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Memorial plaque commemorating naval battles of World War One at the Chatham memorial to the missing of the Royal Navy.
[Header Image:  thePipeLine]

By Andy Brockman

“What I found too distasteful was a glass show cabinet which contained items from a British E-class submarine (I forget which one) which included personal effects and an officers uniform which the owner claimed was the captains.

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I concluded that the divers had clearly been looting the interior of the wreck, in anoxic spaces, and undoubtedly been disturbing human remains.”

A Leading UK Based Diver

thePipeLine can reveal that the maritime military graves and memorials of almost twenty thousand members of the world’s navies have been disturbed or desecrated by commercial salvage companies and sports divers. Over twelve thousand of these casualties were British and Commonwealth Naval personnel who, had they died on active duty on land, would come under the protection of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  The figure of Royal and Commonwealth Navy personnel affected replicates almost exactly the number of burials at the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Belgium, Tyne Cot and critics of the UK Government’s alleged failure to protect adequately the wrecks of sunken warships say that the damage to and looting of the wreck sites is the moral equivalent of a cemetery like Tyne Cot itself being bulldozed by a commercial property developer.

On 5 April 2018, the Times newspaper [pay wall] published a letter from the Maritime Archaeology charity MAST which was also signed by senior UK based maritime archaeologists and experts in maritime law.  Citing the recent allegations that the wrecks of British US Japanese and Dutch warships lost in the Java Sea had been looted by Indonesian and Chinese salvage companies acting illegally and further allegations published in the Indonesian news website that human remains of some of the missing crew members had been buried clandestinely, the letter called for equality of treatment between service personnel who died on active service on land and in the air and their counterparts who died at sea.

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The signatories, who included the Chief Executive Officer of MAST Jessica Berry, MAST trustee Vice Admiral Sir Anthony Dymoke and Robert Yorke, chair of the influential independent expert group the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee [JNAPC], stated that, in their opinion,

“The CWGC’s [Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s] avowed equality of treatment for all military personnel does not extend to tri-service equality.   Just as UK Law treats a ditched aircraft and its dead pilot differently from a sailor in a wrecked warship, so the CWGC treats a skull ploughed up in Flanders differently to a skull in a salvage grab in the Java Sea.” 

The letter highlighted what has been recognised increasingly by maritime archaeologists and naval historians as an issue of public concern.  That is the interference with military shipwrecks which the public might expect to be treated as war graves, akin to those familiar on land from the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other national war grave bodies such as the German Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e. V. and the American Battle Monuments Commission.

New research by thePipeLine can now place an initial estimate on the number of military personnel who lost their lives on vessels which are known to have been damaged or destroyed by legal and illegal salvage, or which have suffered from the illicit removal of artifacts by divers.  These actions are often deeply offensive to current and retired members of the armed services and to the relatives and descendants of the mariners who lost their lives in the service of their country, often in circumstances of extreme violence.

In the UK the apparent disrespect, perceived lack of protection and alleged lack of care on the part of the Government, whose predecessors sent the ships and their crews to war, is felt especially keenly in the communities such as those of Plymouth and Chatham where the warships were based and where their crews and their relatives often lived.  For example Luke Pollard, the Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton & Devonport, which includes the naval base at Plymouth, is currently mounting a cross party campaign to make the Government accountable for the protection of Plymouth based cruiser HMS Exeter, sunk during World War Two, which has been destroyed by illegal salvage in the Java Sea.

The list reproduced below represents wrecks known to have been sold to commercial salvage companies and/or subjected to legal and illegal commercial salvage, or which are known to have been visited and subjected to the unauthorised recovery of objects by sports divers.

Listed against the name of each vessel is the most accurate figure available for number of mariners who lost their lives in the sinkings and for whom these wrecks can be seen as their “maritime military grave” and memorial.

The term “maritime military grave” is used because, unlike on land, there is no such thing in international law as a war grave at sea [See below for the full Legal Background].


This list does not include all warships damaged by legal and illegal salvage or looting for artifacts by wreck divers as many cases remain unconfirmed or unknown.

The number of casualties given is based on published figures, but it does not take account of the relatively few casualties whose remains were subsequently recovered to receive burial at sea, or in a recognised war grave cemetery on land, where of course they receive legal protection, not least under the Geneva Conventions.

Casualties By Nationality On Warships Known To Have Been Salvaged

Commercially or Illegally Under International Law

Royal Navy

*=  Vessel designated under the UK Protection of Military Remains Act.

Pre World War One

  • HMS London:  Blew up at anchor in the Thames Estuary on 6 March 1665.  Casualties:  300 according to Samuel Peyps.  The twin wreck sites where the ship lies are designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act [see below] and are the subject of a legitimate archaeological project.  However, in September 2015 commercial diver Vincent Woolsgrove was jailed for two years for claiming fraudulently that three cannon, raised illegally from HMS London, had been found in international waters.  Woolsgrove, who had sold the cannon to an American collector for £50k, asked for 60 other offences of failing to declare finds to the Receiver of Wreck to be taken into consideration.  Woolsgrove was also ordered to pay £35,000 in costs and was made subject of a Proceeds of Crime Act action leading to a fine of £51k.
  •  HMS Sussex:  Sank in a storm in on 1 March 1694 off the coast of Spain while allegedly carrying bullion.  The Ministry of Defence has reached a commercial salvage agreement with controversial US based treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration [see thePipeLine passim], which claims to have located the wreck, although the identification is disputed. Casualties:  c1200.
  • HMS Association:  Struck rocks off the Scilly Isles on 22 October 1707 [old style] with the loss of all hands.  Two thousand coins and  artifacts recovered from the wreck site were auctioned by Sotheby’s on July 14th 1969..  Casualties c800.  The treatment of HMS Association was one of the reasons for the introduction of the Protection of Wrecks Act [1973], which instigated a licencing regime, regulating access to certain wrecks deemed of historic importance.  There are currently fifty three such sites within the remit of Historic England, including HMS Association.  The devolved governments within the UK have similar arrangements covering, for example, the wrecks of the remaining scuttled German warships in Scapa Flow.
  • HMS Victory 1744:  Lost with all hands in a storm in October 1744.  In 2012 the Ministry of Defence gifted the wreck to the Maritime Heritage Foundation, a registered charity which has a web site and a commercial salvage contract with Odyssey Marine Exploration, but, the charity’s published accounts suggest, few other resources.  At least one of Victory’s 100 bronze cannon was recovered illegally by a Dutch salvage company while the wreck was still owned by the UK Government.  While the cannon itself was confiscated in the Netherlands and returned to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, neither the UK nor the Dutch government took any legal action against the salvor.  Casualties:  At least 1000 including Admiral Sir John Balchen.

The TV series “Billion Dollar Wreck Hunt” [aka “Silver Rush”] showed Odyssey Marine Exploration apparently uncovering human remains with an ROV during excavations on the HMS Victory wreck site in 2012.  The “Military Remains Act”, almost certainly a reference to the Protection of Military Remains Act, was quoted in the programme as a justification for ending the excavations, although the Act does not apply to HMS Victory.

Following the broadcast an MoD spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence Joint Casualty and Compassionate Center [JCCC] told the author, who was then writing for the online heritage website Heritage Daily,

“There is no requirement to report archaeological finds to the JCCC and licensing of activity on shipwrecks is not controlled by the JCCC, but by HQ Naval Command (Naval Secretariat) staff. However, whilst JCCC are not the licensing authority, as the tri-service casualty organisation, we would expect to be informed of the recovery of the remains of military personnel and the plans for their disposal at any site where activity had been licensed under POMRA.”

The same spokesperson confirmed that JCCC had not been so informed by either Odyssey, or by the Maritime Heritage Foundation.  A spokesperson for the Government’s archaeology adviser English Heritage, now Historic England, confirmed that they too had not been informed of the find and only found out about it after the broadcast of  “Billion Dollar Wreck Hunt”.

Neither Odyssey , nor the Maritime Heritage Foundation have published the results of these excavations.

When asked about these events in 2013 Odyssey told the author,

‘Odyssey has and will continue to operate legally and with the highest degree of attention to archaeological principles in all respects and overall the implied accusations in your questions are false and misleading.’

World War One

  • HMS Cressy*, HMS Hogue* and HMS Aboukir*:  the so called “live bait squadron“:  torpedoed on 22 September 1914 by German Submarine U9, with the loss of 1459 lives.  The three ships were sold for scrap by the UK Government in the 1950’s and were salvaged illicitly by Dutch salvage vessel MV Bela c 2011.  When the illicit salvage came to light Dolf Muller from the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency told Reuter’s,“These are crooks destroying cultural heritage. We have asked the police to investigate and we are in the middle of that process,”
    Adding that it was difficult to police so many wrecks in a large area of sea Muller said, “The first step will be to bring the people who have done this to justice,”

    However, it is understood that no charges were ever laid.

    The ships were finally designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act in March 2017.

  • HMS Hermes*:  Seaplane carrier sunk on 31 October 1914 off Calais with the loss of 44 lives:  In June 2018 Nigel Ingram [57], of London Road, Teynham, and John Blight, [58], of Old River Way in Winchelsea, East Sussex were jailed for four years and three and a half years respectively for the crime of failing to report items recovered from the wreck of the Cruiser for financial gain.
  • HMHS Anglia*:  Hospital ship mined off Folkestone on 17 November 1915 with the loss of 134 lives, most of them wounded soldiers from the Western Front, many of them amputees.  A member of the nursing staff who survived the sinking wrote,”The deck was covered with wounded men lying everywhere, the sisters and orderlies working heroically to get them free from their splints, tie them into life belts and throw them overboard into the sea, for this was their only chance.”  In October 2014 a spokesperson for the Government said,  “While the wreck meets some of the criteria for designation [as a war grave] the situation was complicated by the fact that in 1965 the Department of Transport sold the wreck to the Folkestone Salvage Company therefore the decision was made not to designate the wreck and this remains the position.”  However, following pressure from the archaeological community Government policy towards wrecks which had been sold commercially changed and the wreck was finally designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act in March 2017.
  • HMS Natal*:  A heavy cruiser, HMS Natal blew up at anchor at Invergordon on 30 December 1915, with the loss of 405 lives.  The demolition and salvage of HMS Natal over fifty years  is also recorded in the Canmore database [see below].

A crewmen from the Dutch salvage company Friendship Offshore displays a decorative monogram recovered illegally from HMS Queen Mary,  The current whereabouts of this highly collectible artifact are unknown.
[Republished for the purpose of reporting]
  • Eight British wrecks sunk during the Battle of Jutland/Skagerrakschlacht  including the battlecruisers HMS Queen Mary*, HMS Indefatigable* and HMS Invincible*, all sunk with heavy loss of life [Data from Dr Innes McCartney:  Jutland 1916, The Archaeology of a Naval Battlefield].  Total Loss of Life on ships known or suspected to have been subjected to salvage c 4432.
  • HMS Hampshire:  a heavy cruiser mined off Marwick Head in the Orkney Islands on 5 June 1916.  Casualties:  737 including Lord Kitchener.  The Canmore database contains this entry:  “11 August 1983. It is report that divers from the Swedish motor salvage vessel ‘STENA WORKHORSE’ have landed artifacts, including a propeller, from this wreck without first having obtained permission. They have been instructed by MOD to replace them.  Report from BBC Radio 4, 10 August 1983 and Naval Law telecommunication 11 August 1983.”
  • HMS Vanguard*:  Blew up in Scapa Flow on 9 July 1917 with the loss of 843 lives.  Unusually the chronology of the salvage of HMS Vanguard is available easily in the public domain in the Canmore database of Scottish Historic Environment Records [see below].
  • HMS E3:  Torpedoed by U27 on 18 October 1914 with the loss of all 26 of her crew.  Items registered with the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency, including a British Union Jack flag and a wooden box, suggest good survival of organic material in at least parts of the wreck.  This preservation could extend to human remains.
  • HMS E5:  Mined of the coast of the Netherlands with the loss of her entire crew of 29.
  • HMS E26:  Lost off the coast of the Netherlands with all 31 of her crew.
A Dutch based diver inside the hull of HMS E34 where 31 Royal Navy sailors died.
[via You Tube, used for the purpose of reporting]
  • HMS E34:  Entered by Dutch wreck divers.  Video in the public domain shows artifacts which appear to have been removed from the interior of the submarine.  Casualties:  31.

Artifacts which seem to have been removed from inside HMS E34.
[Via You Tube, republished for the purpose of reporting]

E3, E5, E26 and E34 have all been salvaged or entered by Dutch based divers and salvage companies.

While it cannot be said if the submarine concerned is one of these, a leading UK based diver reported this experience at a Belgian dive show also related to a missing Royal Navy E class boat,

“I attended a gathering of dive clubs in Belgium in around 2002.

Looking at my records I see it [the show] was called Wrakduik. The organising club was Duikteam Hemiksem.  It was an interesting show. In one area there were stands set up by diving groups and on display were interesting things like mammoth tusks discovered in the scours of wreck sites.”

However, speaking on condition of anonymity, the witness continued,

“What I found too distasteful was a glass show cabinet which contained items from a British E-class submarine (I forget which one) which included personal effects and an officers uniform which the owner claimed was the captains.

I concluded that the divers had clearly been looting the interior of the wreck, in anoxic spaces, and undoubtedly been disturbing human remains.”

It was also reported to the British Embassy in the Hague that the destroyer leader HMS Scott, sunk of the Dutch coast in 1918 with the loss of 22 lives, had also been subjected to illicit salvage by a named salvor, and that artifacts from HMS Scott remain in storage in the Netherlands.  However, the UK government has so far declined to take action and thePipeLine has been unable to verify that particular accusation.

World War Two

  • HMS Prince of Wales*:  Sunk by Japanese aircraft on December 1942 with the loss of 327 lives, including Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips.  Reports of damage by illegal salvage.
  • HMS Repulse*:  Sunk in the same action as Prince of Wales with the loss of 513 lives.  Reports of damage by illegal salvage.  Ship also entered by “penetration divers“.   In November 2014 it was reported that the UK Government had repossessed objects which had been removed from the ship.
  • HMS Exeter*:  Sunk by the Japanese Navy in the 2nd Battle of the Java Sea with the loss of 40 lives.  Reported destroyed by illegal salvage.  Artifacts removed by an Australian diver and put up for auction reclaimed by the British Government.
  • HMS Electra*:  Sunk in the same action as HMS Exeter, with the loss of 119 lives.  Reported destroyed by illegal salvage.
  • HMS Encounter*:  Sunk along with HMS Electra and HMS Exeter, with the loss of  8 lives. Reported destroyed by illegal salvage.
  • HMS Tien Kwang 4 survivors from over 300 crew and refugees on board, HMS Kuala; possibly as many as 200 casualties and HMS Banka;  38 fatal casualties: These three vessels were also lost in the Far East between December 1941 and February 1942 and were reported as being heavily salvaged by the Mail on Sunday investigation published on 19 August 2018.  The combined loss of life on all three ships was as many as 538, many of them civilian refugees including women and children.
  • HMS Edinburgh:  sister ship of HMS Belfast, torpedoed and scuttled on 1942.  In 1954 the Admiralty offered the salvage rights to Risden Beazely Ltd to recover the gold bullion she was carrying.  However, the project remained on hold until 1981 when saturation diving techniques developed in the offshore industry allowed for a more surgical recovery attempt.  Casualties:  58.

Total Royal Navy Casualties on warships known to have been subjected to legal and illegal salvage and artifact recovery: 13,030. 

NB:  Bunker oil has been removed from the torpedoed battleship HMS Royal Oak by the Royal Navy, however, as this was a carefully planned anti-pollution measure, designed to protect the environment of Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, she and her 833 casualties have not been included in this list.

Royal Australian Navy

World War Two

  • HMAS Perth:  Sunk in the Sunda Strait, March 1942 with the loss of 353 lives and now reported by James Hunter, of the Australian National Maritime Museum,as “60 to 70% gone”.

Total British and Commonwealth mariners lost on vessels known to have been subjected to legal and illegal salvage and artifact recovery by divers:  12,889.

To put this figure in perspective the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery on land, Tyne Cot in Belgium, contains the graves of over 11,900 British and Commonwealth personnel, the majority of them unidentified.

German Vessels

High Seas Fleet vessels [World War 1]

A Facebook post by Dutch based Dive Team Zeester showing a gunnery telescope, which is claimed to have been recovered  from SMS Mainz.
[Facebook:  republished for the purpose of reporting]
  • SMS Mainz:  Sunk at the Battle of Heligoland with the loss of 89 lives.  Subjected to illicit salvage by a Dutch commercial salvor and sports divers, including from Dive Team Zeestar.
  • Six German vessels lost at the Battle of Jutland/Skagerrakschlacht, including the battleship SMS Pommern which blew up killing all 839 of her crew and which was heavily salvaged in the 1950’s. [Data from Dr Innes McCartney:  Jutland 1916, The Archaeology of a Naval Battlefield]:  the six ships were lost with approximately 1753 lives.
Battleship SMS Pommern, blew up at the Battle of Jutland/Skagerrak killing all 839 of her crew.  Her wreck has been heavily damaged by salvage.
[Bundesarchiv, DVM 10 Bild-23-61-21 / CC-BY-SA 3.0]
  • A57:  Torpedo boat mined off the coast of the Netherlands on March 1 1918.  Casualties: 12
  • M47, mined off Terschelling on 8 June 1917.  Casualties:  5.
  • Hermann Siebert, Minesweeper lost along with A57.  Casualties 7.
  • Oevelgonne:  A minesweeper lost in the same incident as A57 and Hermann Siebert.  Casualties:  26
  • Sonnin:  Minesweeper  lost on 31 July 1917.  Casualties 6.
  • SM U31:  Mined in the North Sea 1915 with the loss of 35 lives.  Subjected to repeated illicit salvage by sports divers operating from Netherlands based dive boats.
  • SM U75:  Mined of the coast of the Netherlands on 13 December 1917.  Casualties:  23.
  • SM UB61:  Mined of the coast of the Netherlands on 29 November 1917.  Casualties:  34

German Kriegsmarine Vessels [World War 2]

  • U1:  Mined off the coast of the Netherlands after 6 April 1940.  Casualties:  25.
  • U-IT 23:  torpedoed on 18 February 1944 by HMS Tally-Ho, with the loss of 26 lives.  Salvaged by commercial diver and treasure hunter Mike Hatcher.  In his biography, written by Hugh Edwards, Hatcher is quoted describing finding the remains of the crew on bunks and claims they were left in peace.
  • U168:  Torpedoed by Dutch submarine HNLMS Zwaardvisch with the loss of 23 lives.  Also salvaged by Mike Hatcher.
  • U859:   Torpedoed by submarine HMS Trenchant with the loss of 47 lives.  The U-boat’s cargo of mercury was salvaged illegally and the German government took action to recover it in Singapore, with the High Court of Singapore ruling that “the German state has never ceased to exist despite Germany’s unconditional surrender in 1945 and whatever was the property of the German State, unless it was captured and taken away by one of the Allied Powers, still remains the property of the German State…”

Total of German mariners lost on vessels known to have been subjected to legal and illegal salvage and artifact recovery by divers: 2111.

Imperial Japanese Navy

World War 2

  • IJN Ashigara:  A heavy cruiser sunk in June 1945 with the loss of an estimated 1300 lives or more and subjected to illicit salvage by commercial salvors.
  • IJN Haguro:  Ambushed and sunk by the Royal Navy’s 26th Destroyer Flotilla on 16 May 1945 with the loss of 900 men, including Vice Admiral Hashimoto and Rear Admiral Sugiura and also subjected to illicit salvage by commercial salvors.
  • IJN Kuma: The light cruiser was sunk off Penang, Malaysia, on 11 January 1944 by HMS Tally-Ho.  In May 2014 it was reported that the wreck had been almost entirely removed through unauthorised salvage.  Casualties:  138.
  • IJN Sigiri:  Torpedoed by the Dutch submarine HNLMS K XVI on 24 December 1941 with the loss of 121 lives.

Total of Japanese  mariners lost on vessels known to have been subjected to legal and illegal salvage and artifact recovery by divers: 2459

The Royal Netherlands Navy

World War 2

HNLMS De Ruyter, flagship of Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, sunk at the battle of the Java Sea and now destroyed by illegal salvage.
[Public Domain, courtesy of the Royal Netherlands Navy / Koninklijke Marine]
  • HNLMS De Ruyter:  Light cruiser sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea [345 fatal casualties including Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, CO of the ABDA Task Force which also included HMS Exeter and USS Houston],
  • HNLMS Java [512 fatal casualties] Light cruiser also sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea, and
  • HNLMS Kortenaer [40 fatal casualties] destroyer sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea,

The wrecks of the three warships have been destroyed, allegedly by Chinese and Indonesian salvage companies using crane barges.  Allegations in the Indonesian and UK media that the salvors recovered and buried illicitly human remains are unproven currently.

  • HNLM Submarine O16:  Mined in the Gulf of Siam with the loss of 41 lives, and allegedly to have been recovered illegally in 2013 by the crane barge Hai Wei Gong 889

Total Dutch mariners lost on vessels known to have been subjected to legal and illegal salvage and artifact recovery by divers: 938

The Spanish Navy

Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes:  Dubbed “Spain’s USS Arizona”, the frigate blew up in action against a Royal Navy squadron off Cape Santa Maria on 5 October 1804.  Seventeen tons of silver coins and other artifacts were recovered illegally from the wreck site by Odyssey Marine Exploration.  Items which could have identified the wreck positively were left on the seabed.  In 2012 the US Courts forced Odyssey to return all the bullion and artifacts to Spain. Casualties:  250.

Odyssey Marine Exploration, seen here operating on the wreck site of HMS Victory 1744, recovered illegally seventeen tons of silver bullion and artefacts from the Spanish frigate Mercedes.
[Courtesy of Astrid Harrison]

Total Spanish  mariners lost on vessels known to have been subjected to legal and illegal salvage and artifact recovery by divers:  250.

NB:  The fate of the Spanish royal galleon San Jose, lost on 8 June 1708 with the loss of 589 lives and an alleged cargo of bullion and precious stones worth an estimated £662m, is currently under dispute, with the Government of Colombia claiming the vessel as part of its cultural patrimony.  A salvage operation is said to be at the planning stage.

United States Navy

  • USS Yorktown:  The sloop was on an anti-slavery patrol when she was wrecked on the Cap Verde Islands on 6 September 1850.  Salvaged illegally by the commercial treasure hunting company Aqueonautas Worldwide, the US Government took action to seize back artifacts which had been offered for sale by auction at Sotheby’s in London.  Casualties:   None.
  • USS Houston:  Sunk by Japanese warships in the Sunda Strait on 1 March 1942 with the loss of 693 lives.
  • USS Pope:  Sunk by Japanese aircraft while trying to escape after the 2nd Battle of the Java Sea with the loss of one life.

Total of United States Navy mariners lost on warships and submarines known to have subjected to legal and illegal salvage and artifact recovery by divers:  694.

Total of mariners serving on sovereign immune warships and submarines whose maritime military graves are known to have been subjected to illicit salvage and artefact recovery by commercial salvage companies and wreck divers:  19,879.

Campaigners, such as the signatories to the letter from MAST, hope that a higher profile for the alleged “desecration” of maritime military graves will lead to more effective action by the UK Government and other governments whose vessel have been attacked.  However, the given the precedents it would be as well for anyone involved in the issue not to hold their breath in expectation of anything happening swiftly.

On 11 October 2011 a similar letter to that placed by MAST in the Times appeared, also in the Times.  The letter was prompted on that occasion by the news that the three cruisers of the, so called,  “live bait Squadron”, sunk in September 1914 with very heavy loss of life, had been plundered by illegal salvors.  The letter suggested that,

“…no such desecration would take place in graves on land.” and concluded,

We urge that our sailors should be allowed to rest in peace.”

The letter was signed by Vice Admiral John McAnally, then President of the International Maritime Confederation and National President of the Royal Naval Association, along with his counterparts from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, and Austria.

However, it took a further five years of intense lobbying by maritime archaeologists, including by the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee and further embarrassment to the UK Ministry of Defence over its failure to protect Crown property and the maritime military graves of Royal Navy personnel and the interests of their families, before the three cruisers were designated under the UK Protection of Military Remains Act.

In the meantime the Ministry also gifted the wreck of HMS Victory [1744], the grave and memorial to over one thousand Royal Navy sailors, to a private charity which has a commercial salvage contract with the same US based treasure hunting company which had recovered bullion and artefacts illegally form the Spanish Frigate, Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.

Meanwhile there is still no international definition of a maritime war grave for the members of the world’s navies whose grave is the sea and the submariners who remain on eternal patrol.

For the mariners of the merchant navies of the world and passengers lost aboard merchant vessels there is if anything even less protection from having their graves and memorials violated for profit than there is for their military colleagues.

Under the salvage convention the bulk of the rights over such wrecks lie with the original owners or their successors, such as insurance companies.  While some may receive varying degrees of protection under local law, the only international mechanism for heritage protection and thus the protection of any private property and human remains which lie within such wrecks, is the UNESCO convention.

As a final measure of what is potentially at stake if this issue is not tackled effectively, the three memorials to the missing of the Royal Navy, which are situated at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth, carry a total of 66,545, names of mariners missing at sea during World War One and World War Two.

The British Merchant Navy Memorial to the missing at Tower Hill in London carries 36,088 names.

The U-Boat memorial at Möltenort, near the port of Kiel, Germany, lists 4,744 missing form World War One and 30,002 missing from World War Two.  A total of 939 U-boats were lost across both World Wars.

If you have evidence of another ship or submarine which has been subjected to unauthorised commercial salvage, or looting by wreck divers, please let thePipeLine know so that we can add her crew to this list.

The Legal Background

Governments undertake to protect “wargraves” under Under Protocol 1 [1977] of the 1949 Geneva Conventions which regulate the conduct of international armed conflict under international law.

Article 34 Section 2 of the protocol states,

“2. As soon as circumstances and the relations between the adverse Parties permit, the High Contracting Parties in whose territories graves and, as the case may be, other locations of the remains of persons who have died as a result of hostilities or during occupation or in detention are situated, shall conclude agreements in order:

(a) To facilitate access to the gravesites by relatives of the deceased and by representatives of official graves registration services and to regulate the practical arrangements for such access;

(b) To protect and maintain such gravesites permanently;”

However, this permanent protection does not extend to a responsibility to protect the resting places of combatants missing at sea. As a result the UK Government uses the formula “maritime military grave” to describe such resting places, rather than the more commonly understood term of “war grave” under the Geneva Protocol.

That said, the lack of a definition in law of a war grave at sea should not be a problem in protecting the sanctity of the place where mariners lost their lives.  This is because the legal status of military vessels lost on active service, for example in time of war, is clear under international law and convention.  Unless permission by the vessels owner, the so called  “Flag State”, has been given, the salvage of any material from a sunken military vessel lost on active duty anywhere in the world, by any company or individual, is contrary to International Law under the principal of “Sovereign Immunity”.

It is because of this concept that the salvage of material from any sovereign immune military vessel without the express permission of the Flag State is forbidden under Article 4 of the International Maritime Organisation [IMO] International Convention on Salvage, 1989.  The article states;

“…this Convention shall not apply to warships or other non-commercial vessels owned or operated by a State and entitled, at the time of salvage operations, to sovereign immunity under generally recognized principles of international law unless that State decides otherwise.”

The salvage convention has been accepted by all the principal maritime nations, including Great Britain, and the United States as well as the Netherlands and there is no excuse for any salvage operator or diver not to know this.

In addition, the United Kingdom operates the Protection of Military Remains Act [POMR Act] which was introduced in 1986, partly as a response to the unregulated excavation and in some cases, looting, of World War Two aircraft crash sites.

While the POMR Act applies automatically to all military aircraft and their crews under UK jurisdiction on land and sea, [not just British military aircraft], it only applies to warships and a few other vessels deemed to have been under military control at the time of sinking, if they are “designated” as protected under the Act by the UK Government and then only if the wreck lies within UK waters.

Outside of UK jurisdiction designation under the POMR Act only applies to UK nationals and UK flagged vessels, although designation  should signal a clear intent to protect to the government under whose jurisdiction the wrecks do lie, or where illegally obtained material and artifacts might be landed, such as Indonesia and Australia in the case of material and artifacts from HMS Exeter.

Many other nations have their own heritage and salvage laws which can also be applied to protect lost military vessels.  For example, in 2004 the United States has passed the Sunken Military Craft Act with the purpose of the preservation and protection from unauthorized disturbance of all sunken military craft that are either the property of the United States government, or are the property of foreign governments where such craft lie within U.S. waters.

Under the Act violations can result in fines of up to $100,000 per violation/per day, liability for damages, and the confiscation of offending vessels.  These penalties are far stronger than those available to UK courts for breaches of the Protection of Military Remains Act.

At the international level, in addition to the international salvage convention, vessels lost over one hundred years ago, a category which now includes all vessels lost during the First World War, are also be protected by the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which lays down rules for the conservation of shipwreck sites and the proper conduct of archaeological work on such sites.

At the time of writing fifty eight nations have ratified the UNESCO Convention, including France, Belgium and Spain.  However, in spite of repeated requests by UK maritime archaeologists the UK Government has declined to ratify the convention and in October 2017 the then heritage minister, John Glen MP, told Parliament that a promised review of the UK’s position regarding the convention was postponed indefinitely while the Government pursued “new and more immediate priorities”.

Sources have suggested that this comment was a reference to the workload imposed by Brexit.  However, the UK does use the rules set out in the Annex to the convention as its policy towards underwater cultural heritage.

Two Cases of Royal Navy Vessels Subjected To Significant Authorised Commercial Salvage

The authorised Salvage of World War One battleship HMS Vanguard is recorded in the Canmore Database of Scottish Historic Environment Records [HER].

“28 June 1961. Nundy Marine Metals are reported to be still working on the wreck. Although a great deal has been recovered it has not been entirely demolished, but due to the depth of water it certainly constitutes no danger to shipping.

Report by Kinck & Richardson, solicitors.

5 September 1961. The salvage contract has been extended to 1 May 1963.

Report by Naval Contracts Secretariat.

28 September 1970. Salvage is to take place at intervals during the next five years.

Report by Nundy Marine Metals.

12 September 1975. A detailed investigation by the Command Clearance Diving Team confirms that the wreck was blown apart by the original explosion which destroyed virtually all the explosive ordnance on board. The stern section of the wreck is largely undamaged and contains the after 18 inch torpedo room, which contains presumably torpedo warheads. A light scattering of loose cordite sticks lying on the seabed are no threat and can be left in situ. One approximately 12 inch shell is to be removed from wreckage for disposal between 15-19 September 1975. The torpedo warheads in the stern section pose a potential threat to Occidental pipeline, and it is considered unwise to disturb them in view of probable deterioration. The Ministry of Defence has warned the salvage company & Occidental of the probable presence of the warheads in the stern section located at 58 51 26N, 003 06 12W, and the danger of salvage operations in that vicinity.

Report taken from a signal from FOSNI to the MOD Navy, Queen’s Harbour Master Rosyth, and the Commander in Chief of the fleet.

21 October 1977. The salvage rights for period ending 31 December 1982 have been sold to Scapa Flow Salvage Ltd.

Report by Department of Naval Contracts 15 July 1977

“Salvage operations were carried out in 1958-9 by Arthur Nundy (Nundy Marine Metals) using standard dress and (later) SCUBA, initially from the diving vessel (converted steam drifter) Ocean Raleigh. A former boom defence vessel (the Barneath) was later obtained.

The wreck had been dispersed by explosion, many large and heavy fittings (notably gun barrels and turrets) being blown a considerable distance away and, in some cases, driven vertically into the seabed. The propeller shafts were ‘bent’ and the side [belt] armour ‘gaped out like a peeled orange’. Human bones and leather items were noted in the coal/oil sludge.

Objects recovered were mainly non-ferrous, and included Weir Pumps, condensers, torpedo ‘ramps’ or ‘bars’, and at least one propeller. Armour plate and the guns of the main armament were lifted; coal was recovered in considerable quantities using a bucket grab.”

The authorised salvage of HMS Natal is also recorded in the Canmore database.

The initial reason for the salvage appears to have been to clear the wreck of the cruiser which was obstructing the anchorage where she sank.  The methods used were crude in the extreme by modern standards.

“7 May 1926. Salvage operations by blasting have now commenced. The salvage vessel is moored on the north side of the wreck.

3 August 1927. Salvage operations are still in progress.

Report from a letter to the Kings Harbour Master, Invergordon.

6 February 1930. The wreck is to be dispersed to 11 metres.

24 Februrary 1930. The wreck has been sold to Middlesborough Salvage Co. Ltd.

25 July 1932. The Middlesborough Salvage Co. is likely to go into liquidation.

3 February 1937. There is a re-transference of the salvage contract. Report by Director of Navy Contracts, Invergordon.

1947. The site was drift swept in November 1947 and cleared at 0.6 metres, but fouled at 1.2 metres in general depths of 13.4 to 15.5 metres.

Report by HMS SCOTT

22 June 1956. The wreck is not the property of Admiralty anymore having been sold in 1921 to Stanlee Shipbreaking & Salvage Co. Ltd.

Report by Director of Navy Contracts.

29 July 1970. A survey was carried out by Metal Recoveries (Orkney) Ltd. prior to purchase. Divers reported the wreckage to be completely demolished except for area containing the boilers. A considerable amount of projectiles of all sizes [approx 150 stacked in one small pile] lie intermingled with the wreckage and also on the sea bed around wreck. A large quantity of cordite sticks, approximate size 3/8 x 30 inch, were also found. The stern section lies at the west end of the site. The wreckage covers an area of about 150 x 180 metres. There were no gun turrets or armour plate to be seen. The area of the boilers stands up to about 12.1 metres above the seabed. The site was examined between the 10 – 12 July 1970.

Report by motor salvage vessel SHELIA HOMAN, 14 July 1970.

30 September 1970. The state of the explosives contained within wreck are giving cause for concern to the salvage company. A clearance team is to examine and make recommendations.

5 March 1971. The clearance diving team are to complete an explosive clearance by 5 March 1971. It is also recommended to reduce the wreck to a least depth of 12 metres.

17 May 1971. The wreck is now considered reasonably safe and clear of explosives. It has been offer for sale to Metal Recoveries (Newhaven) Ltd, Robenson Rd, Newhaven.

22 July 1974. Salvage work is in progress. Three buoys have been laid.


14 August 1974. The wreck could not be swept due to the salvage work in progress. The area is surrounded by mooring buoys. The contractor admitted that the wreck is still not clear to 12 metres – the least depth is still about 5.4 to 6 metres. .

3 February 1976. Salvage operations are in progress.

Report by HMS EGERIA, 19 January 1976.

20 May 1976. An extension of the salvage contract has been granted to Metal Recoveries (Orkney) Ltd.

17 March 1978. The salvage contract with Metal Recoveries (Orkney) ltd. has been terminated. The clearance of 12.1 metres has not been achieved. Arrangements are in hand to lower the high points by using Royal Navy divers.

4 May 1978. The Royal Navy demolition operations, using fleet tender BLAKENEY, commenced on 24 April 1978 for a 3 week period.

Source: Cromarty Port, Notice to Mariners 1/78.

23 November 1978. Following salvage work by the clearance diving team between 10 and 31 August 1978, the wreck is now reported to have no high points remaining. A large quantity of cordite, a few shells and small ordnance remain in the bow section. A request has been received for the wreck site to be wire-swept.

4 September 1979. The site was drift swept over period the 5 to the 10 May 1979 using RMAS uplifter. The site swept clear to 12 metres, except for a high point just aft of the amidships in 57 41 16.1N, 004 05 12.5W which fouled at 9.3 metres and cleared at 8.8 metres [depths +/- 0.5 metres].

Report by Acting Queen’s Harbour Master, Rosyth, 17 June 1979.

4 September 1979. Further demolition was carried out between 19-29 June 1979.

23 October 1979. A buoy is to be maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board on behalf of the MOD(Navy). It is also reported that the Royal Naval Officer at Invergordon has arranged for a further wire sweep, and is prepared to explore the possibility of clearing the remaining high point.

11 February 1980. A further attempt to obtain a 12 metre clearance is to be made in 1980.

6 January 1981. The responsibility for bouyage it to be taken over by the MOD from 1 April 1981.

2 August 1985. There is the possibility of less water than charted. The side scan sonar [single pass] indicates a high spot of 8 metres below the surface, approximately.

Report by HMS BEAGLE, July 1985.

21 October 1986. Clearance work is confirmed to have been effective. The side scan sonar indicates that only low-lying debris remains.

Report by Andrews Hydrographics Ltd.”

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