Trea­sure hunters seek £300bn of gold bul­lion from war wrecks

The Daily Telegraph - - News - By Do­minic Nicholls

TREA­SURE hunters will shortly set sail to search for £300bil­lion worth of Bri­tish gold af­ter iden­ti­fy­ing 700 war wrecks.

Ex­ten­sive re­search over many years has iden­ti­fied the lo­ca­tions of hun­dreds of the 7,500 mer­chant ships lost in both world wars.

Gold bul­lion was shipped to the US and other lo­ca­tions for safe­keep­ing and to pay for mu­ni­tions and goods. While there is much in­for­ma­tion on which ships car­ried sil­ver, the gold ship­ments were clas­si­fied se­cret, mean­ing data on pos­si­ble lo­ca­tions were scarce.

The sal­vage team, with ex­pe­ri­ence of dis­cov­er­ing Ger­man U-boats and of re­cov­er­ing Kursk, the Rus­sian sub­ma­rine, will de­ploy on their ex­pe­di­tion in the next few days.

They have amassed 27 ter­abytes of data on the lo­ca­tions of the wrecks, in­clud­ing in­quest doc­u­ments and eye­wit­ness ac­counts.

Al­though there was great loss of life in the mer­chant fleet, in­clud­ing evac­uee chil­dren, the tar­geted ves­sels are not des­ig­nated war graves, mean­ing sal­vage op­er­a­tions are pos­si­ble.

Com­mem­o­ra­tive plaques will be placed at each lo­ca­tion. Philip Reid, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Bri­tan­nia’s Gold, the sal­vage com­pany, said: “Such were the level of losses in the early years of both world wars that it be­came im­pos­si­ble for Lloyd’s to in­sure [the gold]. The Govern­ment had to rein­sure it un­der the War Risk In­sur­ance pro­gramme”.

“All the orig­i­nal own­ers have been paid and now the owner is the govern­ment un­der that rein­sur­ance pro­gramme.” The In­ter­na­tional Con­ven­tion on Sal­vage states that the salvor gets back costs and then shares equally the value of any sal­vaged ma­te­rial with the owner.

The Depart­ment for Trans­port, the cus­to­dian of the in­sur­ance pro­gramme, sug­gested to Mr Reid the Govern­ment would not take more than a 40 per cent share. How­ever, Mr Reid said the Govern­ment’s stance was: “When you’re suc­cess­ful we’ll talk to you”.

Side-scan sonars and re­mote op­er­ated ve­hi­cles ca­pa­ble of func­tion­ing at 5,000 me­tres will be used for the seabed op­er­a­tions.

Be­cause of the high cost of sal­vage, the re­searchers will search for the wrecks in clus­ters where they are close to­gether and searches can be most economical. These groups are lo­cated pre­dom­i­nantly in the western ap­proaches, the Caribbean and off the west coast of Africa. The early targets will be in shal­lower wa­ters.

“We are con­cen­trat­ing on the more ac­ces­si­ble wrecks,” said Mr Reid, “where the re­search is first class, val­i­dated from ev­ery as­pect and the sal­vage risks are not over­whelm­ing. Two to three weeks af­ter reach­ing the first site we will know if the sal­vage is suc­cess­ful. When you have your co­coa tonight, say a lit­tle prayer for us.”

The sal­vage team have iden­ti­fied 700 ships sunk in both world wars

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