An illegal Chinese salvage operation seized by Malaysian authorities Sunday is suspected to have looted two iconic World War II shipwrecks, USNI first reported.
Scrap steel, aluminum, brass fittings and ammunition believed to have belonged to the British ships HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse — both designated war graves — were discovered by Malaysian authorities aboard the Chinese cargo ship Chuan Hong 68, according to the BBC.
The ship was boarded and searched after authorities found the vessel was not authorized to anchor in the waters under Malaysian jurisdiction.
“We are distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse,” Dominic Tweddle, the director general of The National Museum of the Royal Navy, wrote in a statement. “We are upset at the loss of naval heritage and the impact this has on the understanding of our Royal Navy history.”
On Dec. 10, 1941, just three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Royal Navy ships were attacked and, having no aerial defense, quickly sunk by Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft. The strike killed some 842 sailors and is considered one of the worst disasters in British naval history.
The shocking loss forced the navy to reevaluate how it had fought for centuries — pivoting away from the Mahanian notion that “Big ships with big guns, concentrated into a single, undivided battle fleet, and infused with an overriding purpose to wipe the enemy off the face of the sea” was the way to rule the waves, according to historian Ian Toll.
Carrier strike groups were in. Antiquated battleship tactics were out.
Of the loss, Prime Minister Winston Churchill recalled in his postwar memoirs: “In all the war, I never received a more direct shock. … As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbour, who were hastening back to California. Across this vast expanse of waters, Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked.”
Today, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales rests upside down 223 feet beneath the waves near Kuantan in the South China Sea. The battlecruiser HMS Repulse lies several miles away from its sister ship.
The alleged Chinese looting, which has reportedly become common over the past several years, sparked outrage and concern from both the British and their allies. In 2017, The Guardian reported more than 40 Australian, Dutch and Japanese warships had been destroyed by looting operations in the same waters off Indonesia and Singapore.
Old shipwrecks are increasingly targeted by scavengers “for their rare low-background steel, also known as ‘pre-war steel’. The low radiation in the steel makes it a rare and valuable resource for use in medical and scientific equipment,” according to the BBC.
The U.S. Navy has expressed concern over the safety of the cruiser USS Houston, which sank just south of the same area during the Battle of Sunda Strait on March 1, 1942. More than 650 U.S. sailors and Marines died when the Houston sank.
While the wrecks remain a key part of World War II history, they are most importantly the gravesites for sailors and Marines entombed within.
“A strategy is vital to determine how to assess and manage these wrecks in the most efficient and effective manner,” Tweddle stated. “Above all, we must remember the crews who served on these lost ships and all too often gave their lives in the service of their country.”
Claire Barrett is a digital media editor at HistoryNet and a World War II researcher with an unparalleled affinity for Sir Winston Churchill and Michigan football.