Three British ships and a US submarine that sank in the Java Sea during the second world war have been destroyed by illegal scrap metal scavengers, the Guardian can reveal.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence said it condemned the “unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains” and requested Indonesian authorities investigate and take “appropriate action”.
The commercial salvaging of war wrecks has caused significant upset among veterans, historians and governments who want to preserve the final resting place of sailors who went down with their ships.
A preliminary report from an expedition to document sunken ships, seen by the Guardian, shows that the wrecks of HMS Exeter, a 175m heavy cruiser, and destroyer HMS Encounter have been almost totally removed. Using equipment that creates a 3D map of the sea floor, the report showed that where the wreck “was once located there is a large ‘hole’ in the seabed”.
A 100m destroyer, HMS Electra, had also been scavenged, the report found, although a “sizeable section” of the wreck remained.
The 91m US submarine Perch, whose entire crew were captured by the Japanese, had been totally removed, the report said.
All four sank during operations in the Java Sea in 1942, when Japanese forces overpowered Dutch, British, American and Australian sailors. The battle was one of the costliest sea skirmishes for the allies during the war and led to the Japanese occupation of the entire Dutch East Indies.
The Ministry of Defence said in a statement that the British government had contacted Indonesian authorities to express “serious concern” and request they investigate and take “appropriate action to protect the sites from any further disturbance.