The sinking and discovery of the SS City of Cairo
In 1942, the SS City of Cairo was steaming from Bombay towards England. It was carrying a cargo of 1000 tonnes of silver. The money was headed to His Majesty’s Treasury to bolster up the war effort. But on November 6th, it was spotted by a German U-boat. As a result, the ship was torpedoed and sank to the ocean floor – complete with the silver.
Almost seventy years later, in 2011, the ship was rediscovered by a British salvage company.
The ship was carrying a hundred and one passengers on its last voyage. Twenty eight of these were women and there were also nineteen children on board and including the crew, there were a total of three hundred and eleven people on the ship. The first torpedo didn’t sink the ship but severely damaged it. The lifeboats were launched and all the women and children loaded into them. Only six people were lost when the ship sank after the second torpedo finally hit.
The survivors in the boat were almost five hundred miles from the nearest land. The U-boat surfaced. The captain, Karl-Friedrich Merten, drew alongside one of the lifeboats and questioned the occupants. Where had the ship been headed? What was her name? Were they carrying prisoners of war? He then have the survivors navigational details about how to get to land and to safety, although privately he held out little hope for them. He then said ‘Goodnight, and sorry for sinking you’.
After the war, he was invited to a reunion that had been organised for the survivors of the sinking. One survivor remarked ‘We couldn’t have been sunk by a nicer man’.
But in 1942 in the lifeboats the survivors realised that they would have to keep the boats together. This was because each boat had a compass but they had only one sextant between them. As there was little chance of them being picked up by other shipping, their only chance was to navigate towards land.
Some people didn’t make it but a total of two hundred and seven people survived in the lifeboats. One couple, a male ship’s officer and a female passenger, were in a lifeboat for fifty one days before being rescued.
The discovery of the SS City of Cairo
When the ship was discovered by the salvage team it was at a depth of 17,000 ft, that 4,500 ft more than the resting place of the Titanic. The ship had broken in two and was virtually covered in mud and silt. But it was a prize worth going for. Amid secrecy, the team began to salvage the ship. The coins had been in boxes inside which were hessian bags but the boxes and bags had disintegrated.
Finally a £34 million hoard of silver coins were returned to the treasury, after almost seventy years.
THe discovery was successfully kept secret but the news was finally made public on 15th April, 2015.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR