77 Years After Sinking, The Richard Montgomery Still A Cause For Concern

Photo Credit: Tom Lee / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

During the summer of 1944, the SS Richard Montgomery left port for the U.K. Carrying thousands of tons of munitions, the trip was intended to be its final voyage — and it was. That August, the ship anchored in the Great Nore Anchorage. It began to drift and hit a sea bank, causing a shipwreck that to this day is a danger to those who reside along the shoreline.

The initial salvage effort

The effort to recover the onboard munitions began on August 23, 1944. It had grounded amidships, resulting in its weak spot, the back, breaking. During the attempt, the ship’s hull cracked open, causing several cargo holds toward the bow end to flood.

Portrait of Richard Montgomery
Richard Montgomery, after whom the ship was named (Photo Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Using the SS Richard Montgomery‘s own cargo handling equipment, crews were able to remove approximately half of the munitions. While reports vary as to what was emptied, it’s said the two stern holds were likely cleared. An investigation by the Southend Chamber of Trade concluded all of the fused bombs had been cleared, but this finding is considered inconclusive.

Efforts to unload the ship ended on September 25, 1944, after the wreck flooded.

The U.K. jumps into action

Presently, the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery contains an estimated 1,400 tons of munitions: 2,000 cases of fragmentation cluster bombs and 208 tons of TNT-containing bombs. The site is monitored 24/7 by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and is subject to a 500-meter exclusion zone.

The area was made a prohibited site under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act, due to the danger of disruption. According to a 2000 government study, there are three main risks associated with the wreck: another vessel colliding with it; the wreck breaking apart due to deterioration; and it being significantly moved in any way.

The masts of the SS Richard Montgomery sticking out of the water
Masts from the SS Richard Montgomery sticking out of the water (Photo Credit: Clem Rutter / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

A report by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency concluded holes had formed that could allow the explosives to escape. This corroborated the government report, which said both the wreck and the seabed’s topography showed minor changes.

Surveys conducted in 2017 and 2018 show the ship to be in stable condition, but with accelerated levels of deterioration. Another study using multi-beam sonar and lasers heightened concerns that a chain reaction would occur if the detonators became unstable, resulting in the ignition of the entire load.

The risk factor is debated

Opinions are divided regarding the explosive risk of the wreck. Labour peer Lord Harris argues the cargo is “deteriorating together in an unstable environment, unguarded and unprotected.” Conservative frontbencher Baroness Barran, on the other hand, counters that the fuses have likely become so degraded that the possibility of an explosion is remote.

While Barran’s theory was reinforced by members of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, scientists have since countered, explaining the TNT itself is not inert and could explode if detonated. This conclusion mirrors those of the government report and a 1997 survey review, which found the TNT has likely experienced limited property change, as it is encased in metal.

Sketch of the SS Richard Montgomery
Photo Credit: Danny Nicholson / Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Many believe the wreck should be left as is to keep the likelihood of an explosion low. They argue the risk only grows when it’s disturbed or attempts are made to remove its cargo.

According to experts, if the SS Richard Montgomery were to explode, it would create a tsunami wave of between 4 to 16 feet. Its impact would lead to flooding in London. A 2004 report from the New Scientist stated the explosion itself would be one of the largest ever non-nuclear blasts, with a force so strong it would damage buildings and blow out windows.

Removal of the wreckage

Should the wreck be removed, it’s stated an area of around 25 miles would need to be evacuated for months at a time. Those advocating it be left alone believe it will gradually degrade over time, and that its cargo will get wet in the process and become neutralized.

Map of proposed airport locations around the exclusion zone
Map of proposed airport locations around the exclusion zone (Photo Credit: Ordnance Survey with modifications by Prioryman / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

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In 2020, the Ministry of Defence offered £5 million to any contractor willing to remove the ship’s masts. Visible above the water at all stages of tide, it’s thought their weight is adding unnecessary stress to the wreck’s structural integrity. As such, they’ve sought to lessen their height.