Niagara’s Gold – The Epic Unknown World War 2 Story

The True World War II Story of 8 Tons of Gold Sunk in a German Minefield

PART I: The Darkest Hour

May and June 1940 were darks days in the history of the world. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had swept across Europe. The swastika was flying from the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the British Army was forced to a beach at Dunkirk, waiting to be strafed by the Luftwaffe, then slaughtered by the German Army. Winston Churchill was hurriedly appointed the Prime Minister of Great Britain and rallied the British people to defiantly stand up to Hitler. With the British Army successfully evacuated from France in the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’, Churchill called on the British people to defend their island home in his famous ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ speech.

Britain was hopelessly unprepared for war, but it had two great strengths. Firstly, it was an island nation. Hitler could drive his tanks across Europe, but he could not drive them across water. Britain’s other strength was the countries of the Commonwealth, such as Canada, India, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and others. Countries spread around the globe that could send food, aid and manpower to help fight Germany.

But unknown to Churchill, Germany was already attempting to sever the British lifeline that extended around the world. The German Navy secretly sent ships, disguised as innocent merchant vessels, around the world to mine the harbours of Commonwealth countries in an attempt to disrupt the supply lines to the British Isles.

The first, and one of the most successful of these German raiders was the Orion. The Orion had left Germany on 6 April 1940, a month before Hitler had marched his army into France. The Orion was under the command of a career navy officer, Kurt Weyher, and carried a well-trained navy crew, disguised as civilian merchant sailors. It also carried 230 mines, and Weyher had orders to lay the mines at the entrance to Auckland Harbour, New Zealand. British ships, sailing between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, stopped at Auckland Harbour on their voyage across the vast Pacific Ocean.

After leaving Germany, Weyher managed to sail the Orion, undetected, to the South Atlantic, then round Cape Horn and sail across the Pacific Ocean to reach New Zealand by 13 June 1940. Waiting under the cover of darkness in the Hauraki Gulf outside Auckland Harbour, Weyher was surprised to see the City of Auckland was so lit up. On the ship’s radio he listened to the Auckland radio stations playing music, then eavesdropped on the navy as it broadcast messages to patrol boats in the area. Europe may have been suffering under the dark cloud of war, but to British Commonwealth countries in the Southern Hemisphere, that war was a long way away. That was about to change.

RMS Niagara
The RMS Niagara

On the night of 13/14 June, the Orion secretly lay 228 mines at the entrance to Auckland Harbour. Then Weyher steered his ship away. (It would later complete a successful circumnavigation of the world, before returning triumphantly to Germany.) For the next four days, ships sailed in and out of Auckland Harbour without a single vessel being unlucky enough to hit one of the German mines floating just below the surface. Then, on the evening of 18 June, the RMS Niagara, en route from Australia to Vancouver, Canada, slipped through the minefield and anchored in Auckland Harbour. Later that night, it cast off and proceeded on its way to Canada.

The German Y-type mine, of which the Orion had left 228 at the entrance to the harbour, was designed to float just beneath the surface, held by a wire to a heavy weight on the sea floor. The large round mine had soft metal horns. Inside the horns were thin glass tubes of sulphuric acid. When something struck a horn with sufficient force to bend it, the glass tube would break, the sulphuric acid would run down to surround a carbon plate and a zinc plate and form a battery producing low voltage current. The current would pass through a thin platinum wire in fulminate of mercury and detonate the high explosive, amatol.

At 2.00 a.m. on the morning of 19 June 1940, the RMS Niagara, which had just left Auckland, hit one of the German mines. Passengers on board, many who had just gone to bed, were woken by the explosion. Able-seaman Ray Nelson (when I interviewed him many years later) recalled tumbling out of his bunk by the force of the explosion. He ran up on deck and saw an area of the wooden deck was splintered and the ship was listing to the starboard side. The Niagara’s captain, ordered everyone to abandon ship and the life boats were lowered on the port side. In a calm and well-ordered manner all the passengers and crew were bundled into the life boats, and pushed off to watch the Niagara slip underwater around 4.00 a.m. Then they huddled in the lifeboats before being rescued by the Royal New Zealand Navy.

The RMS Niagara was a large passenger vessel known as the ‘Queen of the Pacific’. It had sailed between Australia and Canada for almost three decades. Now, in the blink of an eye, it lay in deep water at the bottom of the Hauraki Gulf—an area notorious for storms and rough seas.

What was not known to the public was the fact that locked inside the Niagara’s strong room were 590 bars of gold. Each bar weighed 400 ounces (11.3 kg). There was more than eight tons of gold, locked deep inside the bowels of a massive steel ocean liner. The gold had been mined in South Africa. It belonged to Great Britain and, in Britain’s ‘darkest hour’ was being secretly sent to America, via Canada, to purchase arms and munitions for the desperate fight against Germany.

The greatest gold salvage in history was about to begin.

Immediately after the sinking cables were hurriedly exchanged between the British Government, and both the Australian and New Zealand navies, urgently requesting information about how the gold could be salvaged. Both navies responded saying that it was impossible. The waters of the Hauraki Gulf were up to 600 feet (180 metres) deep. That was way beyond the operating depths of the deep sea diver with his copper helmet and lead boots. There was simply no known method of diving that deep, let alone getting inside a strong room designed to keep people out, even on dry land. But, to their credit, both navies sought the advice of civilian salvors. In Melbourne, Australia, the Royal Australian Navy found a man willing to give it a try.

Captain John Williams had been born in Hull, England, in 1896. He had gone to sea at the age of 14, sailed on the last of the old tall ships then, after World War I, married and settled in Melbourne. Williams had started a stevedoring business on the Melbourne docks. At the outbreak of World War II, he had enlisted in the Navy Reserve, hoping his experience in ships would soon have him back at sea and fighting the Germans. But the 43 year-old Williams was given desk jobs. When he complained he could be of more use, he was put in charge of collecting World War I cannon from public parks, where they had sat as monuments, and making them operable again. He complained again, requesting a mission that could be more useful to the war effort. In fact, he made such a nuisance of himself that he was eventually ushered into the office of a senior navy officer, sworn to secrecy, and told of the sinking of the RMS Niagara. Williams, if he wanted, could assemble a team, and attempt to recover the gold.

The British Government, and Royal Navy, were so sceptical of success, that Williams was told he could not take officers or men from the navy. He would need to find men not currently being used in the war. Nor could he have a ship. They were also needed for the war. And his budget would be minimal. The wages of the men would be paid, plus any expenses, as long as he had them approved first. And on the remote possibility that he did recover any gold, it was to be returned to the government. There would be no salvage rights.

Williams accepted the terms.

Johnno Johnstone Diving Chamber
Johnno Johnstone and the Diving Chamber

His first task was to figure out how to get to a ship, deep underwater. For that he turned to the top salvage diver working in Australia at the time. His name was John ‘Johnno’ Johnstone. Johnstone had been born in England in 1894, and had also migrated to Australia after the World War I. Johnstone was a master of the heavy standard diving dress with its copper helmet, lead weights and airline to the surface. The two men met and discussed how to salvage the Niagara.

Johnstone recalled hearing about Italians salvaging gold from 400 feet in the in 1930s. They had used a diving chamber, where a man was sealed inside and lowered on a cable. Inside the chamber the man used a rebreather to scrub his exhaled air of carbon dioxide, while continually trickling pure oxygen into the chamber. In that manner, it was reported, the man could stay in the chamber for hours. The chamber had small portholes, so the man could inspect the sunken ship, and a telephone line to the surface so the crew above could place explosives in position, or guide hooks and grabs down to remotely tear metal from the ship, or lift things to the surface.

Johnstone and Williams purchased a book on the 1930 salvage to see that the Italian crew had used a specially built German diving chamber. As both Italy and Germany were now the enemies they were fighting, they realised they would not be able to approach them for advice. They decided to get their own chamber built, based on the photographs in the book. For that task they turned to a Melbourne engineer, David Isaacs, who promised to study the problem and see what he could design.

Next, Williams sought a crew to go with him to New Zealand and attempt the impossible. He found ten men, ranging from teenagers, to men in their seventies, working on the Melbourne wharves. Men who, for one reason or another, had not enlisted. One was a pacifist. Another a drunkard. Most were simply too old to fight.

David Isaacs, designed the underwater diving chamber and Williams and Johnstone had it built at a foundry that made boilers for steam engines. It looked like something from a Jules Verne novel.

With their misfit crew and strange untried diving chamber, Williams and Johnstone sailed on a passenger steamer to Auckland. There they began looking for a salvage ship. Every ship that floated was being used in the war effort. Williams looked around and was told of an old rusting coastal steamer that had lain on the mudbanks of Auckland Harbour for years. It was called Claymore, and had been built as a passenger ferry in Scotland before World War I. Williams had tractors drag it off the mud to see if it would float. It did, barely.

To equip the Claymore, the crew would scrounge things from the docks. They removed tons of rubbish from the holds, patched over the rust and finally got the old engine working. Finally, reasonably confident it would stay afloat, they loaded the diving chamber on board.

On 19 November 1940, five months after the Niagara had sunk, the Claymore sailed out of Auckland Harbour on a 100 mile voyage up the coast to the town of Whangarei, located closest to the area where the Niagara had sunk.

Williams commenced a ship’s log and wrote in it proudly, “The old tub moves away. No longer SS Claypit, but Salvage Vessel Claymore”.

He also recorded that on the voyage north the engine broke down four times.


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