Meet Phyllis Ponting, a 99-year-old great-grandmother who found a hand-written love letter from her soldier fiancé that sunk to the bottom of the ocean along with the cargo ship that was hit by German U-boats in 1941. She found the letter 77 years later. And the story of the sinking is incredible.
Source: Trevor Porter Wiltshite Gazette and Herald
Phyllis Ponting, from Wiltshire, England, thought she would never hear from her beloved fiancé Bill Walker, who served with the Wiltshire Regiment. He was sent to India and never answered her letter in which Phyllis accepted his marriage proposal.
A Missing Fiancé
What happened to Walker is not known for sure. They do know that there isn’t a listing for a William Walker of the Wiltshire Regiment on the Commonwealth Graves Commission which would indicate his loss of life during the Second World War.
Source: Trevor Porter Wiltshite Gazette and Herald
For many years, Phyllis wondered what happened to her lover. She was sure that he couldn’t have survived. She said, “Otherwise he would have been straight round to my address. We would have been married. He loved me a lot.”
Would she find out what happened to her fiancé and how did she find the letter?
One Letter Among 700
The love letter was among 700 other envelopes in the shipwreck, three miles down. Amazingly, the hand-written love note has been recovered with all the other letters from the wreckage of the steam-powered cargo ship.
After a feature on BBC’s The One Show was aired, Phyllis was visited by a representative of the London Postal Museum and given copies of Bill’s letter. And as you can imagine, she couldn’t believe her eyes. She said, “I can’t believe the letter was at the bottom of the sea and now I can read it.” And their story is incredible.
An Acceptance of Marriage
The couple had met in Devizes when Bill was stationed at the Wiltshire Regiment’s barracks in the town. And in the letter, he wrote about reading her agreement to his marriage proposal.
His words were: “I wish you could have been there when I opened it. I wept with joy. I could not help it. If you could only know how happy it made me, darling.’
It is an amazing thing that this and all the other letters to home were ultimately recovered from the deep. And the letters became the feature of an exhibition.
Lost in the Wreckage
The letters recovered from the deep are now part of a tear-jerking exhibition called “Voices from the Deep” at London’s Postal Museum. The ship sank almost about 15,400ft to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Source: Wessex News Agency
It killed 83 of the 84 crew members, about 300 miles off the coast of Galway, Ireland. The large collection of letters were all from India, most of them were directed to sweethearts back home. Incredibly, the condition they were found in was almost perfect.
Recovering the Letters
The work of recovering the wrecked cargo ship began in 2011. Marine archaeologists wanted to find the silver that was also on the ship. The silver was being sent from colonial India to Britain to help fund the war. And along the way, they discovered the letters.
The curator of the museum said “It’s the largest collection of letters since people started to write to survive any shipwreck, anywhere in the world.”
The story of how the ship sank is one for the history books.
How the Ship Sank
The SS Gairsoppa, built shipyard in 1919, was returning home to Liverpool from India in 1941 during a service of the Ministry of War Transport. It was forced to break away from a Merchant Navy convoy that was protected by Royal Navy destroyers, and the ship was then torpedoed by German U-boats.
The 412ft-long steam cargo ship sank in British waters and remained sitting upright on the seabed, three miles under water. It had red-and-black paintwork of the British-India Steam Navigation Company and the torpedo hole was clearly visible on its side.
A Single Torpedo
On February 17, 1941, the large ship sunk in just 20 minutes by means of a single torpedo. Three lifeboats were launched, but only one crew member survived the sinking.
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Second Officer Richard Ayres did the inconceivable. He made it to land and reached the Cornish coast after 13 days. This wasn’t the only ship to be sunk that month in 1941, let alone the entire duration of World War II.
German U-boats were on a mission to attack allied ships.
The Sinking of 38 British Ships
In the month of February 1941, 38 British ships were sunk. Many of them were easy targets for the U-boats because the British ships were old and heavy and couldn’t travel faster than eight knots.
Photo by The Montifraulo Collection/Getty Images
The Gairsoppa, had a load of 7,000 tonnes, including the silver, iron and tea, was forced to burn fuel to keep up its speed in the stormy seas as they were heading north. And the captain made a move that ultimately ended in the ship’s and crew members’ peril
A Captain’s Fatal Decision
Captain Gerald Hyland feared that he did not have enough fuel to make it to Liverpool. So he asked permission to break away from the convoy and on February 14, 1941, the ship left the convoy.
Captain Gerald Hyland, aged 25 in 1925
The torpedo that hit the ship destroyed their radio antenna, so the crew were unable to send a distress signal. They were alone and the boat was sinking fast. Captain Hyland gave the order to abandon ship and the men went to the lifeboats.
Unfortunately, the ship and the crew were gunned down.
Forced to Jump
Some of the bullets cut through one of the lifeboat’s ropes, sending it crashing down into the ice-cold ocean. The crew were forced to jump overboard and swim towards it, including the sole survivor, Richard Ayres.
Sole survivor from the Gairsoppa, Richard Ayres. Photo by submerged.co.uk
Somehow they managed to pull away from the sinking ship, watching as it disappeared under the waves, within 20 minutes of being hit.
But what happened to the other two lifeboats?
No Sign of the Others
They didn’t see the other two lifeboats. And therefore, they were alone in icy waters, hundreds of miles from the coast. There were 31 men in the lifeboat. 8 Europeans and 23 Indians. And they all began to suffer greatly from the cold.
Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
The only man who knew how to sail a small boat was the 31-year-old Ayres who immediately took command and headed east. He had to steer with one oar because the rudder had been lost.
Limited Food and Water Supply
They had limited food supplies: some tin cans of condensed milk and biscuits that were too hard to be swallowed. The men were in desperate need of water, but Ayres resisted the crew’s pleas. Each man was rationed half a pint of water during the day and half a pint a night.
The survivors suffered thirst because of the life boat’s water shortage.
Photo by Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images
But the Indians began drinking salt water. And on the eighth day, the water supply ran out. Sadly, men began to die.
The remaining men didn’t know their fates or even their whereabouts.
They Became Delirious
According to Ayres, the surviving men became delirious and “had barely enough hope and heart to carry on.” They were suffering from intense dehydration and also frostbite. But he was determined to save the lives of the remaining men.
Lizard Point Lighthouse in Cornwall, England at dusk. Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images
13 days after the sinking, and only seven men surviving, one man managed to utter one word they all longed to hear: ‘Land’. They saw the Lizard lighthouse on the southernmost tip of Cornwall, which was 300 miles from where the ship had sunk.
But they had to deal with yet another obstacle on the way to the coast.
So Close, Yet So Far
Ayres began sailing towards the land as a huge wave smashed on to the small boat, capsizing it. And all but three men drowned. Ayres managed to drag himself, and two others on board, only for another breaker to overturn them again.
Photo by Central Press/Getty Images
The other two men drowned and Ayres was left exhausted and alone. He claimed that just as he was about to surrender himself to his fate, he heard voices urging him not to give up. There were three young girls from London who had been walking along the cliffs and spotted the boat flip over.
Three Girls to the Rescue
One of the girls ran across the fields to get help from a nearby farm while the other two ran down to the beach and shouted to the men to keep swimming. The girl came back with a coastguard who threw Ayres a rope and pulled him to shore.
Photo by Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images
Ayres was awarded an MBE in recognition of his heroic efforts as well as a War Medal for bravery at sea. And amazingly, Ayres returned to sea just nine months later. He died in 1992.