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Lead Image: HMS Prince of Wales

[Official US Navy Photograph Public Domain via US National Archive 80-G-190724]

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by Andy Brockman

Less than a week after the UK experts at the Maritime Observatory first provided evidence to support accusations in local media that a Chinese registered crane barge was operating on the wreck site of the lost Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the not for profit body has published new information that the vessel was operating over the vessel for much longer than believed previously. This information, plus images of an oil slick apparently generated by the work, has led experts to conclude that the damage to the heritage value of the ship and to the local environment in the South China Sea, may be much greater than feared previously.

Analysis of satellite imagery for the last six months undertaken by the Maritime Observatory shows that, while the vessel allegedly tried to hide its activities by turning off the Automatic Identification System [AIS], which it is obliged to carry under international shipping rules, the eight thousand ton Chinese flagged crane barge Chuan Hong 68 could not hide from satellites passing overhead.

Using high resolution photographs from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel earth observation satellites, Digital Globe imagery and AIS data, the Maritime Observatory worked out that the Chuan Hong 68 first appeared over the wreck site of HMS Prince of Wales around 29 December 2022, working on the site for around two weeks.

The vessel then unloaded the material it had lifted at a scrap yard in Kampung Belunkor, in the Johor region of southern Malaysia, close to Singapore Island from which the ill fated battleship sailed in December 1941.

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The crane barge Chuan Hong 68 apparently unloading scrap from HMS Prince of Wales at Kampung Belungkor on 28 March 2023
[Copyright the Maritime Observatory via Twitter]

The crane barge then returned to the wreck site of Prince of Wales in February, March, April and May, each time returning the same scrap yard apparently to offload its ill gotten cargo.

It was a TikTok video of one such offloading, allegedly posted by the scrap yard owner, which led to the illicit operation being unmasked and a Police raid on the scrap yard.

However, by this time the Maritime Observatory calculates that Chuan Hong 68 had spent approximately fifty four days over the site, producing six boat loads of scrap, which could weigh in total as much as nineteen thousand tons, approaching half the total weight of the battleship, and leaving behind significant oil spills.

The revelation leaves the UK Ministry of Defence with potentially embarrassing questions about what it knew and when about the alleged looting of the maritime military grave of hundreds of Royal Navy mariners and whether it missed opportunities to maintain a maritime neighbourhood watch on the wreck site.

Speaking to thePipeLine after the initial release of data and images showing the activities of the Chuan Hong 68, archaeologist and analyst Giles Richardson of MAST, one of the partners in the Maritime Observatory said,

“Constant monitoring requires investment, and unfortunately we weren’t employed to watch Prince of Wales or Repulse at the time the salvage took place, so it’s very frustrating to be playing catch-up after the event.

“We have monitored other wrecks in the Java Sea on behalf of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands.” Mr Richardson added.

Addressing the environmental cost Mr Richardson said,

“We don’t yet know the extent of this oil spill or how damaging this will be to the local environment, but it is criminal such uncontrolled releases are allowed to happen. It won’t be the salvage company paying for the clean up.”

In fact legal experts have told thePipeLine that at least the initial cost of any clean up could fall to the UK Government as the owner of the ship and its contents.

The only bright spot in a litany of bad news about the security of the naval wrecks in the Far East is that the Maritime Observatory reports that, so far, there is no evidence Chuan Hong 68 also visited the nearby wreck of HMS Repulse. The veteran battlecruiser was sunk in the same action with the Japanese air force as Prince of Wales, with even heavier loss of life.

Eight hundred and forty Royal Navy mariners and Royal Marines were lost on both ships on 10 December 1941.

At the time of the first reports that HMS Prince of Wales had been attacked by the salvagers, a spokesperson for the Royal Navy said that the UK regarded the wrecks as having Sovereign Immunity from unauthorised salvage under the International Salvage Convention.

That view was confirmed by Professor Mike Williams of Plymouth University, who said that in legal terms, there is no such thing in International Law as a maritime war grave. Sovereign Immunity, which applies to warships lost on active service is thus the only legal mechanism available to the British Government in the case of a vessel lost in seas controlled by other countries, where the alleged looter is not British.

However, to be effective Sovereign Immunity would have to be enforced in the courts.

Thus far the UK Government has seemed reluctant to bring such cases in spite of a number of previous incidents of the looting of Royal Navy wrecks, including the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary in the North Sea.

It is possible also that the operators of Chuan Hong 68 may have breached local law in Malaysia and it is important to stress that there are many voices on local social media who are disgusted by the looting and are urging the Government of Malaysia to act.

The Royal Navy spokesperson added,

“We strongly condemn any desecration of any maritime military grave.

Where we have evidence of desecration of the wrecks of Royal Navy vessels, we will take appropriate action, including working with regional Governments and partners to prevent inappropriate activity at such sites.”

The Royal Navy has been approached for comment about the latest developments.

Article updated at 17.20 on 27/05/2023 to include an estimate of the potential weight of metal lifted from HMS Prince of Wales.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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