Shipwreck found in sea bed off Wan Chai most likely famous Hong Kong ship HMS Tamar

Government all but confirms that remains off Wan Chai are from famous British warship that was scuttled to keep her out of Japanese hands

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 May, 2015, 8:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 May, 2015, 10:18am

The mystery is nearly over: the government has all but confirmed that wreckage found during harbour dredging in Wan Chai last year is the remains of HMS Tamar, Hong Kong's most famous military ship that was scuttled by the British navy in 1941 to prevent her from falling into Japanese hands.

The Civil Engineering and Development Department said yesterday that the large metal object, about 40 metres long, two to 11 metres wide and two metres high, "may be part of the bottom of the wreck" and "could be the remains of HMS Tamar".

But it stopped short of confirming the historic find, "as the ship's bell, name plate or any other unique features have not been found".

The government's statement came a day after the South China Morning Post confronted it with findings by the founding chief of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, Dr Stephen Davies, that identified the wreck as HMS Tamar, and asked it to respond to the marine historian's claim that he had been removed from the investigation team after presenting evidence to officials.

Davies, now a scholar at the University of Hong Kong, was part of the initial research team that investigated the discovery six metres under the sea bed close to the old Wan Chai Ferry Pier.

The wreckage could delay completion of the Central-Wan Chai Bypass and the Exhibition station of the MTR Corp's Sha Tin-Central link. The government has now decided to relocate the wreckage to another part of the site so that reclamation work can continue.

Earlier, Davies said that after he presented his findings, officials sent him questions doubting his claims.

"Because they've seen my response to their questions, they declared in effect that I was not to work on the project any more. I don't know what was said. I merely know that the person whom I was working for said 'You have caused tremendous problems for me'."

The discovery was first disclosed on March 27.

Amid historians' speculation over whether the wreckage belonged to HMS Tamar and lawmakers' questions, the administration did not release further information until last night.

Davies was invited to join the team investigating the discovery six days before the March 27 announcement. He presented his findings to the engineering department and the Antiquities and Monuments Office on April 1, the deadline set by the administration.

Davies told the Post that charts from Hong Kong's Hydrographic Office and records from the Wrecksite archive, an international wreck database, always showed HMS Tamar or its wreckage at its last position off Wan Chai. The location was last seen in a 1960 chart, and had disappeared in a 1966 chart after reclamation started in the area, he said.

The historian said clearance at that time was meant to ensure the harbour was safe for navigation. It was unnecessary to remove everything, he said, especially in that era when salvage was a dangerous job that cost lives.

Comparing the old maps with materials of the latest discovery, he found that the location, orientation, and size of the wreckage all matched that of HMS Tamar, indicating it was part of the 4,650-tonne vessel.

His inquiry further revealed that part of HMS Tamar wreckage coincided with the position of the old Wan Chai Pier, which was built in the 1960s and stopped service last year. He said this indicated the government must have known about the wreckage when it constructed the pier."Was it ignored or was it trashed? We don't know," he said.

Davies said it was intriguing that the government did not know the discovery was at the same location as the HMS Tamar wreckage."If they had looked up these records they must have known," he said.

Baptist University historian Dr Kwong Chi-man, a specialist in modern East Asian military history, said some five Japanese military ships were sunk around the Wan Chai area during the war, but they were all much smaller than any ship which could have a remnant as large as the recent discovery.

He said information available so far showed the find was likely the remains of a British military ship. "I would not be surprised if it is HMS Tamar," he said.

Enquiries by the Post to both the monuments office and the civil engineering department were jointly replied by the latter, which offered no response to Davies' findings or his claim about his expulsion from the team.

"We are continuing the surveying and assessment of the metal object. According to the information gathered so far, there is a possibility that the object is part of a shipwreck," a department spokesman said.

"Since the preliminary assessment on the object is still underway, we are yet to ascertain its nature and identity as well as its heritage value at the moment."