RMS Niagara Gold Salvage Part 3

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

Throughout the southern winter of 1941, the salvage crew of the Claymore continued to lower explosives to the sunken RMS Niagara, and blast a hole in the side of the former grand passenger liner. The work was constantly hampered by the weather in the notoriously stormy Hauraki Gulf, to the north of Auckland, New Zealand. Again and again the old rusting Claymore would make a desperate run from the safety of Whangarei Harbour to the wreck site, hook up to the buoys attached to the mooring blocks on the seabed, and be getting into position, when a storm would come in, and they would unhook everything and run for cover. Sometimes they would run for the lee side of the nearby Hen and Chicken Islands. At other times they would run for Whangarei Harbour.

The battles with the weather were made more dangerous because of the condition of the derelict salvage vessel. The Chief Engineer of the salvage team, Jim Kemp, later recalled, “Our hull was made of lomore iron, but in some places it was paper thin. It was so thin that we couldn’t bolt or rivet anything to it. We had to put a sandwich plate on each side and squeeze up the old plate in between with sheets of rubber insertions”.

On one occasion a large piece of rusted hull, below the waterline, collapsed and water began pouring in. At the time, the Claymore was moored above the wreck of the Niagara, so there was no chance of making it to shore. Instead the crew swung the lifeboat out on the samson post on the opposite side to the leak. Then they quickly loaded the lifeboat with heaviest objects they could lift, so the Claymore heeled over until the gaping hole was clear of the water. The hole was repaired and the water in the ship was pumped out, before the lifeboat was swung inboard and work resumed.

Sinking Tragedy of HMNZS Puriri

The storms and poor condition of the Claymore were two problems that plagued the salvage crew. A third was the fact they were still working in the middle of a German minefield. On the morning of 13 May 1941, a mine was spotted floating to the north of the area of the wreck. The Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) sent a patrol launch to investigate and the naval reservist in command, after seeing the mine, radioed the navy in Auckland to send a minesweeper.

The next morning, HMNZS Puriri, which had only been converted to a minesweeper 25 days earlier, arrived at the scene. As the Puriri slowly moved closer it struck the mine and its bow section was blown completely off. Five crew members died, five were injured and another 22 were rescued unhurt.

The Claymore waited a few days before returning to the site of the wreck.

By mid-1941, the observation chamber had completed over 100 dives to depths of almost 400 feet. The divers, brothers John and Bill Johnstone, along with the salvage leader, Captain John Williams, were beginning to be concerned about metal fatigue and, more particularly, fatigue in the glass of the four-inch portholes.

Throughout the winter, constant storms, mines and problems with equipment meant that the crew were only able to moor above the wreck of the RMS Niagara one day out of five. And then only for short periods. Nevertheless, the sides of the RMS Niagara were blown away, and the metal was torn from the side of the ship and dumped on a scrap heap a short distance away.

After months of slow frustrating work, the crew of the Claymore reached the bullion room, which was on D-deck. (Ships’ decks are usually designated A, B, C, D, etc. starting at the top.)

The bullion room of the RMS Niagara now presented new problems. The walls and door were made of heavy gauge steel, designed to keep people out when the ship was floating. Getting inside it when it was almost 400 feet underwater, by lowering explosives or using steel grabs, would be another matter. Captain Williams and Diver Johnstone were worried that if their explosive charges were too powerful, they would blast the bullion room apart completely.

Because the RMS Niagara lay on its port side, the 8 tons of gold bars were already piled against the inside wall of the bullion room, instead of on the floor which was designed to hold the weight. The wall may have already collapsed outward, and the gold bars already tumbled down deep into the bowels of the ship, from where it would be almost impossible to recover. Diver John Johnstone later drew an illustration, showing how the ship was laying on its side and showed the hole that had been blasted away from the side of the ship (along with the holes made by the mines which sank it).

RMS Niagara Salvage Shipwreck


Another problem also presented itself. A year earlier, when the RMS Niagara had sunk, the davits for the lifeboats had been swung out to get the passengers and crew away safely. Now, on the sunken wreck, the lifeboat davits stuck out like huge upside-down fish hooks on both sides of the hole leading to the bullion room. Lowering the observation chamber, with one of the divers inside, lowering explosives, or lowering the grab to tear away the twisted metal, had to be extremely accurate.

On more than one occasion, the diving chamber or the grab was snagged. When that happened, the Claymore would unhook from the mooring buoys and steam around in circles, sometimes for hours, before the chamber or grab came free.

After months of delicate work, a piece of bullion room wall was picked up by the grab and brought to the surface. The large heavy sheet of steel was taken back to Whangarei, where it was photographed.

RMS Niagara Salvage Bullion Room


With the way clear to the gold, Captain Williams, as per his agreement, informed the Bank of England, that he was getting close to the gold. The bank immediately sent a representative, Victor Neilley, to New Zealand. Neilley would travel on the Claymore when it went to the site of the RMS Niagara, to ensure that if gold was recovered, none would be stolen.

Finally, on 13 October 1941, John Johnstone was lowered to the wreck of the RMS Niagara. The chamber stopped so it dangled just to the side of the opening to the bullion room. Next the steel grab was lowered from the Claymore. Peering out one of the observation chamber portholes, Johnstone watched the grab being lowered into the bullion room. By telephone to the surface, he told Captain Williams which way to shift the grab and whether to raise or lower it. He also told Captain Williams when to open or close the jaws of the grab.

Sound is amplified as it travels through water, and Johnstone was used to the sound of the metal grab biting on the metal plates of the RMS Niagara. This time, however, as the grab closed, it sounded like its teeth were coming in contact with wood. Johnstone immediately Williams not to open the grab but, instead, bring him to the surface.

Recovering RMS Niagara Gold Bars

Once the observation chamber had been raised and was safely back in the hold of the Claymore, and Johnstone had climbed out, the grab was slowly and carefully raised. The entire crew of the Claymore stared as the grab was taken from the water. Caught in the jaws of the grab was a pine box. The grab was swung inboard and opened. When the box fell on the deck it burst open and two gold bars spilled out.

Each bar was about the size of a house brick. Each bar weighed 400 ounces. In 2022 prices, each bar of gold was worth about US$650,000. The crew of the Claymore had recovered two bars of gold. There were still another 588 bars on the RMS Niagara.

With the recovery of the first bars of gold, Captain Williams announced that work was over for the day. The crew went to the galley of the Claymore to celebrate. A photograph was taken, beneath a portrait of the King, with Diver John Johnstone sitting at the head of the table holding the two bars of gold in a V for Victory sign.

RMS Niagara Salvage Bullion Room


The news of the successful recovery of the gold—a job that most people said was impossible brought only a small reaction. The whole salvage was still top secret.

Over the coming three months the Claymore constantly returned to the site of the wreck of the RMS Niagara. One of the Johnstone brothers would descend to the wreck inside the observation chamber, and then by telephone to Captain Williams, have him guide the grab inside the bullion room. The jaws of the grab would close over the soft pine boxes, scooping them up before bringing them to the surface. The record recovery in one day was on Armistice Day (11 November) when 92 bars of gold were recovered. That was more than a ton of gold. The crew stacked up the gold on the deck and posed for photographs with it.

RMS Niagara Salvage Bullion Room


By December 1941, Williams and Johnstone realised they had got all the gold they could from the RMS Niagara. They had recovered 550 of the total of 590 bars. They understood the square grab they were using could not reach into the angled corners of the bullion room. The rest of the gold would need to wait for better technology.

Today, using mixed gas equipment, divers are able to swim down to the RMS Niagara and the famous wreck is again being explored. But that’s a story I will leave for a future blog.



Share This Article!

Recent Articles
Recent Videos