HMS Edinburgh - A city lost beneath the sea

IT WAS just after 4pm. The Barents Sea was calm, but it was snowing. The temperature had dropped to 29 degrees below, and the steel handrails on the exterior of HMS Edinburgh were covered in blankets to stop any reckless hands freezing to them.

On board the 10,000-ton convoy cruiser, some of the 850-strong crew were in the mess room having tea. Others were relaxing in their cabins.

Then the news came over the ship's communications system that three German destroyers had been sighted in the area. This was the Murmansk suicide run and the crew of HMS Edinburgh were again facing the enemy.

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They had been escorting merchant ships from Iceland to Russia – but the Edinburgh was a ship with a precious cargo of its own.

A cargo so secret that few of those on board even knew of its existence.

Just days before those German destroyers were sighted – and eventually sank the Edinburgh on 2 May 1942 – two barges laden with Red Army soldiers and ammunition boxes pulled alongside her in the dead of night.

There were, however, no bullets or explosives in the boxes. Instead they contained "Stalin's Gold" – ten tonnes of Russian gold bars being transported to London as payment for supplies which the Allies were shipping to the Soviet Union.

So when, over the course of two days, the Edinburgh slid slowly below the ragged waves after three direct torpedo hits there were 57 dead servicemen and 465 ingots of gold lying 800 feet below the Arctic waves.

There the bullion stayed – along with its dead guardians – almost 40 years, until deep sea diver and treasure hunter Keith Jessop hauled it from the seabed in 1981.

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The successful recovery of the world's richest cargo – the gold was worth 44 million – made him and the HMS Edinburgh household names. While the British and Soviet governments took the lion's share, Jessop's personal cut came to about 2m.

Now Jessop has died, aged 77, in France. And the story of HMS Edinburgh has once again been thrust into the limelight.

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Built in 1938 in Newcastle, the Edinburgh was a cruiser with 12 six-inch guns and a speed of 32.5 knots. Originally stationed in Scapa Flow, she was moved to the Forth and on 16 October, 1939 sustained damage when 12 Junkers Ju-88 bombers launched the first aerial attack on mainland Britain.

By the time she was involved in escorting the Narvik convoys to Russia, she had also gained honours in the war in Norway and Malta.

Her journey into the history books though, began on 6 April when she left Iceland to escort convoy PQ14, one of a 24-strong fleet of cruisers. She arrived in Kola Inlet on 19 April.

She left on the 28th to return with convoy QP11 – already laden with Stalin's gold. But two days later she was struck by two torpedos from the German submarine U456 and seriously damaged: one blew the stem away and with it two of its four propellers. The second torpedo struck amidships and in the ensuing two days she made an attempt to reach Murmansk.

But the ship came under attack again and was hit by a third torpedo. It was all witnessed by Captain Frank Shaw from one of the convoys the Edinburgh was protecting.

He wrote in his memoirs: "It is a saddening thing to see a brave ship die. The Commadore, reading the signals made and recoded on our own signal pads, said dismally: 'They're going to sink her.' Rather than allow the wrecked ship to fall a prize into enemy hands, the Edinburgh's captain resolved to sink her by friendly torpedoes. Imagine how the Germans would have exulted over such a trophy.

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"Watching through binoculars I saw the destroyers range along side and remove the skeleton crew. The cruiser's ensign flew staunchly at the masthead, undaunted. The destroyers hauled off; and then, from comparatively close range, let fly several tin fish. I saw giant water spouts. She seemed clean over on her side. When they subsided, the Edinburgh was hard over on her side.

"Half mast that ensign!" ordered the Commadore, and hardy as he was, his voice shook. Our dingy red ensign came half-way down from the gaff. I turned from looking at this poignant emblem, and saw the Edinburgh emerge from the waterspouts. She seemed clean over on her side; but with a last effort, she staggered upright.

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"Habet!" said the Commadore, hand at the salute. The Edinburgh dipped her lean bow, and tilted her stern. Then, smoothly, and decently, her work done, she slid down under the waves, which curdled all about her. The White Ensign was the last thing to go – and to my mind it snapped defiance at the worst the enemy could do."

One Edinburgh seaman who did make it home – to Edinburgh – was 18-year-old Ralph Fusco. However, he faced a more lingering death. The acrid smoke from the cruiser's flaming fuel tanks destroyed his lungs, and he died aged just 22 from tuberculosis.

In a twist of fate though, his nephew, former Lothian and Borders Police Inspector Ralph Fusco, who was just three when his uncle died, also got involved in the story of the ship's gold.

For while it lay undisturbed for 39 years, when the gold did eventually come to the UK it was transported through Scotland. And it was Inspector Fusco who was put in charge of the armed escort which guarded it from Fife to the Borders.

Now retired, Mr Fusco, 67, of Colinton, says: "Ralph's story was one that was told in the family, but it wasn't until the gold was recovered that I learned more about it. He actually went to sea under his mother's maiden name of Morrison as he was advised to change Fusco, as it was Italian and there was a lot of ill-will towards Italians during the war.

"So when the gold was to be transported in Scotland I took great pride in being part of its journey. It made me feel like I'd finished something he'd started.

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"Mind you neither of us ever saw the gold – it was always sealed."

Jessop's moment of triumph, however, was soon soured.

In a newspaper article, and then in a book, a writer who had accompanied the Edinburgh recovery claimed that the divers had desecrated the war grave – a charge that, as a proud ex-Royal Marine, Jessop found particularly offensive – and that an official of the Salvage Association had been bribed to secure the contract.

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Jessop sued for libel; the book was pulped, he accepted an out-of-court settlement and was awarded costs. The police investigated the allegations and concluded that there was no case to answer.

But the director of public prosecutions overruled them, and in 1984 Jessop went on trial at the Old Bailey charged with conspiring to contravene section two of the Official Secrets Act and with conspiracy to defraud the unsuccessful bidders for the Edinburgh contract. The prosecution case collapsed and Jessop was acquitted on all charges – but was left with just 13,000 from his haul.

His reputation was tarnished, unlike the Edinburgh's gold.

300 years of honour for name

THE Fortress of the Sea – that's the nickname HMS Edinburgh sails under. The penultimate Type 42 Destroyer in the Royal Navy, she is the largest of her kind and was launched by Lady Heseltine on 14 April, 1983.

The ship is actually the sixth to carry the name of Scotland's capital city – the first in 1707 being a fifth-rate warship carrying only 32 guns.

The second was the 40-year-old Warspite which in 1715 was rebuilt and renamed Edinburgh. She had a long and distinguished career.

The third Edinburgh, launched in 1811, was a warship with 70 guns. She too had a busy career, distinguishing herself gaining the battle honours "Syria 1840" against the Egyptians and "Baltic 1854/55" in the war against the Russians.

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Then in 1882, a steel-plated turret ship of 9,150 tons was launched to become the fourth Edinburgh. She was the first battleship to carry breech-loading guns and was heavily armoured. The last, and most famous, warship to bear the name was the cruiser built in 1939.

The current HMS Edinburgh is a Batch III Type 42 destroyer built by Cammell Laird at Birkenhead. She can reach speeds in excess of 30 knots.

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Fitted out for 26 officers and 260 other sailors, she also carries the Sea Dart missile system, a single 4.5 inch automatic gun, and 20mm guns for close range fire.

And although no longer stationed in Rosyth, there is still a close affiliation between the ship and the city.

HMS Edinburgh takes every opportunity to visit – although its last visit was in 2008 – and during 2006 supported the City's Cow Parade by taking her very own Navy Moo on deployment to the Baltic and the South Atlantic. It also maintains close links with three Sea Cadet Corps units in the Edinburgh area.

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