September 26, 2013 – Tales of sunken treasure are normally only found in books and films, and the account of how The Royal Mint has finally taken delivery of a shipment of silver bullion that has spent more than 70 years under the sea is the stuff that adventure stories are made of. Now, The Royal Mint is planning to strike a series of 1/4oz silver Britannia coins from the precious cargo.
The story began in December 1940, when The Royal Mint, already depleted of its stocks of silver due to the onset of war in 1939, called in additional supplies from India. A large shipment was despatched aboard a British steam merchant ship, the SS Gairsoppa, which was also carrying shipments of pig iron and tea. She sailed under the protection of a series of naval convoys heading for Britain.
Battling a heavy storm, and running short of coal off the coast of Southern Ireland, SS Gairsoppa’s crew had no option other than to break free from the protection of their convoy and head for the safety of Galway Harbour.
Source: British and Commonwealth Merchant Ship Losses to Axis Submarines 1939-1945. Photo: Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., www.odysseymarine.com.
Now an easy target, the unfortunate vessel was spotted and torpedoed by a German U-boat at 8 minutes past midnight on 17 February 1941. The stricken ship sunk within 20 minutes, with second officer R. H. Ayres the only survivor in spite of heroic attempts to save his fellow crew members.
In July 2012, Odyssey announced the discovery of silver on the SS Gairsoppa. This record-breaking operation has so far produced the heaviest and deepest recovery of precious metals from a shipwreck. Photo: Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., www.odysseymarine.com.
Concerned correspondence between The Royal Mint and the Bank of England at the time reveals the impact the loss had on the country’s wartime reserves, even threatening the temporary suspension of production of the 1,000 year-old Mint within two months if supplies ran out.
The bow of the SS Gairsoppa with both anchors visible has been lying nearly 3 miles beneath the North Atlantic since 1941. Photo: Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., www.odysseymarine.com.
The ship was finally located in September 2011, 300 miles off the Irish coast at a depth of three miles, half a mile deeper than the Titanic, making this the largest and deepest recovery of precious metal from a shipwreck in history.
Great Britain / 1/4oz bullion coin / .999 silver / 7.83g / 22.00mm / Design: Ian Rank-Broadley (obverse), Phillip Nathan (reverse).
After 70 years Odyssey Marine Exploration has recovered silver from the SS Gairsoppa and some of it is now at The Royal Mint to produce coins that are to be struck from the recovered silver. The new 99.9 pure 1/4oz silver Britannia bullion, edged with the name SS Gairsoppa will soon be available to purchase in the UK from The Royal Mint and outside the UK via an exclusive arrangement with precious metals dealer A-Mark Precious Metals, Inc. and their distributor Merit Gold and Silver.
Shane Bissett, The Royal Mint’s Director of Bullion and Commemorative Coin said, “This incredible story marks yet another exciting moment in The Royal Mint’s fascinating 1,000 year history. The traditional Britannia coin design, Philip Nathan’s elegant portrayal of a windswept Britannia looking out to sea, is the perfect image for the coins struck from SS Gairsoppa’s long-lost cargo. We are so pleased to be able to finally bring these coins to market, albeit more than 70 years later than expected.”
For more information on the new bullion coins, please go to the website of The Royal Mint.
We reported previously about Odyssey Marine’s Gairsoppa operation.
You may also visit the detailed project website.