Illegal metal scavengers accused of disposing of remains from British and Dutch warships
The remains of second world war sailors who died on British and Dutch warships in the Java sea were secretly dumped in an anonymous mass grave by modern-day metal scavengers as they rifled through wrecks illegally lifted from the sea bed, it has been claimed.
The reports from Indonesian and Dutch media prompted the Ministry of Defence to condemn those who had disturbed the graves of the dead, and speak of their “distress” at the news.
In recent years a series of huge wrecks have been all but removed from the waters off Indonesia by operators seeking to cash in on the valuable metals on board.
The ships that have been dismantled or vanished included the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Electra, on which 119 men perished, HMS Exeter, a 175-metre heavy cruiser on which 54 died, and HMS Encounter, which was scuttled to avoid capture by the Japanese.
It has now been claimed that those employed by the illegal scavengers to cut up the ships on Indonesian soil had also found skulls, jawbones, feet and hand bones, hips and ribs during their work.
It was claimed that the remains were dumped in a mass grave near the port of Brondong, in east Java.
According to an Indonesian journalist, Aqwam Hanifan, reporting on the Indonesian website, Tirto.id, British and Dutch remains were bagged and buried to a depth of one metre.
One contractor, Haji Ghoni, responsible for processing the ships, was quoted as saying of the remains: “Sometimes they are there and sometimes not.”
How the ships are salvaged
A ministry of defence spokesman said: “The British Government condemns the unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains. Under International Law naval warships and associated artefacts enjoy protection through Sovereign Immunity.
“International law also provides for protection for war graves. Desecration of wrecks of war and merchant vessels causes distress to loved ones of those lost on board and is against international law.
“A military wreck should remain undisturbed and those who lost their lives onboard should be allowed to rest in peace.”
The development has also caused outrage in the Dutch parliament as it comes in the wake of a report on war wrecks from the country’s defence ministry which suggested there were no leads as to the identity of the metal scavengers, let alone information to be gleaned about the fate of sailors’ remains.
André Bosman, a Dutch MP, told the daily newspaper De Telegraaf: “These publications in Indonesia and now in De Telegraaf raise new questions and a feeling of great indignation.”
Around 900 Dutch sailors died in the Battle of the Java sea on HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java, and HNLMS Kortenaer. They were sunk, along with UK, Australian and US vessels, in 1942, during one of the costliest sea battles for the allies, only to be the target of the illegal metal traders in a particularly frenetic period of activity between 2014 and 2016.
Dutch divers, planning to put plaques on the vessels, found they had vanished in 2016.
The wrecks are regarded as treasure troves by the salvagers and it is thought that up to 40 second world war-era vessels in the Java sea have already been partially or completely destroyed. Even poor quality steel can bring in about £1m ($1.3m) a ship, according to estimates cited by the Guardian in a special report last year. Other metals valued from the wrecks including copper cables and phosphor bronze propellors.
The Indonesian government has insisted it is not to blame as there was no formal request for them to be protected.
This month the National Museum of the Royal Navy and the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust, which have charted every Royal Navy vessel ever lost around the globe, said they were linking up in an effort to deter those planning to rob sites in UK seas.
They will use satellites, radar and sensors to monitor suspicious activity near wreck sites, the Royal Navy said.