Fears Grow That WW2 Wreck Could Explode

George Winston
 
SS Richard Montgomery
SS Richard Montgomery
 
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Now a wreck but on the 20th August 1944, an American cargo ship, the SS Richard Montgomery, sank off the coast of Kent in England, while on a voyage to France.

The vessel was carrying 6,000 tonnes of munitions to the Allies in France. None of the cargo was ever salvaged, and now there are concerns over the threat that this wreck poses.  Salvage experts differ with politicians as to the extent of the threat.

Danger zone
Danger zone. Map of the Thames Estuary with the exclusion zone around the wreck of Richard Montgomery, and locations of proposed airports: 1. Cliffe; 2. Grain (Thames Hub); 3. Foulness; 4. Off the Isle of Sheppey; 5. Shivering Sands (“Boris Island”). Ordnance Survey CC BY 3.0

A survey conducted in November 2018 and followed up by a further study in April 2018, showed that the wreck is still intact but is showing signs of rapid deterioration.

Lord Harris, a peer for the Labour Party, who takes a keen interest in the results of the surveys, said that he had been told by various experts that the wreck only had a few more years before it would completely disintegrate.

Should the wreck disintegrate, there will be some serious safety issues to be considered about containing the cargo.

The wreck lies in very shallow water at 15 meters below the sea surface, which means that the masts are exposed. Lying where it does, it is passed by thousands of vessels each year, and even though it is well documented and visible in all weathers, there are still near misses by passing ships.

SS Richard Montgomery
SS Richard Montgomery

The wreck is protected by the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, and under this act, access to it is prohibited. Unfortunately, this law does not stop the curious from visiting the wreck. The last recorded unlawful visit was in 2015 when a paddleboarder was apprehended visiting the site.

Lord Harris posed several questions in a recent Parliamentary debate regarding the wreck. During the same discussion Lord Berkeley, another Labour peer suggested that there was a body of evidence that indicated that these munitions, exposed to seawater for the last 75 years might become more dangerous instead of less so.

The Royal Military College of Science produced a report in 1970 with some dire predictions of a worst-case scenario. Their report claimed that should the cargo explode; it would trigger a tsunami with a wave height of five meters and that the shock wave would damage buildings and break every window in the nearby town of Sheerness.

In 1999 the Maritime and Coastguard Agency stated that the risk of an explosion is remote.

In 2004 an investigation by the New Scientist reported that they believed an explosion could be triggered by a collision with another vessel, a shift in the tide patters or an external attack.

SS Richard Montgomery
Buoy marking the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery which is in the back ground.  Gill Edwards CC BY-SA 2.0

Efforts to make the wreck safe have run into many problems. The cost of moving the debris has scuppered such plans, and the removal of the explosives would require evacuating everyone living nearby.

Additional monitoring of the wreck has been implemented by the British Department of Transport as they carry the responsibility of monitoring the site.

Residents of the closest town, Sheerness, are more than a little concerned about the state of the wreck and the differing opinions regarding its safety.

Gordon Henderson, the Member of Parliament for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, assured his constituents that the wreck was safe and that the non-intervention policy that is currently in place will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

The last word on the subject was from Lord Harris, who posed the question of who would be prepared to shoulder the responsibility if it all goes wrong? An excellent question that no-one is ready to answer.

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