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Secret gold 20 fathoms deep: The quest for HMS Laurentic’s treasure


When HMS Laurentic hit German mines and sank off the coast of Ireland in 1917 nobody knew the significance of the cargo she was carrying.

The Admiralty wanted to keep it that way. After all, broadcasting that there were now 3,211 ingots of gold at the bottom of the Irish Sea in the middle of a war was not the best strategic move. But Britain desperately needed that gold to pay the US and continue financing their fight. Experienced diver Lieutenant Commander Guybon Damant was ordered to bring the 44 tons of treasure back under utmost secrecy – and before the Germans could catch on.

The clearing of the debris from Laurentic was successful enough that by 14 March divers had burrowed farther down the passage. But here was a new hindrance. A barred iron gate had been installed, which blocked the surest access to the strong room. A guncotton charge on the gate’s hinges eliminated this obstacle. Then, after two more hours of shifting heavy cases, the way to the gold seemed clear.

 There could not have been anything but palpable excitement aboard the Volunteer, even for the normally coolheaded Guy Damant, as Dusty Miller got ready to dive. It was not a sure thing, even with Miller. A hundred things could go wrong – fouled lines, a collapsed passage, or worst of all, a U-boat attack.

It was evening when Miller donned his diving dress and spun down to the Laurentic. He eased himself through the entry port and, thrusting his submersible lamp in front of him, ambled along the tilted decks. It was like spelunking a mine shaft, except that the mine shaft was under 20 fathoms of water, and the spelunker, instead of wearing Wellington boots and a harness, bore nearly 200lb of diving gear.

 The heavy clank of Miller’s diving boots reverberated throughout the dead ship, interspersed by the sound of bubbles wafting from his helmet. He passed through the former location of the barred gate. Then, slipping and shuffling down the pitched deck, Miller’s lamp revealed the steel door of the baggage room.

‘I’ve got to the strong room, sir,’ Miller telephoned, his voice squeaky from the effects of the compressed air he breathed. The door was locked – but this was no surprise. That was why Miller had brought a hammer and chisel.

It is strange work, being submerged in the bowels of a tilted wreck trying to pry open a nearly horizontal door. Miller wedged the chisel into the door’s hinges and swung his hammer repeatedly. After some time, he pried this last barrier loose. Peering into the inky blackness, he set one of his weighted boots forward. The angle of the deck was too steep. He slid downward and landed right at the foot of the second-class baggage room.

Miller managed the slide well enough, but upon inspection he could see that the compartment showed signs of imminent ruin. There was not much headroom, as the tides and currents of the open Atlantic were warping the ship’s bones. The decks above and below had closed together, the stanchions holding them doubled over, and the bulkheads were being torn away.

But Miller had landed upon the prize – a jumble of debris-covered boxes. Each box was made of roughly sawn wood and bore coarse rope brackets for lifting – they were not a model of carpentry. The boxes were 1ft square and 6in deep each, but their size belied their weight. Each was about 140lb. Even displaced by seawater, the boxes had the apparent weight of approximately 131.5lb.

Miller judged the condition of the wreck. It seemed liable to collapse at any time. He needed to work fast and start bringing the gold to the surface. Miller seized one of the boxes and began rigging a sling.

Extracted from The Sunken Gold by Joseph A. Williams

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