The Curious Case of the Missing WWII Shipwrecks

Sonar image of the Java Sea bed location where the wreck of the HMS Exeter used to be.
Sonar image of the Java Sea bed location where the wreck of the HMS Exeter used to be. [BBC]

The Netherlands and British Ministries of Defense recently announced that the wrecks of three Dutch Navy, three British Navy, and one U.S. Navy ships sunk off the coast of Indonesia during World War II have disappeared. Divers intending to photograph the Dutch ships for a 75th year commemoration of the 1942 Battle of the Java Sea discovered the wrecks were missing. After three dimensional sonar imagery revealed only sea bed indentations where the light cruisers HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java had been discovered in 2002, and partial remains of the destroyer HNLMS Kortenaer, the diving crew surveyed the other battle wrecks in the Java Sea area and discovered them mostly missing as well.


The British government has condemned what it believes is the result of illegal salvaging of the wrecks of the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and destroyers HMS Encounter and Electra, and has asked the government of Indonesia to investigate and take “appropriate actions.”

Although some experts expressed skepticism that the Dutch ships had been salvaged from under 70 meters of water, 60 miles off the Indonesian coast, other World War II Pacific naval wrecks have been victims of scavenging in the past. According to the Guardian,

Crews posing as fishermen and using long rubber hoses to stay underwater for hours have scavenged the waters around Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, locating the wrecks and stealing parts, including steel, aluminium and brass.

The potential worth of metal-built shipwrecks is estimated at hundreds of thousands of pounds. Some of the propellors, often the first items to be stolen, are made of phosphor bronze scrap metal, valued at over £2,000 per tonne.

The British Ministry of Defense has also been accused of not doing enough to prevent looting of British and German ships sunk in the North Sea during the World War I Battle of Jutland in 1916.

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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