British War Graves

John BantinWe live in a comparatively free society in the UK. We can park on double-yellow lines, smuggle in more than our Duty-Free allowance, smoke illicit material and even cheat on our Income Tax returns; that is until we get caught.

During a summer in the early1980s I had a project in Yorkshire and, living just north of London, I found that I could easily commute if I travelled in the early morning. I drove my exotic sports car at high speed up the M1 each day, leaving at 4.00am, and rarely saw another vehicle on the road. I drove so quickly it was like low level flying without actually leaving the ground. It was also illegal.

On the fourth day I was ambushed by a group of police patrol cars that lay in wait, one with a radar gun and the others to block the road. They had clocked me at 140mph.

Later in Court, I pleaded guilty and walked away with the opportunity to get a new driving license. I certainly didn’t try to prove that the law was wrong and that I was perfectly safe driving at that speed at that time of day. The law is the law.

For many years, in Spain, one had to get permission from the Navy to use scuba equipment. In Greece, if you were merely found to be in possession of scuba equipment on your boat, the vessel was liable to confiscation. These laws were very inconvenient but those that chose not to abide by them had only themselves to blame when they got caught. Thankfully things there have changed for the better.

Now there may be some British laws that people disagree with. The subject of wrecks listed as protected War Graves might be one of them. We all know that the lost souls have long gone and that lobsters and other sea creatures have taken their remains, so what’s wrong with diving them? Nothing! But some others would ask, what is wrong with plundering them for all the brass they carry?

In 2007, British wreck researcher Kevin Heath, along with a group of divers operating from the Jean Elaine, located the wreck of the Duke of Albany. Originally a Fleetwood to Belfast ferry, during the First World War, the vessel was taken over by the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Duke of Albany. She was used as an armed boarding vessel around Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands helping to maintain the blockade of Germany. On the morning of the 26th of August 1916, while in escort with the Duke of Clarence, she was torpedoed by UB 27.
A few years later, in 2011, Leicester diver Duncan Keates protested his ignorance that the wreck he had been diving (the Duke of Albany) was a protected war grave but he still copped for a fine of £1400 at Kirwall Sheriff Court. His conviction was due mainly to posting a picture of himself on FaceBook with his ill-gotten gains, a rather nice ornate porthole.

Of course he was not alone in his actions. Various interested individuals have sent me a number of photographs of the motley crew it is alleged Keates was diving with. Those people had taken offence at what has gone on. One told me it was not just what was done, but how it was done.

I count nine others in the group shot, and presumably the photographer was not simply a helpful passer-by pressed into service. One of these divers appears to be someone who was given a high accolade at a 2010 British technical diving conference.

There they stand proudly displaying their recovered brass including several other similar portholes to the one Mr Keates is seen holding alongside a dive boat that we can also presume was the vessel involved.

It’s as if the Great Train Robbers took a group photograph with their winnings at Leatherslade Farm before heading off to face eventual arrest. Of course, the Great Train Robbers weren’t that completely stupid. Nor did Ronnie Biggs or Bruce Reynolds have a FaceBook page!

All material recovered from underwater in the UK must be reported to the proper authority, The Receiver of Wreck. Of course, it must be declared where it came from and a War Grave is certainly illegal. Now all the other skippers operating dive boats in Scapa Flow feel they are under the police microscope.

Now, personally speaking, I don’t find recovered brass all that appealing. Close by where I live in London is a dealer that sells such item (brass compass binnacles, telegraphs, portholes etc) that have been recovered from ships at maritime scrap yards and they are naturally in far better condition than anything that has been lying at depth for generations. I don’t have an axe to grind about people spending their money and risking their lives to collect such items from the sea. However, the law is the law and others who have been diving the wreck of the Duke of Albany perfectly legally are upset, let alone those that think their grandfather’s remains still lie there.

Of course, it may well be a coincidence. Mr Keates might have been standing alongside an innocent group of divers who just happened to be unloading their collection of spidge when he came a long with his porthole and joined the group, though somehow I doubt it. Obviously, the photograph, which we are not allowed to show you thanks to Copyright Law, is not evidence alone. The police need confessions and I don’t suppose these will be forthcoming without a little encouragement.

However, the group might think that the War Graves Law is stupid but I bet the photographer would be quick off the mark to issue proceedings against anyone who reproduced the said photograph without his permission.

I make the point that we cannot pick and choose which laws we want to obey and which we prefer to ignore any more than I could expect to drive the 165 miles to Wakefield in an hour and thirty minutes without getting prosecuted. In my case it was fair cop.

Ignorance of the Law is no defence in law. Divers are duty bound to find out if the wreck they intend to dive is legally protected and I’m sure that the leader of this group knew exactly what they were embarking upon before they hit the water.

So you nine people clearly identified in the picture plus the anonymous photographer, are you going to leave your friend Duncan all alone to hang out to dry or are you going to get it off your collective chests and come clean with the Receiver of Wreck? You don’t want this hanging over your heads the rest of your life and as we hear you’ve turned your attentions to another protected wreck, things are only going to get worse.

If you can show that you are contrite and wish to be forgiven (and probably hand over your treasures to an appropriate authority) you may find that you can become rehabilitated members of the diving community. I’m told there is an ongoing investigation. Duncan Keates got away with a minimal fine because he confessed. It could have been as much as £10,000 a time and I bet the public coffers could do with the money!

Maybe the diving community doesn’t care either way. I’m sure that more stringent regulations will be coming our way as a result. This sort of bad behaviour is emotive and is the sort that is food and drink to the tabloid press and its like, once they get hold of it. It’ll be like nicking the wreaths from the Cenotaph. We might even end up having to get permission from the Royal Navy every time we want to dive as a result of the bad publicity, just like we used to have to do when privately diving in Spain all those years ago.

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4 thoughts on “British War Graves”

  1. Hi,

    Diving for shipwreck is pretty much exciting but if you do that in the Philippines like we do here, your excitement will tripled! Why? Because warship from Japanese Imperials have GOLDS. Yes! And you can contact us if you are interested to finance some adventure. It is a risk I would like to remind you all but it is worth it.

    I am planning to share my experiences from our previous operations.

    Meanwhile check out my blog for updates and other information:


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  2. John,

    As always, a well sculpted piece and your point is very well put!

    Speaking as a Naval Officer, there but for the grace of God go I.

    While I have very few wishes about what should happen to my mortal remains in due course, I do hope that whatever that is will bring peace to my family and friends. Despite being a dyed in the wool british diver, I am fairly sure that to have someone else rummaging through my bones is not likely to bring that sort of peace.


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  3. Let me guess, John: it was a 911? Until I got a speeding ticket 3 weeks ago, I felt radar detectors were ‘unsporting’: if I didn’t see the trap, my stupidity. Now I have a top of the line front and back gizmo..
    And raiding war-graves should be a ‘no no’ for all of us…
    All the best,

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  4. Mr. Bantin

    I find your blog very interesting and very well written. I agree that one can pick up brass at any maritime shop, but i also understand the thrill of bringing up ‘your own’ and letting friends and family see what you discovered under the mysterious sea and the perils involved in retrieving it.

    Years ago when diving the U-853, the last U boat sunk at the very end of WWII off of Block Island near Rhode Island on the east coast of the US, there were some divers who specialized in retrieving any artifacts whatsoever, often having to ‘move the bones’ of the dead to get to their prizes. I’m not sure if the captain or crew of the u boat were Nazis, but somehow the disrect for the war dead disturbed me.

    If it came to a vote, I would vote that all items (other than a piece of evidence of a new lost ship) be left where they are so other divers can bear witness.

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