Visible masts of the wreck of Richard Montgomery
|Builder:||St. Johns River Shipbuilding Company, Jacksonville, Florida|
|Laid down:||15 March 1943|
|Launched:||15 June 1943|
|Acquired:||29 July 1943|
|Fate:||Wrecked, 20 August 1944|
|Displacement:||14,245 long tons (14,474 t)|
|Length:||422 ft 10 in (128.88 m)|
|Beam:||57 ft 0 in (17.37 m)|
|Draft:||27 ft 10 in (8.48 m)|
|Depth of hold:||34 ft 10 in (10.62 m)|
|Propulsion:||Two oil-fired boilers, triple-expansion steam engine, single screw, 2,500 hp (1,900 kW)|
|Speed:||11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph)|
SS Richard Montgomery was an American Liberty ship built during World War II, one of the 2,710 used to carry cargo during the war. The ship was wrecked off the Nore sandbank in the Thames Estuary, near Sheerness, England in 1944, whilst carrying a cargo of munitions. Around 1,400 tonnes (1,500 short tons) of explosives remain on board, which continue to be a significant hazard.
The ship was built by the St. Johns River Shipbuilding Company in its second year of operations, and was the seventh of the 82 such ships built by that yard. Laid down on 15 March 1943, she was launched on 15 June 1943, and completed on 29 July 1943, given the official ship number 243756, and named after General Richard Montgomery, an Irish soldier who was killed during the American Revolution.
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 27 July 1944 during the Battle of Normandy.
When 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 Harbourmaster, 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.
On 20 August 1944, she dragged anchor and ran aground on a sandbank around 250 metres from the Medway Approach Channel, in a depth of 24 feet (7.3 m) of water. The general dry cargo liberty ship had an average draught of 28 ft (8.5 m), but Richard Montgomery was trimmed to a draught of 31 ft (9.4 m). As the tide went down, the ship broke her back on sand banks near the Isle of Sheppey about 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from Sheerness and 5 miles (8 km) from Southend.
A Rochester-based stevedore company was given the job of removing the cargo, which began on 23 August 1944, using the ship's own cargo handling equipment. By the next day, the ship's hull had cracked open, causing several cargo holds at the bow end to flood. The salvage operation continued until 25 September, when the ship was finally abandoned before all the cargo had been recovered. Subsequently, the vessel broke into two separate parts, roughly at the midsection.
During the enquiry following the shipwreck it was revealed that several ships moored nearby had noticed Richard Montgomery drifting towards the sandbank. They had attempted to signal an alert by sounding their sirens, but without avail because Captain Wilkie of Richard Montgomery was asleep. The ship's chief officer was unable to explain why he had not alerted the captain. A Board of Inquiry concluded that the anchorage the harbour master assigned had placed the ship in jeopardy, and returned the captain of the Richard Montgomery to full duty within a week.
Status and risk
According to a 2008 survey, the wreck is at a depth of 15 m (49 ft), on average, and leaning to starboard. At all states of the tide, her three masts are visible above the water.
Because of the presence of the large quantity of unexploded ordnance, the ship is monitored by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and is clearly marked on the relevant Admiralty Charts. In 1973 she became the first wreck designated as dangerous under section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. There is an exclusion zone around her monitored visually and by radar. The exclusion zone around the wreck is defined by the following co-ordinates:
According to a survey conducted in 2000 by the United Kingdom Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the wreck still held munitions containing approximately 1,400 tonnes (1,500 short tons) of TNT high explosive. These comprise the following items of ordnance:
- 286 × 2,000 lb (910 kg) high explosive bombs
- 4,439 × 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs of various types
- 1,925 × 500 lb (230 kg) bombs
- 2,815 fragmentation bombs and bomb clusters
- Various explosive booster charges
- Various smoke bombs, including white phosphorus bombs
- Various pyrotechnic signals
An investigation by New Scientist magazine in 2004, based partly on government documents released in 2004, concluded that the cargo was still deadly, and could be detonated by a collision, an attack, or even shifting of the cargo in the tide. The deterioration of the bombs is so severe that they could explode spontaneously. Documents declassified shortly before revealed that the wreck was not dealt with immediately after it happened, or in the intervening 60 years, due to the expense.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency nevertheless believe that the risk of a major explosion is remote. The UK government's Receiver of Wreck commissioned a risk assessment in 1999, but this risk assessment has not been published. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency convened with local and port authorities to discuss the report in 2001 and concluded that "doing nothing [was] not an option for much longer".
One of the reasons that the explosives have not been removed was the unfortunate outcome of a similar operation in July 1967 to neutralize the contents of Kielce, a ship of Polish origin, sunk in 1946 off Folkestone in the English Channel. During preliminary work, Kielce, which contained a comparable amount of ordnance, exploded with a force equivalent to an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale, digging a 20-foot-deep (6 m) crater in the seabed and bringing "panic and chaos" to Folkestone, although there were no injuries. Kielce was at least 3 or 4 miles (4.8 or 6.4 km) from land, sunk in deeper water than Richard Montgomery, and had "just a fraction" of the load of explosives.
According to a BBC news report in 1970, it was determined that if the wreck of Richard Montgomery exploded, it would throw a 1,000-foot-wide (300 m) column of water and debris nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 m) into the air and generate a wave 16 feet (5 m) high. Almost every window in Sheerness (pop. circa 20,000) would be broken and buildings would be damaged by the blast. However, news reports in May 2012 (including one by BBC Kent) stated that the wave could be about 4 feet (1 m) high, which although lower than previous estimates would be enough to cause flooding in some coastal settlements.
When the condition of the munitions was originally assessed there was concern that copper azide, an extremely sensitive explosive, would be produced through reaction between lead azide and copper from fuze components (lead azide would react with water vapour, rather than liquid water, to form hydrazoic acid, which could react with copper in the detonating cap to form copper azide).
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said in 1998, "as the fuses will probably all have been flooded for many years and the sensitive compounds referred to are all soluble in water this is no longer considered to be a significant hazard".
Critics of government assurances that the likelihood of a major explosion is remote argue that one of the fuses of the 2,600 fuzed-fragmentation devices could become partially flooded and undergo the reaction producing copper azide. A knock, such as caused by the ship breaking up further, or a collision on the busy shipping lane, could cause the copper azide to explode and trigger an explosive chain reaction detonating the bulk of the munitions.
The wreck site has been surveyed regularly since 1965 to determine the stability of the structure, with a diver survey being completed in 2003. High-resolution multi-beam sonar surveys in 2005 and September 2006 found that there had been no recent significant movement of the wreck.
Surveys undertaken in 2008 and 2009 by the MCA, and reported in September 2011, showed that the ship was continuing to deteriorate structurally, with accelerated deterioration in some areas and new cracks appearing in the bow section of the wreck. The report states that "Whilst significant structural collapse does not appear to be imminent, surveys suggest that this prospect is getting closer." The increasing calls for a new airport in the Thames estuary would mean a solution would have to be found for removing the wreck, or at least making it safe, should the airport be built.
A May 2012 report into the condition of the wreck issued by the Department for Transport (DfT) found that, while there had been little change in 2009-2010, the future was uncertain due to the "dynamic nature" of the surrounding environment. Mayor of London Boris Johnson said that engineers had found the wreck would not prevent construction of an airport, and the wreck area would have to be considered. Julian Huppert, the co-chair of the Liberal Democrats committee on transport, disagreed, saying: "This report shows the ship's slow deterioration is continuing with the lethal cargo still on board", and "This must surely put an end to the bonkers idea of building an airport in the Thames estuary." A 2013 Daily Telegraph article quoting local historian Colin Harvey, agreed the ship would have to be removed before any airport was built and printed a spectrogram showing the ship clearly broken into two pieces. However, a DfT spokesperson said that the ship remained stable, and the likelihood of an explosion was remote; the matter of the ship was unrelated to the ongoing development of the aviation strategy.
- "Report on the Wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery" (PDF). Maritime and Coastguard Agency. November 2000. pp. 21–22. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2016-08-17. Retrieved 2017-05-17.
- "SS Richard Montgomery wreck 'bomb risk' to estuary airport". BBC News. 30 May 2012. Archived from the original on 2012-08-19. Retrieved 2012-08-31.
- Sawyer, L. A. and Mitchell, W. H. The Liberty Ships: The History of the "Emergency" Type Cargo Ships Constructed in the United States During the Second World War, Second Edition, pp. 159-60, Lloyd's of London Press Ltd., London, England, 1985. ISBN 1-85044-049-2
- "St. Johns River Shipbuilding". www.shipbuildinghistory.com. Archived from the original on 20 August 2008. Retrieved 2009-10-19.
- River Thames Sea Reach (Map) (4 February 1972 ed.). Admiralty Hydrographic Office, London.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-09-07. Retrieved 2011-09-08.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- SS Richard Montgomery 2008 Survey Report
- Currently the only other similarly designated wreck is that of SS Castilian, which sank off Holyhead in 1943 whilst en route to Lisbon, and was designated in 1997 as a result of diver interference with her cargo of munitions. See "Receiver of Wreck Annual Report 2003" (PDF). The Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2006-10-29.
- Hamer, Mick (21 August 2004). "The doomsday wreck". New Scientist: 36–39. Z. Archived from the original on 2015-04-24. Retrieved 2017-09-11.
- "SS Richard Montgomery web page". The Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Archived from the original on 2011-04-01. Retrieved 2006-10-29.
- Nicholas Skinner (2011–2016). "The Ticking Timebomb". Southend Timeline. Retrieved 17 May 2017.
- "Wrecked warship is a 'timebomb'". BBC News. 2004-08-19. Archived from the original on 2006-06-17. Retrieved 2006-10-29.
- Cecil, Nicholas (30 May 2012). "Timebomb ticking in Thames Estuary could put Boris Island plans in jeopardy". London Evening Standard.
- Staff at BBC Kent quoted Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert that "[an explosion] would blow out every window in Sheerness, and create a 16ft wave just outside the capital", but went on to state lower done that article that "Previously experts have said if the wreck exploded it would cause a metre-high tidal wave" (BBC Kent staff (30 May 2012). "SS Richard Montgomery wreck 'bomb risk' to estuary airport". BBC Kent. Archived from the original on 2018-11-24. Retrieved 2018-06-20.)
- "A Survey of the Wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery - A Summary Report" (PDF). The Maritime and Coastguard Agency. 1997. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-06-30. Retrieved 2006-10-29.
- "Maritime & Coastguard Agency 2003 Diver Survey for the SS Richard Montgomery" (PDF). The Maritime and Coastguard Agency. 2003. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-04-18.
- "SS Richard Montgomery structural collapse 'getting closer'". BBC News Online. 6 September 2011. Archived from the original on 2012-01-20. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
- "SS Richard Montgomery Surveys 2008 & 2009 Summary Report" (PDF). Maritime and Coastguard Agency, September 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 March 2012. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
- Gourlay, Chris (18 October 2009). "HeathrowonSea travel hub inches towards Heathrow airport". The Times. London. Archived from the original on 2011-06-12. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
- Cox, Marijke (2012-06-22). "Building an estuary airport close to sunken warship branded "bonkers"". kentnews.co.uk. Archived from the original on 2016-12-03. Retrieved 2018-02-13.
- "Boris Island airport site 'could blow up at any minute'". 24 January 2013. Archived from the original on 2018-02-13.
- Turner, F.R. (1995). Wreck of the USS Richard Montgomery. ISBN 0-9524303-6-3.
- Hamer, Mick (21 August 2004). "The doomsday wreck". New Scientist: 36–39. ISSN 1032-1233. Z.
- Anderson, Barrie. "Escapade 297". ISBN 978-0-7552-1093-0.
- Maritime and Coastguard Agency website page, including links to survey reports. Updated periodically with new publications.
- River Thames Sites
- Men and ships of US Merchant marine (merchant navy)
- The Richard Montgomery matter. Up to date information and links about the dangers the wreck presents