Billions of pounds worth of British gold is hidden in the wrecks of merchant ships sunk during the First and Second World Wars, a team of experts believe. Four research groups have spent 25 years producing a database tracking the gold shipped by the British Government to pay for munitions and goods during both World Wars. Of the 7,500 merchant ships sunk, the teams have identified more than 700 which they believe may have been carrying vast quantities of gold and other precious metals.
Organisation Britannia’s Gold has now amassed more than eight million documents which point to the locations of the ships, which may have carried at least £4.5 billion. Their research also revealed that during the Second World War, many of the merchant ships were specifically attacked because of their precious cargo and German U-boat commanders were told to make them priority targets. Sinking the boats aimed to reduce Britain’s ability to buy munitions and food and the enemy’s plan was to return and collect the gold after winning the war. But decades later, the gold has not been recovered and in a few weeks, a £15 million recovery operation is due to launch a few hundred miles west of Ireland.
Britannia’s Gold will launch search and salvage crews which use “state-of-the-art Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicles and other robotic tooling systems” to recover the gold and bring it to the surface. The team are planning to initially target a “cluster” of three ships in one area – two from the First World War and one from the Second World War – which could contain around £750 million. On their website, the organisation says: “From our vast research database, we have access to invaluable information such as cargoes, wreck locations, water depths and legal ownerships.
“The circumstances of the sinking and location of the wrecks are often further confirmed by inquest documentation and survivor accounts.”
However the team has stressed that the targeted wrecks are not ships such as the war grave SS City of Benares, which was torpedoed in 1940 by the Germans and resulted in the death of 77 evacuated children. The website says: “All will be treated with respect and those wrecks known to be sensitive and specifically, to have carried evacuee children, will be avoided at all costs.
“As a mark of respect, a commemorative plaque will be placed at each shipwreck location upon completion of the team’s operations.”
All British warships sunk since 1914 are classified as both war graves and sovereign territory but most merchant wrecks do not have such protection.
Philip Reid, a former banker with Merrill Lynch and chairman of Britannia’s Gold said the first portion of any recovery will go to the British Government which is the owner of the cargo. After covering the operation’s costs, the rest will be shared among investors, with a percentage going to merchant marine charities.