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 eight 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. Gairsoppa’s convoy plowed ahead alone.
Then high winds and ocean swells forced 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, in 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.
Then it comes. An explosion. You’ve been struck by a torpedo. The wireless antennae used to transmit distress calls snap, and you sink into the icy, dark waters of the Atlantic.
One man survives.
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 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.
1940 Historical Events Timeline
February – Gone with the Wind Wins Eight Oscars
The film opens in 1861 at the Tara estate and tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s romance against the backdrop of the Civil War, including the burning of Atlanta and Reconstruction. To this day, the film is one of the most popular of all time, and its win at the Oscars is all the more impressive given its competition: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, and Stagecoach.
March – The Winter War Ends
Finland and the Soviet Union sign a ceasefire, with Finland giving up parts of Karelia. Three months earlier, the Soviet Union invaded Finland with half a million troops, after Finland refused a series of Soviet ultimatums to give up land. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Finns kept the Soviets at bay for longer than many thought possible, using guerilla tactics and their knowledge of their home terrain. The Soviet Union suffered over 300,000 casualties compared to Finland’s 65,000.
June – Winston Churchill Gives His “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” Speech
Germany’s relentless march across the continent continues. Civilian morale is at an all-time low. Paris will fall in only 10 days. Will Germany invade Britain? In this context, Churchill gives this famous speech to the House of Commons, declaring that, “We shall go on to the end … We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
November – Franklin D. Roosevelt Wins a Third Term
With a large margin in the nation’s big cities, Roosevelt wins his third of four terms. He and his opponent, Wilkie, have few major disagreements on foreign or domestic issues. Though many feel that Roosevelt should not break the then-unwritten rule that presidents should not serve more than two terms, many do not want a change in leadership in the midst of the World War II crisis.