The HMS O16: a Dutch submarine

This is the story of Her Majesty’s O16, the prosaic name of an O-class submarine. The submarine was launched in 1936 and was initially used for scientific research. One illustrious passenger on the vessel during that period was Prince Bernhard, husband of the Dutch Queen. In 1938 the vessel became part of the Dutch East Indies navy.

The O16 was in service when it was seconded to the British naval fleet in Singapore at the outbreak of war with Japan (7 December 1941). The squadron sailed for Malaysia to attack the Japanese invading forces.

Action and decline

The O16 duly performed its task, torpedoing three Japanese troop ships, making it one of the most successful Dutch submarines to date. On its return voyage to Singapore (on 15 December) the vessel hit a mine, broke in two and sank with 41 crew on board. Only one man survived the disaster, chief petty officer Cornelis de Wolf.

On the basis of his evidence, it was concluded that the O16 had hit a British mine off the island of Pemanggil, and that it had ended up in a British minefield due to a navigation error by the captain. This was the official story until, in 1995, the actual position and identity of the O16 were determined. The vessel was not off Pemanggil at all, but near Palau Tioman. It turned out it had hit a Japanese mine, and the captain’s name was cleared. The crew were posthumously honoured with a plaque on the wreck, their war grave. The name of the rehabilitated submarine captain was A.J. Bussemaker. All’s well that ends well? Unfortunately not.

Illegal salvage

The photograph below was taken in the area in October 2013. It shows a boat carrying a mound of rusty steel, the remains of the O16, which had been brought to the surface by illegal salvage operators. Thanks to their total disregard for the war grave and cultural heritage status of the submarine, it has been reduced to scrap metal. The salvage operators are interested only in the price per kilo.

Despite legislation and international agreements, wrecks and war monuments such as these are an easy target. The plundering of the O16 even led questions to be raised in the Dutch parliament in January this year. Are we actually in a position to protect the Dutch heritage overseas? Should we send our navy, do we collaborate with other countries? Australia, for example, which also has shipwrecks in the area and therefore also the remains of sailors which, like the O16, have been disturbed all for the sake of scrap metal and profit. It is too late for the O16, but hopefully not for other such wrecks.