Royal Dutch Shell is facing a storm of criticism after deciding to proceed with plans to bring a ship named after a Nazi war criminal into UK waters to decommission the Brent oilfield, having failed to get the owner to change the name.
The Anglo-Dutch energy group has filed plans with the British government to use the Pieter Schelte — the world's largest crane ship — to lift the 23,500-tonne steel superstructure of the Brent Delta oil platform and bring it to Teesside for scrapping.
But the name of the brand-new ship, which is currently in Rotterdam for its final fit-out, has sparked outrage among the Jewish community on both sides of the North Sea.
It was named by its Dutch owner after his father, Pieter Schelte Heerema, a convicted war criminal who served in the Waffen-SS alongside the notorious Josef Mengele during the second world war, and also worked for the SS sending slave labour to the eastern front.
He was found guilty of war crimes by a Dutch court, but served less than half his three-year prison sentence after the judge believed his story — since discredited — that he had renounced the Nazis and started working for the Resistance.
He went to Venezuela after the war to work in the oil industry before returning to the Netherlands to set up Heerema, a successful oil services company.
Shell said it had supported a Dutch-led campaign to change the name of the ship, owned by Edward Heerema, president of Switzerland-based Allseas and one of the Waffen-SS officer's sons, but the company had refused to bow to the demands.
"Shell believes that the name of the vessel is inappropriate. We have raised our concerns with Allseas and asked them to consider changing the name. However, the name of the vessel is a matter for Allseas alone, and one for Allseas to justify," the company said.
The issue has been discussed by senior management at Shell. The ship is the only one in the world capable of lifting the weight of the oil platform.
Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Financial Times that he planned to make representations to the government during the 30-day consultation period over Shell's Brent decommission plan, which begins a week on Monday.
"We call on Shell and the government to insist the ship is renamed. The shipowner should be sensitive to the citizens of Britain and the Netherlands, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who will be deeply hurt.
"There is never a good time to name a ship after a dead Nazi," added Mr Wineman, "but coming just as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and considering the majority of Dutch Jews were killed in the Holocaust, this is very unfortunate timing."
Esther Voet, director of the Dutch Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (Cidi), which has led the renaming campaign in the Netherlands, hit out at Shell for chartering the vessel. "This is a bloodstain on the name of Royal Dutch Shell," she said. She was equally scathing about the refusal of the Dutch government to intervene.
The UK government said the issue of the ship's name was "a matter for Allseas and Shell to resolve".
Allseas said the decision to name the vessel after Heerema, who died in 1981, was "a tribute to his accomplishments" in the offshore industry, and that Edward Heerema had "disassociated himself entirely of his father's wartime history".
The company had previously said Heerema joined the Waffen-SS because of his anti-communist views, but this was discredited by an expert at NIOD, the Amsterdam-based Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
David Barnouw, the leading expert on Heerema, who recently retired from NIOD after 33 years, said he could not understand the decision. "Why name a ship after him and say this is named after my father as a pioneer? He was also an SS officer and an anti-semite."
Heerema was in Venezuela before the war and came back to join the Nazi party after Germany occupied the Netherlands. NIOD has on file an excerpt of a 1941 speech made by the former Waffen-SS officer, in which he said: "Compared to the German race, the Jewish race is a parasite and for that reason the Jewish question must be resolved in every country."
Heerema was a volunteer who saw active service with the elite 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking in 1941 and 1942 in the former Yugoslavia and on the eastern front near Rostov and the Caucasus. The unit has been linked to a number of war crimes. Mengele served as a medical officer in the Wiking division before moving to Auschwitz.