Mystery of the Vanished Dutch WWII Shipwrecks


The wreck of HNLMS De Ruyter and two other ships are missing.

In 2002, amateur divers discovered the wrecks of three Dutch warships sunk off Indonesia in World War II. The three ships; the HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java and HNLMS Kortenaer;  were found at 70 meters deep, 60 miles off the Indonesian coast.  Now, something very strange has happened. Two of the three wrecks have disappeared, while a significant portion of the third is missing. 

A team of divers who were attempting to film a documentary on the 75th anniversary of the ship’s sinking, were surprised to be able to see the imprints of the missing ships on the sea floor. The remains of HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java are completely gone, the Dutch Defense Ministry says, while a large portion of the HNLMS Kortenaer is missing.

One theory as to what happened to the ships is that illegal scrap metal scavengers progressively cut up the wrecks to sell the metal for scrap. Scavengers operating grabs from barges can “nibble” away at shipwrecks. 

Nevertheless, Dutch officials are puzzled that scavengers could have removed two ships and much of a third without being observed. Also, relatively speaking, the depth of the water, at 70 meters or 230 feet, makes salvaging much more difficult. One salvage expert, speaking to the BBC, said, “It is impossible to salvage this. It is far too deep.”  Other salvage operators disagree.  Bas Wiebe, commercial manager of salvage company Resolve‘s Asia operations, said they could have cut away parts of the rotting wreckage using mechanical equipment known as grabs. “If time is not of the essence, you have a barge and equipment, you could just nibble away,” said another expert who declined to be named citing political sensitivities, said to the BBC.

Other theories are that the ships were removed intact to local scrap yards, although the scale of such an operation and the appearance of the shipwreck site does not make this likely. Some think that explosives could have been used to break up the ship, but the debris field around the wreck site is not large enough to support that theory. Others have suggested that a storm at sea might have moved the ships to deeper water, although that too appears unlikely. 

All three ships sank during the Battle of the Java Sea, which turned out to be a disastrous defeat for Dutch, British, American and Australian sailors by Japanese forces in February 1942. It was one of the costliest sea battles of the war and led to the Japanese occupation of the entire Dutch East Indies. Roughly 2,200 died including 900 Dutch nationals and 250 Indonesians.

“An investigation has been launched to see what has happened to the wrecks, while the cabinet has been informed,” the Netherlands defence ministry said. “The desecration of a war grave is a serious offence,” it added, suggesting the wrecks may have been illegally salvaged.

If the ships were cut up for scrap, it is likely that they were not the first victims. Recently, the Guardian has reported that three British ships and a US submarine that sank in the Java Sea during the WWII have also been destroyed by illegal scrap metal scavengers. As reported by the Guardian:

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.

The illegal scavenging of shipwreck war graves is not limited to the Java Sea. In September, there were reports of ship wrecks from the Battle of Jutland being stripped for their steel. 

Thanks to Walter Stevens and Irwin Bryan for contributing to this post.

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6 Responses to Mystery of the Vanished Dutch WWII Shipwrecks

  1. ws says:

    @70 Meters, 231′ the salvage divers have to utilize Heliox, or Trimix:

    Past 100 feet, nitrogen narcosis makes divers feel drunk and unable to make sound decisions.
    Past 190 feet, Oxygen toxicity can cause them to convulse and die. Period.

    So how do they dive to 200 feet? They mix in another gas. Instead of replacing some of the nitrogen with more oxygen, they replace it with helium. The mix is called trimix. Heliox consists of just helium and oxygen. To get even more technical, they sometimes add argon because at a certain depth helium becomes toxic also.
    Hopefully you can see our point: this stuff is complex. It’s technical. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s dangerous, but not at all impossible.

    Obviously they’re still investigating this disappearance

  2. DAVID RYE says:

    From a highly respected U.K. Naval Forum:

    “There is no doubt that the ships (seven in all) have been completely, or in only a couple of cases almost completely salvaged. With all due respect, the salvage ‘expert’ that claims it is impossible to do this in only 70m max of water will need to eat his words.

    Below are the 3D bottom scans made by the recent expedition that discovered the wrecks missing that show where Java and De Ruyter once lay.

    Although I myself was very very skeptical when this was first reported almost a week ago (i.e. prior to seeing the 3D scans), believe me, I can unfortunately assure everyone that the Lat / Long positions where these holes are are exactly correct for where we originally discovered the above wrecks in 2002 and 2007 respectively.”

  3. Been there, done that ;-) says:

    For the record, and with all due respect, the comments made by WS above are simply incorrect. We regularly made dives on the Java Sea wrecks using plain old air, although I much preferred using trimix, but it wasn’t always available so you made do with what you had.

    And no offense meant but it is simply nonsense to state that narcosis makes experienced divers feel drunk or unable to make sound decisions below 100ft. Novice divers yes, but many divers still use plain old air to dive in the 60m / 200ft range, for relatively short periods of time, and get things done. Seems WS may have been taking a bit too much notice of the one dive training agency that prescribes using mixed gas beyond the depth he suggests, which in some areas of the world is just not practical, besides being very expensive when using helium based mixtures with open circuit scuba.

    And oxygen toxicity really comes into play at about 216ft / 66m and beyond (not 190ft) and is time / depth related. That is the Natiional Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tables state that a diver can tolerate 1.6ATA of oxygen for 45 minutes, and divers rarely if ever stay that long below 60m when diving air. While this ‘rule’ is not set in stone by any means it has proven to be correct in 99 out of 100 cases.

    Oh, and argon is NEVER ever used for breathing gas mixtures, but sometimes for inflating a drysuit if you wear one (as argon is a better insulator than air), which no one wore in the warm waters of the Java Sea.

    Besides, the operation that salvaged the Java Sea wrecks was probably simply using a grab as seen in the pics at link below, with very minimum use of divers if any (who no doubt would be using only air, as helium is way way too expensive for an operation like this).…………….

  4. Doug Bostrom says:

    I wonder if by any chance SPOT or another commercial service happened to catch some space imagery of the coordinates in question, at the right time? Probably wouldn’t be able to identify perps but this would offer more of a clue as to methods.

    Presuming the salvaging employed grabs, cutting-cable etc. vessels would have been on the surface and visible for quite a while.

  5. jose says:

    I belive that the ship in the picture is the graff von spee sunked near Montevideo harbour in 1939 and not a dutch ship