News World Hundreds of personal letters from WWII shipwreck to go on show in London

Hundreds of personal letters from WWII shipwreck to go on show in London

SS Gairsoppa
Lost WWII letters have been recovered from sunken steam boat SS Gairsoppa.
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A treasure trove of hundreds of lost letters, including personal messages from soldiers to their loved ones, has been recovered from a World War II shipwreck in almost pristine condition.

More than 700 personal letters were by chance preserved in an airlock onboard the SS Gairsoppa as it sank to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1941.

A selection of those is now going on show in London’s Postal Museum as part of a new exhibit, Voices from the Deep.

The SS Gairsoppa, a steam cargo ship, was attacked by German U-boats while travelling from India to Britain in February 1941.

Torpedoed about 480 kilometres off the coast of Ireland, the ship then sank almost 4700 metres to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Just one man of the 84 crew members and two gunners made it back to land alive.

They lay there forgotten for 70 years.

“After eight weeks at sea, on the ocean, it runs out of coal and backs out of the convoy and it’s a sitting duck, a gift to Hitler,” marine archaeologist and guest curator Shaun Kingsley said.

“Unsurprisingly, a German U-boat comes up and picks her off, fires one torpedo, in under 20 minutes the ship tragically goes to the deep, three days from home.”

Letters recovered from SS Gairsoppa shipwreck
A sample of more than 700 letters recovered from the SS Gairsoppa cargo ship which sank during World War II. Photo: AP

Fast forward to 2011, when marine archaeologists discovered the long-lost shipwreck.

In its cargo sat millions of ounces of silver, sent from colonial India to the UK to help fund the war effort.

But as divers sifted through the wreckage, another surprising discovery appeared.

“Unbeknown and unsurprised, this massive, large slime, smelling of rotten eggs came up,” Dr Kingsley said.

“And in the conservation lab, slowly and suddenly words and phrases started to appear. And now this turned out to be a collection of some 700 letters, written from British India in November and December 1940.

“It’s the largest collection of letters to survive on any shipwreck, anywhere in the world, since people started to write.

“It shouldn’t have been preserved, but because there was no light, there was no oxygen, it was darkness, it was like putting a collection of organics in a tin can, sealing it up and putting it in a fridge freezer.”

Signed, sealed, never delivered

Written 77 years ago and never delivered, the letters shed light on correspondence during the war.

There are examples of soldiers writing to loved ones, businessmen and missionaries.

One letter, written on December 1, 1940 by Private Pete Walker was to his “most precious sweetheart”, Phyll.

The Postal Museum exhibitions officer Emma Harper said Private Walker wrote how he’d “wept with joy” after she accepted his marriage proposal, which was also sent via mail.

“And it’s just so gushing,” Ms Harper said.

“He says: ‘I wept with joy, I couldn’t believe it, you don’t know how happy you’ve made me darling’.

“But then in contrast to that, he spends the first half of the letter just going on about: ‘Oh, I’ve just been waiting for the right letter, and the right order. I’ve had books from you this week, I’ve had newspapers, but it was this letter that I’ve been waiting for’.”

The exhibit also includes a selection of items recovered from the shipwreck, including shoes, tea pots, medicine bottles and silk cloths.