WWII wreck may hold most treasure ever

When the British merchant ship SS Gairsoppa was sunk by the German submarine U-101 in February 1941, she was carrying more than 7 million ounces of silver then worth £600,000, or about $2.5 million.

Today, that treasure, which a Florida-based salvage operation is trying to recover from the bottom of the North Atlantic, is valued at $200 million.

If successful, it would be the greatest treasure find at sea ever, according to officials with Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Monday, Odyssey confirmed the identity and location of the Gairsoppa and cited official documents indicating the ship was carrying some 219 tons of silver coins and bullion when it sank some 300 miles off the coast of Ireland.

The 412-foot ship was sailing to Britain from India in February 1941 with a cargo of silver, pig iron and tea, when she joined a convoy in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Then, during a heavy storm and running low on coal, the Gairsoppa left the convoy and set a course for Galway, Ireland.

The Gairsoppa was initially spotted by a German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 aircraft on the morning of Feb. 16 and later that day was sighted by U-101.

A short time later, U-101 sent a torpedo in the starboard side of the Gairsoppa and the vessel sank within 20 minutes, 300 miles southwest of Galway Bay, slipping more than 15,000 feet below the surface.

Of the 85 people on board the Gairsoppa, only one survived.

Despite the depth, Odyssey officials say they’re confident a full recovery of the silver will be possible.

“Given the orientation and condition of the shipwreck, we are extremely confident that our planned salvage operation will be well suited for the recovery of this silver cargo,” Odyssey senior project manager Andrew Craig said in a statement.

Recovery is expected to begin next spring.

The British government awarded Odyssey an exclusive salvage contract for the cargo, and under the agreement Odyssey will retain 80 percent of the silver bullion salvaged from the wreck, according to Agence France-Presse.

The ship is sitting upright, with the holds open and easily accessible, Odyssey chief executive Greg Stemm said. “This should enable us to unload cargo through the hatches as would happen with a floating ship alongside a cargo terminal.”

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