Hidden in the Thames Estuary, just off the town of Sheerness, obscured by the high tide, lies a US World War II wreck that could detonate in the biggest non-nuclear explosion in history (and unleash a devastating tsunami) at any time.
The SS Richard Montgomery, named after the American soldier who lead the invasion of Canada, was built in Florida during 1943 as part of a fleet of just over 2700 ships built to carry supplies for the war effort.
In 1944, the ship was loaded with nearly 7000 tons of munitions, including TNT, fragmentation bombs, semi-armour-piercing bombs, fuses, phosphorus bombs, demolition bombs and small arms ammunition. It sailed from the Delaware River to the Thames Estuary to await ships as part of a convoy bound for Cherbourg, the ship moored near Sheerness in Kent but ran aground on a sandbank and broke its back on 20th August. The operation to unload the cargo began but a crack appeared in the hull and after a month half the cargo had been removed and finally abandoned after it sank. There are still approximately 1,400 tons of explosives left on the ship.
The masts are still visible at low tide and the area is marked as a danger zone to avoid any collisions with passing vessels from the busy shipping lane nearby. The wreck is under 24-hour radar surveillance by Medway ports, who can see the wreck from their operations room, and regular survey reports and checks are made.
But surely a wreck sticking out of the sea and full of explosives is dangerous? Well, yes. Ron Angel, who runs http://www.ssrichardmontgomery.com/, a site with a range of links, reports and news stories relating to the Montgomery, warns that the ship poses 'a very great danger' to both the people living on nearby coasts and the passing ships. Running into the ship during bad whether or an explosion for whatever reason could cause huge amounts of damage.
The last reports into the condition of the Montgomery, carried out in 2008/9, found "greater levels of deterioration than have been seen in previous surveys," and also, "the rate of deterioration has accelerated in some areas of the hull."
The surveys, carried out by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), generally use remote sensing technology to create a 3D image the of the wreck and the surrounding seabed. Divers have been used as recently as 2003, but visibility is very limited and so less favoured or as useful.
Previous holes are found to be getting bigger, and the report concludes "Whilst significant structural collapse does not appear to be imminent, surveys suggest that this prospect is getting closer."
Ron says the wreck could be as close as "Five years before structural collapse," which has he heard from people who have worked on the report but "cannot officially say anything because of their employment or past employment."
There are serious concerns about that collapse and the explosives on board. The last survey found "significant collapse and/or loss of munitions becoming a more realistic possibility in the medium term," and admits that although there have been munitions studies, "these are not sufficient to predict with any certainty what the effect of significant structural collapse would be on the munitions cargo."
As far back as 1970 concerns have been voiced by the authorities about the possibility of an explosion. At the time the government tests and suggested a blast could send a 1,000ft wide wave or water, mud and metal heading towards the coast. An article in New Scientist in 2004 also voiced concerns and predicted that it could be the biggest manmade non-nuclear explosion, and the predicted damage could cost up to £1 billion.
So why has it not been moved before? Conspiracy theorists claim the ship's manifesto didn't include everything. Rumours that the ship had biological, chemical and gas warheads on board when it went down, and so the government has been unwilling to make the vessel safe. The accusation has been put to various ministers and several Freedom of Information requests have been made and every time they have been refuted, but still the legend persists. "This unknown to me although heard from unconnected sources over many years, many believe that Churchill said he would defend England by any means," Ron explains.
Ron refers to an event in 1943, when a ship in Italy was bombed by the Luftwaffe and set off unannounced gas bombs which killed everyone on board and many nearby civilians. "The cargo on the liberty ship that was bombed in Bari, Italy, had mustard gas aboard but not in the manifest, as were a lot of things in times of war."
Currently the explosives themselves are thought to be in perfect condition, but the concern is with the fuses, which are less likely to be in a good condition, and the worry is if some of the fused explosives may be triggered by water vapour seeping into the box or if they become disturbed by the ship breaking apart.
Speaking at a seminar held in Sheerness on the subject of the SS Montgomery, commercial munitions consultant Andrew Crawford explained that there is no way to tell how far the fuses have deteriorated. "The government wont do anything about that ship, because who will consign somebody to go out there and try to move any of those bombs? If it goes up, they're in trouble, and if it does go up, because they interfered with it there will be huge compensation pay outs."
As well as financial issues, there is the problem with committing somebody to go out there and look at the ship when the slightest vibration could set the explosives off.
The MCA survey explains the policy of non-intervention has been used because the hull and munitions seem stable, and any effort to remove them could yield unpredictable results. The New Scientist article explained, "Removing the explosives would mean evacuating 40,000 people for six months," and the favoured alternative is to "build an 1800-metre earthwork around the wreck to deaden the blast of the explosion."
Andrew has doubts about the idea."I've heard of some of the arguments about what to do and I'm afraid all of them have been looked at in one form or another over the years, and none have been found to be feasible." On top of all that there is the legal issue of who owns the bombs. They came from the U.S. and technically were never given to the British, yet neither government wants the responsibility.
What do the people closest to the wreck think about it all?
"The island appears divided but most appear to be worried and want something done," says Ron. Recently he started an e-petition to try and bring the issue up in parliament. He said he hopes to achieve "full public awareness of the wreck and the dangers it present to the people and property of Kent and lasting damage to the environment."
Although at the seminar, Andrew warned that the petition isn't any good without some new and feasible ideas to go with it.
You can find the link for the petition below. Ask the Experts is positive that signing and sharing this story so others can be informed and sign will prove to be extremely useful to the people of Sheerness.
|SS Montgomery ePetition|
|SS Montgomery Site|
|The Doomsday Wreck (New Scientist)|