Winston Churchill needed a backup plan. Europe was falling to Nazi Germany faster than anyone imagined, and Hitler was coming for Britain next. There was a real possibility the island could fall. So, Britain started making moves to send massive amounts of its wealth — and, if necessary, the government itself — across the Atlantic, to Canada.
How much wealth are we talking about? “Virtually everything Britain possessed which could be turned into dollars” in the form of gold and negotiable securities, reported Leland Stowe in 1963. And there was no guarentee they wouldn’t lose it all.
The bullion and paper would be shipped to Halifax, but the Atlantic Ocean was a conspicuously risky basket in which to place all of your eggs. In May 1940 alone, writes James Powell in his excellent telling, “100 Allied and neutral merchant ships had been sunk.” In June, another 57 ships went down.
Because we’re talking about Canada, ice was also a threat. Off the Canadian coast one ship encountered “frightful fog, with floating ice” which made it impossible to continue without daring an iceberg to strike. “For nearly twelve hours it stopped us dead,” said the captain.
Upon reaching Halifax, the loot was loaded onto trains that headed to Montreal to drop off the securities, then the remaining train cars continued on to Ottawa where the gold was stashed at the Bank of Canada on Wellington Street.
As the first train arrived in Montreal on July 2nd, 1940, the Bank of England’s Alexander Craig met the Bank of Canada’s David Mansur and announced that “we’ve brought along quite a large shipment of fish.” But “actually,” he explained, almost certainly unnecessarily, the “fish” was not literal fish. It was a code word for both the cargo and the whole operation.
“We’re cleaning out our vaults,” Craig explained, Britishing all over the place, “in case of invasion, you know.”
The securities were stored in a steampunk setup in the third basement level of the Montreal Sun Life building. Deep below the building’s oblivious 5,000 employees, construction workers built a new vault out of steel taken from an abandoned railroad, and installed hypersensitive microphones in the ceiling to detect even the slightest sound of an intruder. The vault door opened only to two different combinations entered simultaneously by two different bankers who did not know each other’s codes.
All the securities needed to be sorted and itemized. “Mansur had recruited some 120 Canadians — retired bankers, brokers and investment firm secretaries — as a staff. Taking oaths of secrecy, they began to unravel what some called ‘our bundles from Britain.'”
Meanwhile in Ottawa, writes Powell, “men laboured in twelve-hour shifts to unpack the gold bars and bags of coins and store them in the Bank’s 60 by 100 foot vault. Everything had to be meticulously recorded and accounted for. By the end of it, the Bank of Canada was the home to more gold than anywhere in the world outside of Fort Knox in the United States.”
And the operation was about more than money. Stowe writes:
The decision held even greater import. It meant that Churchill’s government was secretly determined to do far more than ‘fight on the beaches.’ If a German invasion should succeed, the British would carry on the war from Canada. The transfer of the treasure was thus part of a two-stage, last-ditch survival plan.
“In total,” tallies Powell, “more than £470 million in gold was shipped from the Bank of England in London across the Atlantic to the Bank of Canada in Ottawa. (Its value today would be about US$67 billion.)” The securities were worth even more: £1.25 billion. Powell says that technically their value today is “incalculable,” though another account says that the whole haul, including the gold and securities, was together worth more than $300 billion in today’s dollars. That’s more than the entire annual budget of the government of Canada.
Given all the risks involved, this wasn’t just the largest movement of wealth in history, it was also, says Stowe, “the biggest financial gamble ever made by any nation in peace or war.” And somehow, critically to the operation’s success, the whole thing remained a secret until the gold was returned after the war.
“At one time or another well over 600 people were involved in the Security Deposit’s clandestine services,” concludes Stowe. “The gold deliveries involved thousands of ships’ personnel and hundreds of dock-workers on both sides of the ocean. Perhaps never before have so many kept so great a secret so incredibly well.”
I first learned about Operation Fish (not by name) from Thomas Childers’s World War II: A Military and Social History lectures.
The most direct source I was able to find online was American journalist Leland Stowe’s 1963 How Britain’s Wealth Went West which for some reason is preserved online only as a PDF hosted by the Australian Department of Defence, and now posted here too, just in case.
I learned about Stowe’s report from a summary posted on readingandremembrance.ca, a resource for Ontario school teachers.
I’ve quoted and linked to James Powell’s post on his Today in Ottawa’s History blog.
Bob Faber also blogged about Operation Fish for Interesting Shit.
The photo at the top of this post is from Library and Archives Canada. It is a real photo of gold bars in the Bank of Canada in Ottawa, but it was taken in 1955, so it is not very Operation Fishy.
Library and Archives Canada also has a short account of Operation Fish on its website.
The definitive book on the topic, which I have not read but is used as a source by many of the above, appears to be Operation Fish: The Fight to Save the Gold of Britain, France and Norway from the Nazis by Alfred Draper.
One other fun fact to reward you for reading this far: The BBC made a movie called The Bullion Boys about a fictional plot to steal the Operation Fish gold as it was transferred through England. According to Sir David Jason – A Life of Laughter by Stafford Hildred and Tim Ewbank, 14 million people watched The Bullion Boys when it first aired on the BBC in 1993.