- It was carrying tons of gold.
- British divers discovered the wreckage in the Barents Sea in 1981.
- The divers found 431 gold bars – weighing 23 pounds each – inside the wreck
- The divers extracted an estimated $222 million worth of gold.
- The Soviet Union & the U.K. shared the gold according to postwar dictates.
HMS Edinburgh was sunk with gold on board. In 1942, the Second World War was raging in Europe and on the Atlantic. Although the Americans finally entered the conflict in 1941, Allied forces were still struggling to make headway against the Germans, both on land and at sea. German U-boats wrought destruction seemingly at every turn.
There is no better example of their lethal capabilities than the sinking of the HMS Edinburgh. What the Germans didn’t know was that the British vessel was not only carrying vital munitions to aid in the war effort but was also carrying millions in gold bars, supplied by the Soviet Union, that were headed for America.
Swan Hunter, a British ship-building company, laid down HMS Edinburgh in December 1936. The Royal Navy commissioned the then state of the art town-class light cruiser in July 1939 just in time for the outbreak of World War Two.
The cruiser actively fought in the North and Arctic Seas during World War Two. As well as its impressive twelve 6-inch guns, HMS Edinburgh also came armed with twelve 4-inch AA guns and sixteen .50 calibre machine guns. A formidable fighting ship indeed.
On 30th April 1942, a German submarine, U-456, torpedoed the vessel. The torpedo hit the vessel just to starboard ahead of the gold storage.
The Royal Navy convoy immediately swung into action in an attempt to protect HMS Edinburgh. However, a second torpedo hit the stern, which wrecked the ship’s steering equipment making it a sitting duck.
Ships in the convoy towed the crippled ship in an attempt to bring it back to Murmansk. Nevertheless, their efforts were all in vain as Nazi destroyers (Hermann Schoemann, Z24, and Z25) had their targets locked onto the helpless HMS Edinburgh.
The History of the Gold Bars
Unable to outmanoeuvre its foe HMS Edinburgh sustained yet more severe damage. Consequently, David Loram, who later became the Vice Admiral of the Royal Navy, scuttled the crippled ship on 2nd May, 1942. But why was a Royal Navy ship carrying gold in the first place?
During World War Two, The USSR paid the Western Allies in gold for military equipment. On its last journey, HMS Edinburgh carried 4570 kilograms of USSR gold back to the U.K.
The British Government gave the salvage rights to Risdon Beazley Ltd in 1954. The salvage attempts were unfruitful however due to the failure of locating the wreck. Unsurprisingly, the British Government grew increasingly anxious with such a priceless cargo on the seabed.
Jessop Marine and Wharton Williams Ltd secured another salvage attempt contract in the early 1980s. In April 1981, a survey ship under the direction of former Royal Naval Survey officer John Clarke successfully located the wreck. The divers found the wreckage 400km off the Soviet coast at the Kola Inlet. Keith Jessop led the salvage expedition.
The Salvage of The Century
The divers worked in two-person teams, spending days in pressure chambers to prepare themselves to work under a colossal 350-pound-per-square-inch pressure. They descended in diving bells, whereby one diver would remain inside while the other worked inside the wreck of the Edinburgh itself.
The salvagers carefully incised the hull of HMS Edinburgh close to the bomb storage. The temperatures were so low that a hose supplied warm water to the divers’ suits to prevent freezing. Moreover, an umbilical cord from Stephaniturm – the diving vessel above water – provided the divers with air, food, and electricity for light and to power equipment.
A British ordnance expert carefully defused each bomb as they came up to the supporting vessel. Eventually, John Rossier found the first gold bar on 15th September 1981.
Read More: WW2 Mine Found On Coast
The divers loaded the bars in a wire basket and ascended to the main ship. Both British and Soviet officials closely monitored the operation. The officials from both sides recorded the gold bars as the salvagers brought them back up.
The operation finally ended on 7th October due to unfavorable weather conditions. A total of 431 out of 465 ingots stamped with dates ranging between 1936 and 1942 were successfully extracted from the wreckage.
By dictates of a postwar settlement, the Soviet Union received two-thirds, and the British Government received one-third of the gold. The U.S. received nothing because the lost gold was reimbursed by insurance.
The divers, whose share of the salvage has not been disclosed, were congratulated by Wharton Williams. He called it “the most successful diving operation ever carried out.”
Dougie Matheson, one of Britain’s top divers, is celebrated as the man who reclaimed the lost gold. Matheson recounted:
“Everything was covered in oil; it was a grim, dirty, horrible place.”
“But I cracked open that box, and the gold was as shiny as the day the ship went down.”
“The light catches your eye: 99.99 percent pure Russian gold.”
Hailed as the “salvage of the century,” this sensational story faded from memory. It was only revived when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, paid it a visit in 2012. True gold fit for a queen.