The Sunken Gold

The Sunken Gold

Joseph A Williams
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
In 1917 a German submarine torpedoed the HMS Laurentic in the Atlantic, near Fanad Head, just off the coast of Ireland. In 2017 people were still visiting the wreck site because of the story about the gold which was retrieved from the ship and the story of the bars which might still remain in that area. The story of what happened and the main character involved are interesting enough to enjoy this book from one end to the other. Although the author has expended a large amount of effort in collecting data concerning what actually happened and to whom, it reads more like a novel than the factual account it really is.

The book is split into five parts with a Preface indicating why the author wrote of the life and career of Captain Guybon Damant and how it was involved with the quest to remove gold from the sunken HMS Laurentic.

The Laurentic was a transatlantic liner for those accustomed to travelling in style but being smaller and faster than many of the larger liners it was refitted in 1914 as an armed merchant cruiser. HMS Laurentic was commanded by Captain Norton, who has several paragraphs devoted to him in respect of his previous career and under his command the ship had been involved with hunts for German raiders as well as making shipping runs across the Atlantic to Canada with various loads. However, on 20th January 1917, a secret load of gold bars in plain, wooden boxes was loaded aboard amid considerable security. The gold was to be taken to the United States of America via Halifax in order to help finance the war effort.

The first few chapters alternate between describing what happened to HMS Laurentic and the progress of Captain Damant. Initially the younger days of Guybon Damant are described together with his interests in marine fauna and sports before being accepted for the Royal Navy. In the Royal Navy he was to be a gunnery officer but, early in 1906 a chance meeting with John Scott Haldane awakened his interest in diving and the efforts to go deeper than ever before. Meanwhile, HMS Laurentic is followed from Liverpool to an unscheduled stop in Lough Swilly in the north of Ireland. The foul weather pleased Captain Norton somewhat because it reduced the risk of being attacked by a German submarine. However their journey into the Lough did allow a U-boat to attack and torpedo the ship. Although the ship did not sink immediately the order to abandon ship was eventually given and the survivors of the attack took to lifeboats but not all survived in the cold waters of what was effectively the Atlantic in midwinter.

The chapters of Part II cover the efforts of Guybon Damant and his crew obtaining a suitable ship, moving to Lough Swilly and recovering gold bars from HMS Laurentic. This was fraught with the constant efforts of German submarines which were laying mines in the Lough and attacking shipping whenever the opportunity arose. Apart from enemy action there were plenty of problems for the divers and a learning curve for Damant who was finding out more about relatively deep sea diving. At the end of this part there are a considerable number of photographs, including their recompression chamber, and it is interesting to note the difference between their diving equipment compared with one of the final photographs showing that used by Ray Cossum in the 1960s.

Part III seems to deviate slightly from the gold in HMS Laurentic but contains interesting information concerning how the war was being waged on and below the surface of the seas while covering Damant’s activities and obvious expertise as he was required to do more and more involving diving to inspect sunken enemy submarines.

At the end of the Great War the British government was concerned with investigating the possibility of recovering more gold from the wreck of HMS Laurentic and in 1919 Guybon Damant (to be promoted to Commander) was tasked with recovering the rest of the gold at a time when the IRA was quite active and known to be interested in using the gold for their own ends. All in all his team recovered over 3,100 of the known 3,211 bars, something in the region of 99% during the seven years of the operation.

The efforts of others since are covered including different companies who approached the British government with the idea of risking money to recover the remaining gold along with salvage from the wreck itself and the final chapter looks at some of the efforts, together with descriptions of the memorial to the crew along with The Ulster Canada Initiative. Because of the interest of divers in recent years the wreck of HMS Laurentic is now an Irish historic site.

The Bibliography shows where Joseph Williams has gathered a considerable amount of his information with pages of Notes indicating just where information described within the chapters was gathered from.

It is an interesting and informative read, enjoyable in content and a description of one aspect of the Great War which is not normally covered in this way.

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