Governments and heritage agencies on both sides of the North Sea are again facing scrutiny after fresh allegations that maritime graves of missing naval personnel have been violated by commercial salvage companies and wreck divers looking for souvenirs. Andy Brockman takes up the story, which comes against the background of controversy surrounding the alleged commercial salvage of wrecks in the Java Sea.
In August 1914 the strategic and tactical deployment of submarines was a learning curve as theories of naval tacticians and results of pre-war exercises came up against the dangerous reality of a shooting war carried out in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet; the sea. At the sharp end were submarine crews on both sides, crammed into riveted steel tubes, cheek-by-jowl with potentially lethal cocktails of electricity, battery acid, fuel oil and high explosives, and learning how to fight at the cutting edge of contemporary technology in conditions where even officers might be forced to share a single bunk and bodily functions had to be carried out in a bucket. On 16 October 1914, one of those vessels, the E-class submarine HMS E3, left its Harwich base to patrol off the Frisian Island of Borkum, on the strategically important border between Germany and the Netherlands. E3 was under the command of 32-year-old Lt Cdr George Francis Cholmley.
A military wreck should remain undisturbed … we will take appropriate action
Two days later, U-27 [Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener] spotted what was thought to be a navigation buoy, but, as Wegener approached, the buoy resolved itself into the conning tower of a British submarine, trimmed hull down, with the watch on the tower apparently intent on observing some German destroyers. Wegener manoeuvred for some two hours until he achieved the classic position for an attack, “up sun” of his target. E3’s lookouts still showed no sign of spotting their attacker as Wegener launched a single torpedo, striking the British submarine aft of the conning tower. U-27 reported survivors in the water, but by the time Wegener felt it safe to surface no-one was in sight. E3’s crew of 26 are now commemorated on the Royal Navy Memorial at Portsmouth, the MOD regarding the wreck as a maritime grave.
However, E3 is one of at least four E-class submarines lost in the North Sea to have been subject to unauthorised salvage, with allegations that she, E5, E26 and E34 have all been subjected to salvage and souveniring. German U-boats from both World Wars, and the light cruiser SMS Mainz, sunk at the Battle of Heligoland on 28 August 1914, are also reported to have been targeted. Further allegations, supported by photographs on social media, suggest material from the wrecks is exhibited regularly at dive shows. A ladder believed to be from E3 was shown on a mocked-up conning tower as recently as the weekend of 3/4 February 2018.
More disturbing are allegations these activities have disturbed human remains. A UK-based diver, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the author that in 2002 he had seen the tunic of a Royal Navy officer, alleged to have been taken from one of the lost submarines, exhibited at a dive show in Belgium. “I concluded” the witness said, “that the divers had clearly been looting the interior of the wreck, in anoxic spaces, and undoubtedly disturbing human remains.”
In a letter issued in response to an enquiry from the Daily Mail, and seen by Britain at War, a spokesperson for one of the groups of divers implicated in the alleged removals, Dive Team Zeester, denied the allegations, stating they acted only to identify and conserve underwater heritage, declaring recovered objects to the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency. Ironically, news that Netherlands-based divers were alleged to have removed material from Royal Navy wrecks comes after public opinion in the Netherlands was outraged by confirmation that Dutch, British and American vessels sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea in March 1942, including the cruisers HNLMS De Ruyter and Java, and HMS Exeter, had been destroyed by the activities of Chinese and Indonesian salvage companies using industrial crane barges to rip the wrecks apart. The remains had been taken to scrapyards where more valuable non-ferrous metals are separated from the mass of scrap steel.
A common factor in response to what many see as the desecration of the graves of missing mariners is the sense that the governments involved could have done more to protect the wrecks and the remains of their service personnel. For example, the British Government has been warned repeatedly, not least through debates and questions in Parliament, that wrecks in the Far East, particularly HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, were under threat from commercial salvage and penetration divers entering wrecks for the thrill and to collect souvenirs. Meanwhile, anecdotal reports are also emerging that senior retired (and some serving) naval officers are concerned at perceived double standards, whereby the more ‘visible’ Army casualties from the Western Front have been the focus of repeated high profile centenary events. Furthermore, the CWGC holds regular reburials of newly recovered casualties with full military honours, while the fate of casualties from the Royal Navy remains largely hidden. And, as one maritime archaeologist with knowledge of discussions with the MOD over the issue of maritime military graves puts it in his comparison of events in the Far East and North Sea with war cemeteries on land: “If someone tried to run a JCB through a CWGC cemetery in Belgium there would be outrage.”
E3 was the first Royal Navy submarine lost in home waters during the First World War. However, her sister submarine, the Royal Australian Navy E-Class boat, AE1, became the first Allied submarine casualty, being lost to an unknown cause on 14 September 1914, off Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. It is a sad commentary on the dangers facing sunken vessels that when AE1 was located in 2017 by an officially sanctioned expedition, the Australian Government announced that the location of the wreck would be kept secret because of the risk of illegal salvage desecrating a war grave. For E3, her crew, and the relatives of the 26 lives cut short, it is already too late.
If someone tried to run a JCB through a CWGC cemetery in Belgium there would be outrage
A spokesperson for the MOD said: “We are aware of these claims, which are of great concern. The appropriate officials are investigating as a matter of some urgency. 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. Where we have evidence of desecration of these sites, we will take appropriate action.”
There is one further irony to this story. On 31 October 1914, just 13 days after sinking E3, Bernd Wegener’s U-27 torpedoed and sank the seaplane carrier HMS Hermes off Calais. Forty-four members of the carrier’s crew drowned, but in January 2017, following extensive investigations into alleged removal of artefacts from the wreck of HMS Hermes, two British men have been charged with related offences. The case is ongoing. It remains to be seen if divers or salvage companies in The Netherlands or Indonesia will ever see the inside of a courtroom in relation to alleged illicit activities in the North Sea and Java Sea. The decision as to whether they do lies entirely in the hands of the Governments concerned.