Nearly 50 tons of silver lost during the Second World War when a British merchant vessel sank three miles below the Atlantic has been brought back to the surface, it was announced yesterday.
An American salvage company has spent six weeks recovering the bullion from the cargo holds of the SS Gairsoppa, a 126 metre-long cargo ship sunk by a German U-boat in February 1941 with the loss of more than 80 crew, most of them from the Indian sub-continent.
Odyssey Marine, which recently lost a legal dispute with the Spanish government over nearly 600,000 coins recovered from a colonial-era wreck, said the recovered silver, worth about £24m, represented only 20 per cent of the bars that may remain on the British ship.
The recovery operation, taking place some 300 miles off the Irish coast, is the largest and deepest for precious metal lost in a shipwreck and involves the use of a remote-controlled robot to cut open the Gairsoppa's cargo holds and individually remove each silver bar.
Greg Stemm, chief executive of the Florida-based company, said: "With the shipwreck lying approximately three miles below the surface of the North Atlantic, this was a complex operation."
The 1,200 bars of silver recovered so far are being held at a undisclosed location in Britain and the remainder of the bullion is expected to be brought to the surface before the end of the year.
Under the terms of a deal struck with the Department for Transport, Odyssey will be entitled to 80 per cent of the value of the silver from the Gairsoppa once it has recovered its own costs. The remaining 20 per cent of value of the cargo, which could amount to £150m, will go to the Treasury.