Ship held in connection with British war-grave looting 

Officer with a shell found on the detained dredger (Maritime Malaysia)
Officer with a shell found on the detained dredger (Maritime Malaysia)

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency has boarded what is thought to be the wanted Chinese grab dredger Chuan Hong 68, and found scrap metal and ammunition suspected to be related to the illegal salvage of the WW2 Force Z warships HMS Prince of Wales and possibly HMS Repulse.

Crewed by 21 Chinese, 10 Bangladeshi and a Malaysian national, the vessel has for now been detained on grounds of anchoring without permission. It is being investigated by Maritime Malaysia (the Coast Guard), the Royal Malaysian Police, the Marine Department and the National Heritage Department, according to Maritime Malaysia.

It was a tip-off from a local diving professional that alerted Malaysian authorities to the activities of the Chuan Hong 68, a vessel long associated with illicit salvaging of WW2 shipwrecks in the South China Sea.

The British ships, which lie at maximum depths of more than 60m off Malaysia’s east coast, are designated war graves – 842 men died when the 27,600-tonne battle-cruiser Repulse and 35,000-tonne battleship Prince of Wales were sunk by Japanese torpedo-bombers on 10 December, 1941. 

The Royal Navy has described the sinking of the two vessels, coming days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as “one of the worst disasters in British naval history… The loss shocked the nation and at that time forced the navy to re-evaluate how they had fought for centuries.”

HMS Prince of Wales (top) and Repulse ships under attack by Japanese aircraft in 1941
HMS Prince of Wales (top) and Repulse under attack by Japanese aircraft in 1941

The warships are prominent among a number that have been targeted by looters in the region over the past decade. War-grave status is no deterrent when the objective is to obtain valuable ship’s steel smelted before 1942, the year radioactive isotopes emitted during atomic-bomb testing began contaminating the alloy.

The Repulse carried 152mm belt armour while the other, more modern ship had 370mm steel armour-plating, but aluminium, bronze and copper components are also valued by looters.

The 122m grab dredger Chuan Hong 68, which belongs to the Chinese company Fujian Yarui Marine Engineering, is thought to have been in Malaysian waters since late last year, operating under a licence granted to salvage a Chinese vessel.

According to the UK’s Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust, it had spent 54 days over the Prince of Wales site, producing six boat-loads of scrap that had been unloaded and causing “huge oil spills“ as a result. The organisation did not think Repulse had been targeted.

Diver informed Prince Charles

Local scuba diver Hazz Zain has told the New Straits Times that after the dredger had warned off a fishing-boat, its crew had informed a boat operator that shared photographs of the ship with her. She then alerted the British High Commission and Malaysian authorities.

Zain had dived the wrecks before the Covid pandemic, and in 2017 had met the Prince of Wales, now King Charles, to update him about their condition. She said that he had appeared upset after seeing her video and stills of the ransacked wrecks, which appeared to show destruction levels as high as 70%.

The Prince of Wales leaving Singapore in 1941
The Prince of Wales leaving Singapore in 1941

On 19 May this year the Royal Malaysian Police raided a scrapyard in Kota Tinggi, Johor, after staff had posted a video on TikTok showing a dredger transporting a gun apparently taken from one of the British wrecks.

At the site the police found two British 5.25in anti-aircraft guns, live ammunition, an anchor and sections of hull-plate. The shells were later destroyed in a controlled explosion.

Career of Chuan Hong 68

The Chuan Hong 68 and its crew have been in trouble in Malaysia before: they were detained in 2017 accused of looting Japanese military wrecks near Usukan but later released. The vessel is thought to have changed its registration before re-applying to operate in Malaysian waters.

The Indonesian navy was reported to have chased the same ship into international waters last April, after it had been seen operating over a wreck-site near the remote Anambas Islands. It is still wanted by Indonesia for the suspected plundering of the Dutch warship wrecks HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java and HNLMS Kortenaer.

Other warship wrecks that have been scavenged in the South China Sea in recent years include the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth, on which 350 men died, and the US heavy cruiser USS Houston, which sank with the deaths of 650 sailors. HMS Electra, HMS Exeter and USS Perch have also suffered from illicit interference.

The Chuan Hong 68 (Maritime Malaysia)
The Chuan Hong 68 (Maritime Malaysia)
The Chuan Hong 68 (Maritime Malaysia)
Bow crane on the Chuan Hong 68 (Maritime Malaysia)

The Fujian Yarui Marine Engineering company was formed in June 2013 and launched Chuan Hong 68 the following year. Its two 360° cranes are claimed to be capable of retrieving entire shipwrecks, it says, as part of its “high-quality ocean engineering service”. 

Over time the vessel has become increasingly well equipped, with grabs that can reach as deep as 200m. A source told the New Straits Times it had been ”responsible for looting 90% of other WW2 shipwrecks in the region”, including in Singaporean, Cambodian and Vietnamese waters, its crew leaving GPS and wi-fi systems turned off so that it could operate undetected.

‘Distressed and concerned'

Calls are again being made for Britain's Ministry of Defence to come up with a more effective approach to the problem of illegal wreck salvage overseas.

“We are distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse,” commented Prof Dominic Tweddle, director general of the National Museum of the Royal Navy on 24 May. “They are designated war graves.

“We are upset at the loss of naval heritage and the impact this has on the understanding of our Royal Navy history. What we need is a management strategy for the underwater naval heritage so that we can better protect or commemorate these ships. That may include targeted retrieval of objects.

“We want the Royal Navy to develop a policy we can help deliver. If resourced correctly, the existing Royal Navy loss list can be enhanced to be a vital tool to begin to understand, research and manage over 5,000 wrecks before they are lost forever.” 

There is a Save the HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales Facebook group.

Also on Divernet: Shipwreck Dive Sites from World War One 1918, UK authorities look to toughen up on wreck interference, Dutch company pays price for illegal salvage, ’Pirate’ divers suspected of looting WW1 liner, Divers ransack 80m-deep historic wreck, Divers fined £36000 for looting Scapa wrecks

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Dalma Thomas
Dalma Thomas
8 months ago

I believe as diver’s, we have a responsibility to treat the area we dive with respect and to not allow these pirates of the deep to pillage from war graves. These people have no respect what so ever. Well done to the guy that reported them.

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