UK alarmed at WWII wreck plundering
The government is investigating claims of illegal plundering of Second World War battleships that were sunk by the Japanese in their occupation of Malaya and are designated war graves.
UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson said he was “very concerned” that shipwrecks that were the final resting place of hundreds of sailors and civilians may have been looted.
The reports come after six wrecks, including the HMS Prince of Wales – where Churchill and Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter – and HMS Repulse, were damaged by illegal salvage teams.
In 2014, the ships, on which more than 830 sailors died, were first found to have been looted.
The plundering of naval wrecks breaches the UN International Salvaging Convention and is illegal in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Williamson said the UK “absolutely condemns” unauthorised disturbance of wrecks containing human remains. “I am very concerned to hear any allegations of incidents of Royal Navy wrecks being plundered,” the minister said. “We will work closely with the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to investigate these claims.”
The recovered metal is often taken to scrapyards in Indonesia and cut into smaller pieces before entering the global steel market in China.
The wrecks of HMS Tien Kwang, HMS Kuala, HMS Banka and SS Loch Ranza had been targeted for their metal, according to Britain’s Mail on Sunday. Chinese pirates using barges fitted with cranes were blamed by the right-wing newspaper.
Tien Kwang, a submarine chaser, and Kuala, a patrol vessel, were carrying hundreds of civilian evacuees when they were attacked by Japanese bombers near Indonesia’s Riau Islands in February 1942.
The vessels’ metal has value because it has not absorbed background radiation from atomic weapons, unlike later naval ships. The metal can be used for sensitive medical instruments.
Earlier this year officials began to excavate a cemetery in Indonesia where it was believed the remains of Dutch and British sailors had been dumped by scavengers after being found in sunken warships from the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942.
Explosives are reportedly used to break off pieces of the wrecks, which are raised to the surface.
The scavengers can also drop huge anchors on the sunken vessels to smash them before using cranes to remove the pieces from the seabed.
Last December relations of some of the 508 men who died on the Repulse demanded that the remains of the warship be salvaged to build a memorial before more was removed.
A Japanese painting from 1942. The sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse effectively ended British power in Southeast Asia. Picture credit: Wikimedia