Exclusive: British admiralty chief Lord West calls for global protection of ocean war graves after wide-scale looting

UK investigation reveals sites of ship wrecks where hundreds died have been ‘heavily damaged’

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Velar Grant/ZUMA Wire/Shutterstock (10233056t)
Admiral Sir Alan West, former First Sea Lord  and Chief of the Naval Staff
Victory Day Celebrations, London, UK - 09 May 2019
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Britain’s former First Sea Lord is calling on nations to unite to protect underwater war graves after a UK investigation revealed wide-scale looting by pirates.

The graves of thousands of war heroes killed in battle have been destroyed by treasure hunters and metal looters targeting sunken vessels.

Lord West is urging the UK’s Ministry of Defence (Mod) to lead global action to protect the sites and bring in tougher penalties on those desecrating the graves.

His rallying call comes as The National can reveal an investigation by the Mod's Salvage and Marine Operations confirmed historic Second World War wrecks, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, have suffered "considerable damage".

More than 830 sailors died when the vessels were sunk off the coast of Malaysia in 1941.

"These are very important sites, these men died fighting for their nations. It would not be tolerated for people to go to graves at Flanders and dig them up, yet this is the same," Lord West told The National.

“We need the full strength of the international community to come together to police this.

“As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, I call on policy makers to look at what can be done to protect them.

“The Mod needs to lead the way and get other nations on board to get an agreement to monitor areas of the sea to stop this. There needs to be much more clarity and tougher penalties.

“These are war graves of brave soldiers and it is desperately sad.

It is very important people are remembered.”

The Mod has vowed to work hard to protect the graves.

"The law is clear that military wrecks should remain undisturbed and we work hard to ensure they're protected," a spokesman told The National.

“We will continue to cooperate closely with governments and partners to prevent inappropriate activity on the wrecks of Royal Navy vessels.”

Ships sunk since the First World War have war grave status.

The lead in them is sought after as ships made before the first nuclear explosions in the 1940s are valuable as the metal does not contain radioactive elements and can be used in specialist lab and medical equipment.

A Mod official said its recent surveys of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse showed both had been "heavily damaged" with HMS Repulse suffering "considerably greater damage".

"We consider the sunken British warships to be the final resting place of our servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and have engaged with the local and regional authorities to ensure that our position is made clear over the desecration of these sites," an official said.

Lord West has campaigned for more protection for two decades and has previously organised a mission to save a bell from the HMS Prince of Wales after a former Naval officer contacted him after discovering looters trying to steal it. It is now on a display in a museum in Liverpool.

Alf Woodhead, of Keighley, West Yorkshire, was one of the few survivors of the HMS Prince of Wales and watched as his friends died, the engraved gold watch his mother gave him for his 21st birthday remains in his locker on board.

His great grand-daughter Poppy Midgley has backed calls for the protection of the vessels.

“It is important that the final resting places of all those who died serving their countries are protected,” she said.

“He watched his friends die that day and relatives across the world should know that their loved ones graves are safe and being treated with respect.”

Under international law, naval warships, state vessels, and associated artefacts remain the property of the home nation wherever in the world they lie.

Some wrecks are afforded additional protection through the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.