Inchcape Shipping Services, the company I’ve worked for over many years, has its roots in India, and particularly the British India Steam Navigation (BI)

Messrs Mackinnon & Mackenzie formed the line in the 1850s and James Lyle Mackay, later first Earl of Inchcape, took over and merged BI with P&O in 1914 assuming the chairmanship of what was then most certainly the world’s largest shipowner. The BI fleet alone comprised 158 vessels in 1922.

But with two world wars to contend with BI paid a high price in men, ships and their cargoes. In 1917 the Mantola was lost to a U-boat attack and in 1941 the Gairsoppa suffered the same fate, just two of many BI total losses in these years.

Fast forward to today and the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Odyssey Marine Exploration takes up the story:

Odyssey is the world leader in deep-ocean shipwreck exploration, searching the globe’s vast oceans for sunken ships with intriguing stories, extraordinary treasure and precious artifacts spanning centuries of maritime travel.

Before beginning the offshore search operations for Gairsoppa, Odyssey conducted extensive research using multiple sources to determine the highest probability area to search. Odyssey also acquired data from a previous search for the shipwreck. The Gairsoppa was located outside of the previous search area; near the location that Odyssey’s research department believed that the ship would be located.

The target shipwreck was located using the MAK-1M (deep-tow low frequency sonar system), aboard the chartered Russian research vessel RV Yuzhmorgeologiya. Visual inspection of the site was conducted with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from the Odyssey Explorer. The video and still images acquired during the exploration of the shipwreck with the ROV were reviewed and analyzed at length to confirm the identity of the shipwreck as that of the SS Gairsoppa. The expedition and resulting data was also used to evaluate the condition of the shipwreck and to plan for recovery operations The Gairsoppa was discovered approximately 4700 meters below the surface of the north Atlantic, in international waters approximately 300 miles off the coast of Ireland.

Recovery operations are expected to commence in the second quarter of 2012. Odyssey has already identified the technology and equipment necessary to recover the silver cargo from the Gairsoppa and mobilization plans are being finalized. One of the world’s top deep-ocean salvage experts was aboard during the verification expedition to consult with Odyssey on customization of the system that will be used for the recovery operations.

While planning search operations for the SS Gairsoppa, Odyssey created contingency plans for several potential targets depending on when the Yuzhmorgeologiya charter was complete. Odyssey’s research team used Odyssey’s proprietary shipwreck database to identify other potential targets within range of the Gairsoppa search area and developed a search area for the Mantola. This preparation paid off when Odyssey located the shipwreck.

Historical overview

The SS Gairsoppa was a steel-hulled British cargo steamship that began her career in 1919 under the service of the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd. of London. She was engaged in commercial shipping activity in the waters of the Far East, Australia, India and East Africa. By 1940, the SS Gairsoppa was enlisted in the service of the UK Ministry of War Transport and subsequently sunk in February 1941 by a German U-boat.

The Gairsoppa was built at Palmer’s Co, Newcastle in 1919 and launched on August 12 as the War Roebuck, but was renamed in October to Gairsoppa in honour of the stunning waterfalls in southwest India of the same name. The ship was 412 feet in length with a beam of 52.2 feet, 28.5 feet in depth and weighed 5,237 tons. The Gairsoppa joined the British India Steam Navigation Company fleet transporting valuable cargo through the waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

In 1931, with war looming, the UK Director of Sea Transport of the Admiralty approached the British India Steam Navigation Company and requested passenger vessels to 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 WWII.

The Gairsoppa’s final voyage began in Calcutta in December 1940 loaded with nearly 7,000 tons of diverse medium and high-value cargo, including a large amount of silver. She joined convoy SL 64 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, which departed for Liverpool, UK on January 31, 1941 without a military escort. 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 convoy SL-64 sailed the dangerous waters of the Atlantic, intending to rendezvous with convoy HG-63, which was escorted by two warships. Before they could join its ranks, HG 63 was attacked by U-boat U-37, and lost seven ships. As convoy SL-64 reached the northern latitudes, the Gairsoppa, loaded down with a heavy cargo, was forced to further reduce speed due to high winds and ocean swells. As the weather worsened on February 14, 1941, the Gairsoppa, running low on coal and with insufficient fuel to keep up with the convoy, was forced to sail on alone without the protection of the convoy and headed for Galway in western Ireland.

On 17 February 1941, Captain Ernst Mengersen submerged his 66.5 meter-long U-boat U-101, which carried 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, so 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. Shortly after the attack, the Gairsoppa slipped deep into the icy waters of the North Atlantic Sea.

According to Lloyd’s War losses, 83 crew members and tw gunners were aboard the Gairsoppa when she was hit by a torpedo. The crew of British and East Indian sailors abandoned ship under U-boat machine gun fire, but only one person, Second Officer, Mr. R.H. Ayres survived the long journey to shore after thirteen days in a lifeboat.

The Mantola

The SS Mantola was a 450 foot British-flagged steamer which was delivered to the British India Steam Navigation Company in June 1916 at a cost of £146,700. She could hold 66 first-class passengers and 61 second-class passengers and was intended for London/Bombay service. Just four months later, she struck a mine off Aldeburgh, UK. Although a large hole was blown in the No 1 hold, the ship made it safely to port.

On February 4, 1917, the SS Mantola left London for Calcutta with 165 crew members, 18 passengers and cargo which included a shipment of silver. Her captain was David James Chivas, the great-nephew of the Chivas Brothers, famously known for their Chivas Regal Scotch Whisky.

On February 8, 1917, while sailing under full steam in a zig-zag pattern, she was struck by a torpedo from German submarine U-81 under the command of Captain Raimund Weisbach. With the No. 2 hold taking on water in high seas and clouds of steam billowing from broken steam pipes, passengers and crew abandoned the ship to lifeboats. Before the Captain and officers left the Mantola, the U-boat resurfaced and began shelling the ship. The U-boat later moved close to the Captain’s lifeboat but suddenly submerged and vanished just before the HMS Laburnum arrived in response to the Mantola’s distress call. All but seven crew members, who drowned when a lifeboat overturned, were rescued by the Laburnum. An unsuccessful attempt was made to tow the Mantola before she sank on February 9, 1917 – less than a year after she was launched.

917, the British Ministry of War Transport paid a War Risk Insurance Claim for £110,000 (in 1917 value) for silver that was on board the Mantola when she sank. This sum would equate to more than 600,000 ounces of silver based on silver prices in 1917. In September 2011, the UK Government Department for Transport awarded Odyssey a salvage contract for the cargo of the SS Mantola. Under the agreement, Odyssey will retain 80% of the net salved silver value recovered.


The estimated value of the silver salvaged from the Gairsoppa is £150 million.

With kind permission of Odyssey Marine Exploration:

and Inchcape Shipping Services:



Silver bars from the Gairsoppa



Mantola Foracastle



Mantola engine room skylights



SS Gairsoppa



SS Mantola