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 scope of a recent discovery of sunken World War I submarines is so vast that it leaves one wondering whether initial reports are accurate.
The German magazine Der Spiegel is reporting that British archaeologists have found more than 40 German U-boats and three English submarines sunk during First World War off the coast of England.
Most of the U-boats sank with their crews onboard and several were still considered missing until their recent discovery, nearly a century after they were lost.
“The marine archeologists were struck by the fact that sometimes two or three German U-boats were found lying in close proximity to one another,” according to the publication. “For historians, this serves as evidence of a certain German combat strategy in an especially drastic phase of the U-boat war.
“In February 1917, the (German) Imperial Navy had altered its strategy and was now torpedoing and firing guns at British commercial ships on a large scale,” Der Spiegel added. “The Royal Navy reacted by providing the freighters with warship escorts, as well as using airships and aircraft to spot enemy submarines from above.”
While German military strategists devised a plan to break up these massive convoys by attacking with several U-boats at the same time, what became known as a wolfpack, the strategy was difficult to implement in the Great War because it required the coordination of complex maneuvers.
In all, British underwater archaeologist Mark Dunkley and three other divers found 41 German and three English submarines from World War I on the seafloor along the southern and eastern coasts of the United Kingdom.
In the final days of World War II, Nazi U-boats were all but sitting ducks for Allied planes and ships: many German submarines, making a last, desperate gamble to take out enemy shipping, never got far beyond the European coast before being located and sunk.
One of those doomed U-boats, U-486, was discovered Monday off the west coast of Norway.
The U-486, a Type VIIC U-boat, was torpedoed and broken in two by the British submarine HMS Tapir on April 12, 1945, shortly after leaving the western Norwegian town of Bergen, according to Arild Maroey Hansen of the Bergen maritime museum.
All 48 men onboard were killed.
Launched in 1944, the U-486 sank three ships and crippled a fourth during her short career. However, one of the vessels it sent to the bottom was the former Belgian liner SS Leopoldville, which had been converted into an American troop transport.
On Christmas Eve 1944, the U-486 sent a torpedo into the Leopoldville, which was in the English Channel approximately five miles from the coast of Cherbourg, France.
The ship was carrying more than 2,200 American servicemen who were en route to serve as reinforcements for US troops involved in the Battle of the Bulge.
There were plenty of hazardous postings during World War I, but serving as bait to lure German U-boats to the surface certainly ranked among the most perilous.
The British navy is believed to have produced between 200 and 300 so-called “Q-ships” during the conflict, vessels specially adapted as decoys and armed with concealed guns. Their goal was to lure enemy submarines to the surface and then attempt to destroy them.
This little-known aspect of the Allied war effort came to the fore last weekend, when researchers announced that they believe they have found the Q-ship HMS Stock Force, sunk in July 1918.
A team of divers spent about four years searching for the Stock Force and discovered the vessel about eight miles from where charts had indicated, at a depth of 200 feet, 14 miles from Plymouth, (England), according to the blog Remembering 1914.
The Stock Force was a former collier which retained the appearance of a merchant vessel and was manned by a Royal Navy crew disguised as merchant sailors.
On July 30, 1918, it was attacked by a U-boat, believed to be the UB 80, off the coast of Devon, and suffered a torpedo strike. However, the British ship then turned the tables on its assailant.
The Titanic gets all the notoriety these days, but the White Star Line actually produced two other massive ocean liners in the years just before World War I.
One, the RMS Olympic, enjoyed a long and fruitful career, from 1911 to 1935, before being scrapped.
The other, the RMS Britannic, had a decidedly shorter stint above the waves, sinking on this date in 1916. The Britannic, completed in 1915, never made a single passenger voyage, thanks to the Great War.
Instead, she was pressed into service in late 1915 as a hospital ship, ferrying nurses and other medical staff to the east, and bringing wounded back from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
The Britannic was on her sixth voyage into the Mediterranean Sea on Nov. 21, 1916, when, while steaming at full speed off the Greek island of Kea, she either struck a mine or was hit by a German torpedo. To this day, it’s still unclear what prompted the Britannic’s sinking.
The ship’s captain, White Star veteran Charles Bartlett, reacted quickly and coolly, ordering the watertight doors closed and directing that a distress call be sent out immediately. He also ordered the crew to uncover the boats and that the ship’s siren sound the general alarm.
A report that a German World War II submarine has been located at the bottom of a Canadian river, 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, is being greeted with skepticism.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation wrote earlier this week that searchers using sonar believe they had found a submarine in the Churchill River in Labrador, part of the far eastern province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The 150-foot-long object was first spotted two years ago by searchers using sonar in an effort to locate three men who had gone over Muskrat Falls, the CBC reported.
“We were looking for something completely different, not a submarine, not a U-boat – I mean, no one would ever believe that was possible,” Brian Corbin told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “It was a great feeling when we found it.”
A search team plans to revisit the site next week to photograph the object using a remote-control vehicle, according to The National Post.
“Canadian historians and academics that are following the story are anxious to see what comes from the mission,” the publication reported.
“I’m always skeptical. This is only based on a shape in a sonar,” said Mike O’Brien, a history professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “I’m only saying it’s not impossible.”
One of the great sins of war is that the damage done – at least that of the materiel variety – is often not made public by government for years or even decades.
Great Britain, then, was way head of the curve when the above image appeared in The Illustrated London News on June 23, 1945, just weeks after the end of World War II.
The image purports to show every naval vessel lost by Great Britain in the defense of “holding the seas against the Axis Powers … holding open the channels of supply and food and war material” from the outbreak of the war to VE day.”
According to information found on the website for Ptak Science Boos, the narrative that accompanies the image states that there were on average nearly 3,000 British and Allied ships at sea at any given moment during the 1939-45 conflict, with the Royal Navy patrolling an aggregate of 80,000 miles of trading routes, day in and day out.
“It is a symbol of loss, of heroism, of lives not lived, of lives saved, of valor, of greatness, of will, of the cold black sea, of burning oil, of red waves, and above all, of sacrifice. Of splendid behavior,” it writes. “It is a terrible picture of what victory demanded of bravery.”