Untitled Document

BBC 'Gold From The Deep' Documentary

This is the BBC documentary made about the recovery of the Gold on Edinburgh in August 1981.


As I understand it this documentary was shown on BBC1 Christmas Day 1981.


The Salvage of The Century: By John Gau - The Listener 06 May 1982

'The ship sank in minutes . . . she went stern first on to her port side and sank very quickly, until just the A turrets were visible. She paused then and just disappeared under the sea and was gone.' The last moments of the HMS Edinburgh, remembered by one of her crew. It was 2 May 1942, at the height of the battle of the Arctic convoys. The British cruiser was on her way home from Murmansk. She was carrying a rather unusual cargo in her bomb room-five and a half tons of gold bullion, payment by the Russians for American armaments. Two days out of port, she was crippled by German torpedoes, and finally, on the order of her admiral, Stuart Bonham-Carter, sunk by a torpedo from a British destroyer. She took with her the bodies of 60 men and 465 Russian gold bars.

For nearly 40 years she lay undisturbed, 800 feet down at the bottom of the Barents Sea, beneath the Icy waters of the Arctic Circle. After the war she was declared a war grave. This and her depth effectively ruled out the traditional methods of salvaging her cargo. No diver could get down to work on the wreck, and no one would be allowed to blast her open with explosives and grab what he could. So for years HMS Edinburgh remained a sort of salvors' Holy Grail-a treasure infinitely desirable but always beyond reach.

Enter now a rather unlikely Sir Galahad from Keighley. Keith Jessop felt sure the cargo could be salvaged. A diver himself once, who had knocked about a bit doing some small-time salvage, Jessop had been doing a lot of research. He had discovered in the Public Record Office the receipt for the gold bars that confirmed that they had been loaded aboard the cruiser. He also found the secret reports from the Edinburgh's admiral and captain informing the Admiralty that the gold was still in the bomb room when the ship sank. So he had official confirmation that this was not another old sea-dog's yarn about buried treasure. More than that, he was convinced he knew how the gold could be recovered from that depth without desecrating a war grave.

The answer lay in a technique called saturation diving, developed in the North Sea and elsewhere for the oil exploration business. To understand how it works, you need to know a little about the basics of diving. The deeper you dive, the greater the pressure on your body. If you were not protected in some way, there would come a point when your lungs would collapse. You need, therefore, to equalise the pressure inside your body with that outside. You do this by breathing in the appropriate mixture of gas-how much depends on how deep you are going. At 800 feet the pressure is 23 times greater than the atmosphere at sea-level, so you would need a mixture 23 times denser than air. The mixture is made up of helium and oxygen and saturates the body-hence the name saturation diving. It allows the body to be in equilibrium with its environment. So the diver can move around freely in the water, work effectively at great depths and carry out hard and complicated jobs. When you add a pressurised chamber, the diver can live and work for weeks at the same pressurise without the laborious business of being decompressed after every trip to the bed.

This technique opened up all sorts of commercial possibilities. It was Jessop's brainwave to realise that such a technique (….) brought HMS Edinburgh and her bomb room within reach.

But the problem about saturation diving is its expense. It needs sophisticated' pressure chambers, a pressurised bell and all the apparatus of a modern diving system.

It needs vast quantities of gas. It needs a suitable ship. A good one can cost £10,000 a day on the North Sea. Jessop had scarcely a pound to his name. He needed a consortium to supply the money, the equipment and the expertise. How he found one is anther story, but eventually the Aberdeen shipping firm of Wharton-Williams, the German shipping company OSA and the marine surveyors Racal-Decca Surveys agreed to finance the gamble. It was a gamble. No one knew exactly where the wreck was. If they would find it, there was no guarantee it would be in one piece. Even if it were, would the bomb room still be intact? Or had the torpedoes scattered the gold bars across the ocean floor? The operation to find out would cost around £2 million, maybe even more. They were all in on the traditional salvage terms-no cure, no pay. But if the risks were high, the potential rewards were spectacular. The gold was worth £45 million in current prices. Under the salvage contract, the Russian and British governments, who had originally insured the cargo, would (get) 55 per cent. But that still left over £20 million to be divided among the partners, according to the risk taken by each. If the salvage was completely successful, for instance Jessop stood to gain nearly £2 million.

But first they had to find the wreck. A (….)m from Racal-Decea led by Kip Punch (….) down to some painstaking detective work. The Edinburgh had covered an area nearly 1,500 square miles on her last voyage. A lot of ships, British and German, had recorded her changing position during those confused days of action. Their reports were in the archives. So the team spent a long time analysing each of them and their probable accuracy. A tired U-boat captain, after a long period in action, was (…ely) to be less reliable than a fresh officer use ship had just left port. In the end Punch plumped for the British minesweeper HMS Harrier. She had had a short and comparatively straightforward voyage. She left Murmansk looking for the crippled cruiser, found her, took off her crew and was back in port within two days. The team decided to use her reports as the starting point for their search.

They set off from northern Norway In early May 1981. By now, the success of the operation was out of Jessop's hands. It depended on the skills and experience of the other partners in the consortium. No one was under any illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead. As James Ringrose, the director of operations put it: ' It's like searching London for someone in thick fog with only a torch to see with.' Undaunted, however, when they reached the search area in the Barents Sea they lowered the sonar equipment overboard, to scan the seabed for likely large objects. Incredibly, on their first sweep, something large was traced out on the sonar chart. Experience suggested it was a wreck. But was it the Edinburgh? Other ships had sunk in these waters.

So Scorpio, a remote-control vehicle with a black-and-white video camera, is sent down to send back pictures. The team in the control shack scan the blurred images, looking for identifiable features. For two hours all they can see is twisted wreckage. It is impossible to tell. Then suddenly one of them spots a stanchion that looks familiar. The RCV begins to track down the hull. Gradually more and more landmarks begin to appear-the torpedo launcher, the Admiralty whaler and, finally, the unmistakable six-inch guns. They have found the Edinburgh. Their luck continues. Scorpio is sent down to view the torpedo hole. The torpedo missed the bomb room by a few feet. So the gold is likely to be intact.

In many ways, the finding of the wreck was the most dramatic moment of the whole mission. With the black-and-white video pictures, a dream had turned into reality. The problem was now no longer If, but how. What started as a gamble had become a hard commercial risk. The recovery of the gold was still going to be immensely difficult; indeed, the deepest salvage of its kind ever attempted. But journey's end was now in sight.

The salvage mission set off some three months later from Peterhead. The planning, the preparations, had been long and thorough. An immensely sophisticated diving ship, the Stephaniturm, had been chosen for the job. It had a device to keep it stationary, fixed in the same position above the wreck in almost all weathers. Special diving helmets had been invented to recycle the gas. But the success of the expedition now rested on the divers. These were among the best in their business. They had flown in from all over the world, to join, as one of them said, 'the dive of them all'. With their jewellery and expensive cameras, their self-deprecating humour and their reticence in public about the dangers, they are very like first-division footballers. But diving at that depth is dangerous. The cold is intense, so their diving suits have to be heated with hot water. If this fails, they can survive about eight minutes before becoming unconscious. Indeed, hypothermia is the divers' greatest enemy. Hot water and gas come down the long, thick umbilical cords, their lifeline. They depend completely for their life support on other people. If their gas supply fails, they have an emergency bottle on their back which gives them four minutes to get back to the bell. That's eight breaths.

Hardest to understand for those who have never felt it is the awe all divers seem to feel in the presence of a wreck. It is a forbidding thing in shallow waters. But these men will have to work inside one 800 feet down, at the edge of the unknown, in poor visibility. They will earn their money, whatever it is of course, If they find nothing, they will receive nothing. It is the same for them as for everyone else no cure, no pay. But then, these men are risking more than money.

In the event, it was not the dangers but the sheer hard work required that took everyone by sunrise. No one had expected the mountain of debris and wreckage that the divers found when they cut through the hull. It all had to be lifted out to clear a way to the bomb room. Even when they cut their way into the bomb room, they were confronted by yet more rubbish and wrecked machinery. Only now it was mixed with bombs, shells and other ammunition. Piece by piece it was removed, as diver after diver went down into the wreck to do his four-hour shift.

Finally, on 16 September at 10.48pm, 19 days after the expedition sailed, through the loudspeaker in the control room comes the shout, distorted by helium, but unmistakable, ' I've found the gold, I've found the gold! '. John Bossier from Zimbabwe, rooting about in the debris of the bomb room, has picked up the first bar of gold. From then on it never seems to stop. Gleaming cages are hauled day and night out of the water on to deck; their bars scrubbed and packed away in the strong room. One of the divers, Douggie Matthieson from Ullanool, manages to find £4 million in gold bars in one shift. By the time the team call it a day because of the deteriorating weather, they have brought up 431 bars, worth around £40 million.

But gold is not the only thing that has come up from the deep-there have been some human remains, too. A sober reminder in the hour of triumph of an earlier tragedy. The torpedo explosion must have blown them into the bomb room. Who they were it is impossible to say. They must have died in the dark when the ship's lights went out. And it was in the dark that the divers failed to realise what they were handling when they packed up their cage to send its cargo to the surface. Douggie Matthieson remarked: 'We were moaning how we were suffering doing the job. But It wasn't half the suffering compared to what those men went through when the ship sank.' But if the divers and the dying did not share the same suffering they shared a lot else-the darkness, the claustrophobia of those compartments inside the hull, and, above all, the courage to be there.

John Gau was the producer of 'Gold from the Deep' on BBC2.