The greatest gamble the world has ever known was brought off under the noses of the Germans when, in 1940, Britain's entire gold reserve was moved out of this country. It was totally mobilized for total war, and the vaults of the Bank of England were scraped almost bare. In bars, ingots and coin it went - to America, to pay for war supplies. Story of this modern gold rush was released in June 1945.
Our proud liners the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth carried vast quantities of it. Rusty "tramps", whose cargoes had formerly been of the very humblest, shared with warships the task of ferrying more of it away. Such was the haste of this transatlantic adventure, and such the activity of the ships, that at one moment there were on the High Seas consignments totaling more than £150,000,000 of gold.
From ports all over Britain the bullion ships set sail, taking in their cargoes from motor vans escorted to the docks under armed guard. Gold reserves and current production in the overseas countries of the Empire were "conscripted", too, for the Empire's benefit, and this was concentrated at naval bases all over the world, at the points where its presence was most desired.
Some of the ships went unescorted. But in spite of U-boat packs and lone hunters, commerce-raiders and enemy aircraft, the loss was almost insignificant: only £500,000 out of shipments exceeding £1,000,000,000 handled for the Treasury by the Bank of England. Masterly salvage work kept the figure thus low, as in the case of the Niagara, whose sinking represented the biggest single loss. The Niagara went down in 420 feet of water, with its £2,000,000 cargo. And from that depth an Australian salvage team recovered most of it - all but £80,000 or £90,000 worth.
No insurance company in peacetime would have undertaken the risk of "covering" some of these cargoes. In war it was a case of take a chance and hope for the best. The sheer impudence of the undertaking carried them successfully through. After the start of the Japanese war the risk was increased. It was necessary to move bullion to America across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, and this was done, in open defiance of the odds piled heavily against the accomplishment. It was on this run that the Niagara was sunk; an old steamer which used to ply regularly between Auckland, Sydney, and Vancouver, she finished her plucky career in the Tasman Sea, off New Zealand.