The SS Gairsoppa was a steel-hulled British cargo steamship that began her career in 1919 after being commissioned by the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd. She was mostly engaged in commercial shipping in the waters of the India and Southeast Asia, but also ventured into the Far East, Australia, East Africa and occasionally into southern France, Germany and Britain. In 1940 the ship’s luck ran out when she was enlisted by the UK Ministry of War Transport in Calcutta and was subsequently sunk in February 1941 by a German U-boat.
The Gairsoppa was built at Palmer’s Co., Newcastle, in 1919 as SS War Robeuck. She launched on August 12, her name changed to honor the Gairsoppa Waterfalls in southwest India. The ship was 125 meters in length with a width of 16 meters, 8 meters in depth and weighed 5,237 tons.
With war looming the UK Director of Sea Transport of the Admiralty approached the British India Steam Navigation Company and requested its passenger vessels 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 World War II.
The Gairsoppa’s final voyage began in Calcutta, India, in December 1940, where she was loaded with nearly 7,000 tons of diverse medium and high-value cargo, including pig iron, tea, general cargo such as fertilizer and mica used in electrical parts, 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 her convoy sailed the dangerous waters of the Atlantic, intending to rendezvous with convoy HG 53 and its two warship escorts. Before they could join its ranks, HG 53 was attacked by submarine U-37 and lost seven ships. As SL 64 reached the northern latitudes, loaded down with a heavy cargo, especially the iron, the Gairsoppa was forced to further reduce speed due to high winds and ocean swells. As the weather worsened on February 14, 1941, and with the ship running low on coal, the Gairsoppa was forced to sail on alone and unprotected for Galway in western Ireland.
On February 16, 1941, Captain Ernst Mengersen submerged his 66.5 meter-long submarine U-101, armed with 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. 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. Twenty minutes after the attack, the Gairsoppa slipped deep into the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. She was just three days from safety.
According to Lloyd's War losses, 83 crew members and 2 gunners – British and mostly East Indian sailors – were aboard the Gairsoppa when she was hit. Ultimately, only one person, Second Officer Richard Ayres, survived the long journey to shore after thirteen days in a lifeboat, landing in Cornwall’s Caerthillian Cove.