Great War coastal grave robberies made right
Authorities in the UK are getting it done when it comes to those illegally salvaging trophies from war graves offshore.
Last month, the bell of the SS Mendi was presented to the President of South Africa by the Prime Minister Theresa May at a ceremony in Cape Town. Mendi, a 4,000-ton steamship of the British and African Steam Navigation Company, was requisitioned for WWI service and never made it back home.
On 21 February 1917 a large cargo steamship, Darro, collided with her in the English Channel south of the Isle of Wight. Mendi sank killing 646 people, most of whom were black South African troops of the 5th Battalion of the Native Labour Corps. In a terrible twist, her bell was looted by persons unknown from the wreck and in 2017 given to a BBC reporter who turned it over to the Maritime & Coastguard Agency. After a year on display in England, it was repatriated to South Africa.
Another example, that of the two props from the Kaiserliche Marine coastal minelaying U-boat SM UC-75, which was sent to the bottom after she was rammed and sunk by the RN destroyer HMS Fairy, 31 May 1918, concluded last week. The props, reported by the BBC as found in a storage unit in Bangor, Gwynedd, a year ago and thought destined for the scrap metal trade, will go to the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth while and one back home to Germany.
The returned propeller was handed to German naval attaché CPT Matthias Schmidt by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s chief executive, VADM Sir Alan Massey, in London.
“It’s not a case of ‘finders’ keepers’ and all recoveries of wreck material must be reported to the Receiver of Wreck so that legal owners can be given an opportunity of having their property returned and museums and other institutions can be given an opportunity to acquire artifacts of historic significance,” the MCA’s receiver of wrecks, Alison Kentuck.