Wednesday, April 22, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Torpedoed Treasure: The SS City of Cairo

World War Wednesdays: Torpedoed Treasure: The SS City of Cairo
SS City of Cairo
     It always blows my mind whenever I read the news and  find stories related to the Second World War. Studying it all the time tends to make it feel almost fictional and far away when the information is broken down into textbook facts, but its impact is brought home when it still appears in the news 70 years later. It is very exciting for the field to know that every day, more knowledge is being added, which generates new topics of discussion and an even better understanding. This week, I came across the story of the SS City of Cairo, and I thought that both its wartime and current story were worth a share.
     The SS City of Cairo was a British passenger steamship built in 1915 and registered in Liverpool. During the Second World War, she was requisitioned to bring supplies to the United Kingdom. Her last voyage was to depart from Bombay on 1 October 1942, bound for the UK via Durban, Cape Town and Pernambuco, Brazil. The ship departed Cape Town at 0600 hours on the morning of 1 November, carrying 101 passengers, including 28 women and 19 children. Also on board were 10 DEMS Gunners from the Army and Royal Navy. She was carrying 7,422 tons of general cargo, including pig iron, timber, wool, cotton, manganese ore and 2,000 boxes of silver coins.
She sailed north for 800 miles (1,300 km), zigzagging during the day and keeping about 45 miles (72 km) off the African coast, before turning westwards across the South Atlantic towards Brazil and her next port of call. She was unescorted (a dangerous thing during the Atlantic war) and capable of only 12 knots (22 km/h). Her problems were heightened by the excessive smokiness of her engines which increased her visibility.
     On 6 November, the smoke trail was sighted by the German submarine U-68 under the command of Karl-Friedrich Merten. At 2136 hours, U-68 fired a torpedo at the lone merchant ship. The torpedo struck City of Cairo abreast of the after-mast. The master gave the order to abandon ship. All of the women and children left the ship safely; only six people, two crewmen and four passengers, were lost in the evacuation. The ship, still underway, had stabilised, but she was slowly settling by the stern. A distress call was sent, which was acknowledged by the U-68, and provided the callsign of the Walvis Bay station in South Africa.
Captain Karl-Friedrich Merten
     Merten fired a second torpedo 20 minutes after the first, which caused the ship to sink by the stern about 480 miles (770 km) south of St Helena. One of the two crewmen lost in the sinking, Chief Radio Officer Harry Peever, was killed by this strike. He had remained in the wireless room to send distress signals. Once City of Cairo had sunk, U-68 surfaced alongside the six lifeboats that had been launched. Merten spoke to the occupants of No. 6 boat, asked the ship's name, cargo and whether it was carrying prisoners of war. He then gave a course for the nearest land, which by now was either the Brazilian coast, approximately 2,000 miles away. Merten then left them, with the words "Goodnight, and sorry for sinking you". He privately thought that they had little chance of survival.

     However, there were 189 survivors. After assessing the situation, it was decided to attempt to reach the nearest land, St Helena, but over the next three weeks, most of the lifeboats lost contact with each other, and numerous occupants died. Most of the lifeboats were picked up by various other vessels, including one German merchant ship which was also sunk. Out of a total of 311 people aboard City of Cairo, 104 died, including 79 crew members, three gunners and 22 passengers, with 207 surviving. Six are known to have died in the sinking, 90 in the boats, and seven after being rescued.

     Last Friday, the City of Cairo made the news once again when a Mauritius-based firm called Deep Ocean Search released details of the salvage 400 miles south of the South Atlantic island of St. Helena, saying the recovery from the wreck, lying at a depth of 5,150 metres, was a world record.
     The ship was broken in two and filled with mud, but the crew was still able to recover the silver coins worth $50 million which had been intended to fund the British war effort. The operation was completed in 2013 but kept under wraps until this year.

After Deep Ocean had taken its cut under international marine salvage rules, the remainder of the treasure was returned to its original owner - Britain's Treasury, a spokesman confirmed.
     An interesting topic that may be less so for family members of the City of Cairo victims. Should ships like this one which serve as underwater gravesites for hundreds of victims be respected as such, or is the valuable cargo worth recovery regardless? We've seen this topic in previous posts regarding the Empress of Ireland (nautical disasters seem to be a theme). Feel free to weigh in!

 Thanks for reading,
     Delany Leitch

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