Investigation into disappeared WWII wrecks in Asia

The International Programme of Maritime Heritage of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands has been involved in a joint Dutch-Indonesian investigation into the disappearance of three Dutch naval World War II ships from the Java Sea. In November 2016 divers reported the disappearance of (amongst others) the shipwrecks of Hr.Ms. De Ruyter, Hr.Ms. Java and the partial disappearance of Hr.Ms. Kortenaer. During a meeting on 23 November 2016, President Widodo of Indonesia and Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands agreed that the countries would work together to determine what had happened and to preserve their maritime heritage in the future.

Three-tracked approach

A three-tracked approach was agreed upon by both governments:

  • Verification of the disappearance;
  • Appreciation of what had happened; and
  • Future cooperation to manage remaining maritime cultural heritage.

On the 6th to the 9th of February 2017 there was a meeting of experts from both Indonesia and the Netherlands for track 1. Aim of the meeting was to get clarity about the identification of the wrecks as Hr.Ms. de Ruyter, Hr.Ms. Java and Hr.Ms. Kortenaer and the status of the wrecks (location, condition). The expert team conducted a joint verification related to the status of the wreck sites that included literature study and analysis on hydrography, oceanography, and archaeology. The joint verification included experts of relevant fields including hydrography, archaeology and cultural heritage management from both governments.

After analysing the available data, experts from the two countries concluded that the diving team of the Karel Doorman Foundation conducted their search in the right area and confirmed that salvage operations of some kind occurred. In their report the experts stated that the two countries will need to further investigate the area where the wrecks were located in order to gather additional information. The report also reflects on questions asked in track 2, which focused on the following questions:

  • What could have happened with the wrecks?
  • What is the legal status of these wrecks? (under international and domestic law)
  • What arrangements should be made to be able to cooperate smoothly in preservation and management of maritime cultural heritage in the future?

Investigating the wreck sites

After completion of track 1, a first step for track 3 was already made by the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Republic of Indonesia and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science of the Netherlands. Indonesia and the Netherlands agreed to work together more closely in the future, including by sharing available information and expertise for the protection of maritime culture heritage.

In the period of 10-21 June 2019, the next step of track three was undertaken by a Dutch-Indonesian team of maritime archaeologists who investigated the wreck sites. The aim of the expedition was to map the locations properly and draw up a management plan based on the data acquired. It was found that a fair amount of material from the three Dutch WWII ships is still present at the wreck sites. However, the ships themselves are heavily destroyed and a great deal of material had been removed in the illegal salvage operations that had taken place in previous years.

More Dutch WWII ships have been lost in Asian waters. The status of these wrecks is not well known. With Malaysia, the country where three Dutch submarines have been lost and discovered, there are negotiations on how to best cooperate in the research and protection of these wrecks.