Fairview Historical Society Articles Archives
Submitted by Devonna Edwards
Halifax’s Involvement in One of the World Best Kept Secrets.
During World War 11 Britain sent all its gold to Canada for safekeeping. A top secret mission began called “Operation Fish” with large amounts of gold shipped to Halifax before being transferred by train to Montreal and Ottawa.
In 1939 England’s government under the threat of war began preparing for the worst, they had to get their mass amount of gold out of the country to keep it out of Hitler’s hands if the forthcoming war went badly. They also would need money to purchase ships, planes, tanks and munitions from the United States to fight the enemy.
The first shipment of L 30 million of gold bullion was secretly sent with King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth when they visited Canada in the spring of 1939. Three warships escorted the Royals on their journey to Canada, each ship carrying L 10 million, but halfway across the Atlantic the King decided that the battle ship “HMS Repulse” was urgently needed back in Britain, so the L 10 million aboard the “HMS Repulse” was divided up and carried aboard the other two ships, then they continued on their voyage. The mission was so top secret that no record of the arrival of gold in Halifax was kept.
When the gold cargo arrived in Halifax, the boxes were unloaded in a quiet pier (Pier 6, a nondescript cargo pier at the foot of Ross Street), where 100 armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers waited to transfer the gold to trains. The whole area was fenced off and not a soul other than the police was around. On board the ships the boxes of gold reached the upper deck, each was individually checked before being put aboard trolleys and trundled ashore. Before the crates were loaded into the wagons, they were again checked by a senior official of the Bank of Canada before being loaded onto the trains. Five special trains with the floor of each coach built to handle the weight of 150 to 200 boxes, waited to transfer the cargo to Ottawa. After the trains were loaded each coach had two guards locked inside with around 50 other guards in the convoy. Served by their own dining car and two sleeping compartments, they began their journey. The cost of transport charged by Canadian National Express was reportedly over a million dollars. When war broke out in September of 1939, shipments of gold sent across the ocean became more frequent.
A plan was devised to ship England’s entire gold reserve and securities to Canada under the top secret project called “Operation Fish” in which they referred to the gold as “shipments of fish”.
They hoped that this mission would go better than it did during World War 1, when Britain tried to evacuate their wealth to Canada, but their ship HMS Laurentic, carrying 43 tons of gold from Liverpool to Halifax, was sunk in 1917 after striking two German mines off Ireland. More about the HMS Laurentic at the end. In early 1940 the British Government used its Emergency Powers Act to force civilians to register their paper securities; later they were taken by the government and sent to Canada to be used in Britain’s war effort.
In 1940 when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain, he privately began making arrangements to evacuate the remainder of the country’s gold and the foreign securities holding of private individuals and business. Warships and merchant ships were loaded down with crates and bags of bars and coins, often to the point of causing structural damage. The HMS Revenge sailed into Halifax Harbour in June 1940 carrying L 40 million, the SS Antonia and SS Duchess of Liverpool followed with L 10 million each and shortly after, the HMS Furious sailed in carrying L 20 million. Other ships involved in the gold transfer were the HMS Emerald, HMS Enterprise, HMS Bonaventure, HMS Southampton, and HMS Glasgow, also three converted former passenger liners, the Monarch of Bermuda, the SS Sobieski, and the SS Batory.
British’s War Cabinet did not inform the War Risk Insurance office of the gold shipments giving the reasoning that if one of the ships sank, the loss could never be compensated anyway. It was the largest transfer of wealth in history and incredibly, every single gold shipment sent as part of “Operation Fish” arrived safely across the U-Boat plaque North Atlantic. In the month of May 1940 there were 100 ships sunk by the Nazis but lucky for the British, none carried the gold.
In June 1940, the first of Churchill’s convoy of ships arrived in Halifax, the crates of fish (gold) were checked and re-checked before being unloaded and put into a dozen train cars, escorted by 300 armed guards. The trains travelled first to Montreal, where the paper securities and cash were unloaded and put into trucks, which travelled through cordoned-off streets to the east entrance of the Sun Life Building. There under the watch of armed guards, crates were carried to the Buttress Room (a temporary repository) before being taken to an underground vault three stories below ground level. The vault was constructed quickly, finding steel proved a problem, but that was soon resolved when rails from an abandoned railway were pulled up and used. A huge vault door was borrowed from the Royal Bank of Canada and set into steel-ribbed concrete walls three feet thick. Two powerful compressors were set up at street level, to blow 360,000 kilograms of sand, cement, stone and water into the building’s basement, all needed to reinforce the vault. In the vault there were 900 four drawer filling cabinets, all filled to overflowing with securities. All this was protected by an alarm system so delicate, that it would record the sliding of a drawer and RCMP officers kept a 24 hour guard. Increased activity around the Sun Life building didn’t go unnoticed by the public, so a rumour was started that the British Crown Jewels were being held there for security. At that time there were 5,000 employees of Sun Life and not one suspected what was being stored beneath them.
In Montreal at the Bonaventure Train Station, Alexander Craig from the Bank of England met David Mansur from the Bank of Canada and loudly said “Hope you don’t mind our dropping in unexpectedly like this, but, we’ve brought along quite a shipment of ‘fish’.
The heavy loaded trains then sped off to Ottawa’s Union Station, arriving after dark the trains were emptied of their precious cargo, guards taking it to the newly built Bank of Canada building on Wellington Street. There men worked in twelve hour shifts carrying crated and bags down to the bank’s 60 X 100 foot vault. So much gold was coming in at one time that the men were putting it everywhere, in hallways, in the incinerator room, piling it up before the accountants could come and add it all up to make sure that every gold bar was accounted for.
By the end of “Operation Fish” over 1,500 tonnes of gold bullions and coin were put in the bank’s vault until the war ended. To keep records of the gold, 120 retired Canadian bankers, brokers and secretaries were hired. In total more than 600 people were involved in the operation and not one bit of information was leaked to the public; now that tells a lot about the integrity of Canadian citizens. Eh!
The SS Laurentic was built in 1908 in Belfast and was one of the White Star-Dominion’s most popular ship; she was in service from Liverpool to Montreal and Quebec before the war. Then in 1914 the vessel was used as a troop transporter, prior to becoming an armed merchant cruiser. The Laurence was sunk off the mouth of Lough Swilly, Co Donegal after striking German mines on Jan.25, 1917. The ship was carrying 3,211 gold ingots, each weighing 40 lb worth a total of L 5 million (net worth in 1917) aboard, intended to pay for war supplies. Under the command of Captain Norton, the Ship left Liverpool, United Kingdom bound for Halifax, Canada to deliver the gold cargo. The vessel was not camouflaged in any way, her sides and upper works were painted a brilliant white. At 5:55 pm, three miles outside the mouth of Lough Swilly off Malin Head, the Laurentic suddenly hit a German mine striking her forward end of the port side, followed by hitting a second mine, striking the area of her engine room on the port side. With the vessel sinking the survivors started to evacuate the ship in the lifeboats; as the power was out there was no light aboard the ship. The Laurentic sank within an hour and the Captain was the last person to leave the ship.
The lifeboats were not safe, because it was a terrible freezing cold night. There were 475 officers and ratings (skilled seafarers) onboard the Laurentic and only 121 persons survived the tragedy, with 354 losing their lives.
All the dead are commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial in Devon, England.
Most of the gold aboard the ship was recovered by the Royal Navy between 1917 and 1924, during over 5,000 dives to the wreck. The last gold to be found at the wreck site was in the 1930s by a salvage company. Despite some unsuccessful efforts since to recover more, it is believed that
22 gold bars are still hidden somewhere at the Laurentic’s wreck site today.