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SS Richard Montgomery - Massive explosion waiting to happen
The SS “Richard Montgomery” is an American Liberty Ship of 7146 gross tons and approx. 440ft long built by the St. Johns River Shipbuilding Company and was number 7 of the 82 ships, of the same class, built by that yard. Laid down on 15th March 1943, she was launched on 15th June 1943, and completed on 29th July 1943. She was given the official ship number 243756, and named after General Richard Montgomery, an Irish-American soldier who was killed during the American Revolutionary War.
In August 1944, she left Hog Island, Philadelphia, as part of convoy HX-301, loaded with 6,127 tons of munitions for the US air force. Its route was from the Delaware River to the Thames Estuary where she was to remain anchored while awaiting the formation of a convoy to travel the final stage to Cherbourg. When the Richard Montgomery arrived off Southend-on-Sea, it came under the authority of the Thames naval control at HMS Leigh located on Southend Pier. The harbour master, who is responsible for all shipping movements in the estuary, finding the main river berths all fully occupied with post D-day traffic, ordered the ship to a berth in the Great Nore anchorage off Sheerness middle sands. On 20th August 1944, she started dragging her anchor and despite warning sirens from surrounding ships ran aground on a sandbank around 270 yards from the main Medway Approach Channel, in a depth of 33 feet of water. Normally a liberty ship has an average draught of 28ft but the Montgomery, at this time, actually drew 31ft. Her overloaded and early welded construction, made her vulnerable to the severe stress of grounding and several serious cracks appeared in her hull, she eventually broke her back on the sand banks near the Isle of Sheppey about 1.5 miles from Sheerness and 5 miles from Southend. As the tide ebbed the ships plates snapped with a sharp crack heard over a mile away and the crew, mindful of its hazardous cargo, abandoned ship at 0300hrs using floats and lifeboats.
A Rochester-based Master Stevedore T.P.Adams of Watson and Gill, was given the urgent highly hazardous job of removing the cargo, which began on 23rd August 1944 at 1000hrs, using the ship's own cargo handling equipment, driven by a venerable old expendable steam ship the “Empire Nutfield” moored alongside. By the next day, the ship's hull had cracked open further, causing several cargo holds at the bow end to flood. The salvage operation continued until 25th September, when due to a severe gale they were forced to finally abandon the ship before all the cargo had been recovered. Subsequently, the ship 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 the Montgomery drifting towards the sandbank. They had attempted to signal an alert by sounding their sirens but without response, as Captain Willkie of the Montgomery was asleep. The ship's chief officer was unable to explain why he had not alerted the captain or carry out any remedial action. A Board of Inquiry held aboard the ship during the initial unloading, concluded that the ship’s crew had acted in accordance with their instructions and that the anchorage the harbour master assigned had possibly placed the ship in jeopardy, and returned the Montgomery's captain to full duty.
Following the United States entry into the European War on 8th December 1941 a large number of merchant vessels were required quickly to ship supplies, arms and ammunition under the rather curious “lend-lease” programme. Starting in September 1941 the USA started an emergency ship construction program that would require building, in just three years, the equivalent of more than half of the current pre-war total of merchant shipping of the world. The "Liberty" Ship, a very basic utility cargo ship, was built to a British design, in the USA. Some alterations were made to the original design to overcome the shortage of certain materials and meet the need to build as rapidly and cheaply as possible.
Most American shipyards were fully occupied building warships and the man given the job of building this merchant fleet was Henry Kaiser a California industrialist who had never built ships before.
The all welded construction, instead of riveting, created a basic flaw in these ships which caused a number of them to develop "ever increasing" cracks, to break in two and sink. Nevertheless, they played an important part in the war effort and were instrumental in bringing foodstuff and munitions to Britain albeit at a heavy cost in lives of the sailors.
In total sixteen American shipyards built 2,751 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945, easily the largest number of ships produced to a single design. As mentioned many Liberty ships suffered hull and deck cracks, and some were lost to such structural defects. During WWII, there were nearly 1,500 serious brittle fractures. Nineteen ships broke in half without warning, including the SS John P. Gaines, which sank on 24th November 1943 with the loss of 10 lives. The ships were hastily built, often by totally inexperienced people, in an era before the embrittlement effects on steel was fully understood. Add to this the fact they were frequently grossly overloaded; and some of the problems occurred during or after severe storms at sea that would have tested any ship. The builders learned from this and the successor design, the Victory ship, was built stronger and less stiff.
The wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery is marked by a warning buoy. Because of the presence of a huge 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 it became the first wreck designated as dangerous under section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. There is an exclusion zone around it monitored visually and by radar.
According to a 2008 survey, the wreck is at a depth of 49ft, on average, and leaning to starboard. At all states of the tide, its three masts are visible above the water. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency nevertheless still believe that the risk of a major explosion is remote. The UK government's Receiver of Wrecks commissioned a risk assessment in 1999, but this risk assessment has never 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." The New Scientist magazine carried out an investigation concluded in 2004, based partly on government documents released in that year, that the cargo was still deadly, and could be detonated by a collision, an attack, or even the shifting of the cargo in the tide. The bad condition of many of the bombs is such 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 solely to the expense. According to a survey conducted in 2000 by the United Kingdom Maritime and Coastguard Agency, it was confirmed the wreck still held munitions containing approximately 1,400 tons.
13,064 general purpose 250lb bombs
9,022 cases of fragmenting bombs (these would produce massive amounts of shrapnel.)
7,739 semi-armour piercing bombs
1,522 cases of fuses
1,429 cases of phosphorous bombs (these are very nasty weapons and would produce massive numbers of indiscriminate fires and human burns as the phosphorous flakes would attach themselves to flesh before bursting into flames.)
1,427 cases of 100lb demolition bombs
817 cases of small arms ammunition
However, because the emergency unloading was carried out in great haste and under less than ideal conditions, no check or tally was made of exactly what was unloaded. Due to this, estimates of explosives remaining in the holds vary between the official figures of approx. 1400 tons and 3600 tons which was the unofficial estimate made by the stevedores and confirmed by the Richard Montgomery’s First Officer.
More worrying was the question raised later about chemical and biological weapons she may have been carrying. Despite questions being asked under the Freedom of Information Act answers have not been forthcoming. Although the published breakdown of cargo carried appears to be comprehensive, a ships manifest exists which indicates, that in addition, she was carrying 240 mustard gas bombs and other unidentified munitions. The sad fact is, assuming there were any survivors from the initial explosion, if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction they would all be killed by a lethal mustard gas cloud.
Over the past few years 41 people have reported strange fires dancing in the air over the wreck. The authorities deny the incidents and have made the statement "No such fires have been observed or reported". Expert opinion is that the fires are probably as a result of deterioration of the wooden crates that held White phosphorus bombs and they and the bombs are disintegrating. The pieces of phosphorus (which is water insoluble), float to the surface and stick to the superstructure of the wreck whereupon they dry out and once in contact with the air burst into flame spontaneously. The flares of light are very short in duration and no traces will remain after the residue has been washed away by the sea. The same question, with same lack of answer, was asked in Parliament on 25th January 2010 and recorded in the official journal Hansard.
One of the reasons for the extreme reluctance in removing the explosives was the catastrophic outcome of a similar operation in July 1967 to neutralize the contents of the Polish ship “Kielce”, which sank in 1946 off Folkestone in the English Channel. During preliminary work the Kielce, containing a similar type of ordnance, without warning, exploded with force equivalent to an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale, resulting in a 20-foot-deep crater in the seabed and bringing chaos to Folkestone, thankfully without injuries. A BBC news report in 1970, speculated that if the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery exploded, it would throw a 1,000-foot-wide column of water and debris nearly 10,000 feet into the air and generate a wave 16 feet high. Almost every window in Sheerness (pop. 37,852 (2001 census)) would be broken and buildings would be structurally damaged by the blast. This, however, is a very conservative view based on 1400 tons of explosive detonating in a chain explosion rather than one single detonation. The opinion was sought of retired Royal Engineer Major A. B. Hartley, MBE, GM., Britain's most famous and the world's most experienced bomb disposal expert. His conservative forecast would be for windows to be shattered in Southend-on-Sea, Westcliff-on-Sea, Leigh-on-Sea, Shoeburyness, all some 6.5 miles away in Essex and a number of smaller communities with a population totaling at least 375,000. In addition all these places might also suffer a heavy fall of shrapnel. The ship and cargo are closer still to the town of Sheerness, Kent and it is estimated that every structure as well as any of the 37,852 people who live in that town would be destroyed and killed. A tidal wave would inevitably follow the huge explosion and would wash away any remaining traces of the town of Sheerness. The bombs also happen to lie alongside the Thames main fairway used by thousands of the world's merchant ships including LPG Gas tankers feeding a huge gas terminal & storage, also seriously at risk and countless amateur yachtsmen at various marinas. There is no doubt that any ships, however large or small, in the vicinity of the explosion would go down. A tidal wave could sweep up the River Medway to cause havoc in Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham and a dozen or more outlying places in Kent. Depending on atmospheric and tidal conditions at the instant of detonation, the bombs' effect might be felt as far up river as London, although the tidal barriers, if raised in time, would prevent the city from flooding. Certainly most of south-eastern England would hear them go off.
The condition of the munitions was assessed and there was concern that copper azide, an extremely sensitive explosive, would be produced by a reaction between lead azide and copper from fuse 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) speculated 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.” However, the protective paint used on these bombs has been found to be of excellent quality and may well have protected the fuses from water ingress. “Critics of government assurances, that the likelihood of a major explosion is remote, argue that even one of the fuses of the 2,600 fused-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." There are plans for a new airport in the Thames estuary which means a solution must be found for removing the wreck, or at least making it completely safe, before the airport could be built. A May 2012 report into the condition of the wreck issued by the Department for Transport found that, while there had been little change in the period 2009-2010, the future was uncertain due to the "dynamic nature" of the surrounding environment.
Divers were again employed on site during the 2003 survey in order 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. More recently, high-resolution multibeam sonar surveys of the wreck have been undertaken by ADUS St Andrews University. There was greater levels of deterioration than has been seen in previous years, which may suggest the rate of its decline in some areas of the hull has and is accelerating.
Reflect for one moment and consider that if a single bomb or explosive device from the Second World War was found on our shores, the area would be cordoned off and the Bomb Disposal Squad would disarm and remove the danger. But, it seems that if thousands of tons of the same bombs are found very close to inhabited areas, should they be simply left where they are on the grounds of cost? There is no doubt it would be a formidable job to salvage or neutralise this deadly cargo. Divers would find it a nearly impossible task. Only a few feet under the surface the light no longer penetrates the murky water, add to this the tangle of wires, fishing nets, and the numbing cold, combined with the munitions being fused together, and the huge amount to be removed, it does "seem" to be an impossible task. But does this mean we continue to gamble with tens of thousands of our lives.
To carry out a successful salvage operation the sea would firstly need to be excluded. It would require a major civil engineering task be undertaken, before the munitions can be removed. This would take the form of an atoll shaped island being built around the ship. The size of this must have a circumference greater that the spillage of the bombs and higher than the high water mark. Suitable material could be dredged from elsewhere and deposited around the wreck, this was the method used when they turned the Lapple bank into a giant car storage park. Once in place, this material is concreted and waterproofed and the water then pumped out. Consecutive levels of munitions are removed as the falling water exposes them. Once the salvage operation is completed the empty shell cases could be returned to the wreck site or used for salvage/scrap.
Once safe the Richard Montgomery and the site could then be turned into a memorial to honour the merchant navy and the loss of life suffered by merchant seamen from Great Britain and our Allies. Their gallant struggle to feed our nation and to equip our armed forces in our time of greatest need should not be forgotten.
The unique memorial would become a World Class tourist attraction for both
All of the preceding is based on the facts acknowledged by certain departments of the British Government but not, it would seem by the US Government. In 1962 Lieutenant-Colonel H. H. McKechnie, the Sea Front Controller of Sheerness Urban District Council wrote to the American Navy headquarters in London, and his query was subsequently relayed to the Pentagon. Eventually Colonel McKechnie was informed that the American Navy's records indicated that the SS Richard Montgomery “was raised and scrapped in April 1948 and sold to Phillipp’s Craft and Fisher Company on 28 April 1948". Somehow the American Navy has convinced itself that the ship no longer exists. Local records show that In April 1948 a representative of Phillipp’s Craft and Fisher visited Sheerness. He called at Mr. R. C. Coward’s office, at that time he was managing director of William Hurst, Ltd., the agents in Sheerness for the American Maritime Commission. He hired a small boat, and went out to examine the wreck of the Richard Montgomery, presumably with a view to salvage. Neither Coward nor anyone else in Sheerness knows what conclusion that visitor came to as he left the town without discussing the matter, and was never heard of again.
Why neither the British nor American authorities have not insisted on the ship being salvaged or made safe after the war is a question yet to be answered satisfactorily, other than the lame excuse of cost and possible public liability.
In 1951 a very experienced Dutch salvage firm considered raising the wreck but decided that her scrap value wasn't worth the enormous effort and potential catastrophic risk.
On the official Admiralty chart of the Thames the Richard Montgomery is indicated merely as a wreck and a light on her is supposed to warn pilots at night to give her a clear berth.
Just how the Admiralty came to the conclusion that the Richard Montgomery is safe is anybody's guess. Admiralty spokesmen either don't know or won't say. But investigating Royal Navy divers have never entered the holds of the wreck to examine the bombs and the one and only loading plan of the Richard Montgomery, which was for many years available in this country, was never studied by Admiralty investigators. That plan was in Mr. Coward's office in Sheerness until five years ago when, about to retire, he destroyed it along with a lot of other wartime files which seemed no longer to be of use. Mr. Coward says that he was never at any time questioned about the ship by Admiralty investigators.
Lloyd's Register of Shipping would not help anyone curious about the ship. Their entry on the Richard Montgomery simply states that she “was stranded in August 1944 and after repeated attempts at salvage was officially declared a total loss on February 26, 1945"
The United States Maritime Administration has a file on the Richard Montgomery in Washington which doesn't mention the bombs or munitions either. According to M. I. Goodman, chief of the Maritime Administration's office of Ship Operations, the ship was merely “carrying military cargo," and his records show that portions of this were “salvaged from August 23, 1944, to September 1944," and 3,691 tons were left aboard”. Mr. Goodman’s files also state that on November 25, 1944, the Admiralty's Deputy Director of Salvage wrote to Washington “that “the cost of removing this wreck would far exceed its value ".There was no mention of risk to human life or widespread environmental damage.
Mr. Goodman said that his department still holds title to the wreck, and he believes that a record of a hearing into the stranding of the ship is in the files of the Cabinet Office's historical section in London.
In fact, there is no such record because no such hearing was ever held.
When bomb-disposal expert Major Hartley was told about the Richard Montgomery and her abandoned cargo he was astounded. "Leaving that ship there," he said, "is like finding a long forgotten bomb dump in a crowded suburb and then walking away from it without bothering even to tell anyone. In my opinion those bombs are a major hazard. They won't make themselves safe. On the contrary, as time passes they may become more dangerous. A lot more dangerous.”
The major then explained that fragmentation bombs such as those in the Richard Montgomery have very thick steel casings-so thick that they account for sixty per cent, of the bombs' weight. Although he doesn't doubt that these particular bombs were originally packed in the ship very carefully, and although he is sure that they have never had fuses in them, he says that these facts do not make the bombs safe now. "The paint they used on American wartime bombs was of such good quality he explained, "that when I fished a American fragmentation bomb out of Ipswich harbour fifteen years after it had been dropped there, and when I'd wiped off the muck, I could still read its stenciled markings." Such protective paint, he feels, would prevent the casings of the bombs in the Richard Montgomery from rusting for a long time. And, he then added, "Those bombs' water-tight casings are so thick that salt water might take a thousand years or more to penetrate them."
And what of the explosives inside those bombs? Major Hartley had this to say: "Some sixteen different basic combinations of explosives were used in American fragmentation bombs during the war. Those that were filled with TNT might remain comparatively safe for a long time provided, of course, the TNT hadn't crystallised “(crystalline TNT is so unstable that the tip of a penknife blade scraped across its surface may cause it to detonate). “And provided that the TNT was pure to begin with. But the production standards of all explosives made by the warring nations Allied and Axis became less rigid toward the end of the war. And by 1944 manufacturers were required only to produce explosive fillings with sufficient 'shelf life' to get them through the war. Those bombs inside your ship have existed long past their intended shelf life."
The question is do the bombs inside the Richard Montgomery contain other explosive substances than TNT ? The only sure way to ascertain this is to open them to see. Major Hartley believes that after all this time and under these conditions they will be much more dangerous. He explained: "Most of those sixteen combinations of bomb fillings contain one or more nitrates which, in my experience, tend to break themselves down as they age. In this process of breaking down, these explosives begin to generate gases. They build up pressure inside bombs, generate heat, and will, I think, in time set themselves off." Therefore, even without external interference the bombs in the Richard Montgomery could explode at any time.
Major Hartley isn't sure that if one of these bombs bursts it would necessarily set off all the others. Nobody could be sure of this. "But," he cautioned," the detonation of one of them could set off all the others. And even if one went off without doing that, it would, in addition to hurting anyone who happened to be in the vicinity of the explosion, probably scatter the rest of the bombs. And their recovery would become one of the most complicated and dangerous bomb-disposal operations of all time."
But what worries Major Hartley far more than anything else is the fact that the Richard Montgomery's bombs lie unattended beneath the Thames, well within reach of anyone. An amateur diver exploring the wreck could easily set off the bombs accidentally and, said the major, " I dread to think what would happen if a malicious person began tampering with them."
A considerable number of other things could also cause the bombs to detonate. The rotting away of the wooden packing around them could cause them to shift and set themselves off. So could a strong enough current. Although a deep draught ship probably wouldn't be able to plough through the silt to strike the Richard Montgomery, a shallow draught ship lost in a storm or just plain lost could hit her. According to boatmen in Sheerness, the currents around the wreck are very dangerous, and at least one small vessel has been holed because it veered off its course and scraped over the wreck. Many of the ships that enter the Thames are shallow-draught coasters some British, many from the Continent and not all of these boats take on river pilots when they enter the estuary. The possibility of an amateur diver tampering with the Richard Montgomery's bombs is not at all remote. According to Sheerness boatmen, at least one amateur diver has already been down in the wreck and has carried away some of her brass fittings and valuables.
Beyond doubt the Richard Montgomery is a menace and will remain a menace as long as she is left in the Thames Estuary with those millions of pounds of bombs inside her. "If the Admiralty could be persuaded to do something about her right away," Major Hartley said," the operation might still be relatively easy." He feels that it might even be done without ordering a mass evacuation from the shores of the Thames Estuary. But if the ship is left to sink further into the mud, as the Port of London Authority says she will, he is sure that the bomb disposal job is going to be a lot more difficult.
The question must be asked – who has the ultimate responsibility for the wreck ?
The UK Government has assumed de facto responsibility for monitoring the wreck - firstly through the Board of Trade and, since 1983, through the Department of Transport (now DETR). In addition it has relied upon expert advice provided by a Committee on hazardous wrecks comprising various experts from the Ministry of Defence.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which owns the wreck on behalf of the state, knows that the bombs have been waterproofed and are still, theoretically, live. This is why they aren't prepared to declare the bombs "safe" only that, for the time being, they are safer left where they are. However, just to immensely add to the potential destructive power of the wreck exploding, a new Liquefied Natural Gas terminal opened on the Estuary in 2005 and will store 5% of the UK's gas supply. If the bombs prove not to be completely "safe”, there are hundreds or even thousands of lives at stake.
Nowadays the Richard Montgomery is considered a local curiosity, a somewhat offbeat memento of the war. Tourists who visit Sheerness can be taken out in boats from the town for a short cruise around the wreck. Amateur yachtsmen often sail around it and sometimes right over it. The population of the area are unconvinced of the actual destructive power of the wreck, choosing to believe that a responsible Government would never allow their lives to be jeopardised in such a cavalier fashion.
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© 2013 Peter Geekie