But having stripped the wrecks of those components, the scavengers have now started to take other ferrous metals, primarily brass and copper, as well as large chunks of steel, such as the propellor shafts, and high-grade aluminium.
“There are no longer any propellors or shafts left on either of the wrecks and there are now a number of locations on both ships that have been extensively damaged by the use of explosives,” Mr Shaw said.
In a video taken as recently as May of this year, a propellor shaft is clearly visible on HMS Repulse, with the White Ensign of the Royal Navy – placed by divers as a mark of respect to the dead – floating in the current in the background. Both have since been removed.
Video footage of the wrecks shows some of the damage – including thick steel plating peeled outwards under the force of detonations within the hull. Coffee tins are packed with explosives by scavengers and forced into cavities in the vessels’ hulls.
“Up until this salvage work began, the wrecks were in fairly good condition,” Mr Shaw said. “But now there is a lot of loose plating and many areas where all the rivets have been blown out.”
While Mr Shaw and the recreational divers who have visited both ships do not enter the wrecks, it is likely that blasting the bottoms out of the vessels will expose the remains of their crews. Some 508 officers and men went down with HMS Repulse, while a further 327 were killed aboard HMS Prince of Wales, which sank just a few miles away.
The destruction of the vessels – just days after the Japanese attack on the US base at Pearl Harbor – came as a major blow to the British in the Far East as they attempted to resist the invasion of Malaya and, ultimately, the occupation of Singapore and Indonesia.
Identified as Force Z and comprising the modern battleship Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser Repulse, which had been launched in 1916, and four destroyers, the flotilla had been dispatched to intercept Japanese invasion convoys in the South China Sea.
Critically, they put to sea without air cover and the fleet was attacked by waves of land-based aircraft on December 10, with eight torpedoes striking their targets.
The Prince of Wales and Repulse became the first capital ships to be sunk solely by air power on the open sea, rewriting the military tactics of the day.
HMS Prince of Wales
Both ships turned over as they sank, with Repulse now at a depth of 183 feet and the Prince of Wales in 223 feet of water. The wrecks are still Crown property and designated as a Protected Place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.
The bell of the Prince of Wales was removed in 2002 by a team of Royal Navy divers because there were fears that it would be stolen. It is now on display in the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool.
“We have twice turned up at the Repulse at around 7:30 in the morning to find what looks like a fishing boat moored up, but they don’t have fishing nets on board,” Mr Shaw said.
It appears that the crews of the smaller boats are placing charges on vulnerable parts of the wrecks and, once a sufficient amount of salvageable metal has been broken off, a larger vessel with a crane arrives to collect the debris.
“They have always seen us coming and managed to cast off and make a run for it before we get close enough,” he said, adding that he has to bear in mind the safety of his customers and crew – “And I’m pretty sure these guys will be armed.”
Some men survived the sinking. James Wren, a former Royal Marine, clung to a piece of flotsam until an escort ship picked him up. He said that protecting the wrecks was a “a vast job”.
“It’s very distressing to everyone but there’s very little we can do about it,” said Mr Wren, who was 21 when the ship sank in 1941 and is now one of only a few remaining survivors.
“We could do with more protection out there but you just can’t have someone sitting there 24 hours a day.”
Maurice Pink, another Repulse survivor, was just 19 when he was plucked out of the water by a British destroyer. He is now chairman of the Force Z Surivivors Association.
“You just can’t stop it unless you patrol all the time,” said Mr Pink.
“You can turn round and say it’s a grave for the people that gave their lives for the country. It’s alright saying that but people aren’t interested in words.
“If they want to dive down and pinch something they are going to. You can’t prevent robbers robbing a bank if there’s no one there to stop them.”
Given the large number of military maritime gravesaround the world, the Ministry of Defence does indeed have a vast job on its hands. There are 60 wrecks designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act, 12 of which are ‘controlled’ – meaning that diving them is strictly prohibited – and 58 which have the lesser designation of “protected”, including the Repulse. These sites can be dived under a “look but don’t touch” policy.
Short of actively patrolling the wrecks the MoD, which owns them, can only attempt to prevent the sale of salvaged items.
In May this year, it confiscated a number of parts stolen from the wreck of the Repulse – including the ship’s Morse telephone – from an Auction in Australia and returned them to the British High Commission.
A spokesman for the MoD said it works closely with foreign governments and others “with the aim of preventing inappropriate activity on the wreck of HMS Repulse”.
The Malaysian authorities have intervened in the past to stop wrecks being pillaged, but with hundreds of sunken vessels in thousands of square miles of the Pacific to monitor, it faces the same problem.
“We are very concerned to hear that the wrecks are being plundered by scrap metal merchants and I have asked for a plan to be drawn up for a survey of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales,” Rossid bin Musa, director of the Marine Department of Malaysia, said.
“Our department cannot carry out patrols as we do not have the vessels, but I have asked the Coast Guard and the Maritime Enforcement Agency to provide assistance and to patrol the area,” he said.
But any scavengers who are caught are likely to get off with minimal fines. A charge of violating Malaysian maritime laws and operating without a permit usually incurs a fine of around GBP19,100, according to the Malaysian newspaper The Star, while the cost of stealing from a wreck is just £191.