The SS Richard Montgomery
The SS Richard Montgomery is an American Liberty ship built during World War II. She was named after Richard Montgomery, an Irish soldier and officer. Montgomery had served in the British Army and fought in North America during the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s War. Montgomery served as a general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War and was killed at the Battle of Quebec.
In August 1944, the ship was wrecked on the Nore sandbank in the Thames Estuary, near Sheerness, while carrying a cargo of munitions. The estimated 1,400 tonnes of explosives remaining on board present a hazard, although official sources suggest the likelihood of an explosion as being remote.
The site is designated a prohibited area under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.
With today’s attitudes on all things ‘green,’ it seems absurd that the SS Richard Montgomery’s cargo was not made safe years ago. Still, absurdity and incompetence often go hand in hand. Incompetence certainly appears to have been the hallmark of this story right from the start. Look on page 5 of this paper, and you’ll read about a letter from the Commander-in-Chief United States Naval Forces Europe claiming the sunken ship was raised in 1948 and sold for scrap. Like many facts about this maritime disaster, it doesn’t make sense. I read somewhere that the Americans (who still nominally own the ship) offered to pay the UK Government to defuse the bombs, etc., but their offer was declined. Did Britain pay for the munitions that were never delivered? Other unanswered questions include whether there were ‘dirty’ bombs on board and did sabotage have a part to play in this disaster?
The SS Richard Montgomery is not alone – the Thames Estuary is home to around 767 recorded wrecks: the earliest known are documented from battles recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 893-894. The figure also includes downed aircraft from the Second World War and wrecks of Thames barges.
The SS Richard Montgomery was launched on 15th June 1943. In August 1944, on what turned out to be her final voyage, the ship left Hog Island, Philadelphia, USA, having been loaded with 6,127 tons of munitions. She travelled from the Delaware River to the Thames Estuary, then anchored while awaiting the formation of a convoy to travel to Cherbourg, France, which had come under Allied control on 27th July 1944, during the Battle of Normandy.
When the SS Richard Montgomery arrived off Southend, she came under the authority of the Thames naval control at HMS Leigh located at the end of Southend Pier. The Kings Harbour Master, responsible for all shipping movements in the estuary, ordered the ship to a berth off the north edge of Sheerness middle sands, an area designated as the Great Nore Anchorage, and await the convoy for Cherbourg. There was only about 30 feet of water at this anchorage at low water, and the Richard Montgomery needed over 31 feet. It seemed obvious that the Kings Harbour Master had made a grave error of judgement. So obvious was this that the Assistant Harbour Master refused to carry out the order unless it were put in writing. An argument ensued, but nevertheless, on 20th August 1944, the ship dragged anchor and promptly ran aground on a sandbank around 820 ft from the Medway Approach Channel, in a depth of 24 ft of water. When the tide went down, the ship broke her back on sandbanks near the Isle of Sheppey.
A Rochester, Kent-based stevedore company was tasked with removing the cargo, which began on 23rd August 1944. By the next day, the ship’s hull had cracked open, the bow end flooded. The salvage operation continued until 25th September, when the ship was finally abandoned before all the cargo had been recovered, and afterwards, it broke into two separate parts, roughly amidships.
According to a 2008 survey, the wreck is at a depth of 49 ft (on average) and is leaning to starboard. At all times, her three masts are visible above the water. Strange that – the Commander-in-Chief United States Naval Forces Europe said the ship had been raised and sold for scrap in 1948. What’s going on?
Report by the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency
The SS Richard Montgomery was a US Liberty Ship of 7146 gross tons. She was built in 1943 by the St John’s River Shipbuilding Company of Jacksonville, Florida and was one of over 2700 of these mass-produced vessels built to carry vital supplies for the war effort in World War II.
In August 1944, the ship, loaded with some 7000 tons of munitions, joined convoy HX-301 bound for the UK and then onto Cherbourg. On arrival in the Thames Estuary, the vessel was directed to anchor in the Great Nore anchorage off Sheerness. The ship was to await the formation of a convoy to continue the journey across the Channel. However, on the 20th August 1944, she dragged her anchor in the shallow water and grounded on a sandbank, running east from the Isle of Grain approximately 250 metres north of the Medway Approach Channel. The vessel grounded amidships on the crest of the sandbank. Intensive efforts began to unload her cargo.
Unfortunately, by the next day, a crack appeared in the hull, and the forward end began to flood. The salvage effort continued until the 25th of September, by which time approximately half of the cargo had been successfully removed. The salvage effort had to be abandoned when the vessel finally flooded completely. The wreck of the ship remains on the sandbank where she sank. It lies across the tide close to the Medway Approach Channel, and her masts are clearly visible above the water at all states of the tide.
There are still approximately 1,400 tons of explosives contained within the forward holds.
The wreck is designated under section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, which means there is a no-entry exclusion zone around the wreck, clearly marked on the relevant Admiralty Charts.
Medway Ports is contracted by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to mark and guard the wreck. This includes the provision and maintenance of warning notices on the wreck, which are fastened to the masts. Medway Ports is also contracted to provide and maintain a circle of buoys around the wreck to ensure shipping avoids the area. The wreck is also under 24-hour radar surveillance by Medway Ports, whose operations room is within sight of the wreck, and they provide the first line of response to any incursions within the area.
The wreck has been subject to regular surveys since its grounding, with various methods being used to monitor the site. Until 1984, surveys were carried out by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) salvage divers. More recently, surveys have been undertaken on behalf of the MCA by contractors working under MoD supervision. Because of the extremely poor visibility on-site, after the 1993 survey, it was decided that full advantage should be made of advances in sonar technology in preference to divers. A series of sonar surveys were undertaken to form a baseline model of the changes to the wreck and the seabed. This survey policy was followed until 2000 and provided images and information on the wreck’s condition and its environment. Divers were again employed on-site during the 2003 survey to undertake ultrasonic hull thickness analysis and to provide an up-to-date assessment of the level of seabed support of the wreck and of the main crack at No 2 hold. This hull thickness work was repeated in 2013. High-resolution multibeam sonar surveys of the wreck have been undertaken on a regular basis since 2002.
While the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote, it is considered prudent to monitor the wreck’s condition. Surveys are carried out by the MCA on a regular basis to ensure that any changes to the wreck, or its immediate environment, are discovered quickly. It is clear from the results of these surveys that the hull is subject to the prevailing environmental conditions and is showing evidence of gradual deterioration. However, information publicly disseminated said the wreck was considered to be in a stable condition. Some remedial work to trim the rigging and such from the masts (above the waterline) was undertaken in October 1999 to reduce stress levels.
Attribution: Clem Rutter, Rochester, Kent, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/26/Thames_Richard_Montgomery_KC_7722_%28Modified%29_%28cropped%29.JPG Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation
The End is Nigh: ‘Doomsday’ shipwreck exposed by New Scientist finally being tackled
NewScientist reported on 14th January 2022 about the wreck of a US World War II ship. Three masts sticking up above the waves near the coastal town of Sheerness in the UK mark the spot where the deadly wreck has been rusting for almost 80 years. They belong to the SS Richard Montgomery, a US second world war-era ship that ran aground in August 1944 with a cargo of bombs. The half-submerged wreck, just two kilometres from land, still has 1400 tonnes of TNT on board.
Almost 20 years after Mick Hamer mounted an investigation for New Scientist into the dangers posed by this doomsday wreck, the UK government has announced plans to cut back the thick steel masts in 2022 to reduce their weight and prevent them collapsing into the holds, where they would fall onto the bombs and set off an explosion.
The Guardian also reported on this change of direction in dealing with this troublesome wreck. It said:
An operation to remove the masts from a sunken cargo ship in the River Thames, containing 1,400 tonnes of unstable explosives onboard, will involve Royal Navy specialists. It is believed that if the unexploded ordnance on the SS Richard Montgomery were triggered, it could lead to the nearby oil and gas facilities in Sheerness being damaged, the Daily Telegraph reports. A Ministry of Defence report said an explosion “would throw a 300 metre-wide column of water and debris nearly 3,000 metres into the air and generate a wave 5 metres high”.
Inaccuracy, Exaggeration – ‘No doubt that a clear and present danger exists.’
A paper titled: The Strange Case of the Richard Montgomery: On the Evolution of Intractable Risk by David E. Alexander, Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London, offers an account of the shipwreck, its aftermath and the debate over managing the risk, which has continued for three-quarters of a century.
The paper, which is available online HERE, says:
‘The narrative builds up a picture of the numerous uncertainties in the characterisation of risks associated with the wreck. This makes it very difficult to define the most appropriate strategy for dealing with the problem. Both official and unofficial accounts have been marred by inaccuracy and exaggeration. The conclusion of this investigation is that the data needed for a rigorous assessment of risk using standard procedures do not exist and probably cannot be collected. However, there is no doubt that a clear and present danger exists…
Much has been written about this decidedly strange tale, but the resultant body of literature is rife with distortion, misestimation, speculation and exaggeration. This article attempts to provide a reasonably accurate account of the problem as it has developed from 1944 until 2019. This is not easy, as some information is withheld from the public domain by the authorities, and much of the rest is patently inaccurate. However, careful triangulation and checking of the sources has provided some sort of a route towards accuracy. Establishing the right narrative is an essential basis for understanding and evaluating the risks involved and discussing possible strategies for reducing or eliminating them.’
2012 Petition UK Government and Parliament
A petition was submitted during the 2010–2015 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. The petition said that SS Richard Montgomery was ‘getting more dangerous now, and the DFT refused to state a safety zone if it exploded. It presents an easy terrorist target.’
The SS Richard Montgomery has an estimated 10,353 bombs still on board with an explosive mass of 1400 tonnes of TNT. The MCA report of 1998 quoted DERA stating: ‘the 20lb fused fragmentation bombs are not armed and the detonator cap explosive no longer a risk. I would confidently hold one of these bombs in my arms with someone hitting it hard with a 4lb hammer, and the TNT would not explode. If the detonator cap did explode, the bomb would still not detonate. A small jolt only would be felt.
The petition continued: ‘The DFT and all their so-called experts, bar DERA, have been totally wrong. The wreck risks exploding from another vessel being blown into it, an easy suicide bomber attack and a significant internal collapse of the Tween deck cargo on the 7-metre stack of bombs in the holds. The danger area is up to 30 miles, and 10s of 1,000s would be killed or seriously injured.’
The petition appears to have failed, attracting only nine signatures and was closed after six months on 3rd October 2012 and then archived.
An earlier petition met the same fate. It said: ‘Render safe or remove wreck of liberty ship SS Richard Montgomery off the coast at Sheerness, Kent, England.’ That petition attracted 224 signatures and was closed after six months on 17th August 2012 and then archived.
The US explosives carrier SS Richard Montgomery sank in the Thames Estuary in August 1944. It was loaded with 1500 tons of explosive munitions. The Admiralty decided to leave the wreck and its dangerous cargo undisturbed. The wreck lies just a few hundred yards offshore between an oil refinery and gas storage facility near the Kingsnorth power station and the Sheppey coast. Southend on Sea is just a couple of miles away on the other side of the Thames estuary. Rumours about the ship and its cargo have circulated in these towns ever since. Denials have been issued by ministers in the House of Commons in response to MPs questions about the presence on board of biological, chemical and Mustard Gas warheads. Freedom of Information Act requests have not been fully answered or complied with. Nevertheless, rumours persist that the real reason the wreck was not made safe was because of the existence of dirty weapons on board.
A new serious risk problem has arisen: The nearby Isle of Grain has the largest storage capacity of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) in Europe, with the largest surface silos in the world. Each silo is bigger than the Albert Hall. The silos would be instantly demolished by the Montgomery blast and vaporise the gas to mix with four times its weight of oxygen in the air and produce an explosive blast equivalent to 160 Hiroshima bombs, without the radiation, destroying everything for many miles around the UK and Europe, with the resulting loss of many millions of lives, according to explosives expert Mike Barker MBE.
The ship is enormous, not just three masts sticking out of the water, which is misleadingly all people see. To remove the estimated 10,353 bombs still on board after the first clearance in 1944, 175 builders’ skips would be required, each carrying 20 tonnes of bombs.
Sold for Scrap or a Pack of Lies? What’s going on?
If you go to: https://discover.hubpages.com/education/SS-Richard-Montgomery-Massive-explosion-waiting-to-happen, you will find a letter from the US Government. The letter was dated 12th March 1962, and it was issued by the Commander-in-Chief United States Naval Forces Europe, located at 7 North Audley Street London W1. The letter says that the SS Richard Montgomery sank on 20th August 1944 and was declared a marine wreck. She was raised and scrapped in April 1948 and sold to Phillipp’s Craft and Fisher Company on the 28th of April 1948.
Sources, Extracts and Further Reading
- UK Parliament: Hansard: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1965-03-18/debates/970bce7a-eb50-4e64-bfa2-5a219ea08b2a/SsRichardMontgomery
- Story from Wikipedia. ↑
- See: https://www.submerged.co.uk/montgomery/↑
- Source: https://www.submerged.co.uk/montgomery/ ↑
- © Crown Copyright is acknowledged. Sources: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/850374/SS_Richard_Montgomery.pdf and https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/851520/1999_survey_report_montgomery.pdf ↑
- In fact, the SS Richard Mongomery was a carrier of high explosives. ↑
- Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2304388-doomsday-shipwreck-exposed-by-new-scientist-finally-being-tackled/#ixzz7J5m6rDZo ↑
- See: Guardian, 30th December 2021, at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/dec/30/navy-to-dismantle-sunken-warship-on-thames-holding-unstable-explosives ↑
- See: http://www.national-security.co.uk/ ↑
- The letter was still there on 26th January 2022 and the wreck was still in situ where is sank in 1944. ↑