U-boat attack, sunken treasure and one of the most awesome survival stories of the war

By Annabel Venning
Heroic: Second Officer Richard Ayres, the only survivor of the SS GairsoppaDuring World War II, Britain, cut off from occupied Europe, was utterly dependent on supplies reaching her by sea.But Hitler was determined to force Britain to her knees by cutting off these supplies. He ordered his U-boat captains to hunt down and destroy Allied shipping.
In February 1941 alone, 38 British ships were sunk.Many of the ships were old and heavily laden, so they could travel no faster than eight knots, making them an easy target for U-boats.The Gairsoppa, with its heavy load of almost 7,000 tonnes which included the silver, as well as iron and tea, was forced to burn more and more fuel to maintain her speed in the stormy seas as they journeyed north.Fearing that he did not have enough fuel to make it to Liverpool, her skipper, Captain Gerald Hyland, asked permission to break away from the convoy and make instead for Galway on Ireland’s south-west coast, and on February 14, 1941, the Gairsoppa left the convoy.The U-101, captained by Ernst Mengersen, headed towards the Gairsoppa, hoping to make a ‘kill’, and at 2230 hours a massive explosion blew apart the ship’s Number Two hold. Such was the impact of the single torpedo that the foremast snapped and crashed to the deck, taking with it the radio antennae, so the crew were unable even to send a distress signal.They were alone and sinking fast. As fire and smoke ripped through the Gairsoppa, Captain Hyland gave the order to abandon ship and the men made for the lifeboats.Then bullets ripped through the darkness, forcing them tothrow themselves down.

The U-boat surfaced and sprayed the deck with machine-gun fire. Some of the bullets cut through the ropes of one lifeboat, sending it crashing into the sea. Dozens of men leapt overboard and swam towards it, including Second Officer Richard Ayres.They began pushing away from the stricken vessel to avoid being sucked down as it sank, and had to paddle frantically to get clear of the spinning propellers.Somehow they pulled away and watched as just a hundred yards from them, the Gairsoppa disappeared under the waves, within 20 minutes of being hit. Of the other two lifeboats there was no sign. They were alone in icy seas, hundreds of miles from land.There were 31 men in the lifeboat: eight Europeans and 23 Indian seamen — known as Lascars — who immediately began suffering badly from the cold, so they were given all the blankets and some canvas for shelter.
Old and heavily laden ships like the Gairsoppa made easy targets for deadly German U-boats. The only man skilled at sailing a small boat, was 31-year-old Richard Ayres who immediately took command and set sail eastwards, steering with an oar because the rudder had been lost.Their food supplies consisted of some tins of condensed milk and dry biscuit, so hard it could barely be swallowed. Ayres resisted the crew’s pleas for extra water rations to soften the biscuit, because they were desperately short of water.

Each man was limited to half a pint of water a day and half a pint a night. But the Lascars began drinking salt water, which made them go mad and fight each other. Soon, men began dying. Then, on the eighth day, water ran out. There was no sign of land and little chance of rescue: no one knew their fate or whereabouts. Men become delirious and ‘had barely enough hope and heart to carry on,’ according to Ayres. A couple of rain showers gave some relief from the thirst that burned their throats, but in the cold air, their hands and fingers became swollen with frostbite, making it impossible to grip the oars.

Over the next few days, their strength and spirit ebbed away. But Ayres, determined, fit and strong, was resolved to save the lives of the remaining men. He sailed the little boat through towering waves and fierce gales, snatching little sleep as only he, the Gairsoppa’s radio officer, 18-year-old Robert Hampshire, and a gunner named Norman Thomas, 20, from Chatham, Kent, had the strength left to man the rudder. Then, 13 days after the sinking, with only seven men surviving, many barely clinging to life, one man croaked out the word they all longed to hear: ‘Land’. At first the others thought it was just a cloud, but then they made out a lighthouse. It was the Lizard lighthouse on the southernmost tip of Cornwall, 300 miles from where the Gairsoppa had sunk. Ayres began sailing towards a rocky cove. Just as they were nearing its entrance, a huge wave smashed onto the small boat, capsizing it. In their weakened state, all but three of the men drowned — so near yet so far from safety.

Another wave righted the boat and Ayres managed to drag himself, Hampshire and Thomas on board, only for another breaker to capsize them again. They clung to the keel, but as more waves crashed violently over them they lost their grip. Hampshire was washed to his death, but Ayres and Thomas made it onto nearby rocks. Then another icy wave knocked Thomas backwards, drowning him just yards from safety. Exhausted and alone, Ayres felt ‘the fight for life was not worthwhile’. Then, as he surrendered himself to his fate, he heard voices urging him not to give up.

Three young girls, Betty Driver, Olive Martin and her sister, evacuees from Tottenham in London, had been walking along the cliffs when they spotted the boat flip over in the stormy seas below. One ran across the fields to fetch help from a nearby farm. The other two raced down to the beach and shouted to the men, begging them to keep swimming. Eventually, the first girl returned with a coastguard named Brian Richards, who threw Ayres a rope and pulled him ashore. The bodies of Hampshire, Thomas and two Lascars were recovered and buried in a nearby cemetery. It later transpired that the place where Ayres had come ashore, at Caerthillian Cove, was just a few miles from his home.

He was awarded an MBE in recognition of his heroic efforts to keep fellow survivors alive, as well as a War Medal for bravery at sea. Ayres returned to sea just nine months later, and spoke little about it after the war, during his years in the Royal Naval Reserve. He died in 1992. But the citation on his MBE will forever celebrate the extraordinary efforts of this brave man: ‘It was only the cruelty of the sea that robbed him of the fruits of his labour.