Built by Harland and Wolff, Belfast and owned by the White Star Line the S.S. Laurentic made her maiden voyage in 1909.
In 1914 she was commissioned by the Admiralty for the war effort and converted to a merchant cruiser and put in to service. With this commission came the title of H.M.S. Laurentic.
Towards the end of December 1916 H.M.S. Laurentic was recalled to Liverpool to prepare for what was to be her last voyage and to undertake a mission of the utmost secrecy. The captain was under orders to sail to Nova Scotia, Canada to deliver an important cargo - which was payment to America and Canada who were supplying Britain with munitions for the war. This secret cargo was actually 43 tonnes of bullion, worth £5 million, and consisting of 3,211 gold bars – worth more than £300 million today.
The ship left Liverpool for Canada on 23rd January but Captain Norton made an unplanned stop on the north coast of Ireland to drop off some men who had become ill and were showing signs of yellow fever. She set sail again but at the entrance to Lough Swilly in County Donegal the ship struck 2 mines which had been left by a German U boat.
The Laurentic with its bullion cargo was sunk. Of the 475 men on board 354 lives were lost. 121 men managed to get to shore in lifeboats or were rescued by local fishing trawlers. Some bodies were washed up on local beaches. A mass grave in the churchyard at St Muras, Upper Fahan, holds many of the bodies while others are buried in graveyards in Lough Swilly and beyond.
Desperate to recover the gold, Navy divers led by Commander Guybon Chesney Castell Damant C.B.E. made over 5,000 dives between 1917 and 1924, recovering all but 25 bars. An attempt in 1930 recovered another three, and in July 1987 another salvage operation failed to find any of the remaining 22 bars, worth over 2 million.