Navy amateur divers visit WW2 shipwrecks off Brunei

NAVY divers paid their respects to 339 prisoners killed when their slave ship was lost off Brunei 75 years ago.

A two-week expedition to Malaysia and Brunei drew sailors and Royal Marines from across the Senior Service.

 

It’s the first time the Royal Navy-Royal Marines Sub-Aqua Association has organised dives in the waters off either country – each characterised by different sights.

 

“Brunei provided impressive wreck diving and Malaysia excellent reef diving,” said Lieutenant Commander Jez Spring, based at Britannia Royal Navy College in Dartmouth.

 

He spent more than a year organising the trip with Royal Marines Colour Sergeant Richie Hall from Northwood headquarters.

 

Divers spent a week in each country, exploring the unique underwater habitats, but it was the waters of Brunei – explored far less by tourists and frogmen than Malaysia’s – which proved to be the most eye-catching, helped by the fact that more experienced members of the team were able to dive deeper for longer courtesy of the more advanced kit made available to them.

 

Brunei’s corals and underwater habitats are largely undisturbed, whilst the seabed is littered with World War 2 wrecks, now home to rich marine life.

 

The Brits were able to explorer those down to about 35 metres (115ft), including the most haunting of them all, a former Dutch steamer seized by the Japanese.

 

The entire experience was excellent and whilst all the dive sites were unique, the ‘Australian wreck’ was my personal highlight. The trip had some challenging diving and it was great to gain new experiences whilst improving my own skills as a diver.

Royal Marine Corporal Jason Phillips

Known as the ‘Australian wreck’, the SS De Klerk was renamed Imaji Maru by the occupiers and pressed into service as a transporter/cargo vessel.

 

She was lost in the entrance to Brunei Bay in September 1944 as she sailed for Manila – possibly the victim of an attack by Australian aircraft (hence the wreck’s name)… although more likely a Japanese mine.

 

Of the 1,200 souls aboard, more than 330 died – most of them prisoners of war, chained up in the hold; they were being moved to the Philippines for use as slave labour.

 

“The entire experience was excellent and whilst all the dive sites were unique, the ‘Australian wreck’ was my personal highlight,” said Royal Marine Corporal Jason Phillips from CTCRM Lympstone.

 

“The dive conditions of poor visibility made it a haunting experience that emphasised the sombre nature of the wreck.

 

“The trip had some challenging diving and it was great to gain new experiences whilst improving my own skills as a diver.”

 

In all, the divers spent more than 128 hours below the waves during 210 dives at 16 locations (eight in each country).

 

“The expedition provided a fantastic opportunity for a wide range of ranks and rates from different units to interact and develop their diving skills,” he added.

 

“We conducted a wide range of challenging diving, the team picked up an array of new skills and gained a lot of new qualifications.”