2018 – Balchin Family Gathering – Alfold Village Hall

The 2018 gathering was held on Sunday 9th September at Alfold Village Hall.  After coffee Lord Lingfield introduced Dr Sean Kingsley, who is the Director of Wreck Watch International, London, who gave us a fascinating talk on items recovered from the SS Gairsoppa.

The Gairsoppa left Calcutta on 5.12.1940 with a “general” cargo, which hid the fact that 2817 tons of silver bullion was being carried – in fact, it was the largest amount of silver ever lost whilst being sent from India to Britain during World War II.  Also carried were 1765 tons of tea, an important commodity to keep people’s spirits up in wartime.  With the tea ration of 2 ozs. per week per adult the amount carried was enough for 65% of the population of Britain for a week.

The Gairsoppa was to sail in convoy, which assembled in Freetown in Sierra Leone.  Her pretended destination was Oban in Scotland, although really the destination was London.  The convoy, which was fast enough to evade U-boats, set out 800 yards apart from Sierra Leone on 31.1.1941. However, for some unknown reason the Gairsoppa had not had her coal stocks replenished at Freetown, and on 14.2.1941 the captain realised he did not have enough coal to reach London and had to drop out of the convoy.  The captain changed course for Galway, around 630 miles away.

In the evening of 16.2.1941 the Gairsoppa was torpedoed and within an hour sank, 300 miles or three days away from Galway.  Although some of the 86 crew members managed to board lifeboats and survived a few days, only one man reached Britain – he struggled ashore thirteen days later in Cornwall.

The Gairsoppa lay three miles or 4700 metres deep 300 kilometres south west of Ireland and was discovered by Odyssey in 2011.  Amongst the items discovered in the cargo were several bottles which contained alcohol as well as the crew’s personal items such as shoes.  The most fascinating findings, however, were letters.  The Gairsoppa was not an official Royal Mail ship but bearing in mind the time of year on this occasion was carrying perhaps over 100 mailbags.  700 letters were salvaged and despite having been in the sea for over 70 years these letters were able to be conserved and, incredibly, were then legible.  The letters, not all destined for Britain e.g. some were for America, ranged from letters from soldiers stationed in India through business letters and personal letters to Christmas cards.

An exhibition of some of these letters is on display at The Postal Museum in London until 30.6.2019. In a few cases, descendants of those who had sent the letters or were due to receive them had been contacted and were at the opening of the exhibition.

For each of us Dr Kingsley had brought along a copy of the book he has edited about the Gairsoppa, “Voices from the deep: the British Raj & battle of the Atlantic in World War II”, which describes the finds from the ship in fascinating detail.

We then had lunch, prepared by Tina and Rob Balchin – cold meats and salmon with salad and hot new potatoes and bread rolls followed by apple crumble with custard and summer fruits with cream.  The tables were decorated with cyclamen plants, which were latter balloted.

Th A.G.M followed lunch and then Diana Beamish talked about her uncles in business.  Lord Lingfield summed up the day and discussed the day’s events over tea and cakes at the conclusion of the gathering.

Diana Beamish

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