“Hope you won’t mind our dropping in unexpectedly like this, but we’ve brought along quite a large shipment of fish.” This was the strange comment from British banker, Alexander Craig, when he arrived at Bonaventure Station in Montreal on 2nd July 1940, yet the ‘cargo of fish’ he had brought for his Canadian counterparts contained no fish at all. The train standing at the platform was actually carrying 2,229 bullion boxes, each containing 4 bars of gold with a total value of £30 million. As well as the gold there were 500 boxes of marketable securities worth in excess of £200 million. This was a massive amount of money, yet it was only the start of Operation Fish, a wartime mission so secret that few people know of it even today.
Canada set up a Central Banking System in 1935, and within a year Britain was purchasing and holding ‘earmarked gold’ there (that is gold bought in Canada and kept there for safety or trading). By the end of 1936 the British government, with one eye on early signs of aggression from Germany, was holding 3,304 gold bars in Canada, each with a value of $US 14,000. With the prospect of war continuing to grow, Britain approached the Bank of Canada in early 1939 with a request that it would receive and hold gold reserves sent from Britain to keep them safe and to make it easier for Britain to pay America for arms and munitions if war broke out. At this point there was talk of a Lend-Lease agreement but it was still in the early stages and the Americans were demanding cash payment from Britain for all deliveries of ships, planes, tanks and munitions.
The first shipment of £30 million of gold bullion from Britain was sent ‘under cover’ with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when they made an official visit to Canada in the spring of 1939. The project was so secret that no records of the arrival of the gold in Halifax were kept, instead the cargo was unloaded at a quiet out of the way pier where 100 armed mounted police waited to transfer the gold to trains for shipping to Ottawa. Once war broke out in September of that year shipments began in earnest.
In early 1940 the British Government used its Emergency Powers Act to force civilians to register their paper securities; these were later confiscated by the Government and sent to Canada to be used in the war effort. The decision to send Britain’s wealth to the New World was not an easy one to make as the ships carrying it would be at the mercy of Hitler’s U-Boats which were then wreaking havoc in the Atlantic. Yet with the prospect of an imminant invasion of the British Isles Churchill believed he had no choice, if Britain was overrun the Government would need a base oversees from where it could direct the Empire in it’s continuing fight against Nazism. Transferring the gold was such a great risk, however, that the British War Cabinet did not inform the War Risk Insurance Office of the shipments knowing that if even just one of the ships was lost the value could never be compensated. In the month of May 1940 alone, over 100 ships were sunk whilst making the Atlantic crossing – that was more than 40% of all transatlantic travel – yet, miraculously, not a single gold transport was lost during the entire war.
When the shipments arrived in Halifax the boxes were put on sealed trains guarded by the RCMP. They travelled first to Montreal where the paper securities were unloaded and sent to the Sun Life Building to be stored in an underground vault three stories below ground level, Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers kept a 24 hour guard. The vault beneath the Sun Life Building had to be constructed in a hurry, so a rumour that the British Crown Jewels were being held there was deliberately spread as a cover for the increased activity and security.
After the securities had been unloaded the trains would continue their journey from Montreal and deliver the gold to the Bank Of Canada’s vaults in Ottawa. Each rail car could only hold 150 – 200 boxes as they were so heavy, and so as many as five trains were sometimes needed to ship the gold from just one transatlantic convoy. There was so much gold (in excess of 1,500 tons) that it filled the 6,000 square foot vault, and the Bank needed to hire more than 120 retired Canadian bankers, brokers and investment firm secretaries to keep records. 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. The movement of such vast amounts was a highly labour-intensive task and the cost of transport was over $CAN 1 million.
By the end of Operation Fish Britain’s assets in Canada exceeded over 1,500 tons of gold and over $300 billion in Securities (2020 value).
Britain was not the only country to send its gold to Canada for safe keeping. In June 1940 a single carrier from France shipped a staggering 254 tons of bullion across the Atlantic with an estimated value $US 305 million. Whilst the shipment was at sea the German Blitzkrieg rolled across northern Europe and France was defeated. The French government authorised Britain to take over France’s debts and assets to continue fighting the war, leading Churchill to request that the French gold be put with the British reserves. Unfortunately, the captain of the ship decided that he would take his orders from the hastily set up Vichy Government and so he slipped out of Halifax and sailed with his cargo to Martinique whilst France’s remaining assets in Ottawa were frozen until the end of the war.
It is testament to the high levels of security surrounding the shipment and storage of Britain’s wealth that no one found out about ‘Operation Fish’. The 5,000 employees of Sun Life never suspected what was being stored beneath their feet, and even though hundreds of people were involved in transporting, counting, recording, and storing the huge amounts of gold and securities the Axis intelligence agencies never found out about the ‘golden fish’ whch travelled from Great Britain to Canada.