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