TREASURE hunters will shortly set sail to search for £300 billion worth of British gold after identifying 700 war wrecks.
Extensive research over many years has identified the locations of hundreds of the 7,500 merchant ships lost in both world wars.
Gold bullion was shipped to the US and other locations for safekeeping and to pay for munitions and goods. While there is much information on which ships carried silver, the gold shipments were classified secret, meaning data on possible locations were scarce.
The salvage team, with experience of discovering German U-boats and of recovering Kursk, the Russian submarine, will deploy on their expedition in the next few days.
They have amassed 27 terabytes of data on the locations of the wrecks, including inquest documents and eyewitness accounts.
Although there was great loss of life in the merchant fleet, including evacuee children, the targeted vessels are not designated war graves, meaning salvage operations are possible.
Commemorative plaques will be placed at each location. Philip Reid, chief executive of Britannia’s Gold, the salvage company, said: “Such were the level of losses in the early years of both world wars that it became impossible for Lloyd’s to insure [the gold]. The Government had to reinsure it under the War Risk Insurance programme”. “All the original owners have been paid and now the owner is the government under that reinsurance programme.”
The International Convention on Salvage states that the salvor gets back costs and then shares equally the value of any salvaged material with the owner.
The Department for Transport, the custodian of the insurance programme, suggested to Mr Reid the Government would not take more than a 40 per cent share.
However, Mr Reid said the Government’s stance was: “When you’re successful we’ll talk to you”.
Side-scan sonars and remote operated vehicles capable of functioning at 5,000 metres will be used for the sea-bed operations.
Because of the high cost of salvage, the researchers will search for the wrecks in clusters where they are close together and searches can be most economical.
These groups are located predominantly in the western approaches, the Caribbean and off the west coast of Africa. The early targets will be in shallower waters.
“We are concentrating on the more accessible wrecks,” said Mr Reid, “where the research is first class, validated from every aspect and the salvage risks are not overwhelming. Two to three weeks after reaching the first site we will know if the salvage is successful. When you have your cocoa tonight, say a little prayer for us.”