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SS Richard Montgomery

From Academic Kids

The 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. Montgomery was wrecked off the coast of Kent in 1944 with around 1,500 tons of explosives on board, which continue to be a hazard to the area.

The ship was built in 1943 by the St. Johns River Shipbuilding Company, (Est. 1942), and was the seventh of the 82 such ships built by this yard. The ship was completed July 1943, given the official ship number 243756, and named after Richard Montgomery, a celebrated Irish-American soldier of the American Revolutionary War.

In August 1944, on what was to be her final voyage, the ship left Hog Island, Philadelphia, where she had been loaded with 6,127 tons of munitions[1] (http://www.ronangel.demon.co.uk/images/swalemontgomery.htm).

  • 13,064 general purpose 250lb bombs
  • 9,022 cases of fragmenting bombs
  • 7,739 semi-armour piercing bombs
  • 1,522 cases of fuses
  • 1,429 cases of phosphorus bombs
  • 1,427 cases of 100lb demolition bombs
  • 817 cases of small arms ammunition

She made her way from the Delaware river to the Thames estuary, then anchored while awaiting the formation of a convoy to travel to Cherbourg, France, which had already fallen to the Allies (on July 27, 1944) during the Battle of Normandy.

When she arrived off Southend she came under the authority of the Thames naval control at HMS Leigh, located at the end of the Southend Pier. It was then the harbour master, responsible for all shipping movements in the estuary who ordered Montgomery to a berth off the north edge of Sheerness middle sands, where she ran aground in a depth of 24 ft. of water at low tide.

The general dry cargo liberty ship had an average draught of 28 ft (8.5 m), Montgomery was trimmed to a draught of 31 ft (9.4 m) however, and at low water, at the height of a spring tide with a northerly wind it was inevitable the ship would run aground at its shallow mooring.

On August 20, 1944, the ship ran aground on sand banks near the British Isle of Sheppey around 1.5 miles from Sheerness and 5 miles from Southend. Between then and September 25, about half of the explosives were successfully removed from the wreck, after which time the ship was abandoned.

A Rochester-based Stevedore Company was given the job of removing the cargo, which began August 23, 1944 using the ship's own cargo handling equipment. By the next day, the ship's hull had cracked, causing several cargo holds at the fore end to flood. The salvage operation continued until September 25, when the ship was finally abandoned.

During the enquiry that followed, it was revealed that several ships moored nearby had noticed Montgomery drifting toward the sandbank, that they had attempted to signal an alert by sounding their sirens without avail, that throughout this Captain Wilkie of the Montgomery was asleep, and that the chief officer was unable to explain why he had not alerted the captain.

However, the ultimate reason for the disaster lies with the harbour master, who was confident that his choice of berth for the ship was safe, despite objections by the assistant harbour master who tried to have it relocated, but was countermanded by his superior. Foley, the assistant, insisted upon a written confirmation of these instructions, which was refused; with this Foley left the office.

After the disaster, Foley was posted to another department, which prevented his attendance at the enquiry, and so obscured the fact that the ship was incompetently parked by the harbour master, who then refused to consider otherwise.

Due to the presence of the large quantity of unexploded ordnance, the ship is monitored by the United Kingdom Maritime and Coastguard Agency. As the only wreck designated as dangerous under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and there is an exclusion zone around it monitored visually and by radar. The Maritime Agency nevertheless believe that the risk of a major explosion is remote [2] (http://www.mcga.gov.uk/c4mca/mcga-environmental/mcga-dops_row_receiver_of_wreck/dops_receiver-of-wreck_richard-montgomery.htm). The UK government's Receiver of Wreck commissioned a risk assessment in 1999, but this risk assessment has not been published (as reported in the New Scientist, 21 August 2004). The Maritime and Coast Guard 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".

3,173 tons of munitions containing 1,400 tons of TNT remain on the wreck. One of the reasons why the explosives have not been removed was the unfortunate outcome of a similar operation in July 1967 to neutralize the contents of the Kielce, a ship of Polish origin, sunk in 1946 off Folkestone in the English Channel. During preliminary work the Kielce, containing a comparable amount of ordnance, exploded with force equivalent to a earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale, digging a 20-foot-deep crater in the seabed and bringing "panic and chaos" to Folkestone, although no injuries.

According to a BBC news report [3] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/kent/3578244.stm), in 1970 it was determined that if the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery exploded, it would throw a 1000 foot wide column of water and debris nearly 10,000 feet in the air and generate a wave 16 feet high. Almost every window in Sheerness (pop. 11,000) would be broken and buildings would be damaged by the blast.

There is a possibility that over time the fuse in at least one of the 2600 fused fragmentation devices will become less stable owing to its lead azide constituent reacting with water vapour to form the highly explosive hydrazoic acid. A knock, such as caused by the ship breaking up further, or accidental or deliberate collision on the busy shipping lane, could cause the hydrazoic acid to explode setting off an explosive chain reaction that would detonate the TNT which forms the bulk of the munitions. Thus the presence of lead azide in the (non-waterproof) fuses belies assurances by the government that the fused bombs should be considered stable because none has exploded to date.

The wreck site has been surveyed regularly to determine the stability of the structure. In order to plan for the necessary work, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has stated that it also needs to commission a survey of the munitions still on board, however it has not done this yet.


Reference

  • Turner, F.R., Wreck of the USS "Richard Montgomery" (1995) ISBN 0-9524303-6-3.
  • Hamer, Mick, "The doomsday wreck", New Scientist, 21 August 2004, ISSN 1032 1233, pp36-39

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