The missing millions
Roger Mutch remembers a maritime mystery
Published in September ’10
Thirty-one years ago, the night of 2 November 1979 was a rather unpleasant one in the English Channel. The sea condition was rough and the wind, which was force 6 to 7, blew steadily from the south-west. It was in such conditions, shortly after 4 am on Saturday 3 November 1979, that the Anna Knueppel, a 1000-ton West German cargo vessel which was heading up-Channel in an easterly direction, collided with the Aeolian Sky, a 10,000-ton Greek cargo vessel heading in the opposite direction.
Rather surprisingly, the Aeolian Sky fared by far the worse. She was holed near the bows and started to take on water into the forward hold. The Master requested the urgent assistance of a tug and the Abeille Languedoc put to sea from Cherbourg. The situation on board the damaged vessel deteriorated rapidly before the arrival of the tug, and an evacuation of the ship’s crew began. A helicopter from the Royal Naval Air Station at Lee-on-Solent airlifted sixteen crew members from the ship to the Overijssel, a Dutch naval destroyer which was standing by to render assistance. The helicopter then had to abort the rescue operation because of engine problems.
When the tug arrived on the scene at about 8 am, a salvage inspector was put aboard the Aeolian Sky. The evacuation of the ship’s crew continued by means of an inflatable boat and they were taken aboard the tug. A line was secured to the stern of the stricken ship and the tug took her in tow towards Southampton. The only people left on board were the Master, the salvage inspector and two crewmen. The bows were almost under water and deck cargo was breaking free and floating away. Due to the very real possibility that the ship would sink while under tow and cause major shipping problems in the Solent, the decision was made to switch the destination to Weymouth Roads.
Sure enough, at about 5 am on Sunday 4 November 1979, at a point some five miles south-west of St Aldhelm’s Head, and twelve miles east of Portland Bill, the Aeolian Sky lost her battle for survival and sank in just over 100 feet of water.
On 18 January 1980, some ten weeks after the loss of the Aeolian Sky, a firm of loss adjusters from London contacted the Dorset Police and revealed that part of the ship’s cargo had been a consignment of brand new Seychelle rupee banknotes. The face value of the notes was 60,000,000 Syechelle rupees – based upon the exchange rate at that time, the sterling equivalent of about £4,500,000! A team of specialist divers had been engaged to dive on the wreck and recover these notes. They had been told where on board the notes had been stored, but not what the cases they were looking for had contained. Following a number of aborted attempts, they had reached the correct location but there was no trace of any cases.
The police began some tentative enquiries among the fishing and diving fraternity, which led to a fisherman from the Lulworth area being visited. He handed over four 100 Seychelle rupee banknotes which had come into his possession a few days after Christmas 1979. He stated that he found them inside his lobster pots that had been strung out on the sea bed some five or six miles south of Lulworth Cove.
Over the ensuing days the enquiry gained some momentum. A meeting took place in London between the Dorset Police, the Crown Agents, who had overall responsibility for this consignment, and the diving team. The divers were confident that they had been to the right cabin and that there were no cases there. The door to the cabin was torn away, but it was felt that this could have been caused by the action of the sinking or subsequent tidal surges. The Crown Agent confirmed that the four notes recovered by the police were from the missing cargo. It was agreed that the Dorset Police would liase with Interpol to arrange for details of the missing notes to be circulated to appropriate continental banks and also for crew members of the Abeille Languedoc to be interviewed. The Crown Agents arranged for the military to search the beaches in the region of the Lulworth Ranges to see if any of the notes had found their way ashore, but nothing of merit was found.
The banknotes had been printed by Bradbury Wilkinson and Co. Ltd of New Malden in Surrey, and within a day or two their senior security officer visited Weymouth police station. He was able to confirm that the missing consignment consisted of 600,000 Seychelle 100 rupee notes, sealed and packed for transit within a total of twelve numbered wooden cases; the serial numbers of the notes within each case were provided. He also confirmed that the entire consignment was escorted from the printers to the ship while it was berthed in Hull, shortly before it sailed. The cases were observed being placed into the cabin on the ship and a signature acknowledging their receipt was obtained.
On 24 January 1980 the story became public knowledge, and Weymouth and the surrounding area became the focus of newspaper headlines and television bulletins. Rumours of major crime on the high seas became the subject of gossip in and around harbourside pubs in Weymouth but, despite such whispers, there was no evidence that any crime had been committed. Even so, a most thorough police investigation was set in motion to discover what had become of those bank notes. Detective Superintendent Antoine of the Seychelles Police travelled to the UK and accompanied Dorset Police detectives during the course of many of their enquiries. The team visited Bradbury Wilkinson and Co. to examine first hand the printing, packaging and despatching arrangements. Additionally, the member of staff who had accompanied the notes to the ship and delivered them was seen and interviewed.
A visit was also made to the Crown Agents in London, where they agreed to consider Mr Antoine’s request for a further dive upon the wreck, this one to be carried out by a police or military diving team. They also agreed to ask for a comprehensive report about the whole incident from the Master and crew of the Aeolian Sky. The team visited the forensic science laboratory to examine the recovered notes and tests revealed that they had indeed at some stage been totally saturated in sea water.
The Crown Agents having agreed to further dives upon the vessel, the Devon and Cornwall Police diving team was called in for this purpose. They carried out a number of dives during two visits to the site in late February and early March 1980. They physically checked the location where the cases of notes should have been stored, as well as the sea bed around the wreck, but once again nothing of significance was found and no positive conclusions were reached.
Following the media coverage and the issuing of a press release, a small number of people came forward and volunteered the fact that they were in possession of one or two more of the missing notes. These few people lived as far apart as Portland and the Isle of Wight but they each told similar stories as to how they came by the notes: they had all been recovered from the sea at various places between Lulworth and Hengistbury Head. Some had been brought up in lobster pots, some trawled up in fishing nets. These notes had all been recovered in January or February 1980. Examination of this small number of notes confirmed, from the serial numbers, that they came from a total of nine of the original twelve packing cases.
Even after all possible enquiries had been completed, there was still no evidence that any crime had been committed. On the contrary, there was every reason to believe that the notes had sunk with the ship. The view was held that the action of the water and tide had then, over a number of weeks, caused the cases and packaging to break open and for the contents to spill out. With 600,000 bank notes drifting about, it is hardly surprising that a few managed to be recovered. It was also a distinct possibility that more were recovered than the authorities ever knew, quite probably kept by their finders as souvenirs. Indeed, in 1996 the police learnt that two of the notes had been included in the estate of a deceased Somerset farmer and were to be sold at auction in Tavistock, Devon.
It is probable that from time to time small numbers of the missing notes may come to light in this way, but it is highly improbable that somebody is sitting on millions of pounds worth of Seychellois banknotes – unless, of course, you know different!
3 © John Liddiard