historians, starts with the aftermath of the world conflict of 1914 to 1918. He colorfully describes the fabric of life in the United States and international events through the 1920s and 1930s. Then: the eruption of fresh hostilities in 1939 and immersion in a new global war. Ultimately Bowers’s focus is the 1941 maritime loss of a massive shipment of silver, sent to the ocean floor by a German submarine. A single event in a sprawling conflict—but one with cultural connections going back to 1919 and only recently emerging with new discoveries. The wartime treasure, considered lost for more than 70 years, has been brought up from the depths of the cold North Atlantic Sea.
The British merchant steamer SS Gairsoppa was launched in the wake of the Great War, served commercial shipping for a generation, then was brought into convoy service after Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939. In December 1940 she left Calcutta, India, en route to England with a 7,000-ton cargo, including some 200 tons (7,000,000 ounces) of silver for the British war effort. As she left Freetown, Sierra Leone, in January 1941, her convoy was a ragtag flotilla of merchant vessels with no military escort. They may have been aiming to meet up with another group protected by two warships.
Bowers relates the ill-fated final adventure of the Gairsoppa as her convoy was assailed by violent weather and as British warships that might have aided them were torpedoed by German U-boats and bombed by German airplanes. She finally was separated from the rest of her group, weighed down by heavy cargo and dangerously low on fuel—a choice target for a marauding submarine. The Gaisoppa’s fate was sealed by a torpedo from the U-101. Machine-gun fire killed many of the men who survived her sinking.
Bowers gives his readers plenty of military detail to chew on. He relays the account of the ship’s destruction, the escape of 31 men on a lifeboat, and the sad fate of those briefly lucky ones. He lays out the history of Germany’s U-boat program, and specifically of the U-101, which sank not only the huge amount of cargo in the Gairsoppa but 10 times as much through the course of the war. It’s no wonder that Winston Churchill later wrote, as Bowers recounts, “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”
Every time a nation goes to war great treasures are lost—commercial goods being among the least of them, by the measure of human affairs and in the painful experience of families who endure the ultimate sacrifice. Bowers focuses not only on the disappearance of the silver ingots, iron, Indian tea, and other resources that made up the Gairsoppa’s 7,000 tons of cargo; he names every member of the ship’s 80-plus crew members. The youngest was a 17-year-old cadet.
In 1919, when the Gairsoppa was first launched, most of her wartime European officers and crew, and many of her Indian merchant seamen, either were young children or hadn’t even been born yet. They came of age in the between-wars era that Bowers describes with great charm and vibrant color. In 1940 these men undertook a dangerous voyage in a commercial ship on the open seas, amazingly unprotected from their enemies, carrying what we can say in hindsight was too much weight. In 1941 only a single member of the Gairsoppa’s human manifest survived the ship’s destruction.
As a historian Q. David Bowers is known for, among other specialties, his research into shipwrecks and sunken treasure. This puts the Gairsoppa and her cargo of silver squarely within his wheelhouse. Decades after the war’s end, the wreck of the Gairsoppa was pinpointed, nearly 5,000 meters below the waves, deeper than the Titanic. Bowers recounts how, starting in 2012, the deep-sea salvage team of Odyssey Marine Exploration brought up artifacts including some 110 tons of silver, making it the largest recovery of precious metal in history. Ellen Gerth, curator at Odyssey at the time, provided many details. Numismatists—students of coins and other money, who know Bowers well as the award-winning author of many standard references in that field—will be particularly interested in the 400-plus recovered silver ingots, each one 99.9 percent fine, serial-numbered, stamped with the mark of His Majesty King George VI’s Bombay Mint in India.
The salvage crew of Odyssey Marine Exploration lowered to the Gairsoppa’s submerged deck a large commemorative plaque with the names of the ship’s lost crewmen. “May your memory live,” it reads, “and may your story be told.” Thanks to Q. David Bowers, their story has been told, and told well. ❑