SS Richard Montgomery: What would happen if it exploded?
Tens of miles of beautiful beaches and bays occupy the Kent coastline, overlooking the English Channel and the Thames Estuary. Beneath the surface, however, lay some potent risks to the Garden of England and nearby London. The SS Richard Montgomery was an American liberty ship that sank and split in two during a storm in the Thames Estuary off Sheerness during World War Two. It has remained there ever since.
It sits a mere 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from shore, with its rusting masts, which rise eerily from the water, visible from land.
Even to this day, 77 years on, it is monitored 24 hours a day and seven days a week by port authorities.
The 441ft-long (134m) ship is subject to a 500-metre exclusion zone.
The disturbing cargo which remains on the ship, some 1,400 tonnes of high explosives, in theory could explode at any point.
The BBC reported in 2015 that, should it explode, it could cause “one of the most devastating non-nuclear peace-time explosions ever seen”.
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The SS Montgomery could cause a tsunami that would ‘flood London’.
The ship’s masts can be seen from shore.
Terrifyingly, a New Scientist report from 2004 suggested a spontaneous detonation of the entire load could result in a column of debris being hurled up to 1.8 miles (3 km) into the air, and send a tsunami up the Thames.
It would ‘damage buildings for several miles around’, which include the liquid gas containers on the Isle of Grain in the Hoo Peninsula.
Ken Knowles, a director who has spent several years making a film about the SS Montgomery, echoed the tsunami fears.
He told KentLive in May: “If the Montgomery went off it could cause a tsunami that would flood London.”
Local historian Colin Harvey told the BBC: “The remit area for the explosion would be from Margate to the centre of London.
The ship lies in the Thames Estuary, not far off shore.
“It would level Sheerness, and a 30 or 40ft (12.19m) wave would breach sea defences. Sheppey’s got a population of 25,000 people. Where would they go?”
A report published in 2000 by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency revealed there are holes in the ship, thought to be due to its deterioration.
The report detailed three potential risks to the ship.
Collision with another vessel “could sufficiently disturb the munitions aboard to produce the conditions necessary for a mass explosion”.
Owing to the exclusion zone, which is marked by navigational buoys with lights, and additional smaller buoys in between, this is unlikely.
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The SS Richard Montgomery is just 1.5 miles off the Kent coast, and 5 miles off Southend.
Erosion of the surrounding seabed could cause the capsize or significant movement which, the report said, could cause a mass detonation, or the munitions could escape and be swept away by the tide.
However, the seabed is regularly monitored and is believed to be stable.
The third risk, break up, is that the ship breaks up. Should this happen, there is a chance munitions within the hull of the ship could be swept away by the tides.
The report said: “This could result in individual munitions being washed ashore on beaches.
“This reduces the effect of a mass explosion from the remaining munitions, however, a new risk of individual munitions exploding or burning on beaches is created.”
An estimate of how the explosion might look.
The remit area for the explosion would reportedly stretch as far as Margate and London.
Fragmentation bombs, which are of the most concern, are believed to be stowed in the number 2 hold. This is situated in the part of the wreck prone to the greatest movement should it move.
Cracks have also appeared in this part of the wreck.
The report concluded that structural failure “will occur” at some stage, and the risk of this naturally increases with time.
However, the report also said: “The risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote and is probably becoming even less likely with the passage of time. It may eventually pass altogether, but this is not likely to be for some considerable time.
“It would probably be very dangerous to try to find out the true situation within the wreck, particularly if this involved significant interference.”
Dave Welch, a former Royal Navy bomb disposal expert, said: “The idea that if one item goes ‘bang’ then everything will is, I think, pretty unlikely.
“Unless you’ve got intimate contact between two munitions subsurface, you’ll rarely cause the other to detonate, because water is a very good mitigator.”
He added, however, that the condition of the wreck is what poses a danger: “The items aren’t the ticking time bomb, the wreck is.
“It’s the fact that they’re inside a ship which is slowly decaying that could have the potential of causing enough energy going in them to cause them to detonate.”
Work will soon begin to remove the masts from the ship. A Department for Transport spokesman told KentOnline: “As part of our prudent risk-management, expert wreck assessors are now undertaking detailed surveys which will inform future work to reduce the height of the masts.”
A contract has been awarded for the masts’ removal for 2022.