In 1942, the torpedoed HMS Edinburgh sank off Norway. She was transporting 5 tonnes of gold ingots – now worth more than £40 million – as payment from Russia for Western military supplies. Next week The Sunday Times sets sail with an officially appointed salvage team to report, exclusively, on a bid to raise the gold. The salvage mission of the century begins on p4.
May 2, 1942: early morning. The cruiser HMS Edinburgh lies in her death throes in the icy Barents Sea north of Murmansk after a running battle with a U-boat and German destroyers (above). Of her crew of 850 all but 60, lying dead aboard are saved; and minutes later a torpedo from a destroyer in Edinburgh’s convoy, QP11, delivers the coup de grace. Down with her dead she takes a secret cargo – five tonnes of Russian gold, Stalin’s payment for American weapons. Now after nearly 40 years entombed in 800ft of water, Edinburgh (an official war grave) is to be disturbed. This week, using the very latest underwater technology, a British attempt will be made to salvage her gold, now worth about £40 million. Report by Barrie Penrose overleaf
THE SHIP THAT SANK WITH STALIN’S GOLD
HOW THE GOLD WAS LOST
On Saturday April 25th 1942, Captain Hugh Faulkner RN, commanding the cruiser HMS Edinburgh lying at Murmansk, signalled an official receipt for 93 smallish, rough wooden cases delivered to him by the Soviet government. What was in the cases only he, his officers and a few Soviet officials knew: five tonnes of gold bars, each stamped with the late Czar’s double headed eagle. They were Stalin’s payment for American weapons and supplies sent to Russia early in the war – supplies carried by Allied convoys, at terrible cost, above the Arctic Circle to Murmansk. In the spring of 1942Edinburgh was leading just such a convoy, QP11, on its return voyage to Britain.
The gold the Edinburgh carried – four 28lb bars packed in sawdust to each case – was carefully disguised by its Russian packers. Secrecy essential, not only because of the ordinary risks of transporting valuables but because Hitler’s armies were at that time deep inside European Russia, with Murmansk within their military reach.
Nevertheless, hints were picked up by Edinburgh’s crew that they were carrying something unusual. One of them, Reg Levick from Sheffield, recalls: “I was in charge of a working party detailed to stow the cases in the bomb room amidships. We had a crane for getting our Walrus aircraft back on deck, and we used that to lift them aboard. We had no idea what they contained until the supervising officer, Commander Jeffries, told me: ‘If any of those fall in the water you’ll go down to get them.’ I was one of the ships divers. From that moment we were aware of carrying something valuable.”
Speculation turned to certainty when one case slipped from its sling. “It crashed down, just missed me, and there in front of me and the others were four gold bars,” remembered ex Royal Marine Bill Miles, now a technical inspector at Ipswich. “There was a hell of a panic. This young lieutenant realised we’d seen it was gold and came down the ladder in one. He tried to grab it away but it was heavier than he thought.” The gold bars were quickly repacked and sealed into the case.
News that £2 million worth of bullion was being kept in the compartment normally reserved for the aircraft ammunition spread quickly through the 10,000 ton cruiser. But the crew had other things to hold their attention. Chief Petty Officer Reg Levick (as he was then), who had helped lift the gold, had a strong premonition about the coming voyage. “I told Commander Jefferies it was going to be a bad trip,” he says. “There was one really bad omen: water streamed in red rivulets of the decks from the Russian cases. It was only stain from the crimson stencilling on each case, but we were suspicious and apprehensive. I thought to myself: ‘Russian gold, dripping with blood.’”
Such premonitions had a way of fulfilling themselves on the Murmansk convoys, the most dangerous and hellish uncomfortable of all the Royal Navy’s epic operations in the Second World War. At first Edinburgh and the convoys which she and her destroyers escorted to Russia had battled only against temperatures of 20 to 30 F below zero and the furious storms that were natural hazards of Arctic waters, even in spring. But when Hitler recognised the importance of the convoys to Russian defence he attacked them relentlessly with torpedo aircraft, U-boats and warships. Later in the same year that Edinburgh left Murmansk at the head of the 13-ship convoy QP11, another convoy, PQ17, lost 23 of its 34-ship strength.
QP11 sailed from Murmansk on April 28. Two days later and 250 miles out, Edinburgh had gone some 15 miles ahead of her convoy, zigzagging northwards at speed. The convoy commander, Rear-Admiral Bonham-Carter, was aiming to get as close to the solid moving mass of the ice-pack as possible and therefore avoid detection by the Germans. But, if his ships were spotted, he wanted to be at the farthest limits of the Germans’ range from their sea and air bases in Norway. Bonham-Carter was also depending on the wariness of the U-boats among the ice floes along whose southern edge the convoy was to steam.
Edinburgh, a sister ship to HMS Belfast now moored in the Thames, was launched in 1938. At the outbreak of war she left Scotland for escort duties and later helped chase the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst. She also took part in the operations which led to the sinking of the German battleship Bismark in May, 1941. Her last battle honours were ‘Arctic, 1941-42’, earned on the convoy duties to Murmansk: her last because within a week she was to carry Stalin’s gold to the bottom of the freezing Barents Sea.
On Thursday April 30 Edinburgh was detected by Kapitänleutnant Max Teichert in the submarine U456. This German officer noted in his log at 11.20: “Cruiser in sight ... definitely Belfast class ... at high speed, zigzagging sharply.”
Teichert estimated his range at 1,000 metres and the Edinburgh’s speed at 15 knots. At 4.18 pm U456 fired a salvo of three torpedoes from “tubes I, II and IV ... point of aim forward funnel”. On Edinburgh Cyril Moore, now a Penzance tax Inspector, then a 19 year old able seaman on his first ship, has good reason to remember that precise moment. “Normally when off duty I slept in the ship’s telephone exchange because it was one of the warmest spots. That day I couldn’t sleep there. Then I remember a voice saying torpedoes were approaching, in the same calm voice that a station announcer uses to report the arrival of a train. When the leading torpedo struck, the first part of the ship to be cut off was the telephone exchange.”
Alan Higgins, from Bridgend in Mid-Glamorgan, had joined Edinburgh as a boy telegraphist in April 1941. He was perpetually seasick and needed a place to lie down while the watch settled down for tea, bread and butter and jam. “I remember vividly to this day a voice from a telegraphist named Brown complaining that I was poaching his billet when there was a terrific explosion and blinding flash, darkness, then cries from the injured and dying in the next compartment, just one steel plate away.”
Kapitänleutnant Teichert in U456 logged his hit simply: “Two explosions in quick succession, running time 80 seconds = 1200 metres. Boat dips.” The Edinburgh crew recalled the events more dramatically.
”The whole ship buckled, like a bronco, throwing me up in the air. No sooner had I come down again than there was another explosion,” says Lawrence Newman, then a Chief Petty Officer, “The first torpedo hit the ship on the starboard side, amidships; the second hit the stern and effectively crippled us.”
Although her stern had been blown off and her steering gear wrecked, Edinburgh was still able to steam at slow speed back towards Murmansk. In a letter written at the time to his wife, Rear-Admiral Bonham Carter wrote: “We managed to get 60 miles in about 36 hours and then got attacked by German destroyers. The old ship could only steer round and round in a circle at 7 knots.” Below decks some hands saw the Edinburgh’s damage more dramatically. Alan Higgins, the boy telegraphist, says “I could see that the quarter deck had curled up like a sardine tin enveloping the two 6in gun turrets so completely that the two sets of triple guns were actually protruding through the quarterdeck itself, making them completely useless.”
Meanwhile U456 continued to shadow the Edinburgh. Soon reinforcements from the Strauchritter pack at Narvik joined U456. “On the morning of Saturday, May 2, three German destroyers came out of the mist,” remembers Lieutenant Commander Bob Howe, who now lives in Plymouth.”I rushed towards the two forward turrets – A and B – which were in good working.....
STALIN’S GOLD continued
.... out in Russian uniforms while they awaited repatriation. In time some of them joined other Royal Navy ships which put in at Murmansk. Others made the long train journey from Murmansk to Archangel and waited for a ship to take them home. For Captain, later Rear-Admiral Faulkner, there was the task of writing to the next of kin with condolences and offers of help, correspondence which has largely survived. In London the War Office designated the wreck of the Edinburgh an official War Grave, effectively denying access to it. The United States Treasury collected the insurance on the sunken gold bullion and, for the time being, Stalin’s treasure was forgotten: 800ft down in the Barents Sea, it was thought to be beyond the reach of salvors.
But advances in deep sea diving after 1957 led the British government to lift its ban on Edinburgh salvage operations in spite of the opposition if survivors and next of kin of those who died. Several costly and unsuccessful searches for the cruiser were made by British, Norwegian and Russian companies. Now the wreck has been located; and an attempt to salvage the gold begins this week.
HOW THE GOLD WILL BE LIFTED
To the Edinburgh Survivors Association this seems like grave robbery, “sheer desecration”. But James Ringrose, himself a former Royal Navy officer who served under Lieutenant HRH the Prince of Wales in HMS Bronington, now operations director of Jessop Marine Recoveries Limited and the man who pinpointed precisely where the Edinburgh rested, claims there will no longer be bodies or human remains on the wreck. “In our experience with other ship wrecks, bones decalcify”.
Jessop marine is anyway contractually obliged “to cause as little disturbance as possible”. The gold will come out bar by bar rather than by “blast and grab”.
With recent advances in diving technology nobody can rule out unauthorised attempts to retrieve the gold; and they, says the Department of Trade, “would be unlikely to have regard to the War Grave’s sanctity”.
The official dive will be well scrutinised: Jessop Marine will make photographs and video film of the whole operation and British and Russian observers will be aboard the salvage ship Stephaniturm.
Ringrose spent more than two years locating the Edinburgh wreck. Both British and German records incorrectly identify her position. “We had to make sure that we hadn’t found the German destroyer Hermann Schoemann, about four miles from the Edinburgh, or HMS Trinidad, which also went down in the area. Eventually we could prove we’d found Edinburgh.” A video film, taken by a remote robot camera, shows her lying on her side. Among other identifying features there is a clinching one: the 32ft cutter which only Edinburgh carried.
“The Edinburgh looks well on film and in one piece,” says James Ringrose. “Our divers may be able to get into her through the torpedo hole which we’ve seen right next to the bomb room. Or we might cut our own tunnel, by entering the hull where the bomb room is, just below the armour plating. If the gold has shifted, possibly with the impact of the ship hitting the sea bed, then our divers will just have to find it.”
Getting the divers to work at such a depth in the inhospitable Barents Sea will be a remarkable achievement and a world record for such methods – if they succeed. But deep sea gadgetry is becoming as sophisticated as the space technology which has put men on the moon and into space. In a market stimulated by the North Sea oil industry, divers are able to work at increasingly greater – and increasingly risky – depths.
The divers who will land on the Edinburgh from Stephaniturm’s diving bell will rely on two Aberdeen based specialists, Ric Wharton and Malcolm Williams, to get there life support systems and their computerised sums right. The depth they will be working at can be classed as ‘extreme’: “The world record for diving is now over 2,000 ft,” says James Ringrose. “But that was in a dry chamber, not working in one of the most difficult areas with often very poor weather.”
The divers will depend on only one surface support ship, a long way from emergency aid. The 1400 ton Stephaniturm, 224ft long, was built three years ago and comprehensively equipped for the recovery of her divers as well as the gold. Built around a decompression chamber and a diving bell,
She also has an emergency second chamber which can be launched into the sea and operated from a lifeboat. Her main chamber, cigar shaped and the size of an average living room, has a complete life support system including medical, communications and entertainment facilities. In this, the eight divers on board will already begun the ‘pressed down’ – gradually put under working pressures to match the depth – when Stephaniturm leaves Aberdeen. “They must be ready to begin diving the moment we reach the Edinburgh,” explains James Ringrose.
Once over the position of the wreck, the ship will locate it exactly by sonar, satellite navigation and ‘pingers’ which were placed on the cruiser when she was found last April. Stephaniturm’s computers will then ‘fix’ her position above the wreck, ensuring that the diving bell, once positioned near the sea bed, does not move. “Otherwise,” says Rinrose, “a diver could be torn out of the position he was working in.”
The half ton bell, pressurised and with two divers inside it, will be lowered through the Stephaniturm’s ‘moon pool’ – a hole in her bottom – to about 50ft directly over the Edinburgh. From the bell’s ‘parking’ depth one diver will swim down to the wreck, carrying his umbilical wires and hoses like a spaceman and wearing a ‘soft’ suit in which hot water circulates (without it, at those depths in Barents Sea temperatures, he would die in seconds). His companion will remain behind in the bell as the emergency diver. Meanwhile, 800ft above, the men on the Stephaniturm, will monitor and direct, minute by minute, the attempt to recover Stalin’s gold.
If that attempt – cost £2 million – succeeds, Jessop Marine will benefit to the tune of 45 percent of the value of the bullion; the rest will be divided between the British and Soviet governments on a one for London, two for Moscow basis. Stripped of her gold, Edinburgh will return to the unearthly peace of the depths, as befits her status as War Grave and repository of heroic memoires as well as of that secret treasure.
The Sunday Times thanks many survivors of HMS Edinburgh’s complement who provided firsthand information and the Ministry of Defence Naval Historical Branch for assistance.