A transatlantic salvage operation will put to sea on Monday to recover some of the estimated £125bn worth of gold and other precious metals sunk by German U-boats while being shipped to pay for Britain’s first and second world war efforts.
Britannia Gold, a UK firm that has spent 25 years analysing cargo lost at sea, will set sail in secret from an unannounced port to explore the first cluster of shipwrecks it hopes will yield treasure.
If successful, the loot will be taken to a secure location, from which the company will negotiate a price with the UK government for its return.
The company plans to explore dozens of shipwrecks stretching from the north Atlantic to the Caribbean, believing it can recover around 2,000 tonnes of bounty.
Will Collier, operational director of Britannia Gold, said the company had an unrivalled opportunity thanks to painstaking analysis of insurance records discovered by one of its senior researchers.
“He came across a document written by an adviser to wartime chancellor of the exchequer Reginald McKenna, in amongst a box of last will and testaments of deceased sailors.
“It clearly indicated gold movements made on behalf of the government on requisitioned merchant liners, which were named, with values of gold and when they sailed.”
He said that while rival salvage experts may know the location of wrecks, they would not have Britannia Gold’s information about what was on board, gleaned thanks to cross-referencing war-risk insurance payouts with shipwreck data.
“It’s a massive jigsaw to piece together and it took decades to do so,” he said.
Most of the precious metal was gold or silver being moved to the US to pay for the war effort, or to parts of the British empire, mainly from Glasgow and Liverpool.
Many of these ships were sunk by German U-boats lying in wait in shallow waters off Ireland as they tried to choke off the UK’s ability to import and export.
The first three wrecks Britannia plans to explore include a first world war ship sunk en route to Canada and believed to contain gold worth £450m.
The first stage of the salvage effort will see Britannia deploy a vessel with state-of-the-art technology that allows it to stay in position above the wrecks.
There, its staff will analyse data sent to the surface by a remotely operated vehicle, which will explore wrecks at depths of up to 5,500m to determine the position of valuable material.
Britannia Gold, has already raised money from private investors and its own directors but is seeking further investment via crowdfunding business Angel EQT, in an effort to raise the £8m it needs for the first salvage mission.
Britannia said it could not disclose the port it will be sailing from, the location of the wrecks, or where it would take any finds, for fear of alerting pirates.
“We’ve got millions of pounds of gold on board so we’re an automatic target and we have to play our cards close to our chest,” Collier said.
The firm will also have to tread a careful path with the government, which is technically the rightful owner of the cargoes.
It would be obliged to hand any cargo brought into British waters over to a government official known as the Receiver of Wreck, unless it negotiates an alternative arrangement first.
That means it will have to land the cargo elsewhere and agree a split with the government before it returns to British waters.
This article was written by Rob Davies, for theguardian.com on Sunday 1st October 2017 15.47 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010