Lead Image: HMS Prince of Wales in 1941.
[Official US Navy Photograph Public Domain via US National Archive 80-G-190724]
by Andy Brockman and Giles Richardson
The peer asked Her Majesty’s Government, then led by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, what action the Government proposed to take to protect the wrecks of H.M.S. “Prince of Wales” and H.M.S. “Repulse” in view of the then imminent departure of the Royal Navy from Singapore as part of the Government’s defence cuts and withdrawal from “east of Suez”..
In the early hours of 10 December 1941 in London Winston Churchill was in bed working on his boxes of Government documents when the telephone on his bedside table rang. At first the Prime Minister could not work out what the most senior officer in the Royal Navy, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Dudley Pound was trying to tell him, then the message became horrifically clear.
“Prime Minister,” Pound said, “I have to report to you that the Prince of Wales and the Repulse have both been sunk by the Japanese- we think by aircraft. Tom Phillips is drowned.”
Writing in his memoirs Churchill recalled that, as he replaced the telephone receiver, he was thankful that he was alone.
“In all the war I never received a more direct shock, “ he wrote, adding that he twisted in bed as the full horror of the news sank in.
It was not just the loss of the two capital ships and their commanding Admiral, one, Admiral Tom Phillip’s flagship the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, was less than a year old and supposedly a state of the art vessel, equipped with the latest radar directed anti aircraft guns, while politically the situation Britain faced in the Far East was now a disaster in the making and Churchill knew it.
“Over this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme and we everywhere were weak and naked.” the Prime Minister would write later.
Eighty two years later another British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, faces questions about HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, this time not about how the two ships and hundreds of Royal Navy sailors came to lie on the bottom of the South China Sea, one hundred kilometres off the Kuantan in Malaysia, but why at least one of the ships, the forty three thousand ton Prince of Wales, has apparently been systematically looted for at least five months by a Chinese flagged crane dredger, in spite of the wreck being still the property of the UK Government and the Royal Navy and the UK Government having been aware of the threat from would be salvagers for almost fifty years.
The story begins with the dispatch of the Royal Navy’s Force Z to the Far East in the Autumn of 1941 in an attempt to deter an aggressive move by Japan against British interests including the then colony of Malaya.
Controversial, and arguably unlucky, from the beginning, the main strike force of Force Z was the veteran battlecruiser Repulse and the flagship, the King George V class battleship HMS Prince of Wales. In commission for less than a year, Prince of Wales had already been involved in the Denmark strait action against the German battleship Bismarck which had seen the Royal Navy’s talismanic HMS Hood blow up with just three survivors from her crew of 1418. On a happier note the ship had the honour of crossing the Atlantic taking Prime Minister Winston Churchill to visit President Roosevelt.
Now, three days after Pearl Harbour, with the Japanese striking targets in a giant arc across the western Pacific and South China Sea, Force Z under Admiral Sir Tom Phillips had sortied from the great British naval base at Singapore in an attempt to locate and destroy a reported Japanese amphibious landing around Khota Baru, in eastern Malaya, then a British colony.
The operation was ill fated from the start.
Failing to make contact with the Japanese force and with his squadron spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft Phillips was forced to abandon the attack and return to Singapore.
To make matters worse for Force Z, on the morning of 10 December, the capital ships and their small destroyer escort, had no air cover. An aircraft carrier which had been meant to be a part of the squadron had been damaged in a grounding and was unable to sail when the ships left for the Far East, and Phillips, to his critics a traditional big gun admiral, had not asked for air cover from a squadron of Royal Australian Air Force fighters which was on standby and available just one hour away.
Thus when the land based aircraft of the Japanese Kanoya and Minoru Air Corps arrived over Force Z and began their attack at around 11.15am the Japanese crews had the sky to themselves.
Including a lull of around twenty minutes it took the Japanese crews just over two hours to sink the pride of the Royal Navy in the Far East.
Brilliantly handled by her captain Bill Tennant, Repulse was first to go, finally overwhelmed by the sheer number of torpedoes launched at the rapidly manoeuvring ship, and sinking with the loss of 513 of the ship’s crew.
Prince of Wales fate was more drawn out, but in some ways less dignified as an early torpedo hit near the stern gave the ship a severe list, reduced speed by almost half and caused havoc with the ship’s electrical supply leading to break downs in vital services such as the anti aircraft gun turrets, as well as communications and even ventilation.
Of the ship’s company of 1612 officers and men, 327 did not survive.
The fatal casualties included Admiral Phillips and the ship’s captain John Leach.
The Japanese lost three aircraft and eighteen aircrew and just one aspect of the historic importance of this maritime battlefield, is that seldom, if ever, in military history has so far reaching a victory been won at so little cost.
The wrecks of HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Repulse, and the three Japanese aircraft which lie on the sea bed off Kuantan mark the end of the big gun battleship as the dominant force in naval warfare, and, in many respects, the beginning of the end of the British Empire.
That end game of Empire would play out through the post war period with the wrecks of Prince of Wales and Repulse now passive pieces in the international chess game.
As early as 1942 the Japanese are said to have located the two wreck sites, eight miles apart, and had undertaken some work aimed at recovering sensitive equipment such as radar. In the June of 1943 it was even reported by Tokyo Radio that there was to be an attempt to raise HMS Repulse. However, the attempt, if ever serious, came to nothing.
Then, in 1954, twelve years after the sinking, the Royal Navy returned,.
The position of the wrecks was fixed first by the destroyer HMS Defender, and then in 1959 by the Singapore based survey ship HMS Dampier.
This precision, coupled with advances in underwater technology, now led to some hard information about the current state of the wreck sites and it came from the Royal Navy.
“While our presence in the Far East may have had a deterrent effect on would be salvors, I believe that the withdrawal of the Royal Navy from Singapore should not affect in practice our ability to take action should the necessity arise..”
Between 25 April and 6 May 1966 the Royal Navy’s Far East Fleet Clearance Diving Team, with support from the Royal Australian Navy’s Clearance Diving Team No 1 and Clearance Divers from the minehunter HMS Sheraton, spent over thirty diver hours surveying the wreck of Prince of Wales.
Constrained by the depth and by terms of reference preventing them from entering the ship or disturbing it in any way, the teams found the wreck of the battleship to be in good condition with the highest part of the hull around 155 feet from the surface.
Significantly for what would transpire fifty years later the ship was lying more or less upside down, while in historical and archaeological terms the divers also recorded for the first time the havoc caused by the torpedo hit in the stern, including the loss of the ship’s giant port outer propeller.
The state of the art battleship was now proven to have had an Achilles heel.
Nonetheless a Royal Navy White Ensign was floated from the vessel as a symbol of respect and ownership of the ship, officers and men lost in service of their country.
It has been renewed periodically ever since.
This new visibility, and proof that the ships could be found and worked on by salvagers, and increasingly by divers, concentrated minds and perhaps with deliberate symbolism, on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1975 the matter of the protection of the wrecks of Force Z was raised in the House of Lords in a question from Lord Clifford of Chudleigh.
Replying for the Government defence minister Lord Winterbottom told the House that, although the wrecks lay in international waters over 50 miles from the Malaysia coast, they remain Crown property and as such the Government was concerned to safeguard them.
In what would turn out to be a significant hostage to fortune Winterbottom added that their Lordships would appreciate the difficulties of trying to prevent any unauthorised interference with the wrecks, particularly in isolated instances, he acknowledged the wrecks could be reached by divers; but added,
“…since salvage of these two ships would be a major and lengthy operation any attempt could hardly escape notice even in its preparatory stages. While our presence in the Far East may have had a deterrent effect on would be salvors, I believe that the withdrawal of the Royal Navy from Singapore should not affect in practice our ability to take action should the necessity arise. The position will, of course, be watched carefully.”
Lord Clifford then raised the issue of “pre-Hiroshima steel” making the wrecks a potential “…salvage bonanza”
[Explainer: Pre-Hiroshima/Low-Background Steel
The issue of pre-Hiroshima steel, or low-background steel, referring to steel made before the explosion of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere between 1945 and the end of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in 1963 runs as a mystery within a mystery throughout this story. Some sources maintain that there remains a demand for the material because of its importance in the manufacture of scientific devices such as Geiger counters, and for shielding, and that this demand is enough to drive the illicit salvors. While others state that its importance is overstated, and point out that, while there such steel was used in the early days of the nuclear industry and when warships built before 1945 were scrapped in the 1950’s and 1960’s steel did find its way into academic research institutions and the nuclear industry, by the twenty first century new steel manufacturing methods, and the fall in background radiation rendered it less important. It is also pointed out that more easily accessible sources for such steel exist, such as from the demolition of pre 1945 steel framed buildings and that when Dutch salvors attacked wrecks in the North Sea the first material targeted was non ferrous metals in the engine rooms and propellers, not the high quality steel in the armour belts, as was the case also with earlier attacks on Prince of Wales and Repulse.]
Returning to the House of Lords in 1975 Lord Clifford then also asked the minister to confirm that it was Admiralty policy not to give salvage rights in such circumstances?
“Furthermore,” Clifford added, “would he not agree that any attempt to disturb the graves of these honourable and gallant men would outrage public opinion in Britain?”
“Yes, my Lords, that is the position.” Lord Winterbottom confirmed, only to undercut the position moments later in answer to another questions, by appearing to admit that the Government would consider salvage by British companies for British purposes,
“…provided the bodies of the dead were reverently treated.”
In fact the Royal Navy had been quietly disposing of sunken warships on the commercial salvage market for years, including those sunk with heavy loss of life.
In the early 1950’s the wrecks of the three cruisers of the so called “live bait squadron”, HMS Cressy, HMS Hogue and HMS Aboukir, sunk in September 1914 off the Dutch coast by the German submarine U9, with the loss of 1459 lives, was sold to a German salvage company and the wrecks are now shredded.
And it was not just foreign companies which tried to cash in on the Admiralty’s largess.
The hospital ship HMHS Anglia, mined off Folkestone in November 1915, again with heavy loss of life, many of the casualties being wounded soldiers from the Western Front and medical staff, was also sold for salvage, this time to a British company. While the Government itself controversially issued a commercial salvage contract to use saturation divers to enter the wreck of HMS Edinburgh in the Barents Sea and recover a consignment of 4.5 tons of gold lost when the cruiser was torpedoed and scuttled in 1942.
While as recently as 2014 the then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon gave permission for the charity the Maritime Heritage Foundation and its commercial salvage partner, Odyssey Marine Exploration permission to salvage the wreck site of the one hundred gun HMS Victory, sunk in the western English Channel in October 1744 with the loss of the entire crew of over 1100 men under terms which made the sale of items from the ship which were not clearly Government property possible. Faced with the threat of a Judicial Review from Mr Robert Yorke, chair of the independent expert body the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee, and amid accusations of cronyism and procedural irregularities, Mr Fallon was forced to rescind the permission. An application for a licence under the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act to excavate the wreck was subsequently also rejected.
Not for nothing did historian David Crane observe in “Empires of the Dead”, his powerful study of the efforts of Fabian Ware to create a fitting memorial to Britain and her then Empire’s war dead, that when asked to support what would become today the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it took their Lordships of the Admiralty, with their “tradition of burial at sea and resolutely unsentimental world vision” over “…eighteen months of internal dithering and external prompting before they were ready to come back to the Commission with their own inimitably unimaginative solution to the problem.”
Such then was the at times, contradictory policy background when the issue of the protection of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse was again raised in Parliament on 13 June 1995.
“…can the noble Baroness explain why, if the American Government can protect their wrecks, we cannot?”
This time the protection of the two wrecks was raised in a debate in the House of Lords in the context of the forthcoming handover of Hong Kong to the Government of China.
The debate saw an exchange between Lord Craig of Radley and defence Minister Lord Henley, and this time the Government’s position would be less robust than that expressed by previous ministers,
“My Lords,” Lord Craig said making the obvious point, “do not the ships remain the property of Her Majesty’s Government and in addition to their importance as war graves, surely the Government should be protecting that which they own?“
Either badly briefed, or being deliberately disingenuous, Lord Henley responded
“My Lords, the noble Lord raises a legal point, but I presume that he is right that they remain the property of Her Majesty’s Government.”
As we have seen, unless deliberately disposed of, and Prince of Wales and Repulse were not, the wrecks do indeed remain the property of the UK Government as Lord Henley should well have known. However Lord Henley’s hint of ignorance of the legal reality pales in the light of his next statement which was a shameless abdication of responsibility for the maritime military graves of its personnel on the part of the Ministry of Defence.
“Whether or not we can protect them is another matter.” Henley observed, adding “Whether our defence resources should be devoted to protecting a very large number of war graves scattered throughout the world is debatable.”
On one level, given finite resources, Henley’s point might be reasonable, albeit brutally practical, but at another it is a tin eared response to a genuine public concern that proper respect should be given to those who had died in the service of their country, and worse, it could be taken as green light to any would be salvage company that any illicit attempt to work a Royal Navy wreck was pretty low risk, if it was even discovered at all.
“…there is no such thing as a maritime war grave, protected under International Law and the Geneva Conventions.”
The sensitivity of Lord Henley’s apparent ambivalence about whether the UK could even begin to monitor, let alone commit the resources to protect its lost warships and any remains of their crews becomes clear when the precise legal situation around lost warships like Prince of Wales and Repulse is understood.
One of the UK’s leading experts in International Maritime Law, and himself an advisor to the UK Government, Professor Michael Williams of Plymouth University explains it this way.
Unlike the situation on land, there is no such thing as a maritime war grave, protected under International Law and the Geneva Conventions. That is why the UK Ministry of Defence describes wrecks like Prince of Wales and Repulse not as “war graves” but as “maritime military graves”.
Effectively it is a definition of optimistic intent rather than of legal standing.
Neither is the UK Protection of Military Remains Act [PMRA 1986] as effective as it might be thought.
Designed specifically to protect military ships and aircraft, the Act only applies in UK waters, or internationally to UK nationals and UK flagged vessels.
In other words, while a diver with a UK passport removing a souvenir from Prince of Wales could be prosecuted under the PMRA, a Chinese passport holder doing the same, or an eight thousand ton crane dredger lifting hundreds of tons of steel, could not.
In terms of the legislation which could be applied, Professor Williams says that the London Salvage Convention of 1989 allows the prohibition of salvage where reasonable, under Article 19. The UK has ratified and China, the flag state of the salvage barge accused of looting Prince of Wales, has announced its accession to the Convention, which has the same effect. Arguably, given the wreck is the last known resting place of military personnel, such a prohibition would indeed be reasonable.
Finally, the UK also asserts its right as owner of the wreck as its property.
This is an interpretation of International Law which argues that State or Crown property, such as a Royal Navy warship, remains State or Crown Property in perpetuity, and thus anyone removing all or part of that property is committing an act of theft from the Crown.
Of course, the problem there is, as with any theft, the perpetrator has to be caught, identified and prosecuted. Not easy in a foreign jurisdiction, let alone international waters.
“In my opinion, time is up for rogue divers.”
As maritime lawyers and Government advisors wrestled with the legal complexities, by the turn of the Millennium concern about the security of the wrecks had reached a level where the issue was raised in a debate in the House of Commons.
On 1 November 2000 Patrick Nicholls MP, who had secured the debate, told MP’s, that there was substantial evidence of not simply minor pilfering of personal mementoes, but serious commercial plundering.
Mr Nicholls reported that the port-side propellers of HMS Repulse had been removed by commercial salvors and press reports indicated all the battlecruiser’s props may have been taken, adding there was no doubt that personal belongings have also been lifted without permission.
In a mark of the human cost of the illicit activity he also quoted the words of a survivor of Force Z, Albert Burnell, who commented,
I loved my ship and still do. We lost a lot of brave men and they should be honoured and respected…You wouldn’t have people taking handles off coffins, would you? Why is this any different?“
Responding for the Government the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, Dr. Lewis Moonie, linked the issue to the then ongoing discussions about wreck protection, including over what would become the UNESCO Convention on the protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
He added that, in his opinion, respect through education was the best form of protection in the first instance, backed up by legislation, with the Government making clear that action would be taken if necessary.
“In my opinion, time is up for rogue divers.” Dr Moonie said.
As a result of this concern the Royal Navy tasked divers to raise a bell from both ships. A mission which was accomplished in 2002.
However, while commercial looting had been reported at least in the case of Repulse’s props, the fact that it was small “collectable” objects most vulnerable to divers like ship’s bells, which were lifted suggests at that time the Government, and Royal Navy’s concern was still focussed primarily on the threat to the wrecks from divers souveniring.
Two years later in December 2006 the dilemma regarding how to protect the remains of Prince of Wales and Repulse from wreck divers was again raised in the UK Parliament., this time after videos emerged apparently showing recreational divers from the growing dive tourism sector inside the wrecks, in the presence of human remains.
Clearly Dr Mooney’s belief in education and his comment that the time was up for rogue divers had proven to be somewhat optimistic.
Following the release of images of the apparent trespass, including by a US national allegedly inside HMS Repulse, Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Tony Blair’s Government what steps it was taking to protect the wrecks
“…from the activities of foreign nationals undertaking penetration dives and disturbing human remains.”
Responding for the Government in the House of Lords Baroness Crawley stated that the Government would, once again,“… continue to work closely with regional Governments, diving groups and others to prevent inappropriate activity on the wreck sites by foreign nationals.”
She added that the company concerned, one of two named under Parliamentary Privilege, had been contacted by the UK High Commission in Malaysia and asked to take down the material, which it had done, also apologising for the offence caused.
One might be forgiven for thinking that these parliamentary exchanges, mostly in the House of Lords, were becoming somewhat repetitive.
However, there were two interventions in the 2005 debate which suggested the goal posts were moving.First Lord Howarth of Newport introduced the A word, “Archaeology”, asking,“My Lords, what plans do the Government have for more proactive management of historic wreck sites so that they are physically assessed by people with relevant expertise, and management plans are drawn up which would be sensitive to them both as war graves, if that is what they are, and as archaeological sites?”
Shortly afterwards Baroness Sharples asked tartly,“My Lords, can the noble Baroness explain why, if the American Government can protect their wrecks, we cannot?”
The Baroness was referring to the Sunken Military Craft Act, recently passed in the United States. Explicitly referring to the risk to wrecks from treasure hunters and looters using new technologies, the Act sets out to protect all sunken US military craft, aircraft and their crews anywhere in the world and additionally foreign military craft as well as US craft in US waters.
The United States has certainly been active in asserting its rights over sovereign material from military wrecks, including taking back artefacts from the sixteen gun anti-slavery patrol sloop USS Yorktown, wrecked on Cap Verde in 1850 and subjected to unauthorised salvage by the company Arqueonautas Worldwide. The objects, including some with clear US Navy markings, had been sold at auction by Sotheby’s.
Although to be fair, however good the cooperation, further complicating the case of the two wrecks of Force Z, it is far from clear how local law in Malaysian law can be applied.
On 2 June  the news website of the New Straits Times quoted analyst Dr Azmi Hassan as saying,“The [Malaysian] National Heritage Act 2005 mentions only the coverage of shipwrecks in Malaysian waters, which extends to 12 nautical miles from the coast.”
“The loophole is that some of these wrecks, in this case, the looting of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, took place in the country’s exclusive economic zone, which is not covered.” Dr Hassan added.
The legal confusion and apparent impotence of flag states was shown up most recently in the years following 2014.
First in 2014 it was reported that Prince of Wales and Repulse were being attacked by local salvors from Vietnam who were using explosives and basic equipment to access metal from the ships.
These reports prompted a written Parliamentary Question from a Conservative MP with an interest in defence issues, Dr Julian Lewis.
Junior Defence Minister Anna Soubry responded that, regrettably, the Government was aware of unauthorised salvaging and damage to the wrecks.“We are engaged with the Government of Malaysia and the Royal Malaysian Navy to prevent further damage.” Ms Soubry added.
As part of the response the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur had also issued a press release welcoming the actions of the Royal Malaysian Navy to impound a Cambodian registered vessel responsible for the illegal salvage of ship wrecks for scrap material and had taken the opportunity to,“…highlight that wrecks should be treated as military maritime graves and given the respect they
But there was an important caveat,
“The large number of Royal Navy wrecks around the world means there are limitations on what can be achieved by the United Kingdom alone with regard to enforcing protection but where we have definitive evidence of desecration of sites, we will respond.” Ms Soubry wrote.
The same year a joint survey by the United Sates Navy and the Indonesian Navy, on behalf of the US Navy History and Heritage Command [the UK has no equivalent organisation] found that the heavy cruiser USS Houston, sunk in Indonesia’s Sunda Strait, had also been damaged by divers.
During this period the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth, sunk in the same action as Houston, was found also to have been heavily damaged, this time by commercial salvors.
The publicity given to these discoveries was now causing distress and not a little anger among the dwindling band of survivors of these ships and their families, and those who remembered the dead.
Equally angry were the owners of dive tourism businesses who were seeing a large part of their livelihoods disappearing in front of their eyes.It was particularly galling as a number of the wrecks had only recently been located and identified by divers.
“The shipwrecks are big attractions and an icon for technical diving enthusiasts.” dive company proprietor Zainal Rahman Karim told the New Straits Times, but added thanks to the predations of the illicit salvors the popularity of these challenging, but spectacular, dive sites was declining.
Another commercial diver, Hazz Zain had even met the actual Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, when he visited Penang in November 2017.
“When we met at the Royal Air Force base, I showed him some videos and images of the wrecks.” Ms Zain recalled. “After looking through them, he looked upset and said it was already between 60 and 70 per cent salvaged.”
“The illegal salvage operators have ruined the wrecks and jeopardised the recreational wreck diving activities.” she added. “These days, one can only see World War 2 battleships on television or pictures. But to witness it with your own eyes, one has to dive deep into the sea for the majestic and fascinating view.”
During the same visit the then Prince of Wales also met British expatriate oil worker and technical diver Stephen Flew, who described to the future King how he and his fellow divers monitored the wrecks and reported any fresh damage to the Malaysian military.
In a mark of the apparent cooperation between the two countries Prince Charles concluded the visit by presenting Admiral Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmed Badaruddin, chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy, with a photograph of the lost battleship and her crew.
However, while nobody could deny the ongoing threat to military wrecks in the Far East was known to the British authorities, no less a person than the heir to the throne on an official visit had been told about it, much worse was to come and events were about to show that the failure of the UK Government to convert good intentions stated in public, and even to Parliament, into actions did not just apply to the wreck sites of Prince of Wales and Repulse.
In May 2016, just ahead of the centenary of the Battle of Jutland [in Germany the Battle of Skagerrak] thePipeLine news website published the results of an investigation into the looting of the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary, which blew up at Jutland with the loss of 1266 of its crew, by the Dutch based company Friendship Offshore BV.
The investigation, was inspired by the latest 3D sonar surveys of the Jutland wrecks by maritime archaeologist Dr Innes McCartney which confirmed wholesale salvage on over twenty Jutland vessels, British and German, most unauthorised, and was undertaken in partnership with the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust [MAST] and other colleagues from the world of maritime archaeology.
It was the culmination of a series of similar investigations into cases where the UK Government and Ministry of defence had failed to take action over the alleged unauthorised salvage of, what the Government now termed, “maritime military graves”, including the cruisers of the Livebait Squadron and the destroyer leader HMS Scott off the Dutch coast.
The UK Government took no known action in relation to the material robbed from HMS Queen Mary, but it may be no coincidence that when Friendship Offshore next appeared in UK waters their salvage vessel MV Good Hope appears to have been tracked and was arrested for the unauthorised salvage of £90,000 of copper ingots from SS Harrovian. The company, and the vessel’s skipper Walter Bakker, were fined and ordered to pay costs and the stolen cargo confiscated.
Good Hope was a converted trawler with effective, but limited, capabilities. On the other side of the world this period saw the first appearance in the story of the eight thousand ton crane dredger Chuan Hong 68, which is capable of carrying over three thousand tons of scrap at a time.
“The threat to wrecks was now clearly orders of magnitude greater than that from divers shooting videos and souveniring.”
Built in 2014 and registered in the port city of Fuzhou in China, in April 2017 the vessel was linked with the unauthorised salvage of the Swedish tanker Seven Skies and arrested by the Indonesian authorities.
However, reportedly before the Indonesian military could provide an escort the Chinese flagged vessel escaped to international waters.
Meanwhile the Chinese Government claimed that the vessel had actually been chartered by a Malaysian company, Amenture Strategy Sdn. Bhd, [aka Acenture Strategy], and,“From our initial information … it has been engaged in offshore engineering in the waters specified by the Malaysian side according to the contract,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson said.
The company listing for Amenture/Acenture states that one strand of its business is “To dredge waste of scraps from the seabed.” and Chuan Hong 68 appears to have been built specifically to take advantage of a newly identified business opportunity in the waters around Indonesia, Malaysia and the South China Sea, the industrial scale removal of wrecks by crane dredger.
The first hint that something had gone very wrong with the management of the sovereign military wrecks of the Far East came in late 2016 when a Dutch expedition, which aimed to survey the wrecks of Rear Admiral Karel Doorman’s ill-fated squadron sunk by the Japanese at the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942, found holes in the seabed where the wrecks of the cruisers HNMS De Ruyter and HNMS Java, and the destroyer HNMS Kortenaer, should have been.
A separate survey embarrassed and angered the UK Government when it was found that the wrecks of the destroyers HMS Electra and HMS Encounter and the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, famous for its role in the Battle of the River Plate, had also been removed wholesale.
Other Royal Navy wrecks were also reported to have been plundered for the first time and in August 2018 then Defence Secretary Sir Gavin Williamson told the media,
“I am very concerned to hear any allegations of incidents of Royal Navy wrecks being plundered in the Far East,” adding the tried and tested formula that,
“We will work closely with the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to investigate these claims.”
To our knowledge, while the offshore support vessel MMA Pinnacle was seen at the wreck site of Prince of Wales in mid March 2019, we understand working on behalf of the UK Government, we can find no report of the investigation in the public domain.
Ironically, in May 2014, not long before the discovery of the destruction of the cruiser, the British High Commission in Canberra had been involved in reclaiming artefacts from HMS Exeter which had been removed unlawfully by recreational divers and which were about to be sold at auction. Now almost the entire ship was gone.
But bluntly, the threat to wrecks was now clearly orders of magnitude greater than that from divers shooting videos and souveniring and the proven predation of the Java Sea wrecks and the Seven Skies was the clearest warning yet that prevention was better than a cure through education and unspecified co-operation, which almost certainly would not work.
The accusation now is that the UK Government in general, and the Royal Navy in particular, at best did not learn the lessons of the looting and destruction of the Java Sea wrecks and, at worst, maybe even ignored it.
The proof of that failure to learn, and the consequent failure of intelligence which could have enabled the UK Government to work with Malaysian authorities to intervene early to protect the wreck of HMS Prince of Wales, would come from the UK based Maritime Observatory.
The Maritime Observatory is an innovative partnership between the expert charity Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST) and the not for profit OceanMind (OM) which has set out to harnesses the growing capabilities of the commercial satellite sector to protect shipwrecks and other underwater heritage at sea from what the organisation terms Illegal, Unauthorised or Unregulated [IUU] activity.
MAST champions underwater maritime heritage and advocacy, while OceanMind, is an award-winning expert in satellite-based surveillance and maritime domain awareness and the Maritime Observatory project utilises high tech data gathering based on the growing number of Earth Observation Satellites [EOS], such as the European Space Agency’s Copernicus programme, supported by Artificial Intelligence, to monitor threats to the environment.
In the wake of the looting of wrecks in the Java Sea the Dutch heritage agency bought into this new capability to monitor what remained of its wrecks in the Far East.
However, we have been told that offered the same opportunity, for a cost in the region of £15-30k the British Government, some might say typically, decided to try to go it alone.
Meanwhile, coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic the global demand for metals began to increase once more and the demand for scrap metals was no different so that by early 2023 the price of scrap steel in Singapore was rising, from $500 per ton in February to $590 per ton in May, although it has since fallen back slightly and overall prices were at a level they had not been for over ten years, around the time when the industrial scale predation of Far East wrecks seems to have begun.
Non ferrous metals, such as the brass and copper found in engine and boiler room plant, were similarly in demand, so that even a very crude calculation suggests that the forty three thousand ton Prince of Wales held a scrap value running into the tens of millions of dollars.
This perhaps explains why having been absent for some years, in December 2022 Chuan Hong 68 was once again apparently on the prowl for wrecks in South East Asia, the crane dredger’s hold capable of carrying up to three thousand tons of scrap at a time.
“AIS transmissions routinely stopped when the vessel travelled to and from a site suggesting the vessel’s operators did not want their location tracked.”
Figure 1 : Chuan Hong 68 over Prince of Wales – Selected Images mapping the spread of the oil slick, apparently from the wreck of HMS Prince of Wales, between February and May 2023.
[The Maritime Observatory, Sentinel-2 data copyright ESA 2023]
Analysis by the Maritime Observatory, using commercially available satellite and Automatic Identification System [AIS] data indicates that by 2021 Chuan Hong 68 was operating from Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf, notably supporting construction at Siraf Pars, the second largest export terminal for that country’s Liquid Petroleum Gas products.
AIS is the internationally mandated transponder fitted to all vessels over 300 tons as a safety measure.
The device reveals the position and identity of the vessel in real time.
It is tempting to link Chuan Hong 68’s presence in Iranian waters to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement signed by China and Iran on 27 th March 2021, which included a $280 billion Chinese investment in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors.
However, on 1 December 2021 the salvage barge departed Iranian waters and embarked on a monthlong non-stop voyage to Malaysia, entering the Malacca Straits in the first moments of New Year’s Day 2022.
By early March the vessel had established a base of operations at Jeti Mohamed, a privately owned yard tucked away on a small tributary of the Johor River in Kamung Belungkor district.
The site, a former barge wharf, was near-derelict, but the location, nested between fishing resorts on the Southern border between Malaysia and Singapore, offered a sheltered berth away from prying eyes, and direct access to the busy shipping lanes in the strategically important Singapore Strait ( Figure 2 ).
Figure 2 : Chuan Hong 68 at Kampung Belungkor on 6th May. AIS indicates the vessel left port 9 minutes later.
[The Maritime Observatory, Sentinel-2 data copyright ESA 2023]
Analysis of the vessel’s movements in 2022 are ongoing. However, Chuan Hong 68‘s crew do not not appear to have hidden their presence in Malaysia, operating openly with the vessel’s Automatic Identification System [AIS], switched on in ports and shipping lanes
However AIS transmissions routinely stopped when the vessel travelled to and from a site suggesting the vessels operators did not want their location tracked.
This is typical behaviour of vessels acting illicitly and, perhaps not surprisingly, this practice has been illegal under Malaysian maritime law since 2021 (Section 491B (4) of the Merchant Shipping Ordinance 1952), and tellingly, reports quoting officials state that the crew are currently being held under suspected breaches of that Act.
The Maritime Observatory has detected three visits to Kamung Belungkor in October, November and December 2022 which may have involved the unloading of scrap from unidentified wrecks in the Java Sea area.
Figure 3 : Chuan Hong 68 AIS Track Dec 2022 – May 2023 [The Maritime Observatory]
However, while the vessels targeted in 2022 remain unidentified for now, by the end of 2022 our analysis shows that a sustained campaign of salvage on HMS Prince of Wales had begun.
Chuan Hong 68’s movements from December 2022 to May 2023 are set out in the timeline below and illustrated in Figure 1 .
The vessel visited the site six times, typically spending around 2 weeks on-site using its twin heavy lift cranes to grab and wrench material from the wreck.
Videos and images released by the Malaysian Coast Guard and Police show considerable quantities of metal, as well as identifiable artefacts such as anchors, and a considerable quantity of live ammunition, including large calibre shells which can only have come from a big gun warship such as Prince of Wales or Repulse.
This is also consistent with an attack based on breaking into the wreck from the point closest to the surface, which is actually the battleship’s underside where the plating is thinner and thus easier to break through and the valuable non ferrous metal in the boiler and engine room spaces are close by.
Schematics show that the vessel’s fuel bunkers and ammunition magazines are also in this area, hence there vulnerability to a crude smash and grab approach to salvage as apparently practiced by Chuan Hong 68.
We estimate the crane dredger spent about 84 days in total working over the wreck, enough time to do enormous damage to the wreck and to release that vast oil slick from the battleship’s fuel bunkers.
Our imagery suggests the slick was carried by currents, eventually reaching a length of as much as 10km (see Figure 1).
The full extent of the environmental damage caused by the oil spill remains unknown. However, what is reasonably certain is that if a clean up is required, it will almost certainly not be Chuan Hong 68‘s owners which will be paying.
Asked about responsibility for any environmental pollution Professor Williams told us that the law could be complicated in this area, but he pointed to the similar case of Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker RFA Darkdale in 2015.
Torpedoed off St Helena in the South Atlantic in 1941, when an environmental disaster was threatened almost two thousand cubic meters of bunker oil and aviation fuel were removed from the ships tanks by Swire Salvage under a commercial contract whereby the British Government footed the bill.
Timeline: Operations Connected to HMS Prince of Wales undertaken by Chuan Hong 68:
3 – 22 December 2022: AIS not recorded (Suspected salvage activity on an unknown site, not detected on Prince of Wales)
23 – 26 December 2022: Chuan Hong 68 at Kampung Belungkor
27 December 2022 – 22 January 2023: Chuan Hong 68 Onsite POW (17 days)
14– 24 January 2023: Chuan Hong 68 at Kampung Belungkor
25 Jan-10 Feb 2023 Chuan Hong 68 Onsite POW (17 days)
11–13 Feb 2023 At Kampung Belungkor
14–24 Feb 2023 Chuan Hong 68 in Dry Dock 2, Malaysia Marine Heavy Engineering, West Yard, Johor Port
25 Feb–10 Mar 2023: Chuan Hong 68 at Kampung Belungkor
11 Mar–23 Mar 2023: Chuan Hong 68 onsite POW (13 days)
25-28 Mar 2023: Chuan Hong 68 at Kampung Belungkor
30 Mar–10 April 2023: Chuan Hong 68 onsite POW (12 days)
11–18 April 2023: Chuan Hong 68 at Kampung Belungkor
18-30 April 2023: Chuan Hong 68 onsite POW (13 days)
2-6 May 2023: Chuan Hong 68 at Kampung Belungkor
7-18 May 2023: Chuan Hong 68 onsite POW (12 days)
18–19 May (approx.): Chuan Hong 68 withdrew from POW site
21 May 2023 Yard at Kampung Belungkor raided by Royal Malaysian Police.
29 May 2023 Chuan Hong 68 seized at anchor 20nm off Tanjung Siang
It appears official checks on the ship’s movements and verification of the scrap cargo carried into Kampung Belungkor were completely inadequate. The ship was able to make 5 or 6 trips into port through a busy shipping lane while openly carrying wreckage likely to have been from the Prince of Wales on deck, so it’s a huge missed opportunity there was no inspections made earlier.
Indeed, local reports suggest that the whole operation at Kampung Belungkor was only unmasked when the owner of the yard posted a video on Tik Tok showing the Chuan Hong 68 offloading material which could only have come from a warship such as Prince of Wales.
The collected scrap, which could have been as much as three thousand tons per visit, was unloaded onto the tidal slipways at Kampung Belungkor, a process that typically took about three days ( Figure 4 ). Excavators appear to have then cut the wreckage into smaller chunks which was loaded into convoys of waiting lorries for transport to an as yet unidentified smelting works ( Figure 6 ).
Figure 4 : Chuan Hong 68 unloading at Kamung Belungkor on 28th March 2023.
[The Maritime Observatory, Sentinel-2 data copyright ESA 2023]
In addition, from 14 th – 24 th February, the vessel was in a busy dry dock in Johor Port, just across the water from Singapore ( Figure 5 ).
The dock, owned by the Malaysia Marine Heavy Engineering Company (MMHE), specialises in ship repair, so it is possible Chuan Hong 68, or one of her cranes, was damaged during her second visit to the wreck.
While a mechanical failure of some kind is most likely explanation for the docking, the possibility cannot be excluded that there was some form of mishap with the large amount of ammunition which was being recovered.
Whatever the reason for it, again it is unlikely this extended stay passed without at least some form of official notice.
That said, it is to the Malaysian authorities’ credit that they acted quickly to shut down the operation when the first public reports appeared in late May.
Figure 5 : Chuan Hong 68 in dry dock February 2023. [The Maritime Observatory, Sentinel-2 data copyright ESA 2023]
Figure 6 : Lorries Loading metal on 17th February.
[The Maritime Observatory, Sentinel-2 data copyright ESA 2023]
“Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable public anxiety on this issue?”
Among the many questions which surround the alleged looting of HMS Prince of Wales by Chuan Kong 68, all the archaeologists and other experts consulted for this article agree that the priority is for the UK Government to work with Malaysia to obtain a full condition survey of the wreck of HMS Prince of Wales.
As explained above, the evidence is that any such survey will not produce good news and in the worst case as much as half the wreck by weight could have been removed this year alone by Chuan Hong 68.
In parallel with this the material which has been landed must be identified and, if shown to be from Prince of Wales, disposed of appropriately, either by accession to a museum, we have been told that the National Museum of the Royal Navy wishes to assert its rights in this area, or by other means.
Meanwhile, the Maritime Observatory has proven its worth in identifying and analysing the ongoing looting of Prince of Wales in the first half of 2023, but the uncomfortable fact remains that the organisation could have offered the opportunity to monitor the site in real time allowing the UK and Malaysian Governments to intervene earlier to limit, and possibly even to prevent, the looting of the wreck.
Having declined to follow the Dutch Heritage Agency and buy into the kind of real time surveillance offered by assets like the Maritime Observatory, relaying instead on its own systems and assets like the National Maritime Information Centre [NMIC], the Ministry of Defence will also need to learn lessons from this latest episode, including whether NMIC took its eye off the ball, or ever had its eye on the ball in the first place?
The Royal Navy did not respond when we asked if the apparent looting of Prince of Wales, when data was available showing the Chuan Hong 68 on the wreck site, was a failure of intelligence.
There is also the question of the distribution chain for the material Chuan Hong 68 recovered and apparently delivered to be processed.
At the time of writing local media reports do not extend the distribution of the metal much beyond the scrap yard in Kamung Belungkor.
If, as some suspect, the distribution chain extends all the way back to China, then a whole new can of geopolitical worms will be released.
We have been told that any complications caused to the UK’s relationship with China by the involvement of Chinese registered vessels and their crews in the looting of Royal Navy wrecks would be unwelcome in another branch of the UK Government, the Foreign Office.
Finally, there are ways forward to consider.
As the statement regarding the alleged looting issued by the National Museum of the Royal Navy states,
“What we need is a management strategy for the underwater naval heritage so that we can better protect or commemorate these ships.”
Nobody in the heritage sector will argue with that. A joined up policy has been needed for half a century.
However, in a new departure which could be controversial among some archaeologists, Professor Dominic Tweddle, Director General of The National Museum of the Royal Navy suggests that a new policy may include authorised projects engaged in the targeted retrieval of objects from wrecks.
Such a project was undertaken in 2015 when a team led by David Mearns of Blue Water Recoveries utilising Microsoft co-founder, the late Paul Allen’s MY Octopus, recovered a bell from the wreck of HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait.
Ultimately, Professor Tweddle told the authors,
“NMRN is pressing MoD and the UK government to institute a proper database of RN losses, built on the work of the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST) and to develop an appropriate management strategy based upon it.”
“NMRN does not own the wrecks and has neither the remit nor the resources to manage or police them.” Professor Tweddle admitted, adding pointedly,
“That is something the UK government as flag state should be doing. NMRN can only advise and assist.“
Others echo Lord Henley almost thirty years ago in 1995, by arguing that the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy should have other priorities than 5000 wrecks scattered around the world, not least HMS Prince of Wales namesake, the £3.2 billion aircraft carrier which is currently undergoing expensive repairs, ironically after damage to a propeller shaft, and that heritage issues lie more appropriately within the remit of the Department for Culture Media and Sport and its statutory advisor, Historic England.
In the end, if there is one lesson from near five decades of failure to protect the nation’s most sensitive maritime military heritage it is that the most fundamental issue of all is to get officials and politicians to first take the matter seriously, and then, and perhaps most difficult of all, to commit the resources to sort it out.
That means taking decisions now and spending money now and going forward.
But better spend that money before the pollution event rather than in the clean up afterwards?
Meanwhile, unique survivals of maritime battlefields and those who died on them remain at risk of destruction and it is reasonable to predict that, if nothing is done in response to the predation of HMS Prince of Wales, and to warn off other potential looters, it is only a matter of time before there is another embarrassing revelation about the damage or destruction of another maritime military grave.
In 1941 Churchill described how the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse had left Britain naked and defenceless in the Far East.
To critics of the UK Government it now falls to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to demonstrate that the intelligence and welfare debacle suggested by the failure to monitor effectively two items of the most sensitive kind of British government sovereign property, maritime military graves in one of the most geopolitically sensitive regions on the planet, does not also demonstrate that Britain remains, still in many respects, naked and defenceless.
Indeed, the words of Major Stourton MP remain as true today as they did when he raised the issue of the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse, with Deputy Prime Minister Clement Atlee, in parliamentary oral questions on 8 January 1942.
“Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable public anxiety on this issue?” Stourton asked, adding bitingly,
“Will the Government trust the people for once, and tell the whole truth?”
Andy Brockman is an archaeologist and investigative researcher specialising in heritage crime. He edits thePipeLine heritage news web site.
Giles Richardson is a Maritime Archaeologist with the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust [MAST] and is the lead analyst for the Maritime Observatory’s study of the alleged activities of the Chuan Hong 68 at the wreck site of HMS Prince of Wales.
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