By Devonna Edwards, Columnist
Halifax participated in one of the worlds best kept secrets. During World War II 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 VI 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 battleship “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, before 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, where 100 armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers waited to transfer the gold to trains. 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.
When war broke out in September of 1939, shipments of gold sent across the ocean became more frequent. A plan devised to ship England’s entire gold reserve and securities to Canada under the top-secret project was named, “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 SS Laurentic, carrying forty-three tons of gold from Liverpool to Halifax, was sunk in 1917 after striking two German mines off Ireland.
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.
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 crates and bags down to the bank’s 60 X 100 foot vault.
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!
For further information www.fairviewhistoricalsociety.ca
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