The Polish Gold Run

80 tons of Polish gold and its amazing flight – WWII

With the Nazi’s knocking in the doors of Warsaw, the Bank of Poland had to make a difficult choice about their gold deposits. In the end they decided to move all of the 80 tons to neighboring Romania. A convoy of buses and cars, followed by a train would move the gold to the Romanian Coast. From there, it would travel to Turkey and onward to France. That was the plan, but in reality, it traveled even more. The desperate flight with that treasure was nothing less than harrowing as the Germans, the Brits, the Americans and the French tracked the gold. Events moved fast and the scales tipped tantalizingly from one side to the other, the Axis and the Allies, while the inert gold bars themselves rested eerily in silence. What would happen to the gold? Who would get their hands on it? This is a lovely story from the war, and one that will amaze you by the twists and turns it took. I will try to retell it, for your reading pleasure.

Istanbul, Oh! I can go on and on about that lovely city, a place where I spent more than five years of my life. A fascinating cosmopolitan metropolis, with some of the most interesting people, Turkish and foreign, it has so may secrets, so much of history, that you can write tomes about it all. I used to live at Bebek, overlooking the Bosporus, an area where many yabanci’s or expatriate foreigners lived. Not far from Bebek is the Eminonu area, the ancient part of Old Istanbul (Stamboul as it was referred to in the past) where one can see the Topkapi palace, the Blue mosque, The Aya Sofia mosque, the Basilica cistern and what not. It is also home to the massive covered bazars, the Misr Carsi (Spice bazar) and the Kapali Carsi (the covered bazar). Having spent countless hours in these areas on foot, I can still slip back in my mind and walk through the roads, feel the noises, the sounds and experience the ambiance of that teeming city, now home to over 20 million souls!

The first time I got a hint of this story was in the late 90’s when I visited the British Embassy in Istanbul for their annual fair and picked up a book I treasure, a masterpiece by Barry Rubin titled ‘Istanbul Intrigues’. Wartime Istanbul was quite different from the Byzantine Ottoman city detailed in Orhan Pamuk’s masterpiece ‘Benim adim kirmiz (My name is Red)’, and to get a feel of that Istanbul, you have to read Barry Rubin’s book. 

So, we go back in time, to the 40’s when the great war was ravaging across Europe and the world was on an edge, as Istanbul rested in in enviable position as a bridge between so many powers. The Germans wanted Turkey on its side, the Allies wanted them on theirs, while a wary Russia had already broken off with Turkey after its involvement in the failed attempt on German Ambassador Franz von Papen’s life.

Many of the scenes and events you may have seen in the movie Casablanca were more related to Istanbul and even though it was wartime, the city hosted many a side, as a neutral state. Most consulates were ensconced in Taksim, the largest being the British, French, German and the American, all stately buildings. Every European country had its representation there and they all met and lounged at the city’s fabulous hotels in the evening as scores of spies did their work and the diplomats schemed while they enjoyed life, drinking, dancing and making merry as the war raged on, out west. A typical wartime reception would span two halls in Turkey, one for the Axis powers and one for the Allies, such was the situation. Turkey itself was coming out of the tragic period which ensued after the death of their charismatic founder the great Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1938 and Ismet Inonu was in charge, shepherding the country through the tricky WWII years.

World War II broke out in the first year of his presidency, and both the Allies and the Axis pressured İnönü to join their sides. As the Germans sent Franz von Papen to Ankara in April 1939, the British sent Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen and the French sent René Massigli. İnönü trying to keep Turkey out of the war, teetered on the brink, leaning to the Axis at times, or to the Allies, outwardly maintaining a semblance of balance. It was only in 1945 that he formally signed up with the allies. But let’s get back to Poland and its national treasure, its gold reserves.

On Sept 1st 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. The small country, wedged between belligerent Russia and Germany’s new acquisitions, decided to quickly hide their hoard of some 80 tons of gold. After a feverish effort, the gold was taken out of the Warsaw vaults and spread for safekeeping at Brest, Lutsk and Zamosc. The Bank Polski’s managers then seeing the increasing danger of invasion, decided to move the gold to a nearby port from where it could be shipped to the vaults of the Central bank of France. So, the first step was to take the gold by road to Sniatyn, a railway junction on the border of Romania.

One of the bus drivers which took out the gold from Lutsk was none other than the painter, poet and Olympic athlete Halina Konopacka whose husband was Colonel Ignacy Matuszewski, ex treasury minister. He supervised the convoy from Lutsk and the couple and some of their friends were involved in escorting the gold through its entire journey! They started the journey at night, each bus with two drivers alternating, hiding in the forests during day. The passage was slow as some bridges were not designed to take the load. No mishap occurred.

Meanwhile the bank governor was sent to Paris to ensure that everything would be in order when the gold finally arrived in France. While the trucks from various points headed out to Sniatyn, the Polish army commandeered 4 tons of gold to try and procure arms. After four days, the convoys converged at Sniatyn.

The next step was to move it formally and legally into Romania, but by now the Germans knew what was going on and forbid the Romanian government (still neutral) from giving the Poles any support, under dire threats. As the convoys waited, part of the Polish team headed back to reclaim the 4 tons from the army, since it was too late for them to source any arms with it.  Finally, after some dithering, the gold was loaded onto a Romanian train which sped to Constanta, a Black Sea port.

The British had been watching the flight of the gold train with eagle eyes. The Poles now appealed to the Anthony Kendall, the British Counsel for help and he diverted (to Constanta) an oil tanker nearby, captained by a Brit, who agreed to sail it to Istanbul with the gold. The train reached the docks, the gold and the 27 Poles (men, women and children included) who had husbanded it through the border boarded the ship. With threats of bombing and furious protests from the Germans echoing behind them, the ship Eocene slipped out of Romania, destined for Turkey. There were U boats in the area, and Captain Robert Brett held to shallow waters, so that the booty could still be saved even if the ship got torpedoed.

Meanwhile the Russian army was speeding to Sniatyn and it was with great difficulty. The Polish team which had gone to get the 4 tons back from the Polish army, managed to return to Romania, only to be arrested by the Romanian troops, who then commandeered the 4 tons, which the Poles had managed to sneak in. After discussions they agreed to hold on to, less expenses, for the rest of the war!

The Germans were furious when they learnt that the ship had sailed to Turkey with the Poles and the gold on board. The ship reached the Bosporus straits of Istanbul on the 16th and dropped anchor at the port of Kabatas, right across the German embassy! A German yacht sailed out to take pictures of the anchored ship while the poles waited with bated breath. What would the Germans do? What would the Turks, who knew little, do now?

The French sent their mighty battleship Jean Barth, but the Turks quickly assessing the situation, refused to allow it to dock in Istanbul, not wanting to be dragged into the war (or to face demands from Germans and Russians for the use of Turkish ports). The Polish ambassador Sokolniki conferred with the Turks who suggested two choices to the Poles – either have Britain and France loan the gold to Turkey or have it taken overland to French ruled Syria. At that juncture, Sokolniki, in Ankara, hit a new snag when he discovered that he would have to fork out 2% of the consignment value as freight, in cash.

He did not have that kind of money and the Turks told him the only way around was to undervalue the gold to $10M. When somebody suggested that he sell a few bars of gold to pay for it, Sokolniki was scandalized, for he felt a moral obligation to deliver 100% of his country’s treasure as he was bound. Meanwhile he heard a rumor that the Germans were attempting to buy a Greek boat so that they could ram into the Eocene and sink both the vessel and its cargo. There was no time to lose.

Sokolniki’s wife came up with a suggestion that he take a loan from an acquaintance, Archibald Walker, the American regional head of Socony Vacuum Oil. A fierce anti-fascist, Walker coughed up the money without demur (It was his first brush with intrigue and after the event, went on to become the OSS representative codename Rose in Istanbul, later in 1942).

Sokolniki raced to Istanbul, had the gold loaded on a train and paid for the freight, in cash. On September 20th, the Eocene moved to the pier near Istanbul’s majestic Haiderpasha Terminal, where the gold was offloaded from the ship to a waiting train. Two days later, the gold train reached the Syrian border, where a French military unit took over its responsibility. Then the gold was unloaded and reloaded onto a narrow-gauge train headed for Beirut’s harbor where the French cruiser Émile Bertin, the fastest ship in the French fleet was waiting, to take the gold to Toulon.

Matuszewski leading the action, decided to split the cargo into two shipments in order to reduce the risk of losing everything in a potential U boat attack. Thus, on September 23rd, some 886 crates of gold were loaded (many crates broke open displaying the treasure to the sailors, but they were quickly re-crated!) on the cruiser and the ship arrived at Toulon on 27th without any mishap, accompanied by two bank employees. On October 2nd, two French cruisers, Épervier and Vauban, left with the remaining load of Polish gold, escorted by two more bank employees, arriving at Toulon on October 6th.

After all the gold had arrived, it was sent by armored train to the Banque de France’s regional office in Nevers and by October 18th, Polish bank officials who inspected and counted all the crates and bags of gold, confirmed that all of it (except the 3-4 tons in Romania)had arrived in France. The French bankers now offered two options to the Poles, it could either be deposited into an earmarked account or the Poles could store it all in a vault, under Polish responsibility, which they chose. The Polish at long last, heaved a sigh of relief but as you can imagine, the story was far from over.

By the end of Sept, the Nazi’s had overrun Poland. Despite losing, Poland did not surrender and formed a government-in-exile while a clandestine organization remained in occupied Poland. As Germany annexed the western and central parts of Poland, Soviet Union annexed its eastern part; while some bits were transferred to Lithuania and Slovakia. Germany and Italy then went after France. Paris fell to the Germans on 14th June soon to be divided into two parts, an Italian occupied zone and an unoccupied region under the Vichy Regime, aligned generally to Germany.

By June 1941, after differences of opinion and squabbles over the tripartite act, Hitler, supported by Italy and Romania commenced with the invasion of the Soviet Union. By 1942, America had joined the Allies against the Axis powers and Japan had teamed up with the Germans. The larger war was on.

Much of the gold reserves in Europe were being shipped to US for safekeeping during this period. Even though France had transferred quite a bit, the gold bullion belonging to the Polish, Belgian and some of its own reserves were still in France. The French decided to move their stock of gold from the central part of the country to the coastal ports, Brest and Le Verdon on the Atlantic, and Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. In June, when the German invaded Paris, they found the gold gone, and as you can imagine, a furious chase ensued.

In a touch and go operation, with the Germans bearing upon them, the French managed to ship out all of the French gold in five ships out of Brest. The Belgian and Polish, Gold were sent by train to Lorient. Victor Schoelcher, a cargo ship arrived to pick up the Polish gold. Stefan Michalski, a Polish bank official escorted the gold this time, as all the other Poles had left France, headed to London. The ship had two choices, head to Africa or America, the date was June 18th and there were mines on the water which the ship narrowly avoided.

The ship reached the Iroise sea and was joined by the ships carrying the French Bullion. A new (a previous fake message was radioed by the Germans asking it to go to Royan which Michalski would not accept) destination was radioed for the ship and its gold – Casablanca! Narrowly avoiding torpedoes, they reached Casablanca on the 23rd. Some of the French gold would later go to America on US battleships, but the rest of the French, the Polish and the Belgian gold (some 740 tons) went to French Colonies in Africa for safekeeping, Dakar, to be specific.

This was when the French learned that a British attack (Churchill wanted to lay his hands on the gold before the Germans did, or so he said) was expected at Dakar. The French navy decided to move all the gold as soon as possible to Thies, a safer inland location. By this time most of the French gold was spread far and wide, mainly at Dakar, New York, Ottawa, Martinique and London. Some 2080 tons belonging to France, Belgium, Poland and Luxembourg had been rescued from the Germans.

The Germans settling down in Paris were initially unaware that the French had moved gold to the Caribbean and Africa and the French officials had led them to believe that they had sent it all to North America. When the Nazis specifically questioned them about the gold belonging to Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Norway and Czechoslovakia, the French after quite a lot of feet dragging, admitted that some of it had been sent to Dakar. When the Germans demanded that this gold be brought back to France, the French obfuscated, talking about the dangers at sea, the British desire to lay their hands on it etc. As discussions dragged on, the French moved the gold further inland, to Kayes.

The British joint operation with De Gaulle to take the gold, turned out to be a disaster, with the Vichy squadron trouncing the British – De Gaulle fleet. The Germans continued to press the French for the Dakar gold. Finally, when the French ran out of options, the Belgian/Luxembourg gold was taken out from Dakar and moved to France and thence to Berlin, only to be sold to a variety of Germany’s gold partners such as Switzerland, Romania, Turkey etc. (After the war, France did compensate Belgium, from its own secured stock).

The Germans had not forgotten the Polish gold and pushed hard for it, but now the French maintained that it belonged to France so as to write off previous Polish debts, and the fight between lawyers got heated. Meanwhile, Germany’s clout in Africa reduced with the British American wins in the region. The gold remained in limbo, but was still being claimed by the Germans. The Polish wanted to track it down and keep an eye on their hoard, but the French stopped helping them. Thus, it was in 1943 that Major Stefan Michalski representing the Polish Bank, was deputed to Algiers.

As the Vichy French started getting difficult, the Poles suggested that the French transfer an equivalent amount of French bullion stored in New York to the Polish, but they French would not agree and so the Poles, acting through a New York law firm “Sullivan and Cromwell” filed a lawsuit against Banque de France. The US court promptly seized a part of the French gold deposited in the Federal Reserve Bank in New York while at the same time the trial got suspended due to the war and since the Banque de France’s attorneys could not travel for the hearing. The Polish side were not in a hurry as its main objective, seizure of an equivalent amount of French gold, had been achieved.

Eventually the French admitted that the Polish gold was stored in the territory of French West Africa and agreed to release it, if the Poles recognized the French Committee of National Liberation. The Poles after intense negotiations agreed and also terminated the lawsuit in New York in Jan 1944. The two sides then worked out a plan for the French to turn the gold over to the Polish government in exile, now not a problem with the Germans out of Africa.

In March 1944, a convoy of six American naval vessels including the escort cruiser USS Block Island was on anti-submarine patrol off the coast of Africa received a message ordering them to pick up the cargo of gold and sail with it to New York City. Finally, it was time for the gold to move, yet again. The French brought the Polish gold from Kayes to Dakar, still crated in boxes with the Bank Polski seals. Senegalese workers loaded the gold and the Americans gave the banks representative Michalski a formal receipt for the gold, as the ships headed to New York. They arrived at Brooklyn in April and Brinks armored trucks had the Polish gold moved to the Federal Reserve vault in Manhattan.

The gold that left Warsaw on Sept 6th 1939, arrived in the Manhattan vaults in April 2nd 1944. It did not stop here though, for the Poles decided to distribute it to three locations, 45% to Britain, 12% to Canada and 43% to remain in the US. As the war wound down, Romania transferred the last 3 tons stuck there, to Warsaw in 1947.

It had been quite a dramatic and colorful odyssey, don’t you think? What is amazing is that all this became possible due to the untiring efforts and integrity of the many bank officials who tracked every movement and liaised with the many other countries involved. The kindness and honesty of all these foreign countries during the period of strife was as you can see, paramount.

The saga of the gold flight is still not over, we will get to it shortly, after seeing what happened to some of the key personnel in this story.

After the fall of France in 1940, Olympian Halina Konopacka and Ignacy Matuszewski made their way to the USA in 1941. Ignacy died in 1946 and Halina Konopacka lived in Florida until her death in 1989. Stefan Michalski travelled to England to join the Polish Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF), as a fighter pilot. He and his English wife later moved and settled down in USA, where after a successful real estate career, Stefan passed away in Feb 2019. Michal Sokolnicki stayed in Turkey after the war, where he remained a respected figure in diplomatic circles. He lectured at the University of Ankara and passed away in 1967.

Eocene’s British captain Brett went back to England and in early 1940 was given command of HMS Goodwin, a converted coastal cargo ship whose mission was to escort convoys along the east coast of the British Isles. Later he joined the navy to command a minesweeper HMS Seaham through the war years. His service ended in 1946 after which he joined Standard Vacuum (the very company Walker worked for), finally retired from Mobil Oil Corp in 1968 and settled down at Melbourne, Australia where he passed away in 1982.

Some of that gold finally completed the full circle when it was sent out from the Bank of England to Poland, in Dec 2019. Travelling with a police escort and a helicopter overhead, the trucks stopped at a British airport where it was loaded onto freight planes destined to Poland, from where they were then taken in armored vehicles under another police escort, back to the vaults of Poland's central bank.

The circle was complete. Just imagine, what an active life for one of the world’s most inert metals!!


With thanks and due acknowledgements to the following works and their authors

Chasing Gold - George M. Taber
Istanbul Intrigues – Barry Rubin
The wartime fate of the Polish gold – Bankoteka - Professor Wojciech Rojek
Operation Fish – Albert Draper

Notes: The sleek and swashbuckling light cruiser Emile Bertin has a story of her own, which if you recall transported the Polish gold from Beirut to Toulon. It also transported many tons of French gold to Halifax but had to divert in a hurry to Martinique in the Caribbean with the British in pursuit, as the French surrendered to the Germans. But nothing could match its 34 knots speed and 102,000 HP power, as it sped to the Caribbean, leaving the Brits gasping in its wake. Later it was refurbished in the US and continued its fight against the Axis powers till the end.

The Germans cornered some 600 tons of European gold during the war, spending over 400 tons (during war years that was the only acceptable payments) to buy supplies. Interestingly, the Brits hatched a plan to attack and take away the Polish gold in 1941, but the plan fell through after the debacle at Dakar. Equally interesting are the stories concerning Norwegian and Romanian gold, but those are for another day!

Istanbul image - Carlos Delgado, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Turkey.

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