Subject: 100 Tons of Silver Rupees Found on Ocean Floor
From: Alex Kemp
Date: Friday, 17 April 2015 00:12:02 +0100
To: Oliver Kemp, Micaela Kemp, Liisa Kemp, Davin Kemp

How much do you think one solid-silver Rupee (from India) is worth?

A Silver Rupee from Bombay, India; Lost at Sea in 1942 and Recovered in 2011

Now how much will 2,000 boxes weighing 100 Tons, each full of those same silver Rupees, be worth?

A Sack of Silver Rupees recovered from near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at a Depth of 5,150m – a World Depth Record for Salvage.

The UK Treasury--which owned the coins--reckons that the total value is £34m GBP ($50m US Dollars, €47m Euro).

Deep Ocean Search (DOS) is a British-led salvage company that specialises in deep-sea operations. They have to use machines to work at that depth - ROVs (‘Remotely Operated Vehicles’) - as humans cannot survive (the deepest recorded human scuba dive is currently 332m (1,090 ft), according to Guinness World Records).

DOS began to look for the sunken ship in November 2011. It was located 1,000 miles (1,600km) from the nearest land, water depth exceeded 5,000m (3 miles), weather, swell & currents were ‘challenging’ and the search area was twice the size of London and full of ridges & canyons throughout the area. It took them several weeks (typical costs for these ships are about £22,000 ($35,000; €28,000) per day) but they eventually found it on the side of a hill, deeply buried in mud.

DOS got a contract with the UK Ministry of Transport to salvage the ship. By their own account they recovered “several tens of tons” of the coins using the ROV, and made the last dive on the 25th September 2013, using that occasion to plant a specially-made commemorative plaque, saying “We came with Respect”.

The UK government have by now melted down & sold the coins (companies like DOS typically get 80% of the value of the salvage). Even though the salvage was complete by Sept 2013 it was only yesterday that the Ministry of Transport gave DOS permission to publish their work.

If anything, the history of the ship (the SS City of Cairo) & it’s loss is more interesting than what has been said so far:-

The SS City of Cairo was torpedoed at 2030 hrs by the German submarine U-68 on the 6 November 1942, causing the loss of 104 lives

The SS City of Cairo was built by Earle’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd, Hull in 1915 for Ellerman Lines Ltd. of London, and registered in Liverpool. (Hull is my home town, of course.) She was requisitioned during the Second World War by the UK government to bring supplies to the UK. Her last voyage was on 1 October 1942, under the command of her master, William A. Rogerson, who took her unescorted from Bombay (modern day Mumbai) towards the UK, via Durban, Cape Town and Pernambuco, Brazil.

The City of Cairo was about 450 ft (137m) long, and a slow old girl at only 12 knots (22 km/h). If we now add in that she had excessively smoky engines, then it quickly becomes clear that she was classic torpedo bait.

The doomed ship left Cape Town, South Africa at 0600 hours on the morning of 1 November 1942. She sailed 800 miles (1,300 km) north up the coast of Africa, zigzagging during the day and keeping about 45 miles (72 km) close to land. She then turned left and headed West across the vastness of the Atlantic towards her next port of Recife in Brazil. She did not make it.


This old merchant steamer had 296 souls aboard of which 136 were passengers, including 28 women and 19 children. She was carrying 7,422 tons of general cargo, including pig iron, timber, wool, cotton, manganese ore and, of course, those 2,000 boxes of silver coins. They were all headed for a meeting with Type IXC Unterseeboot (U-boat) U-68, which was under the command of Korvettenkapitän Karl-Friedrich Merten, and it was due to ultimately prove fatal for 104 of them. On 10 April 1944 U-68 had it’s own fatal encounter with aircraft from the United States escort carrier Guadalcanal; all but one of the 56 crew died.

Karl-Friedrich spotted the tall plume of smoke from the City of Cairo’s funnel and zeroed in on the boat. At 2030 hrs on 6th of November 1942 U-68 launched a torpedo which struck abreast of the after-mast. William Rogerson gave the order to abandon ship. All of the women and children left the ship safely but five people – one crewmen and four passengers – were lost during the evacuation.

City of Cairo was still underway after the passengers & crew had disembarked. Chief Radio Officer Harry Peever remained at his post in the wireless room in order to to send out distress signals (the first of which was answered by the U-68!). The ship was stable but was slowly settling by the stern.

20 minutes after the first Karl-Friedrich fired a second torpedo. That caused the old girl to sink by the stern, 10 minutes later, whilst about 480 miles (770 km) south of St Helena. It also killed Harry Peever.

DOS brought up the tail of the 2nd, fatal torpedo that sunk SS City of Cairo. You can clearly see the twin contra-rotating propellers.

After City of Cairo disappeared beneath the waves, U-68 surfaced, and Karl-Friedrich spoke with the occupants of No. 6 boat (including the ship’s master), asking after the ship’s name, cargo and whether it was carrying prisoners of war. He confirmed their position and their options. They had 3:-

  1. South America (Brazil) was approximately 2,000 miles (3,200 km) to the West
  2. Africa (Namibia) was 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to the East
  3. St Helena was 500 miles (800 km) to the North
    (and just a speck of an island in the middle of a huge sea)

Karl-Friedrich then left them, with the parting words “Goodnight, and sorry for sinking you” (which later became the title of a book on the loss of the City of Cairo, by R. Barker). Privately, Karl-Friedrich thought that they had little chance of survival. He was half right.

There were 6 lifeboats carrying 207 men, women & children. They decided to attempt to reach St Helena. Each boat had a compass, but they had only one sextant amongst all the lifeboats + Master William Rogerson’s Rolex watch. That meant that all the boats needed to stay together. Over the next three weeks most of the boats lost contact with each other. It all became a shambles:

  1. One boat, with just 3 survivors, was picked up by a German blockade runner, Rhakotis, on 12 December, 1942, after 36 days at sea. Rhakotis was travelling from Japan to Bordeaux. During their journey aboard the Rhakotis one of the 3 died.

    The Rhakotis was intercepted by the cruiser HMS Scylla, torpedoed, and sunk off Cape Finisterre on 1 January 1943. The 2 City of Cairo survivors had now been sunk for the 2nd time! They each found (different) lifeboats.

    One was picked up the next day by German submarine U-410. The submarine was almost destroyed en route, when she was detected and attacked by British bombers, but did manage to get back to Saint-Nazaire three days later. The other survivor’s lifeboat eventually landed in Spain.
  2. On 23 November one boat was left with just 17 people on board (the rest having died), and decided that they must have over-shot St Helena. They decided to head west for South America. They were eventually spotted by the Brazilian Navy minelayer Caravelas on 27 December. They had been at sea for 51 days, and only the third officer and a female passenger, Margaret Gordon, were still alive.

    The lifeboat had got within 80 miles (130km) of the coast, and both survivors were landed at Recife.

    The 3rd Officer was awarded the MBE. He was repatriated to the UK on the City of Pretoria. On 4 March 1943, and in mid-journey, that ship was torpedoed and sunk by U-172 and the third officer died.

    Margaret Gordon was awarded the BEM, but refused to cross the Atlantic until the war was over. She sounds rather sensible to me.
  3. On the morning of 19 November the SS Clan Alpine, which was en route to St Helena, spotted 3 boats which were carrying Master Rogerson and 154 survivors after 13 days at sea. After rescuing all from the boats, Clan Alpine spent some fruitless time trying to find the other boats, but then landed everyone at St Helena. 4 survivors died in the hospital.
  4. The final boat was spotted on the evening of the 19 November by the SS Bendoran, and the 47 survivors aboard were taken to Cape Town (though one man died whilst aboard the ship).

Out of a total of 311 people aboard City of Cairo, 104 died (79 crew members, three gunners and 22 passengers) with 207 surviving (66.6%). Six are known to have died in the sinking, 90 in the boats, and seven after being rescued.

Quite a story.

Alex Kemp