There is an oft-repeated myth that among the treasures aboard the Titanic when she had that ill-fated argument with an iceberg in April 1912 were 35 tons of gold ingots. The story is false. Most of the treasures on the ship were the personal possessions of her first-class passengers and did not include bullion.
For example, the Countess of Rothes and the American heiress Eleanor Elkins Widener, both owned exceptionally expensive pearl necklaces – but both had the presence of mind to wear these as they boarded the lifeboats. (Of greater importance to this author, however, was the Egyptian figurine owned by ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ which she later gave to Captain Rostron of the Carpathia, the ship which picked up most of the survivors).
Scroll forward 10 years, accurately to Saturday, 20 May 1922, when the rather less opulent liner – the SS Egypt – sank in the Celtic Sea, this time as the result of a collision in thick fog. Here tales of a cargo of precious metals were true, and prompted a lengthy, complex but ultimately successful salvage operation.
The Egypt was carrying some 5.5 tons (imperial measure) of gold, 43 tons of silver and 165,979 gold sovereigns. All this, plus some 5.1 million paper rupees (face value), was destined for India but made it no further than 52km west of Cape Finisterre.
The loss of the Egypt, a ship of 7,941 tonnes launched from Greenock, Scotland in May 1897, was reported as far afield as Australia, for example, by The Advocate, North-Western Tasmania’s daily newspaper:
“When passing from ‘the chops’ of the English Channel on Saturday evening, the P and O liner Egypt came into collision with the French cargo steamer Seine, the impact resulting in the loss of the liner within 20 minutes. It is feared that 95 of those aboard the ill-fated vessel perished. The accounts to hand are meagre. [In fact, the final death toll was 87]. It would appear that the night was intensely foggy, and the Egypt was sounding her foghorn at frequent intervals. After the collision the vessels drifted apart, the doomed vessel disappearing in the darkness.”
Despite being badly damaged, the Seine managed to pick up 252 passengers and crew from the Egypt and make her way, slowly, to Brest.
The identification of the ‘Egypt’. The diver Aristide Franceschi, just up from the wreck, describing what he has seen.
Unsurprisingly, the prospect of salvaging what was then valued at over £1 million’s worth of gold and silver attracted a great deal of interest, not least from Lloyd’s underwriters who had insured the original cargo. However, ambition was one thing, but realisation turned out to be quite another, and indirectly involved two other shipwrecks – the Florence H and the Artiglio.
The key problem was the depth to which the SS Egypt had sunk: 70 fathoms (or 128 metres). This made the wreck exceptionally difficult to find – it took until 1929 until its precise location was discovered – and moreover, even more difficult to work on. Indeed, no successful salvage operation had ever been carried out so deep.
There were various contenders for the role of formally appointed salvage company, with that honour, if such it was, finally being bestowed upon the Genoese company Società Ricuperi Marittimi or SORIMA, which had been established in 1926 by Giovanni Quaglia, who is described, not all that positively, by the Italian website Navi e Capitani as “a man of his times”.
For example: “His seafarers always reproached him for not having kept his word in paying them the promised rewards in the event of important recoveries (such as gold and silver from the Egypt), and when they tried to organise themselves to protest they collided with a granite wall that did not grant them anything other than basic pay, or penalty: dismissal.”
However, without Quaglia and his small fleet of ships, it is unlikely the Egypt’s precious cargo would have been salvaged as early as it was. One thing he did which certainly contributed to the success was teaming up with expert divers, the first of whom was Alberto Gianni and his experienced team of professionals.
Quaglia, who had become involved in shipping during World War I, was not a man to commission ships to be built, but to refurbish old vessels he could purchase on the cheap. Among these was Artiglio which, in 1930, was the first vessel to attempt to salvage the Egypt’s precious cargo. This didn’t go as well as hoped by Quaglia – and, in particular, Gianni and his fellow diver Aristide Franceschi – although the failure was not entirely their fault.
THE PROSPECT OF SALVAGING WHAT WAS THEN VALUED AT OVER £1 MILLION’S WORTH OF GOLD AND SILVER ATTRACTED A GREAT DEAL OF INTEREST
The Florence H
For all Quaglia’s parsimony, Artiglio while small at only 148 feet long, was, as Time Magazine (December 1930) described her, “the most completely equipped salvage ship in the world”. Indeed, not only did Artiglio find the Egypt, but its crew succeeded in recovering the captain’s safe.
Unfortunately for all, the discovery occurred late in the season and as the winter of 1930/31 approached, deepwater salvage operations were abandoned for the year and Artiglio was ordered to Quiberon Bay, on the south coast of Brittany, to undertake the disposal of the Florence H, an American freighter which had sunk in late World War I carrying a large quantity of munitions.
Unlike the Egypt, the Florence H was lying in relatively shallow water and, for this reason, was perceived to be a continuing threat to French shipping. This turned out to be truer than most imagined.
To explain why requires some understanding of the maritime salvage techniques of the day which, put simply, involved trying to blow a hole in the sunken ship and then using a ‘claw’ or grab operated from the salvage vessel (‘artiglio’ translates as ‘claw’) to dig out the cargo. Despite the fact the Florence H was still loaded with munitions, this was considered a safe procedure given the ship and its contents had been under water for over 12 years.
Time Magazine takes up the story:
“Overboard went the Artiglio’s two chief divers, Alberto Gianni and S. Francesci. After them were lowered special mines which were intended to blow up the hulk of the Florence H. Suddenly the sea rose like a bubble, burst with a deafening roar into towers of spray. The little Artiglio was tossed in the air like a child’s toy, broke in two, sank instantly. Only seven of her crew of 21 were picked up alive.”
The Florence H’s cargo had been anything but inactive.
Despite this disaster, or perhaps galvanised by it, Giovanni Quaglia bought a former Newfoundland Banks fish-carrier, the Maurétanie, changed the name to Artiglio 2, and rapidly repurposed her as a salvage vessel using some of recovered pieces of the old Artiglio, including the steel mast and derrick.
A new crew was commissioned, the diving shells were in their places and a new divers’ winch was fixed just forward of the bridge. So only six months after the wreck of the Egypt had first been discovered, it was time for a second attempt. There was, however, one key difference between the two Artiglios in that the newer version did not carry the motto Memento Audere Semper (Always remember to dare) which some thought rather fatalistic given the fate of the first ship.
As well as resting much deeper than the Florence H, the Egypt presented other major problems for the salvage crew. There were four decks to be blasted through before the precious cargo could be revealed, and there were significant ocean currents.
To a modern mind used to SCUBA-equipped divers in flexible suits, the presence of currents might not appear too problematic. But the divers from the Artiglio 2 were confined to miniature diving bells or ‘shells’ without arms, and thus had to act purely as commentators, sending directions by unreliable telephones, to the deck crew above.
The process was exhausting as David Scott, a British journalist onboard the Artiglio 2, graphically described the most wearisome of the diver’s jobs:
“The placing of a charge of explosive in its exact place on the wreck, in spite of the current, by a process of trial and error which may succeed in a few minutes, but is more likely to go on for hours at a stretch. … His job is to place the bombs across the deck between the port side of the ship and her centre line … ‘Aria le bombe’ he calls through the telephone. The bombs sink slowly until they come within his range of vision but now they are too far forward … and must be moved astern.”
And at this point, the telephone fails, the diver, in this case Mancini, has to be pulled up and the process starts again. Scott goes on to say that:
“I remember seeing him [Mancini] spend four hours continuously at the bottom trying to ‘thread the needle’ in this way. By the time he got his bombs into place the chemicals in his respirator were almost exhausted. What the fatigue of his eyes and brain and body must have been it would be difficult to guess.”
In short, the process of opening up the Egypt took weeks of work involving not only exhaustion on the part of the divers, gales and broken telephone lines, but also bombs coming loose from their shackles and posing even more dangers for diver and salvage vessel. But eventually the cargo hold was open and the famous claw deployed (which still, of course, had to be guided by a diver in his shell).
At first, the claw brought up bits of wood, a good pile of Indian currency, a loaded pistol and other odds and ends, but on 22 June 1932, the grab disgorged two gold bullion bars. The floodgates had opened. From then on, according to Scott, “every shot of the grab brought up more gold, both bars and sovereigns”. Eventually that first haul amounted to 180 gold bars of various sizes, worth over 8,000 sovereigns, and one silver bar. The Artiglio 2, faced with the prospect of another storm, turned and made for Southampton.
On this occasion, in mid-1932, Quaglia’s crew succeeded in bringing up about a fifth of the gold and silver the Egypt was known to be carrying. Further (successful) attempts followed.
Summing it all up, Quaglia, never one to be modest, said: “It must be said that everything I attempted succeeded very well.”
The Captain’s safe from the ‘Egypt’ coming aboard the ‘Artiglio’.