The strange case of the disappearing ship wrecks
Reports about the plundering of Second World War warships sunk in action in South East Asia have been appearing in the UK, Dutch and Australian press.
Some time ago Gray Page made an intensive study of the way in which these vessels and other more modern wrecks have been targeted for industrial scale salvage activities. This article seeks to give readers a better understanding of these wrecks and a clear picture of what has been happening.
During the fight for Singapore in late 1941 the Royal Navy, together with its allies the Royal Netherlands Navy, the Australian Navy and the United States Navy, were engaged in a forlorn attempt to prevent the fall of Indonesia to the advancing Imperial Japanese Navy. They were out gunned and out manoeuvred by their fast advancing adversaries. The Allies were at the limits of their supply chains with fuel and munitions in short supply and the larger Japanese vessels, supported by growing air power, were able to take full advantage of their weak position.
Thrown onto its back foot, the Royal Navy lost two of its finest war ships. The new Battleship PRINCE OF WALES, fresh from its involvement in the battle with the German battleship BISMARCK, and the First World War battle cruiser REPULSE were both lost to Japanese airpower on 10 December 1941.
This was followed by the loss of the cruisers HMS EXETER, HMAS PERTH, the HMNLS JAVA and DE REUTER, and USS HOUSTON in two major sea battles in the Java Sea between 27 February and March 3, 1942. These three running battles and the attempts to evacuate ships and men from Singapore resulted in the loss of no less than 19 Allied warships and submarines in the immediate area, with the loss of around 3,160 lives.
A visit to the wreck sites by a Netherlands -backed film documentary crew in 2016 showed that HMAS PERTH and three Netherlands navy vessels had been heavily targeted by illegal salvage activities. It quickly became clear that the wrecks – which are officially recognised war graves – were neither respected nor protected.
Research by Gray Page in 2017 identified over 30 Second World War warships and submarines threatened by illegal salvage operations in South East Asia. Vessels from both sides in the conflict were identified including Japanese warships and troop carriers and German and Italian submarines.
How are the vessels being salvaged?
The way in which wrecks have been exploited follows a standard pattern.
With the Indonesian and Malaysian navies hard pressed to monitor their own territorial waters and economic zones, salvage barge operators move into what are largely unprotected areas and charter their vessels to locally registered companies.
The barges are large, self-propelled, floating platforms equipped with cranes fitted with chisel and magnetic grabs.
Before the barges move in, however, divers operating from small fishing vessels lay explosive charges all over the wrecks to help break them up.
Only the heavily armoured PRINCE OF WALES and USS HOUSTON seem to have survived the worst of these tactics, with the latter vessel being protected due to its close proximity to the shore and regular attention by the local US embassy staff.
After the charges have been remotely detonated the crane barges moor directly over the wrecks, dropping their chisel grabs to further breakup the target vessels. The grabs then begin indiscriminately bringing up mangled scrap metal, sometimes mixed with human remains and the personal effects of the lost crew.
Our sources advise us that the scrap metal is brought ashore at various ports in Malaysia and Indonesia where the more valuable bronze and brass fittings are separated out. All the scrap metal is then sent off to local smelting companies for recycling.
The body parts discovered during this sorting process, we understand, are gathered together and quietly disposed of with no reference to any authorities.
The low-radiation steel and high value non-ferrous fittings have a high value in the scrap metal market. It is perhaps unsurprising, particularly in poor countries, that those illegally salvaging the wrecks do not share the same sensitivities to the remains of fallen servicemen from former colonial powers.
It is also worth remembering that many of the wrecks have been leaking oil, which causes localized pollution. However, local fishermen have found their own livelihoods harmed by the loss of the reefs that have formed around the wrecks and which have been supporting coral and fish. There is more to the case for protecting the wrecks than honoring the resting place of those who died serving their country.
How can the Wreck sites be protected?
Although some wrecks are close to shore, most lie in deep water far from the coast making it impractical to have them continuously monitored.
Prince Charles is known to have raised the issue of the wrecks with the Malaysian Navy during a visit to Malaysia in November 2017. The Malaysians are reported to have agreed to have air force training flights routed over major wreck sites in their waters to provide a degree of monitoring. Notices to mariners have also been issued requiring the reporting of any vessels seen in the vicinity of the wrecks.
The UK Ministry of Defense has recently announced it intends to have a survey vessel visit the sites in what is hoped will be a demonstration of concern for their protection. It may be that the best way to preserve what remains of the wrecks is to publicize how much we care and how important it is to remember what the men lost with the vessels actually died for.
If we allow their memory to be forgotten we cannot be surprised if others seek to benefit from what has become an increasingly easy source of money.
This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.