WW2 Shipwreck: Time to Remove 1400 Tons of Explosives

WW2 Shipwreck SS Richard Montgomery, an American cargo ship laden with bombs and other munitions headed for England, ran aground on a sandbank on the River Thames Estuary in August, 1944.

  • Hazardous shipwreck remains a problem 77 years after the end of World War Two
  • SS Richard Montgomery is filled with 1400 tons of explosives
  • The ship’s masts are slowly deteriorating, which may lead to a massive explosion
  • The nearby population is at high risk due to evacuation problems

The Second World War ended decades ago, but the inherent risks of the bombs used to fight it linger, ever present off the coastlines of the U.K.

25th July 1944. The Richard Montgomery, with 120 merchant ships and 33 escorts in Convoy HX 301, left New York bound for the D-Day landing beaches. Her cargo is listed as 6,862 tons of explosives and ammunition.

One ship in particular has posed a huge risk for almost 80 years. WW2 shipwreck SS Richard Montgomery, am American cargo ship laden with bombs and other munitions headed for England, ran aground on a sandbank on the River Thames Estuary in August, 1944.

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It has rested there ever since, presenting a volatile situation that under the right circumstances could result in danger for the coastline and its population. In fact, one expert cautioned that, should even one bomb go off accidentally, the domino effect would cause a “tsunami” reaching even London.

SS Richard Montgomery was an American Liberty cargo ship built during World War Two. It was constructed in 1943 by the St. Johns River Shipbuilding Company in Jacksonville, Florida. The vessel was designed to carry supplies for war. On its last voyage, the ship carried 6,127 tons of explosives.

ship, sea. wreck
The masts of SS Richard Montgomery. The ship was wrecked on the Nore sandbank in the Thames Estuary, near Sheerness, Kent, England, in August 1944, while carrying a cargo of munitions

The ship sailed to the Isle of Grain and Medway Approach Channel in 1944. On August 21, an unexpected fracture in the hull incapacitated the ship. The salvage attempts lasted for a little over one month.

By September 25th, the crew was able to salvage half of the cargo, but the remaining still lies on the Nore sandbank in the Thames Estuary. Many more of these explosives have since escaped through a hole in the side of the wreck.

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In June 2022 forces from the Royal Navy comprising 29 Explosives Ordinance Disposal Groups and the Marine Operations Department of the Ministry of Defense undertook a combined effort to remove some of the explosives from the ship.

The work was projected to last two months, meaning it should have been completed around mid or late August. So far no notice of completion has been given and the work appears to be continuing.

map, River Thames
Map showing the location of the wreck of SS Richard Montgomery. Still a threat after nearly 80 years

Experts differ on just how big a risk these bombs pose. Some say they are highly unlikely to detonate. Others say that any risk – no matter how small – is too big, because the resulting explosion would be so massive and damaging.

The shipwreck contains approximately 1400 tons of ammunition, including highly explosive bombs, explosive booster charges, pyrotechnic signals, and smoke bombs.

Three masts of the ship are just visible above water level but these are now badly rusting. The surrounding area has been earmarked as an “exclusion zone,” meaning no one is allowed to approach it. Furthermore, the shipwreck is monitored by radar 24/7.

Still, authorities worry that should one of those masts – which are decaying – tumble into the deep, it could trigger an explosion that will cause massive damage, sending a 3,000-metre column of water high into the air.

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A massive wave would then roll toward shore, perhaps wiping out Sheerness and its 11,000 residents. And there could also be collateral damage done to oil and gas operations in Sheerness, government studies warn.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is regularly monitoring the wreck. A DfT representative declared that the 77-year-old wreck is in a “relatively stable condition.” The representative assured that expert wreck assessors are also conducting “detailed surveys which will inform future work to reduce the height of the masts.”

Professor David Alexander, an expert in disaster reduction, has studied SS Richard Montgomery closely. Although he agrees with the DfT, he believes that authorities should remove the explosives at the earliest opportunity. “The wreck is disintegrating,” the expert warned.

Professor Alexander claims that an explosion can result in a “very small tsunami as a result of a pressure wave.” “If a liquefied natural gas carrier were to plough into the Montgomery, then all hell would break loose,” he added.

The expert suggested authorities build blast walls on Sheppey and Grain, and restrict movement around the wreck.

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The first step in this delicate operation is dismantling the three deteriorating masts. The Ministry of Defense has tasked a Sheerness-based group, Peel Ports, which oversees the Sheerness docks, with guarding the wreck and surveying the seabed to check for stray bombs that may have escaped the cargo hold.

The SS Richard Montgomery poses a very visible threat, and it makes locals quite nervous.  Even if the chances of the bombs exploding are “remote,” as one official insists, the wreck cannot be allowed to continue deteriorating.

But this vessel is not unique in the danger it presents to the coastline of England. Estimates suggest that thousands of wartime ships – warships, submarines and some cargo ships caught in fighting on the Atlantic – went down in the waters surrounding Great Britain during World War II.

Only two decades ago, the prevailing opinion of marine experts was that shipwrecks like the SS Richard Montgomery should be left alone, and that no action was the wisest course.

Some even dismiss the idea that one of the SS Richard Montgomery masts toppling over would trigger the massive explosion some experts predict.

But no matter how great or small the risk is, no one is suggesting the disaster would not be devastating for Sheerness and other areas on the Thames if the bombs do explode. 

Therefore, the operation now underway, although delicate and dangerous, must be carried out. The bombs must be removed and decommissioned in a safe environment.

SS Richard Montgomery was placed under the Protection of Wrecks Act by the United Kingdom in 1973. The Act allows the Secretary of State to form a restricted parameter around the wrecks to prevent uncontrolled interference. Authorities have failed to take decisive action as they continue to assess the situation.

Medway Ports keep 24-hour radar surveillance on the wreck. The ports have collaborated with Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to guard and monitor the restricted area. Warning signs have also been placed on the wreck and buoys in the vicinity.

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Until then, the wreck, so clearly visible from shore, presents a temptation to some adrenaline junkies along the coast. A local man was condemned by the press and on social media for taking his paddle board out to the danger zone and posing for selfies with one of the masts.

Although resoundingly ridiculed and called out for his stupidity, his actions make something else vividly clear: until the SS Richard Montgomery is neutralized, it presents a grave menace to all those living near it.