Treasure trove sunk by U-boat recovered in South Atlantic

city of cairo

A British salvage team recently recovered $50 million in silver coins that had rested nearly 17,000 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean for more than 70 years, victims of a World War II U-boat attack.

The SS City of Cairo was carrying 100 tons of silver coins from Bombay to England when it was torpedoed 480 miles south of St. Helena, about 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janeiro, by German submarine U-68.

The silver rupees, which belonged to the British Treasury, had been called in by London to help fund the war effort, according to the BBC.

The recovery marks the deepest salvage operation in history.

The City of Cairo was cruising in the remote South Atlantic on Nov. 6, 1942, when the steamship’s tall plume of smoke was spotted by U-68. Captain Karl-Friedrich Merten ordered a single torpedo fired at the vessel, then waited 20 minutes for the 311 passengers and crew to take to the lifeboats before firing a second torpedo.

Merten famously directed them to the nearest land and said: “Goodnight. Sorry for sinking you,” according to the BBC.

While just six of 311 people aboard the City of Cairo died in the sinking, it would be three weeks before any of the six lifeboats would be located, with the last lifeboat at sea for 51 days before being found. During that time 104 of the 305 survivors died.

The City of Cairo went undiscovered until 2011 when a team led by British salvage expert John Kingsford located an unnatural object among the ridges and canyons of their South Atlantic search area.

A few of the millions of silver rupees coins recovered from the SS City of Cairo from the bottom of the South Atlantic recently.

A few of the millions of silver coins recovered from the SS City of Cairo from the bottom of the South Atlantic recently.

Under a contract with the UK government, underwater salvage operation Deep Ocean Search worked for several weeks searching a “jumbled up sea floor” twice the size of London, Kingsford told the BBC.

“We weren’t convinced at first,” he said. “But you have to give your team their head if they say they’ve found something, so we looked.”

The object was indeed the City of Cairo, and the team recovered a “large percentage” of its $50 million treasure.

The deep-water salvage effort presented special challenges, including the combination of pressure, temperature, and other issues that resulted in multiple breakdowns of systems, according to The Guardian.

The salvage was completed in September 2013, but Deep Ocean Search has only now been given permission by the Ministry of Transport to announce it.

As well as the coins, the team brought up the propeller belonging to the second, fatal torpedo.

(Top: Photo of SS City of Cairo, built in 1915 and sunk in 1942 by U-68 in the South Atlantic.)

9 thoughts on “Treasure trove sunk by U-boat recovered in South Atlantic

  1. “Merten famously directed them to the nearest land and said: “Goodnight. Sorry for sinking you,” according to the BBC.”

    The nearest land which Merten told them the course for supposedly was Brazil – about 2,000 miles away. The African coast was 1,000 miles away and St. Helena was 500 miles away. Nice guy.

    b.t.w. you have great web site.

    • Yes, apparently he privately held little hope for them reaching land. Of course, given the size of submarines, There probably wasn’t room for an additional 30 individuals on the U-68, never mind 300-plus.

      Thanks for the kind words about the site. I appreciate it.

    • Yes, I thought so, too. I also found it interesting that the ship was sunk in such a remote location. You would think that nearly 500 miles from the nearest spot of land of any sort you’d have a chance of avoiding detection. I don’t know if that area is a sea lane or not, but it must have been a bit of bad luck to have been happened upon by an enemy submarine in the middle of the vast Atlantic.

      • It’s too bad my sons don’t speak to me. My one knows a ton’o’history about German tank and sub commanders (fascinating to listen to–it was from him I first heard stories of true war heroes of the other side–men who should rightly have been more celebrated for their courage and amazing feats just as were our guys–and might know more about this. Ah, well.

        (Obviously, the loss of contact is “too bad” for other reasons, as well!)

      • I’m certainly no expert on relationships, but I’ve been attempting to repair my relationship with my son. I won’t go into details, but a third party spent years poisoning the well, telling him things that weren’t true. It’s been very difficult, but I recently, very recently, began to mend that rift. I hope that you too will be able to do so, if it’s a course you want to pursue. I know that for me that void was something that ate at me every day.

        Regarding German soldiers in World War II, I have a measure of pity for those who abided by the rules of war and stood by their comrades and/or aided civilians during times or unimaginable horror, but were unable to be recognized because of the color of the uniform they wore. While they fought for an utterly ignoble cause, at least they could live with the idea that they behaved honorably.

      • I fully understand the third party well-poisoning–in my case, my then-spouse was doing it, from when they were toddlers–and I am thrilled for your sake that there are any signs of a thaw. I pray this continues.

        As to the other, yes. I envisioned writing a small book series for children about war heroes of all cultures, giving co-author credit with my son. I think it would be very popular.

  2. That’s a fascinating story. I think I have a few old coins kicking around. Not fifty mill though.

    As for Merton, just going through the motions and justifying killing people. War is war. Nothing honourable about pretence.

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