Now, we are not talking about a little bit of money, but over $300 billion worth of gold and securities (in today’s dollars). It makes the wealth moved offshore in the Panama Papers leak seem small. Today, over 75 years later, it remains the world’s largest transfer of wealth from country to country. It’s called Operation Fish and here is how it went down.
With storm clouds gathering in 1939 and the threat of war in Europe, the Bank of England decided to increase its gold reserves held at the bank of Canada in Ottawa. During the summer of 1939 and early 1940 half a dozen ships (including HMS Emerald, Southampton, Glasgow) moved over 100 tons of gold to Canada for safe storage.
With these ships having successfully tested the waters, and the war situation in Europe turning grave, Winston Churchill gave the green light to “Operation Fish” which would massively accelerate the movement of gold and securities from England to Canada. Using their wartime powers, the Churchill government confiscated the securities that the British people were forced to register at the beginning of 1940 and included those in the shipments to Canada. By the end of Operation Fish over 1,500 tons of gold made its way to Ottawa, and Over $300 billion in securities to Montreal.
The invasion of England was a very real possibility by mid-June in 1940. The German armed forces were on the French Channel coast and Netherlands and Belgium already fell to the Nazis. France was on the verge of capitulation with the Nazis parading into Paris in June of 1940. To make matters worse, Italy entered the war on Germany’s side.
Moving Britain’s wealth to Canada was not an easy decision. The only way to transport the tons of gold and securities was by ship across the U-boat-infested North Atlantic. In May of 1940 over 100 ships were sunk by the Nazis. This represented 41% of all ship tonnage and with only one U-boat loss.
The goal of Operation Fish was if England fell to the Nazis Churchill would run the Commonwealth from Montreal
History wasn’t on Britain’s side either as they tried to evacuate their wealth to Canada in World War I, with the SS Laurentic, carrying 43 tons of gold from Liverpool to Halifax, was sunk in 1917 by a German submarine off Ireland. The goal of Operation Fish was if England fell to the Nazis Churchill would run the Commonwealth from Montreal. The gold and securities would be used to fund the war effort by buying planes, tanks, guns and ammunition from Canada and the USA.
The ships would sail across the North Atlantic under convoy. The HMS Revenge, HMS Resolution, HMS Enterprise, HMS Emerald, the cruiser HMS Bonaventure and three converted former passenger liners — the Monarch of Bermuda, the SS Sobieski, the SS Batory — all assisted in moving Britain’s wealth to Canada. Fierce storms almost ruined the operation when high seas forced the ships to slow their speed, making them easy targets for any prowling U-Boats.
The gold and securities were unloaded in the Port of Halifax, and with over 300 armed guards taken by train to Montreal. At the Bonaventure train station, Alexander Craig from the Bank of England met David Mansur from the Bank of Canada and allegedly said “Hope you don’t mind our dropping in unexpectedly like this, but, we’ve brought along quite a shipment of ‘fish’.” The train shipment was then split in two in Montreal with the securities unloaded, and the gold on its way to Ottawa.
In Montreal, the securities worth over $230 billion in today’s dollars were locked in an underground vault three stories beneath the Sun Life Assurance Company building and guarded by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers around the clock.
In Ottawa, 1,500 tons of gold were housed in a vault below the Bank of Canada on Wellington Street in Ottawa. The gold filled the 6,000 square-foot-vault below the bank. The Canadians hired a few hundred retired bankers to count and organize the gold and securities. By the end of Operation Fish, the Bank of Canada was home to more gold than anywhere in the world outside of Fort Knox in the United States.
For Winston Churchill, it was a gigantic gamble that paid handsome dividends. It was heavy times with the Nazis sinking boats in the North Atlantic. During Operation Fish over 134 boats were sunk in the North Atlantic, but not one carrying any gold or securities was sunk. It allowed Britain to pay for the production of the war machine until the Lend-Lease act was implemented.
Throughout the operation and despite thousands being involved in the mission, Operation Fish remained a secret until after the war and not a single piece of gold or security went missing. The world is not likely to ever see again such a shipment of ‘fish.’
- Bank of England, 1942. Unpublished War History, Chapter V, Gold, Bank of England Archives
- Draper, A., 1979. Operation Fish: The Race to Save Europe’s Wealth 1939-1945, Cassell, London.
- McDowall, M., 1997. Due Diligence: A Report on the Bank of Canada’s Handling of Foreign Gold During World War II, Bank of Canada
- Naval-History.net, 1998. Campaign Summaries of World War 2, German U-Boats at War, Part 1 of 6, 1939-40
- Stowe, L., 1963. How Britain’s Wealth Went West.