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The Sunday Times Magazine

March 28, 2004

Waiting to explode
REPORT BY RICHARD JOHNSON
In 1944 a US Liberty ship sank off the Kent coast, where it still lies with cargo equivalent to
2,800 V-1 bombs. Should it be left alone? Or should it be encased in concrete? Experts
agree on only one thing: a catastrophic explosion can't be ruled out


Two miles off the coast of Kent, in the black waters of the Thames estuary, is an
inconspicuous little sign. It's 6ft square, and easy enough to miss. Even without a blanket of
sea mist and a hostile swell. The sign, which marks the exact spot that a merchant marine
ship, the SS Richard Montgomery, sank in August 1944, reads: "Unexploded ammunition".
By any stretch of the imagination, that would be an understatement.

At low tide, her rusted masts are visible above the water. She is listing, 30 degrees to
starboard, nose down into a bank of sand. Nobody knows exactly what lies in her hold (it
has been 60 years since the salvage operation was abandoned), but the last official "best
estimate" from the then Defence Evaluation and Research Agency was 1,400 tonnes of
explosives. That is equivalent to 2,800 V-1 bombs — enough to level a small town. Some
say the ship has been made safe by time and tide. Others disagree. They say that if the ship
did go up, she would create a tidal wave across the flat expanses of the Kent coast — and
one of the largest non-nuclear explosions the world has ever seen.


The Montgomery sank in a busy stretch of the Thames and 24 "near misses" have been
recorded. The harbour masters do their best to monitor the ship with CCTV and a radar that
flashes the serial numbers of ships entering the restricted zone, 200 square yards around the
wreck, but there's only so much that technology can do.


The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which owns the wreck on behalf of the state,
knows that the bombs would have been waterproofed when made and are still, theoretically,
live. Which is why they aren't prepared to declare the bombs "safe". Just that they are safer
left where they are. But in 2005 a new liquefied-natural-gas terminal opens on the estuary and
will be home to 5% of the UK's gas supply. If the bombs aren't completely "safe", there are
lots of lives at stake. Sheerness, 11/2 miles away, has a population of 11,000; the entire
coastal area has a population of 120,000. Politicians are worried. "They insist the
Montgomery isn't a danger to the public," says Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Rochford and
Southend East. "But these things are never 'dangerous'... until they go wrong. It's time for a
proper review. "


Derek Wyatt, MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, agrees. He is also worried about the
Ministry of Defence firing range at Shoeburyness. "I get complaints from my constituents,"
says Wyatt, "saying that because of the artillery noise, their horses have gone mad and their
windows have been broken. One geologist told me sound waves are carried through clay
soil. What effect might those waves have on the munitions?"


The fused cluster bombs in the ship's hold are sensitive to movement, and sound waves
from the firing range might be enough to set them off. But that is unlikely. The explosives
engineer Dr Sidney Alford is more concerned about the integrity of the 60-year-old bombs.


"Impurities seep out," he says. "Friction between what are essentially heavy steel cylinders
with leaked explosive between them constitutes a potential hazard." The wreck is a sitting
target. "All somebody needs to do is dive on the Montgomery, and place a small initiating
charge with a delay mechanism," says Alford. "It would create a horrendous explosion,
likely to project lethal fragments over a mile or two. Air blast could damage buildings at a
greater distance, as could shock waves through the ground. And a wave could be generated
which, given the flatness of the land, could cause real devastation."
• • • • •
The SS Richard Montgomery was one of 2,710 Liberty ships built by the US to help the
allied war effort in the Atlantic. They were simple, square-hulled vessels, intended for
carrying heavy cargo. When the Montgomery set sail for England in August 1944, it was
carrying approximately 7,000 tonnes of explosives for the allied push on France.


"I remember being loaded down with bombs and ammunition at Hog Island in Philadelphia,"
says Signalman Leonard Nadel, the Montgomery's only surviving crew member. Nadel, now
78, lives in New Jersey. He was 17 when he first boarded the Montgomery. "We noticed
there were life preservers on board. That was a big joke with the guys. We said that if we
ever got hit, we wouldn't need life preservers. We would need parachutes."


The Montgomery crossed the Atlantic and anchored in the Thames, where it was to await a
convoy to France. But the estuary was busy, and the ship was forced to anchor off the
sands. During a force-eight gale at dawn it ran aground on a sandbank. The only way to
refloat it was to remove its munitions and wait for the tide to come in. But as the tide ebbed,
the hull started to crack and the Montgomery started to split.


"The captain told us to stay," recalls Nadel. "He wanted five volunteers and two signalmen
— we were the only means of communicating with the shore. While we remained in charge
of the ship, the V-2 rockets rained down on London. And the volunteers made us a chicken
dinner. There was nothing else to do, so we ate and ate. We thought, ÔWhy not? We're
going to die anyway.' I can't believe we made it off the Montgomery alive."


Stevedores managed to remove a quantity of explosive from the holds. But, says Des
Crampton, the operations director for Medway Ports, nobody knows how much. "The
munitions were craned onto barges called lighters, but it was the middle of a storm. When
the ship began to sink, the stevedores got in their boats and scarpered. I doubt there were
clerks by the dock taking details of what came off."


In 1948 and 1967 the Americans offered to make the Montgomery safe. But the British
government refused on the grounds that the bombs, submerged in water, would become
safer with time. Regular surveys over the years always come to the same conclusion. As
Norman Tebbit, then undersecretary of state for trade, said in 1980, the risks of removing
bombs from the wreck were always likely to be "unacceptable".


Explosives experts don't agree. Some advocate blowing up the Montgomery. Others
advocate encasing it in concrete. But Dr Alford favours building a cofferdam, a watertight
enclosure, in the shallow waters around it. "After the water is pumped out," he says, "the
munitions can be lifted out by people in the open air — albeit with hoses, ensuring that the
bombs remain safely wetted. It should only cost a few million. And it's safer than leaving her
where she is." The MCA doesn't agree. But it doesn't have a plan of its own. For now.
 


One hot afternoon last summer, a team of divers left Sheerness dock, intent on formulating
the MCA's new plan for the Montgomery. They had been waiting, patiently, for the neap
tide. Anything stronger would wash them away. The water at the confluence of the Medway
and the Thames is turbulent, and the divers could only see six inches in front of them — not
ideal, given that they were about to assess 1,400 tonnes of explosives. Steve Welsh, for one,
wasn't intimidated. Despite being more experienced in diving oil rigs and laying underwater
telephone lines. He was attached to the dive platform by a thick "umbilical" of cables; it
allowed him to relay high-tech data about the ship to the platform. He held a large knife in
case he got caught in any fishing nets. As he eased himself into the water, the men on the
platform followed his air bubbles in the brown soup.


The water around the wreck is liquid history. It is home to the remains of the Maunsell Forts,
built on the sandbanks towards the entrance of the estuary as a defence during the second
world war, and the skeleton of one of the harbours, or Mulberries, that were built to assist
with the D-Day landings in France. The estuary was a vital shipping channel during the war.
And because it was a key target for German mine-laying planes, it is still littered with
unexploded ordnance. In Sheerness, it's like the war never really ended.


Steve Welsh felt his way, carefully, along the broken, rusted steel of the hull. In parts, it was
as sharp as razor blades. He relayed the data about its thickness back to the dive platform
with his state-of-the-art sonar equipment. And he played with the fish. Fish love wrecks, as
they offer protection from the tides.


"Oil rigs are the same," says Welsh. "In Oman, you can pat the conger eels. They've never
seen anything like you. I always try and bring some home for tea." That's why, one Saturday
night in the summer of 2001, six men from Peckham decided to fish the Montgomery. They
planned to sell their catch to local Chinese restaurants. The harbour master was watching
television when he got word of two rubber inflatables inside the exclusion zone, unravelling
their nets between the masts of the Montgomery. They were escorted, politely, back to the
harbour, and their boats were confiscated. But what began as farce could so easily have
ended as tragedy.


In 1971 a Peruvian freighter crashed into a Panamanian tanker in the English Channel and
sank. One day later, it was hit by a German ship. Then a Greek ship. In 2002 a Bahamian
container ship crashed into a Norwegian car carrier in the English Channel and sank. Two
days later, it was hit by a Dutch ship. Then a Turkish ship. The authorities say that the
Montgomery is 25 miles from the Channel, and that a crash simply couldn't happen. But the
Montgomery is easier to overlook than a car carrier — or a tanker.


To think that the wreck used to be a tourist attraction. David T Hughes, a local man,
remembers the Silver Queen offering trips to the Montgomery from the Sheerness seafront.


"The Queen would take 120 passengers at a time," he says. "The coxswain would stand on
the esplanade touting for trade, shouting 'See the wreck! Only half a crown!'" Even the
trawlerman John Moakes, who has fished around the Montgomery for 25 years, would miss
her if she went. "She's a good navigation point," he says.


Despite the concerns of their elected representatives, the locals don't seem unduly concerned
about the dangers. Fred Mawhinney, the landlord of the Ship on Shore pub in Sheerness,
likes to watch the Montgomery from his lounge bar with a pair of binoculars. He has been
flooded before (there's a notch on the bar that shows the high-water level from 1953), so he
isn't frightened by a bit of a tidal wave. He feels safe behind a 40ft sea wall. "There might be
a few broken windows," he says. "But not a lot else."


Certainly, previous surveys of the Montgomery have failed to reveal any big changes in the
wreck's condition. But as far back as 1999, Veronica Robbins, the then receiver of wreck
(who handles all reports of wrecks around Britain), said: "The time has now come for a
decision to be made about [the Montgomery's] future. The consultants carrying out this
survey will consider several options, from keeping the status quo to removing the wreck and
its cargo." The decision was taken: keep the status quo. Do nothing. Leave the site as a
prohibited area under the Protection of Wrecks Act, 1973, and monitor it closely.

 


But even the experts can't agree about the potential fallout. Fred Hoverkamp, of the New
Jersey-based Explosive and Reactive Materials, is used to analysing underwater munitions.
He has two main concerns involving the Montgomery's ordnance: the shock wave it creates
when it detonates, and the fragmentation. If all the explosives were to detonate
simultaneously (which Hoverkamp thinks is "not likely"), he says the fragmentation "would
be approximately 5.2 miles (8.4 kilometres) from the point of detonation".


Dr Stephen Murray, who leads the Ammunition Systems and Explosives Technology Group
at the Royal Military College of Science campus of Cranfield University, is more
conservative. "If the explosives mass-detonated at low tide, it would breach the surface so
quickly that it would be like an explosion in open air," he says. "Calculations based on the
estimated amount of explosive present suggest that blast damage would be limited to about
1.6 miles (2.5 kilometres)."


If the explosion was at high tide then the blast would be reduced significantly. "What is
difficult to quantify," says Murray, "is the likely tidal wave' that may be created. However,
estimates indicate that this would not produce a catastrophic event and, although the wave
may well go some distance inland, there would not be a tsunami effect. One final outcome
would be ground shock, which would be detected at all UK seismic stations."


When it is published, finally, the survey is likely to show that the decks of the Montgomery
are collapsing and the masts are becoming increasingly unstable. "One can foresee a day
when the Montgomery will break into more pieces," says Medway Ports' Des Crampton.


"A time when the ammunition will cease to be enclosed and contained. That is inevitable. If it
begins to move, what are the risks then? At best, bombs will start to turn up in the nets of
dredgers and trawlers. At worst, they will start to explode."


The Montgomery wouldn't be the first Liberty ship to blow up. In 1947, the SS Grandcamp
was docked in Texas City when her cargo of ammonium nitrate blew up. The explosion,
heard 150 miles away, killed almost 600 people. It sent up a 4,000ft-high fireball and
knocked two light aircraft out of the sky. It even created a tidal wave, which lifted a barge
200ft inland. It still ranks as the United States' worst industrial accident.


"It was probably two or three times more energetic material than the Montgomery," says
Alec Milne, a research scientist for the engineering research company Fluid Gravity. But the
example is still relevant. "It was a ship in shallow waters. In the case of the Grandcamp, it
was in a dock, so the proximity to people and buildings caused much more loss of life and
damage than would have happened if the accident had been far offshore. But it gives a feel
for the possible effects." And, until the report on the Richard Montgomery is published, the
possibility is frightening enough.

 

 Map of area around wreck (mapquest)

 

 

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