Scrap Metal Thieves in the 10,000 Ton Range

The glorious story of the fourth ship to bear the name HMS Exeter came to an end twice — in 1942, when she went to the bottom off the Dutch East Indies with fifty men of her crew, and the survivors went into Japanese captivity (where over 150 more would be slaughtered); and again in 2016, when her wreck and war grave, rediscovered in 2008, was found to have been completely plundered by Asian metal thieves.

Exeter was not the only ship to be erased from the seabed. British destroyers HMS Electra and Encounter, Royal Dutch HMNLS De Ruyter and HMNLS Java sunk in the same battle are gone as well (although some bits of Electra remain). HMNLS Kortenaer is partly gone. The US Submarine Perch sunk in an unrelated action is gone, but is not a war grave (her whole crew escaped the fire of sinking into the frying pan of Japanese captivity); along with the two cruisers sunk at the follow-on Battle of the Sunda Strait, HMAS Perth and USS Houston, war graves for over 300 Australians and Americans respectively, which were determined by surveys in 2013 and 2015 to have been invaded and partly stripped by scrappers.

While the British losses at the Battle of the Java Sea were not trivial, the Dutch lost over 900 seamen in the battle, including the Netherlands’ last great admiral, Karel Doorman. It was a Dutch expedition to place a plaque in memory of Doorman and his men that first discovered that the ships were not there. There’s no question of a navigational error, as the indentations where the ships used to be are still there.

dutch-outrageThe Dutch, as you might imagine, are fit to be tied. (See front page at left: “Puzzle in the Java Sea,” with an artists’ rendering of the now-missing Dutch ships as of 2008).

The Indonesian response has been flippant. Indonesian Navy Spokesman Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta suggested that it’s the Netherlands’ own fault for not requesting that the Indonesians guard the location.

The Netherlands, the former colonial power, is little loved in Indonesia, and the majority mohammedan population does not respect the graves of infidels.

The only remaining question, at this point: were the thieves Indonesian, Chinese, or Indonesians and Chinese working together?

Exeter may be the most historic of these lost ships. She was a proud ship. Built in the 1920s under the strictures of the naval disarmament treaties of the era, the 8,400 ton cruiser was the second and last of the York class and sufficiently different from York as to be readily distinguished. In order to meet the weight strictures of the Washington and London Naval Treaties, York and Exeter dispensed with belt armor, reducing weight but increasing tophamper and rendering the ships vulnerable in a fight with peer or larger units. (It was Exeter’s fate in WWII to get into such fights).

Battle of the River Plate

Exeter was one of the three cruisers that harried DKM Graf Spee into this harbor off Montevideo, Uruguay and caused, ultimately, the scuttling of the vessel and suicide of her captain.

Exeter, the best armed and armored of the three ships opposing Graf Spee (The others were HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles) went toe-to-toe with the German battlecruiser and paid the price.

Exeter took a considerable beating, as seen here. German day gunnery was thought to be the best in the world, and the 100-plus hits Exeter took in barely 20 minutes proved that conventional opinion was valid. But a couple of hits from Exeter drove Graf Spee into harbor to make repairs. Believing he was bottled up — an erroneous belief, as Exeter had already decamped for the Falklands and hasty repairs of its own — the German captain, Hans Langdorff, scuttled the ship and then shot himself.


Graf Spee remains on the bottom of the Rio Plata. Why? Uruguay and Argentina, the adjacent countries, are civilized. Indonesia? Not so much.

Battle of the Java Sea & 2nd Battle of the Java Sea

In 1941, Exeter transited the Panama Canal enroute to her new station in the Far East.


After the Sino-Japanese war that had been percolating for years broke out into general warfare after the Japanese  became one of the ill-fated multinational ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian) squadron in the southwest Pacific. Exeter fought a number of actions against Japanese ships and aircraft (see below), before the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February 1942.

In the Battle of the Java Sea, the ABDA force sortied from Surabaya on the Dutch (now Indonesian) island of Java to intercept a Japanese landing force, under the command of Admiral Doorman. The Japanese force was screened by the IJN’s surface combatants, at that stage of the war probably the best in the world, man-for-man and ship-for-ship.

The ABDA force comprised 9 cruisers, including USS Houston and  Marblehead;  HMAS Hobart; HMS Exeter, Jupiter, and Express; and Dutch DeRuyter, Java, and Piethien.  

exeter-sinks-1-mar-42Exeter was again ordered to seek repairs. She buried 14 dead at sea, and was provided with two escorting destroyers, HMS Encounter and USS Pope, and set course for Surabaya. After hasty repairs to Exeter, the same three ships headed for the Royal Navy’s docks in Ceylon, but nine Japanese warships caught up to the squadron on 1 March 42 and sent them all to the bottom. (This is called, by historians, the 2nd Battle of the Java Sea). Most of the crewmen survived, with Exeter taking the most casualties — 52, fewer than she lost at the River Plate. This photo was taken from a Japanese aircraft.


The ships were found in 2007 by a US/Australian and identified in 2008, and wreck archaeologists were only beginning to study the wrecks to shed light on the 1942 battles. One of the then-living HMS Exeter survivors, Fred Aindow, then 88, remembered of his station in a gun turret:

We were firing until the last moment,” he said. “I think we were the last to stop. Then it was over the side and I hung on to an oar for an hour until I was picked up. The next three years were sheer hell.

It’s great news that they’ve found Exeter. I’d like to dive down myself and get my shoes from my locker that I had only just bought.

Another, Tom Jowett, a spokesman for the Survivors’ Association:

This is great news but it is important now to make sure the wreck is properly respected.

That didn’t happen. The UK MOD, seeking to protect the ships’ locations as grave sites, shared the closely-held location with Indonesian officials, which is now looking like a rather large error and a Judas-and-Brutus level betrayal by the Indonesians.

As the ship went down, her surviving company, afloat in the water, sent up three cheers.


For the survivors, Japanese captivity killed three times the men that the sinking of their ships had done. It didn’t start off that way; Japanese captains including Shunsaku Kudo of the destroyer IJN Ikazuchi hazarded their own ships to rescue survivors; Kudo took 442 on board his own ship. But once the prisoners were transferred from the relatively cosmopolitan and chivalric Navy to the custody of the barbarous Japanese Army ashore, they were badly abused.

USS Pope’s XO, Dick Antrim, was awarded the Medal of Honor for a selfless act of heroism during captivity: as the Japanese were beating another prisoner to death, Antrim demanded that they punish him instead. The Japanese were astonished by this act, and ceased the beating, and generally seemed to respect the Americans more and abuse them less after this. Antrim is buried in Arlington… where the Indonesians can’t get to him!


The Daily Express:

The Telegraph (destruction & desecration):

The Telegraph (original discovery, survivor quotes):

WWII Today (excellent long quote from surviving Exeter officer Lt. Cmdr. George Cooper).

Reuters (Dutch irritation over missing ships, Indonesian Navy flippant comment):

Japan Probe (story of Captain Kudo and the Itazuki. Kudo survived the war, but his ship and most of the crew were lost later).

Heroism of Dick Antrim:


32 thoughts on “Scrap Metal Thieves in the 10,000 Ton Range

  1. Winston Smith

    Re the Graf Spee not being salvaged to any degree, I recall reading this a few other places back in the 1990s:

    “In a September 2007 article in the Argentine gun magazine Magnum, about the British-ordered Ballester–Molina pistols, gun writer and collector George E. Arbones’ research and collection data seems to indicate the legend British-bought Ballester–Molinas being manufactured using steel salvaged from the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee after she was scuttled in the River Plate, across from Buenos Aires is true”

  2. Kenwats

    Seems like an awfully long way to go to collect some steel scrap, no? I mean steel’s (relatively) cheap. $0.03-0.05 per pound (here in the US). You’re talking maybe a million for the whole wreck, assuming you can get it all up and sorted. Seems like not a lot of juice to be dragging a WWII Heavy Cruiser off the bottom of the seabed.

    1. Hayabusa

      I had the same thought when I first heard this story, so I did some research on the issue. As James in Australia mentions below, steel from ships that have been underwater since prior to 1945 is quite valuable, as it is not contaminated with isotopes from above-ground nuclear detonations, and therefore has a low level of background radiation. For most applications, this makes no difference. But for some devices that require the utmost level of sensitivity to radiation–Geiger counters, radiation detectors on spacecraft and satellites, some types of medical devices, etc.–low-background steel is required. So salvaging these old shipwrecks is indeed worth the expense and effort.

  3. Loren

    Except for the Balinese who are Hindus, Indos have zero worth, both collectively and individually.

  4. Slow Joe Crow

    The really puzzling thing is how was it done? The BBC article has quotes from a Dutch salvage expert about how much equipment he thought was involved and to grab an 8000 ton ship from over 200′ deep is a lot more complex than a couple of methods heads with a crowbar and pickup prying a bronze plaque off a memorial.
    The huge puzzler is how thorough the robbers were because there is almost no debris field left at several sites and the common method of tearing up the wreck using grabs and small explosive charges leaves a lot of wreckage behind.

    As a technical aside, the motivation for the York/Exeter class was the limit on total tonnage per class, so building something smaller than the 10,000 ton County class would allow more hulls. As Hognose points out this was too much stuff for the displacement. The larger County class ships actually did well in action but almost all of them had one main battery turret removed during wartime refits to save weight for better radar and more AA guns giving them the same main battery as Exeter but on a much larger hull..

  5. James In Australia

    The steel is worth considerably more than just normal scrap value as it is pre nuclear bomb.
    That makes it useful as shielding material where post nuclear steel would confuse instruments.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yep. Not to mention the other alloys present in large quantity in a ship: aluminum, brass, bronze. They seem to have been looting these ships sysematically for years.

  6. 11B-Mailclerk

    Perhaps the offended nations might issue letters of marque to some other scrappers who might take metal still afloat?

    Wouldn’t that make a cool book?

  7. Scott


    scuttled the ship and the shot himself.

    (Trying to catch up on all the great posts here is impossible, but I’ll read as many as I can.)

  8. LFMayor

    Was it President Jackson that had some pissant island village shelled in the South Pacific for mistreatment of sailors and the national ensign? Asking for a friend

  9. Aesop

    It’s all fun and games until a couple of sovereign’s navies decide to send their submarines to the vicinity, with orders to use scrappers’ vessels for ad hoc torpedo practice. Ideally, on the anniversary of the sinkings.
    Mayhap even an Indonesian flag vessel or three if they blunder into the torpex.

    There are no holes at sea, and accidents happen.

    A pithy response verbally, sotto voce, from the respective consular officials that if they didn’t want their ships to randomly blow up, they shouldn’t have practiced grave robbery should suffice to send the appropriate message.

  10. staghounds

    ” I know you’re hungry, children, but we must respect the sentimental attachment of the grandchildren of our former colonial masters to the place where their corpses disintegrated many years ago. Maybe you’ll eat tomorrow.”

    1. Aesop

      Good troll!
      Right; the locals can come up with the technology and wherewithal to desecrate sunken ships 200′ undersea, but they can’t figure out how to have enough for dinner. Because catching fish in the ocean is soooooo much harder than hauling out 10,000 tons of steel from the bottom of the ocean.
      “I’ll take Bullsh*t Memes for $1000, Alex.”

      Maybe if they had listened to their colonial betters, they wouldn’t resort to grave robbery to find something to eat gainful employment now.

      But then, considering getting them to respect the sentiment of not lopping off little girls’ heads on their way to Sunday School is a tough sell with their ilk, things like not desecrating other peoples’ graves is a very iffy concept. That can work both ways, as long as one doesn’t YouTube the pissing on their cousins’ heads to the whole world.

      Best to simply use the bloody wogs for target practice, until they learn why pissing off more advanced nations is a bad idea.

      Not that that would stop romantic apologists for literal savages from logic fail.

  11. raven

    The scrappers show a lot of initiative. That took a lot of work and skill. They saw something they wanted, and they took it. They simply did not give a damn, or perhaps even know about, any western ethical issues . Or maybe they did know full well, and thought it hilarious. Irrelevant either way. One thing to count on, they will keep doing it because it has worked so far.

    The crux of the matter is this- if you want something, be prepared to bring enough force to bear to keep it. Any assumption some other group is going to care about the same things we do is nuts.

    Actually protecting the sites is mechanically easy, but takes a lot of political will. Probably more than we have.

    1. staghounds

      That’s my point. Some distant foreigner’s opinions won’t prevent people from doing what they see as in their best interests. That goes for salvaging ships, cutting trees, slaughtering cattle, or drilling up oil.

      And mockery or not, I suspect that the men risking their lives getting all that iron up and to market DO use the money to feed and house their families, just like we do with the money we earn.

      1. Loren

        Indonesians have a unique culture. Basically the upper class is indolent by ancestry and by intent.
        The rest, which is 99% or so get by on whatever they can suck out of the government or the environment.
        They’re the largest by population Muslim nation although that’s mostly secondary to the indolent part. The idea or the goal of the upper class is to get enough to buy a property in Australia as a bolt hole when things go south, as they do every so often.
        The rest of the population exists…….mostly.
        If you want to see how, Google “Jakarta River”. Runs through their capitol but you can’t see the water for the shit.
        They are responsible for most of the air pollution in SW Asia. Slash and burn the rain forest, etc. Their idea of fishing is either to Clorox the reefs for aquarium fish. Use homemade explosives to blast the reef or use boys to form a line of rock/line droppers to drive the fish off the reef into nets.
        Australia has a continuing battle to keep them off Australian reefs. Australia has the only undamaged and unexploited reefs within several thousand miles. If you want to see a destroyed environment, go to Indonesia- well any third world country.
        How much do they care for a military grave site? Why not at all. Probably government funded.

      2. Aesop

        Mike Godwin called.
        He noted that at last look, the camp guards at Auschwitz drew a salary as well.

        The moral of the story is that a paycheck doesn’t excuse douchiness.
        It just takes it from a mere hobby to a criminal enterprise.

        But I hope BP or Shell Oil, by direction, decides to drill for oil amidst a Muslim cemetery, and tells the protesters to go look up the Indonesians’ example, and King Solomon’s jurisprudence regarding splitting babies.

        “The punishment fit the crime.”

  12. Cap'n Mike

    An impressive feat.
    I would guess that the wrecks were lifted in one piece or an electromagnet was used to clean the bottom.

  13. raven

    I was wondering if it would be feasible to use an air float system to lift them.

    Also wonder about the steel value- even if a given that the steel is more valuable because of less radiation, how much is needed? A ship has a lot of steel in it and one would think the market for this ultra specialized product would be very small. If this is the case, the wrecks may have some built in protection as the market price for the metal falls.
    I know nothing about this particular requirement for steel, but it begs the question of where the radioactivity comes from- iron ore buried in the earth would be protected also, yes? So is the radiation acquired in the refining process, and would not the ship steel need to be re-smelted also?

    1. Tom

      Re the radioactive contamination of post-1945 steel:
      The contamination happens during smelting. The atmospheric weapons tests up until they quit doing that (1963 for US, UK, USSR, 1974 France and 1980 China) significantly raised the average worldwide level of long-lived radionuclides such as 30 year Cs-137 floating around in the air.
      If you’re trying to take a really low-level measurement with sensitive instruments, having pre-WWII steel makes a difference in being able to reduce the radiation background at your detector.

      Fun shielding fact – we (back in my health physics days at a state university) used depleted uranium shields around many of our low-level detectors, cylindrical shields about the size of an under-table trash can. Depleted uranium’s high density (~2x that of lead) makes it a good shield just as it helps make better cannon projectiles. It’s high atomic number makes it even better as a shield so long as neutrons aren’t involved. No depleted uranium shields around reactors…

  14. John Smith

    Finishing up an audio book (that makes my commute far more bearable) about the use of atomic weapons by the US at the end of WWII. In it, the author paints a pretty bleak picture of the capacity for individual cruelty in the far east (I couldn’t possibly care less if that geographic term is offensive).

    The anecdotes are crafted to the authors purpose certainly- but some examples would have given Joe Stalin pause (no…probably not).

    My point here is that some of those cultures seem to exist on a plane that values life (and its sundries) from a perspective wholly not recognizable from my own.

    ….which is perfectly fine…as long as you keep it inside your own damn fence.

    1. Mike_C

      >far east (I couldn’t possibly care less if that geographic term is offensive)
      Huh? There are people offended by the term “far east”? Seriously, this is a thing? For the love of G-d, why is it offensive?
      Oh why not. Seems everything else is offensive to someone and thus deserving of groveling apology, and reparations. [long rant redacted]

      >capacity for individual cruelty in the far east
      Maybe, but I don’t think it’s just the far east. If anything, my (admittedly limited compared to some of you world-traveling folk) experience suggests that the wealthier parts of the West are, for lack of a better term, “underdeveloped” with respect to cruelty. We’re far more sentimental about other beings in general than most of the world. For more specific examples, look at how we regard animals (be it food animals or pets) versus the rest of the world. Part of this is undoubtedly because many of us are so separated from where our food really comes from (it comes in biodegradable plastic wrap, from the Whole Foods, duh!), but it’s also deeper culture, and the fact that we are wealthy enough to be so sentimental.

      As far as nuking the WWII Japanese goes, while I can feel bad for the people who just happened to be living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you’d be VERY hard put to find any non-Japanese Asian (apart from some Taiwanese who’d been colonized so thoroughly by the Japanese that they adopted the customs and language) who doesn’t think the nuking was, in the overall scheme of things, a damned good thing. There’s a reason the Japanese were hated and despised as “the dwarf rapists”. And they’ve never officially owned up (forget apology, just admitting would do) to what they did prior to and during WWII.

      1. John Smith

        Far East- I was at a loss as well. Apparently its euro centric in that….I’m not kidding…it is only the “far” from a European sense. God save us.

        Cruelty- I understand your point. Atrocities have taken place at every corner of the globe during war. No country or region gets a pass. My thought is based on the evidence of widespread cruelty as a practice by individual soldiers. The horrors that were visited upon those that they conquered are staggering. Listing them here would be ghoulish but one of their practices seems to sum up the point: Humans (living) being used as bayonet training dummies…

        Soldiers taking turns thrusting a bayonet into a bound captive…for any reason…is what I would consider a huge capacity for individual cruelty.

        …and that is a light example.

        The Bomb- One of the only (non Japanese) people upset by the bombing was MacArthur. He wanted to lead a glorious campaign onto the Japanese home Islands.
        He falsified a casualty estimate to that end…Truman didn’t buy it.
        The only thing bigger than the hubris of most Flag Officers is…..well… nothing. Nothing is bigger.

    2. Quill_&_Blade

      My favorite audio book is “Dark Sun” the making of the hydrogen bomb. The author alternates between political events chronology and scientific progress at the same time; alternating between them. Good stuff.

  15. TRX

    The CIA once claimed it tracked all ship movement on the seas. If it wasn’t just more propaganda, they ought to be able to tell us when the site was salvaged and what ports the ships went to.

    Somehow, I doubt it, though. They seem to be completely blind to drug running operations, anyway.

  16. TRX

    I think what we’re looking at is “law of treasure,” not “grave molestation.”

    Certainly enough Spanish and English ships went down along the US coast (and a few German ones) and have been stripped of anything valuable. The only ethical question I remember was “how big of a cut does the taxman get.”

    Unless, of course, Indonesia is building a fleet of starships like “Space Battleship Yamato…”

  17. Martin

    That ship was named “Piet Hein”, and it was sunk 8 days before Karel Doorman’s last battle.

    Nevertheless, this is terrible, but I guess the Indonesians just don’t give “anything”, it was not their war and their dead. I’m not advocating that, I would keep war graves like that untouched, until the sea eats them. However, also some of the Jutland wrecks are being reported as partially salvaged ilegally.

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