During World War I, England was desperate to buy supplies from the United States, and money ran low. The Laurentic was loaded with a secret consignment: small plain 12x12x6 wooden boxes weighing 140 pounds each. These boxes were stowed in a second-class passenger baggage room with tight security.
|The White Star's Laurentic was a miniature Titanic, one third in size. Because of its speed,|
it was refitted as an armed merchant cruiser during World War I.
The Laurentic left Liverpool on January 23, 1914. Rounding the northern coast of Ireland, it struck a pair of mines laid by a German submarine. The ship sank within an hour in bitter cold. Of the 479 souls on board, only 121 survived. Many others had gotten into lifeboats but froze to death. Also lost was the secret cargo: 3,211 gold ingots, worth more than £5,000,000.
|An artist's impression of the sunken Laurentic.|
Britain had to get that gold back. Naval Commander Guybon Damant, an experienced salvage diver, was given the job. His task was dangerous with the possibility of encounters with submarines and mines, the harsh northern weather, and a depth of 40 meters (43.7 yards).
Damant’s success didn’t come easily. Strong currents and storms quickly destroyed the ship. From season to season, the divers had to clear out their work areas that had been filled in with silt and debris. The gold compartment had been quickly located during the first season, but when the team returned after a storm, the upper decks had caved in. When the baggage room was finally reached, they found holes in the floor. The heavy gold had fallen through to the bottom of the ship. Most of the wooden boxes had disintegrated and the ingots were loose.
|Luxurious with ornate, high-ceilinged public rooms, the Laurentic was popular on |
White Star's Liverpool to Montreal or Quebec City route.
Success came slowly. 542 bars were salvaged in 1917; 31 in 1919; only 7 in 1920, 43 in 1921; 895 in 1922; 1,255 in 1923, a banner year; 129 in 1924.
In seven salvage seasons over eight years (none in 1918), Damant’s team recovered 3,186 bars of the original 3,211. The total cost of the operation was £128,000, or 2.5% of the £5 million. The government was thrilled. No deaths or serious injuries resulted despite the limits of diving technology and the highly hazardous conditions.
|Divers prepare to search for the Laurentic's lost gold.|
In the intervening years, others searched for the missing gold, and found five bars. Twenty bars remain unaccounted for. Anyone interested in taking up diving?