Lying at 40 metres in Lough Swilly, Co Donegal, the SS Laurentic is, in the right sea conditions, a very diveable wreck. While the salvage rights are privately owned, the World War I wreck is still an intriguing prospect for divers, with 22 gold bars of its bullion cargo still unclaimed, writes Don McGlinchey, City of Derry SAC
Diving the Laurentic
The SS Laurentic’s Scotch steam boilers are the highest point on this 40-metre wreck dive, and are very easily located using well known transit marks on both Fanad Head and Dunaff Head in Lough Swilly. The wreck is well scattered over a wide area due to the various salvage operations carried out over the years. The boilers lie at 98 feet (30 metres) deep and deepest part of the site lies at 130 feet (40 metres). While a very interesting wreck to dive, it is not to be taken lightly. It is not a dive for the inexperienced and careful planning must be made beforehand. It can be dived any time irrespective of tides but weather conditions are a major factor because of its location. The year 2017 will bring major changes to diving the wreck when it falls into the 100 year historical wreck legislation. When this happens, a licence from the department will be required to dive the wreck. More information on diving the wreck can be seen on Leigh Bishop’s web site, www.deepimage.co.uk
The story of the Laurentic
All shipwrecks have a story behind them, depending on how why and when they met their doom, some have earned their place in maritime history while others are forgotten with time. The story of the SS Laurentic is somewhat unique in that it has earned a place in history but the final chapter has yet to be written. The story began in Harland & Wolff on the 10th September 1908 with a ship that had a yard number of 394. It was laid by the Dominion Line steamship company and its original name was the Alberta. Before completion, it was taken over by the White Star Line and by the time it was launched on the 29th April 1909, it represented the very latest in shipping technology and was renamed SS Laurentic.
The launch of the Laurentic
It was 14,892 tons, with a length of 550 feet and a beam of 67 feet. It was powered by two, four-cylinder triple expansion steam turbine engines driving three propellers, giving it a top speed of 18.5 knots, capable of outrunning any submarine. Its maiden voyage was from Liverpool to Quebec and Montreal , remaining on the American run for a number of years, and offering luxury, comfort and reliability to the many thousands who travelled on it leading up to the First World War.
One very interesting story associated with this great ship was its involvement in the successful capture and subsequent arrest of the infamous murderer, Dr Hawley Crippen, in July 1910. After killing his wife, Dr Crippen, together with his mistress, made their way to the port of Antwerp in Belgium where they planned to board a ship bound for Canada, cross the border into the USA and disappear in the vastness of the country and begin a new life together. The ship they choose for the passage was the SS Montrose and it wasn’t long before their behaviour onboard triggered the suspicions of the master of the ship, Captain Kendall. A report was quickly relayed to Scotland Yard where the detective leading the investigation, Inspector Dew, made arrangements for passage on the fastest ship available to give chase and apprehend the fleeing suspects. The ship he boarded was the SS Laurentic and because of its speed compared to that of the old ship Montrose, he arrived at the entrance of the Fort Lawrence River three days ahead of its arrival. He boarded the Montrose disguised as a river pilot, made the arrest and returned to England with his prisoners on board the SS Laurentic. This was the first time the new Marconi signalling device was used in a murder investigation.
Photos of Dr Crippen, Captain Kendall, Inspector Dew
Shortly after the outbreak of the war, the SS Laurentic was commissioned by the admiralty, on the 13th November 1914, and put into service as a transport vessel, joining a convoy of twenty liners bringing troops to and from Europe. With this commission came the new title of HMS [His Majesty’s Ship] Laurentic. Just one month earlier, the British had lost their first Dreadnought battleship when, on the 27th October, the HMS Audacious struck a mine off the coast of Bloody Foreland, County Donegal. An attempt to tow it to safety was made by the sister ship of the Titanic, the SS Olympic, but due the extensive damage caused by the explosion, the attempt had to be abandoned. The Audacious slowly sank not too far from where the Laurentic now lies. By 1916, the HMS Laurentic had been fitted with four-inch deck guns and re-commissioned as an armed merchant cruiser to serve on the North Atlantic patrols doing escort duties. Towards the end of December 1916, it was recalled to Liverpool to prepare for what was to become its last voyage. The HMS Laurentic was rescheduled to undertake a special mission of the utmost secrecy. The captain was under orders to deliver a cargo of great importance to Halifax, Nova Scotia, but that was as much as he knew at the time. The secret cargo was actually payment to America and Canada, who were supplying Britain with munitions and other machinery for the war effort. The secret cargo on board, worth £5 million was, in fact, 43 tons of gold bullion, consisting of 3,211 bars carefully packed into wooden boxes, each measuring 12” long by 9” deep and weighing ten stone. Today’s value of this cargo is estimated to be in the region of £300 million. It was this last voyage which made the Laurentic famous yet despite this, she does not receive the same historical significance of other White Star liners, such as the Lusitania and the Titanic. It was only the Laurentic’s cargo which ensured she would remain known within diving mythology.
A fateful voyage
On the 23rd January 1917, under the command of Captain Reginald Norton, the HMS Laurentic set sail from Liverpool to Halifax Nova Scotia, a journey it had made many times before. Rounding the NE coast of Ireland, four young ratings reported sick to the ship’s doctor, who promptly advised Captain Norton to drop them off at the nearest naval port because they had symptoms of yellow fever and he didn’t want it to spread throughout the ship.
At that time, the nearest British naval Pport from their position was ‘HMS Hecla’, located at Buncrana, a small fishing harbour eighteen miles inside Lough Swilly, County Donegal. All British Naval Atlantic operations had been moved there after defences at Scapa Flow were breached by a German U-boat, which had caused devastation and havoc to the fleet anchored there. Operationally, Buncrana was the ideal location as a naval base. Geographically it was well placed, allowing easy access to the Atlantic approaches. The lough itself is deep enough to take any large ship yet too shallow to allow submarines to operate covertly. It was easily defended, with elevated gun positions on both sides of the lough, some dating back to the time of the Napoleonic wars.
As Captain Norton later stated in his official report on the events which happened that night, the ship eased toward Lough Swilly before daylight on Thursday, January 25th, and anchored two miles off Buncrana at 7:45am. The unexpected stopover was welcomed by the men and after discharging the sick crew members, some officers went ashore to sample the local hospitality at the Lough Swilly Hotel near the pier. Within a matter of hours, orders from HQ were issued to proceed and the crew were recalled back onboard to get ready to sail.
Shortly after 5pm, the HMS Laurentic slipped anchor and made its way past Dunree Point heading towards the entrance to Lough Swilly, where it was scheduled to pick up a destroyer escort near Fanad Head. The night was viciously cold, a blizzard was blowing and Captain Norton made the fatal mistake of giving the order to proceed without the escort, despite warnings that reports were received that a U-boat had been spotted earlier at the entrance to the lough. Forty five minutes after leaving Buncrana, the ship struck two mines, causing massive explosions that ripped into the side of the ship. The first explosion hit midship, rapidly causing it to list 20 degrees, and making it practically impossible to launch lifeboats. The explosion destroyed the engine room, knocking out the ship’s generators and disabling the main pumps. The ship was cast into total darkness and with no power, no distress signal could be sent. Suddenly the second mine struck, securing the ship’s fate and within the hour the HMS Laurentic slipped below the waves.
Map tracing the SS Laurentic’s last voyage
The U-boat responsible for the sinking was the U80, built at Vulcan Whaf in Hamburg in 1914. Under the command of Hedrich Von Glassnapp, the U80 had left Germany twelve days before the sinking with a deadly cargo of twenty eight mines. On the 24th January, he laid the last six mines in minefield 45, which lay just outside the entrance to Lough Swilly, an area which had been supposedly checked for mines that very morning.
After abandoning the stricken ship, those who managed to make it to the lifeboats rowed towards Fanad Lighthouse. Exposed to the extreme cold during the night many froze to death as they desperately tried to make it to shore and were found the next day with the oars still in their hands. On that particular nigh,t records for the area reported temperatures as low as minus 13 degrees. The condition of others lucky enough to be picked up by local fishing trawlers horrified their rescuers: they were totally exhausted and near death. Of the 475 officers and ratings onboard, 354 young men lost their lives that fateful night. In the weeks that followed, corpses were washed up on local beaches and one was washed up on the little island of Heisker in the Outer Hebridesm 150 miles away. A mass grave in the church yard of St Muras at Fahan holds 71 bodies while others are buried in the many graveyards around Lough Swilly and beyond. The largest list of names of those lost can be seen on the Royal Naval Memorial Monument in Devon.
Mass grave of SS Laurentic victims at Fahan
Salvaging the gold
The loss of the gold was a major body blow to the British Government given the spiralling costs of the ongoing war. Despite their feelings over the appalling loss of life, the gold had to be recovered as a matter of urgency. The man given the task of carrying out this operation was top naval diving expert Commander Guybon Damant. He was a diver of vast experience in deep salvage work, which had taken him to depths beyond 200 feet (61 metres) while assisting Professor JS Haldane, a physiologist, with his experiments in the development of decompression schedules. Damant put together a team of the navy’s best divers to help him with the job, which he expected to complete fairly quickly. Among the divers chosen was Petty Officer Augustus Dent. He had served on board the Laurentic as a gunner’s assistant and ship’s diver, had survived the sinking and now within months was back to help recover the gold. Another diver with special qualities was ‘Dusty’ Millar. We now know he was involved in secret naval operations at the time and had earned the nickname of ‘Tin Opener.’ This name was given because of his unique ability of getting into sunken submarines on intelligence gathering missions.
The team of divers arrived over the wreck site on board the Royal Naval salvage ship HMS Racer with Commander Damant, estimating that the recovery of the gold would take no more than a couple of months to complete. Not knowing the area, he was soon to learn this was not to be the case. Sea and weather conditions can change quite dramatically in this area, with great Atlantic swells rolling in, making diving impossible. Investigative work revealed that the Laurentic was lying at an angle of 60 degrees on her port side and was virtually intact. It was resting on a reef at a depth of 132 feet (40 metres) to the sea bed and a depth of 62 feet (19 metres) from the highest point of the ship to the surface.
Artist’s impression of SS Laurentic at rest
Due to the nature of the job in hand, the divers were restricted to a given working area on the wreck and were not permitted to stray any distance during operational duties. The first diver down was Dusty Millar. He soon found the passageway leading to the cargo hold at the stern section of the ship where the gold was stowed. His way into the hold was blocked by a steel door which was sealed tight, so the decision was taken to blow it off with a charge of gun cotton explosives, but the operation was not a total success. Behind the door, he discovered a heavy lattice gate which he removed using a hammer and chisel. Inside the hold, Miller was the only member of the diving team to see the gold in its entirety, wooden boxes sitting in rows in one corner of the hold where they settled after the sinking. Each diver worked a one-hour shift on the bottom, and Dusty had surpassed his time. Risking serious consequences regarding decompression sickness, the ‘bends’, he was determined to prove to those above that he did find the gold. Singlehandedly he struggled to the surface with a full box of his find. The next day, again singlehandedly, he recovered a further two boxes. In total for his two working shifts underwater, he recovered a total of £80,000 worth of gold.
Augustus Dent preparing to dive
Pictured above is diver Augustus Dent and a companion preparing to dive on the SS Laurentic. We can see the diving kit worn and the hand operated pump that supplied air to the divers.
After two weeks of salvage work, weather conditions deteriorated as the great Atlantic storms took hold and it became too dangerous to continue, so Damant and his team returned to base. Some months passed before they could return to Laurentic and by then Dusty Miller had been assigned to what was considered by the Admiralty to be more important duties, back to tin opening.
Back on site after the long break, Commander Damant decided that he would inspect the wreck site before the salvage operation would recommence. What he found changed the entire approach to the job in hand. So severe were the winter storms that the Laurentic had now collapsed in on itself leaving behind a mass of tangled wreckage. Work on the wreck site continued for a few months but when America enter the war, the urgency to recover the gold wasn’t so great and with more important matters to deal with, Britain decided to postpone the salvage operation for the time being.
After the war, the Royal Navy salvage divers were back on site to continue their work. Operating from the salvage vessel, HMS Racer, and using explosives, they dissected the wreck piece by piece, removing huge sections and bringing them to the surface in their search for the lost gold.
In 1924, the British Treasury department called a halt to the salvage operation. They had decided that continuing the operation had become uneconomically viable. At the time this decision was taken, all but 25 of the gold bars had been recovered by the salvage team as a result of over 5,000 dives carried out without serious injury. Each diver involved in the operation was given a bounty of two shillings and sixpence, which equates to twelve and a half pence, for every £100 recovered, so some divers did quite well out of the job. Eleven members of the diving team were awarded the MBE and the job itself was entered into the Guinness Book of records for the largest amount of gold ever recovered in one salvage operation.
The little harbour of Portsalon on the Fanad side of Lough Swilly is where the salvage team based themselves during the operation and there the ship’s bell can be seen hanging in the little Church of Ireland’s bell tower. The team donated the bell to the people of the village for the hospitality they received there.
The ship’s bell, recovered during a salvage operation
Missing gold bars
In the 1930s, a further three bars of gold were recovered by a private British salvage company. The 1950s saw another salvage attempt and after digging a trench forty feet long and eighteen feet deep on the sea bed where the ship had been dissected, they left empty handed. The mid 1980s saw the last major salvage attempt, this time by a Dutch company using the salvage vessel ‘Helga Dane’, but again no gold was recovered.
The salvage rights to the Laurentic were bought by Ray Cossum and his brother Eric in the late 1960s when they re-discovered the wreck site, and by doing so, they rekindled huge interest within the local community. It remains private property and permission should be sought before diving on the site. Ray himself is quite a character. Originally from Folkestone in Kent, he is now living in Derry. His love for the sea took him to the navy where he served as a submariner. He has worked as a commercial diver, and is very well known locally and abroad for his long distance swimming achievements, which include swimming the English Channel. He is currently the Honorary President of the Channel Swimmers Association. His last dive on the Laurentic at the age of 75 was just a few years ago, when he decided to pay his last visit to the ‘old girl’ before hanging up his fins.
A salvage operation of a different nature was carried out a few years ago by a team of CFT divers from the Sheephaven Club, when they successfully recovered one of the huge deck guns from the wreck. This was a fantastic achievement for recreational divers with limited recourses. The gun can be seen mounted on its original plinth at the pier head in Downings, County Donegal.
According to official records there are 22 gold bars unaccounted for. Whether they are still on the wreck or not remains a mystery but someone someday may get lucky and stumble across the lost treasure. Only then can the final chapter of the story of the SS Laurentic be written.
City of Derry SAC