Christopher Warner recalls the sinking of the British merchant vessel off the coast of Galway in 1941.


German U-Boats crews referred to it as ‘Die Glückliche Zeit’ (‘The Happy Time’), a period during the early stages of WWII, that saw prowling wolf packs inflict heavy damage on British ships in the North Atlantic. One of those wrecks, the merchant vessel SS Gairsoppa, sunk approximately 300 miles southwest of Galway Bay after being torpedoed in 1941.

The watery grave would lie undisturbed for more than 70 years before being found by an American treasure-hunting firm — a discovery that led to the largest known precious metal cargo ever recovered from the sea.
The doomed steamship began its career in 1919 under the British India Steam Navigation Co. of London. The 412-foot steel-hulled freighter engaged in commercial shipping for a generation, operating throughout the Far East, Australia, India, and East Africa.

Under Master Gerald Hyland, it joined the war effort against Nazi Germany in 1939. The 86-man crew, comprised mostly of Lascars (Indian sailors), left Calcutta in December 1940 en route to England. They carried a 7,000-ton cargo that included tea, pig iron, and more than 7 million ounces of pure silver bullion.

After successfully navigating the Cape of Good Hope, the Gairsoppa joined Convoy SL-64 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The slow-moving flotilla of merchant ships set a course due north with no military escort, taking a circuitous route along the edge of the Western Approaches.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own