Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, Anna Soubry has confirmed that three historic World War Two wrecks, which many regard as war graves, have been attacked in attempts at unauthorised salvage. The three ships concerned, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse located off the coast of Malaysia and HMS Exeter, located ninety miles north of Bawean Island, in the Java Sea, were all sunk by the Japanese in the early months of World War Two in the Far East. The three sinkings resulted in heavy loss of life.
Responding in the form of a Parliamentary Written Answer to a question from the Conservative MP for New Forest East, Dr Julian Lewis, the Minister welcomed the efforts of the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Malaysian Government, as she revealed that in May 2014 the Malaysian Government had impounded a Cambodian registered vessel which had attacked the wrecks of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in search of scrap metal. Ms Soubry added “We took the opportunity to highlight that wrecks should be treated as military maritime graves and given the respect they deserve.”
The written answer also revealed that the UK High Commission in Canberra had “taken possession” of material from HMS Exeter and HMS Repulse, understood to include parts of the ships communications system, which had been offered for sale by auction in Australia.
The scale of the attacks on the Prince of Wales and Repulse was revealed by the Daily Telegraph which quoted Stuart Shaw of the TechThailand dive company as saying “They removed the remaining propellors from Repulse and the four propellors from the Prince of Wales sometime between September 2012 and May 2013.” Mr Shaw also reported that the ships had apparently been attacked by explosives to gain access to other valuable metals.
Legal analysts note the use of the phrase “military maritime graves” which the Minister is forced to use because there is no such thing as a maritime war grave under international law. Thus, while the Prince of Wales and Repulse are designated as “Protected Places” under the UK Protection of Military Remains Act any enforcement of this status depends on the UK Government as the Flag State of the ships, working in cooperation of the local Government and Law Enforcement agencies. Many of these agencies are short of financial resources, the ships and personnel to mount effective patrols, and legislation which levies punishments at sufficient levels to deter the commercial operators who are the main threat to such 20th century steel wrecks. Thus the negligible risk of arrest and fine is more than made up for by the potential rewards.
In the year 2000 a spokesperson for Singarporean salvage company “Semco”, told the Dialy Telegraph “It all boils down to commercial viability. A few years ago, our board halted our involvement with a wreck by issuing a public statement to the effect that we are salvage experts, and not plunderers. After all, we are a listed company. That wreck was to produce a £150 million profit.” In the case of warships metals like the phosphor Bronze of ships propellors and pre Nuclear Age steel such as is found in the high quality armour plate, fetches a premium on the scrap metal market, in the case of a propeller over £3500 per ton.
Maritime Archaeologists also note the irony that the Minsitry of Defence is apparently intervening to prevent the commercial exploitiation of the grave sites of Royal Navy personnel just at the time that evidence is mounting that the Minsitry is about to allow Odyssey Marine Exploration and the Maritime Heritage Foundation to sell material deemed private property, form the wreck site of HMS Victory 1744. They also point out that the designation of the Prince of Wales and Repulse under the Protection of Military Remains Act came after a statement in the House of Lords on Trafalgar Day, 21 October, 1975 when the late Lord Winterbottom told the House that the then Labour Government would entertain proposals for salvage as long as the dead were treated reverently.
Minister of State Soubry’s written answer can be found in the Parliamentary record, Hansard at