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The skylight over the engine room and a lifeboat cradle on the SS Gairsoppa
A ladder leading up onto the forecastle deck of the SS Gairsoppa shipwreck
Odyssey's ROV inspection of the wreck site revealed the torpedo hole in the area in which the U-boat's Captain's log reported the ship was struck

SS Gairsoppa Historical Overview

The SS Gairsoppa was a steel-hulled British cargo steamship that began her career in 1919 under the service of the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd. of London. She was engaged in commercial shipping activity in the waters of the Far East, Australia, India and East Africa. By 1940, the SS Gairsoppa was enlisted in the service of the UK Ministry of War Transport and subsequently sunk in February 1941 by a German U-boat.

The Gairsoppa was built at Palmer’s Co, Newcastle in 1919 and launched on August 12 as the War Roebuck, but was renamed in October to Gairsoppa in honor of the stunning waterfalls in southwest India of the same name. The ship was 412 feet in length with a beam of 52.2 feet (width), 28.5 feet in depth and weighed 5,237 tons. The Gairsoppa joined the British India Steam Navigation Company fleet transporting valuable cargo through the waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

In 1931, with war looming, the UK Director of Sea Transport of the Admiralty approached the British India Steam Navigation Company and requested passenger vessels to join the British naval fleet in times of national emergency. By Easter 1940, the entire fleet of 103 British India Steam Navigation Company ships was under the orders of the UK Admiralty and the Ministry of War transport. Of these, 51 ships with 1,083 lives were lost by the end of WWII.

The Gairsoppa’s final voyage began in Calcutta, India in December 1940 loaded with nearly 7,000 tons of diverse medium and high-value cargo, including pig iron, tea, general cargo, and a large quantity of silver. She joined convoy SL 64 in Freetown, Sierra Leone (West Africa), which departed for Liverpool, UK on January 31, 1941. Many of the merchant ships in the convoy were in such a poor state of repair that they could only achieve a maximum speed of 8 knots.

The Gairsoppa and convoy SL-64 sailed the dangerous waters of the Atlantic, intending to rendezvous with convoy HG-53, which was escorted by two warships. Before they could join its ranks, HG 53 was attacked by U-boat U-37, and lost seven ships. As convoy SL-64 reached the northern latitudes, the Gairsoppa, loaded down with a heavy cargo, was forced to further reduce speed due to high winds and ocean swells. As the weather worsened on February 14, 1941, the Gairsoppa, running low on coal and with insufficient fuel to keep up with the convoy, was forced to sail on alone without the protection of the convoy and headed for Galway in western Ireland.

On 17 February 1941, Captain Ernst Mengersen submerged his 66.5 meter-long U-boat U-101, which carried 14 torpedoes and 26 mines, and moved in for the attack. By the end of the war, Mengersen had sunk over 70,000 tons of shipping, most of it British merchantmen. Four torpedoes were fired, one hitting its mark. Around 22.30 hours an explosion occurred in the Gairsoppa’s no. 2 hold. The impact of just one torpedo caused the foremast to crash onto the deck, snapping the wireless antennae and cutting the ship off from the outside world, so no distress call could be sent. Water began to wash over her bow and the forecastle was quickly submerged. The bow continued to sink, propelling the stern clear out of the water. Shortly after the attack, the Gairsoppa slipped deep into the icy waters of the North Atlantic Sea.

According to Lloyd's War losses, 83 crew members and 2 gunners were aboard the Gairsoppa when she was hit by a torpedo. The crew of British and East Indian sailors abandoned ship under U-boat machine gun fire, but only one person, Second Officer, Mr. R.H. Ayres survived the long journey to shore after thirteen days in a lifeboat.

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