A million pounds' worth of gold sovereigns, issued to RAF aircrew and SAS men who might have been captured behind Iraqi lines during the Gulf War and need to buy their way out of trouble, are to be sold by the MoD to raise money. It emerged yesterday that the presentation packs will be signed by General Sir Peter de la Billiere, who is widely blamed for starting an avalanche of books and television programmes about the SAS. The news has furthered angered members of the forces who blame Sir Peter for compromising the SAS mystique.
In certain parts of the world, only gold will do. Whereas the warring factions in Bosnia were keen to steal credit cards, in the desert, gold says more than American Express ever can. The coins were carried by aircrew and SAS men and taped into their clothing, perhaps to persuade Bedouin tribesmen to send them back to the allied forces without performing traditional desert customs, which could include castration. Each man carried 20 coins.
The MoD purchased the 60,000 gold coins from the Bank of England in January 1991, just before the conflict erupted, for about pounds 60 each. The real value of the 22-carat gold coins will fluctuate with the price of gold. Instead of selling them back to the bank of England, the MoD decided it could make more money by selling them in presentation packs.
Gold coins are a standard part of "Escape and Evasion" equipment - survival kit "for individuals who might find themselves at special risk or particularly vulnerable to capture behind enemy lines".
The MoD order clearly anticipated the Gulf War lasting longer than it did, and the sale of the 16,000 coins for 800 combatants is seen as "good housekeeping". If another conflict should occur in which significant numbers of service personnel have to operate behind enemy lines, the MoD said, they will make another order.
As a Lieutenant General, Sir Peter, who had served in the SAS, was the senior British officer in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War. Sources told the Independent his signature on the presentation packs would attest that the coins had been to the Gulf and back.
"They are standard bullion sovereigns - they weren't minted specially for the occasion or anything like that", sources told the Independent.
"A huge proportion of them were obviously issued to troops and airmen, because they've got the sticky from the tape they used to stick them to the webbing still on them."
The liquidity of solid gold coins has long made them an attractive means of exchange, even after the introduction of banknotes, travellers' cheques and credit cards. In the film of From Russia with Love, James Bond reveals he is carrying gold sovereigns in his briefcase.
With paper currencies fluctuating wildly, Special Operations Executive commandos who raided the Nazi missile base at Peenemunde in the Second World War took gold sovereigns with them as means of persuasion if captured.
The Curator of the Royal Engineers' Museum at Chatham recalled the story of a young Engineer officer sent to Egypt just after the turn of the century to map the Nile Delta. He took quantities of gold to hire horses and staff. His drawings of Egyptian temples were so brilliant they instigated a stream of protest against the Government's plans to flood the delta.
Gold sovereigns may be on the way out. "We've opened up quite a few offices in the new states of the former Soviet Union and so on in the past few years", the Foreign Office said. "But they haven't gone off with bags full of gold sovereigns".Reuse content