London: An American exploration company has discovered a large haul of silver worth 150 million pounds in the wreck of a British ship that was traveling from Kolkata to London, but was sunk by a German U-boat in the Atlantic in 1941.
   
The company Odyssey Marine will keep 80 percent of the cargo value, according to the Department of Transport, which awarded it the contract to explore the ship’s wreck.
   
The ship, SS Gairsoppa, set sail from Kolkata in December 1940 with a cargo of 240 tonnes of silver, iron and tea. The ship belonged to the British India Steam Navigation Company.
   
The ship was headed for Liverpool but was forced to break away from its military convoy off the coast of Ireland as weather conditions deteriorated and it began to run out of fuel.
   
As the ship tried to make it to Galway it was attacked by the German submarine U101, 300 miles southwest of the Irish harbour, and on 17 February, 1941, a single torpedo sank the ill-fated vessel, killing all 85 crewmen except one.
   
Delighted at the discovery, Greg Stemm, Chief Executive of Odyssey, said: "We were fortunate to find the shipwreck sitting upright, with the holds open and easily accessible. This should enable us to unload cargo through the hatches, as would happen with a ship alongside a cargo terminal."
   
Only one person from the 85-strong crew survived the torpedo attack as the ageing steamer tried to reach Ireland.
   
The wreck of the 412ft ship was found this summer nearly 4,700m below the North Atlantic, 300 miles off the Irish coast, but it was only confirmed as SS Gairsoppa last week.
   
Odyssey Marine's Senior Project Manager, Andrew Craig, told the BBC: "We've accomplished the first phase of this project - the location and identification of the target shipwreck. Now we're hard at work planning for the recovery phase".
   
He added: "Given the orientation and condition of the shipwreck, we are extremely confident that our planned salvage operation will be well suited for the recovery of this silver cargo."
   
Work to recover the cargo will begin in the second quarter of 2012, Odyssey said. (Odyssey's Chief Marine Archaeologist Neil Dobson said: "Even though records indicate that the lifeboats were launched before the ship sank, sadly most of her crew did not survive the long journey to shore".
   
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said the contract for the salvage of the SS Gairsoppa "was awarded by competitive tender in accordance with government and departmental procedures".
   
"While we do not comment on the specifics of such commercial arrangements, Odyssey Marine Exploration were awarded the contract as they offered the best rate of return to HMG," she added.

(Agencies)