In news that has not yet reached mainstream outlets, underwater salvage company Deep Ocean Search has just announced the successful salvage of the SS City of Cairo, a World War II-era steamship loaded with 100 tons of silver coins. The lost ship was sunk in almost 17,000 feet of water, making the recovery effort the most substantial to ever take place at the extreme depth.
Lead by 30-year search and salvage veteran John Kingsford, Deep Ocean Search used the SV John Lethbridge, a survey/salvage vessel equipped with sonar and robotics system.
At no other time in history would such a valuable cargo be transported on such a vulnerable ship. Built in 1915, she was pressed into wartime service like so many of her vintage. And though in good shape, she could only manage 12.5 knots with her smoky engines, making her a prime target for the Axis submarines that stalked her long journey from Bombay to England.
The SS City of Cairo’s passengers and crew thought the mission was a routine one, a simple shipment of cotton, manganese ore and refugees; at least until a heavily-armed convoy of military vehicles came alongside at dock shortly before her departure, lowering 2,000 rectangular black boxes of silver coins into her No. 4 hold.
November 4th, 1942—the German submarine U-68 spotted a thin column arising from the horizon. Within an hour, the submarine closed range and fired a first torpedo. It exploded under the No. 4 Hold, where her silver were held. It was a brutally effective utilization of hydrodynamics, rather than punching a small hole in the hull, it instead generated an incredible column of water designed to break the back of a ship, stopping her dead and destroying her beyond repair.
From the book “Goodnight, Sorry for Sinking You” by Ralph Barker:
Fourth Officer Bill Stubbs, leaning on the rail on the starboard side aft, suddenly found himself flying through the air. Hurled from the promenade deck to the saloon or tank deck, he was pinioned by a wall of water as the stalagmite thrown up by the torpedo cascaded on top of him. When he eventually scrambled to his feet he found that the accommodation ladder on the starboard side had been blown away. He was standing directly above No. 4 Hold, where the torpedo hit. Running to the end of the alleyway, he came out on the well deck by No. 4 Hold. The hatches had been blown off by the explosion and he found himself looking down at the rectangular boxes he had seen being loaded at Bombay. He had forgotten to ask what was in them, but several had burst open, and they glistened in the half-light like the secret hoard of some eighteenth-century pirate. They were crammed with silver rupees.
The passengers and crew struggled to escape to the surviving lifeboats before a second impact. Captain Merten was a merciful man, and allowed twenty minutes for the survivors to launch before ordering his second shot. From a distance of only 800 meters, the second shot was simple—a coup de grâce against a crippled, stationary target. The torpedo’s 42-second run ended with a massive explosion just forward of the funnel between the engine-room and the stokehold. Nearly everyone escaped, save six souls.
Ablaze, the ship went down in a single piece. The U-68 came alongside the survivors for an interrogation, asking the name of the sunken ship, of the fate of her captain, and the composition of her cargo. The survivors told the truth, save for the silver cargo, of which few knew.
As a final act of humanity, U-boat gave a course to the survivors. They had the choice of traveling hundreds of miles to St. Helena, a small English-held spec of an island off the coast of Africa, one thousand miles to Walvis Bay, Namibia… or an impossible three thousand miles to South Africa.
“Goodnight,” said Captain Merten to the survivors in perfect English as he departed. “And sorry for
Seventy-nine crewmembers, three gunners and twenty-two passengers would die over the three weeks before rescue. After the small lifeboat convoy separated, the master and 154 survivors were picked up by the Clan Alpine and landed at St. Helena. An additional 47 survivors were picked up by the British steam merchant Bendoran, and then landed at Capetown.
The final lifeboat was not discovered until after 51 days at sea, when the SS Caravelas picked up two survivors, then landed at Reciefe. One of the two survivors was killed soon after aboard the City of Pretoria when she was sunk by the U-172 on March 4th, 1942.
For more information on the City of Cairo and her survivors, please check out Hugh MacLean’s wonderful site, http://www.sscityofcairo.co.uk/. Thanks to MacLean’s tireless efforts, 0ut of the thousands of merchant ships lost to wartime, few have been as ably remembered as the City of Cairo.