The German commander of the Nazi U-boat fleet predicted that by using submarines to cut off Britain’s overseas commerce, Germany could bring the mighty island to its knees. Churchill feared the same. Control of the Atlantic was of paramount importance during World War II, and German submarines in formations called “wolf packs” ceaselessly prowled the open sea.
In the midst of this peril, in December 1940, the steel-hulled cargo ship SS Gairsoppa left Calcutta laden with almost 7,000 tons of cargo, including silver, pig iron, and tea. In Sierra Leone, she joined a convoy departing for Liverpool. Many of the merchant ships in the convoy were in such disrepair that they could only travel at a maximum speed of 8 knots (half the speed of American sailing ships in the 1850s).
Sailing the dangerous Atlantic, the ailing merchant ships planned to rendezvous with another convoy, which was guarded by two warships. That convoy, however, was attacked before the merchant ships could reach it. The SS Gairsoppa’s convoy plowed ahead alone.
Then high winds and ocean swells forced the SS Gairsoppa to slow down its speed even more, until finally the weather was so bad, and the ship’s fuel so low, that it couldn’t keep up with its convoy. It had to sail on alone—alone on the submarine-infested waters of the North Atlantic.
Imagine for a moment being one of the men serving aboard that ship. You’re almost out of fuel. Your convoy has left you. You’re going so slow, you might as well be on a sailing ship from the previous century.
At night, what do you hear? The ocean swells, the waves thrashing against the boat? What you don’t hear: the submarines circling in the dark waters beneath you. The silent, stealthy wolf packs just waiting to find you. Waiting to strike.
The ship sank three miles deep, 3,000 feet deeper than the Titanic’s resting place. The wreck and its treasure remained there for 70 years. In 2012, an American company began recovering nearly all of the insured silver aboard the SS Gairsoppa. The July 2013 salvage operation was the deepest and heaviest recovery of precious metal from a shipwreck site in history.
And what a treasure they found: 2,792 massive bars of silver, each containing nearly 1,100 ounces of .999 pure silver. Each bar has a unique serial number and is stamped with “HM Mint Bombay,” which stands for “His Majesty’s Mint at Bombay.”
Only 462 of these silver bars have been distributed to the public. The rest have been melted down and re-minted as 10 oz. commemorative bars. The original SS Gairsoppa bars are thus true rarities, available to only a few select investors in the world.
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