Chinese salvage ship caught looting from war graves, ship wreckages in Malaysia

A Chinese salvage ship has been caught red-handed looting the war graves of 840 men, ripping up the World War II wrecks of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse for high-quality steel.

Malaysian media and maritime open-source intelligence analysts last week located a dredger sitting illegally over the designated war grave of the two British warships sunk by Japanese bombers in December 1941.

Royal Malaysian Police on Friday reportedly uncovered live ammunition, two British 5.25-inch anti-aircraft cannons, a ship’s anchor and sections of hull at a jetty in Kota Tinggi, Johor.

So far, there are no reports of human remains among the debris.

HMS Prince of Wales was a modern 35,000-tonne warship lined with 14.7-inch (370mm) thick armour plate. HMS Repulse was a much older 27,600-tonne battlecruiser, protected by thinner 6-inch (152mm) belt armour.

But the steel used in the era’s warships was of exceptionally high quality and represents a quick and easy source of scrap to be smelted into new products.

The salvage ship Chuan 68, which belongs to the Chinese firm Fujian Ya Rui Marine, has been observed operating in Malaysian waters since early this year.

Beijing claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory and it regularly ignores the national exclusive economic zones allocated to Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia under international law.

Token effort

The British warships were the core of Force Z, a token presence sent to Singapore in November 1941 by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to deter Japan’s increasing hostility.

The modern battleship and obsolete battlecruiser put to sea the day after the surprise attack on the US Navy’s battleships at Pearl Harbor, accompanied by a small group of destroyers including Australia’s HMAS Vampire.

The ships moved into the South China Sea to intercept Japanese invasion forces even as US Army Air Force fighters and bombers were being destroyed on the ground at their Philippines airfields.

A shocked and surprised US General Douglas MacArthur locked himself in his penthouse at the Manila Hotel.

After failing to find the Japanese for a desired night battle, Force Z turned back towards Singapore to avoid anticipated air attack. But neither the US nor Britain was aware at this time that Japan possessed torpedo bombers capable of delivering their weapons over much greater distances than their German or Italian allies.

Both ships eventually succumbed to sustained attacks. HMS Prince of Wales lost 327 of its 1612 crew. HMS Repulse lost 513 of 1309.

Shortly after, British, Australian and Indian defensive lines in Malaysia collapsed, leading to the surrender of Singapore – Britain’s main Far East Outpost. Some 130,000 Allied soldiers were taken prisoner.

Lost to history

The current condition of the British wrecks remains unknown. A formal public complaint has been issued to the Malaysian government’s National Heritage Department.

But it’s not the first time the Chinese-registered salvage ship has been caught looting war graves.

The Chuan 68 and its crew were temporarily detained in 2017 amid allegations it had removed three Japanese World War II wrecks near Usukan, Malaysia.

And the Indonesian navy had reportedly intercepted the ship in April of the same year while it was scavenging a shipwreck near the Anambas Islands. It allegedly fled to international waters.

The wrecks of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth and the US heavy cruiser USS Houston – both lost in the weeks after the fall of Singapore – have also been targeted. And two Dutch warships sunk days earlier have entirely disappeared.

Indonesia’s Jakarta Post reported at the time that Chinese authorities claimed the Chuan Hong 68 had been chartered by a Malaysian firm. “It has been engaged in offshore engineering in the waters specified by the Malaysian side according to the contract,” it quoted the Chinese Foreign Ministry as saying.

Indonesian authorities say illegal salvage operations have become common in Indonesian waters, with foreign and domestic scrap firms seeking an easy profit.

Bronze propellers are a particularly valuable. As are copper boilers. But steel smelted before the atomic bomb tests of the 1940s is highly prised for advanced scientific measuring equipment due to the lack of even minute traces of interfering radioactive materials.

Originally published as Chinese salvage ship caught red-handed looting battleship wrecks

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