SS Richard Montgomery Matter


Article from the New Wide World Magazine for October 1964



The bombs weigh more than seven million pounds. At this moment they are lying unattended beneath the rippling surface of the Thames Estuary within fifty miles of central London. Set them off and you have the most catastrophic non-nuclear explosion in history. And, make no mistake about it, these bombs are still very much alive. They might easily explode.
How much damage could they do? This is something that no-one can predict precisely, for too many factors have to be taken into account. The level of the clouds, the direction and force of the wind and the tides, as well as the temperatures of the air and water at the instant of detonation will each have some effect. However, a conservative forecast was made for wide world by retired Royal Engineer Major A. B. Hartley, m.b.e., g.m., Britain's most famous and the world's most experienced bomb disposal expert.


Windows would be shattered in Southend-on-Sea, Westcliff-on-Sea, Leigh-on-Sea, Shoeburyness and a number of smaller communities with a total population of at least 375,000. All these places might also suffer a heavy fall of shrapnel.
The vast oil refineries and the petroleum harbour on the Isle of Grain, Kent, happen to be much nearer the bombs. They would therefore be hit much harder.
The bombs are closer still to the town of Sheerness, Kent. And so every building and every thing as well as all the 14,000 people who live in that town  would be destroyed. A tidal wave would inevitably follow the big blast to wash away the last traces of the sorry debris that was Sheerness.
The bombs also happen to lie alongside the Thames  main fairway used by thousands of the world's merchant ships and naval vessels, by countless amateur yachtsmen and by the Queen's own yacht, Britannia. Any ships, however large or small, in the vicinity of the explosion would go down.
A tidal wave might also sweep up the River Medway to cause havoc in Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham and a dozen or more outlying places in Kent.
Depending on atmospheric and tidal conditions at the instant of detonation, the bombs' effect might be felt as far up river as London. Certainly most of south-eastern England would hear them go off.

 


The story of the bombs under the Thames began twenty years ago, in August, 1944, when a year-old American Liberty ship, the Richard Montgomery., crossed the Atlantic. Snugly packed in this freighter's four cargo holds were aerial fragmentation bombs of various sizes. Altogether they weighed between six and seven thousand U.S. tons (one U.S. ton equals 2,000 pounds). They had been earmarked for the use of American forces already on the Continent, and no records now exist to explain why the Richard Montgomery brought them to Britain.
At any rate, the Liberty ship pulled far enough into the Thames Estuary to clear the submarine boom, and the River Medway pilot was asked to find her a berth. Although the Thames was tightly jammed with post D-Day shipping, an anchorage was eventually selected off the shoal known as the Nore Sands. The ship's first officer then remained aboard, and the other thirty-four members of her crew were ferried across the Thames to Southend, to a hostel for American merchant seamen.
Mr. R. C. Coward, at that time managing director of William Hurst, Ltd., the agents in Sheerness for the American Maritime Commission, had some trouble persuading stevedores to off-load the Richard Montgomery's cargo. In fact, that work wasn't commenced until Coward agreed to pay the stevedores danger money.
At about the time that the ship's first two holds, numbers three and four, had been cleared, Coward received a general weather warning. A force eight gale was expected to hit the Medway, and so he sent a boat out to relay the storm warning to the men on the Richard Montgomery.
When that boat reached the Richard Montgomery's anchorage all of the freighter's hatches were open. But when the stevedores were told about the impending storm, they demanded to be taken ashore right away. They argued about who was to cover the cargo holds the full holds as well as the empty and in the end nobody covered them. When the Richard Montgomery's first officer returned to Sheerness with those stevedores they left behind them bombs weighing 3,691 U.S. tons 7,382,000 pounds.
The weather forecast turned out to be accurate. That night the Richard Montgomery's holds were flooded, and a fierce wind made her drag anchor southward of number nine Medway buoy and on to the Nore Sands. The sands at once broke her back, snapping her hull in half amidships. And so the next morning only the tips of the ship's derricks, the peaks of her masts and the railings of her bridge showed above the water. The storm that had finished her had also sheared off her funnel.
During those first months after D-Day the Thames Estuary was so busy that no one had time to bother about the Richard Montgomery or even to bother about those thousands of tons of bombs inside her. Mr. Coward immediately sent a full report to Washington, but no action was taken either by British or American authorities. The wreck and her bombs were left where they were.
In April 1948 a representative of Phillip's Craft and Fisher, an American firm, visited Sheerness. He called at Mr. Coward's office on a quayside in the town, hired a small boat, and went out to examine the wreck of the Richard Montgomery, presumably with a view to salvage. Neither Coward nor anyone else in Sheerness knows what conclusion that visitor came to. For he left the town without discussing the matter, and he never turned up there again.
Since the Richard Montgomery wasn't lying immediately in the path of big ships and therefore couldn't be classed as a major navigational hazard, it's not surprising that in the last months of the war she hadn't worried many people. At that time the contents of her holds was not generally known, so local people had no reason to be concerned about the bombs. Why neither British nor American authorities insisted on salvaging the ship after the war is a question yet to be answered satisfactorily.
In 1951 a Dutch salvage firm considered raising the wreck but decided that her scrap value wasn't worth the effort. A representative of the Dutch company told people in Sheerness that, in his opinion, the best way to deal with the wreck was to suck the sand from beneath her and let her sink into the ooze. This would have kept the wreck from being a navigational hazard to small boats. But it wouldn't have disposed of that cargo of deadly bombs. In any case, this operation was never attempted.
In 1952 the Admiralty notified the Port of London Authority, which controls shipping on the Thames and which, according to the Admiralty, is legally responsible for the wreck, that it would be safer to leave the Richard Montgomery where she is than risk tampering with her cargo.
Incredibly, since then nothing has been done about the Richard Montgomery. She still lies half submerged on the Nore Sands, clearly visible from the windows of the houses along the Sheerness sea front and still loaded with those seven million pounds of unexploded World War II bombs. Most people in Sheerness don't even realise that the bombs are there and many of the people who once knew about them seem to have forgotten them. Even Mr. J. Griffiths, the Sheerness Town Clerk, was unaware of the tremendous tonnage of bombs until informed by wide world.
Nowadays the Richard Montgomery is a local curiosity a somewhat offbeat memento of the war. Tourists who visit Sheerness are taken out in boats from the town for a short cruise around the wreck. Amateur yachtsmen often sail around it and sometimes right over it.
On the official Admiralty chart of the Thames the Richard Montgomery is indicated merely as a wreck, and a light on her is supposed to warn pilots at night to give her a clear berth.

 


A fantastic state of affairs ? Indeed, and yet one that doesn't seem to worry the people it should.
When he was told of the ship's potentially lethal contents, Mr. A. Glen, the Town Clerk of Southend, said, "We've known about it for twenty years".
Asked if the presence of the bomb-laden wreck opposite his town disturbed him, Mr. Glen replied, "No. We've lived with it for twenty years, and so far it hasn't blown up".
And when told that bomb disposal expert Hartley said that the ship might well blow up of its own accord or could easily be made to blow up in any one of a number of ways, Glen dismissed this, saying, "We're prepared to accept the advice of our government on matters like this".
Viscount Simon, Chairman of the Port of London Authority, describes the Richard Montgomery as "How shall I say? A well-known landmark on the Thames." The viscount is convinced in his own mind that in thirty or forty years the wreck will sink harmlessly into the mud. He does not think that it will ever explode because he says that he has been assured of this by the Admiralty. Mr. Griffiths, the Sheerness Town Clerk, put the matter before the town council after his discussion with wide world, and he was instructed to consult the Admiralty. Whatever he was told, no action has been initiated in Sheerness.
If officials who know about the bomb-laden wreck lose no sleep over it, why should anyone else be bothered by it?
First, because the official Admiralty pronouncement on the wreck is not as reassuring as Town Clerk Glen or Viscount Simon suggest. Second, because the official records on the Richard Montgomery are muddled in a way that suggests that only a series of administrative oversights have so far kept anything from being done about the wreck. And finally because of the opinion of Major Hartley, based on his expert knowledge of military explosives.
Just how the Admiralty came to the conclusion that the Richard Montgomery is safe is anybody's guess. Admiralty spokesmen either don't know or won't say. But Royal Navy frogmen have never clambered down into the wreck to examine the bombs which nestle together in the two holds of the ship. And the one loading plan of the Richard Montgomery which was for many years available in this country was never studied by Admiralty investigators. That plan was in Mr. Coward's office in Sheerness until three years ago when, about to retire, he destroyed it along with a lot
of other wartime files which seemed no longer to be of use. Mr. Coward says that he was never at any time questioned about the ship by Admiralty investigators.
Lloyd's Register of Shipping would not help anyone curious about the ship. Their entry on the Richard Montgomery simply states that she " was stranded in August 1944 and after repeated attempts at salvage was officially declared a total loss on February 26, 1945".
The United States Maritime Administration file on the Richard Montgomery in Washington doesn't mention the bombs, either. According to M. I. Goodman, chief of the Maritime Administration's office of Ship Operations, the ship was merely " carrying military cargo," and his records show that portions of this were " salvaged from August 23, 1944, to September 1944," and 3,691 tons were left aboard. Mr. Goodman informed wide world that his files also state that on November 25, 1944, the Admiralty's Deputy Director of Salvage wrote to Washington that " the cost of removing this wreck would far exceed its value ".
Mr. Goodman said that his department still holds title to the wreck, and he believes that a record of a hearing into the stranding of the ship is in the files of the Cabinet Office's historical section in London.
In fact, there is no such record because no such hearing was ever held.
In 1962 the Sheerness Urban District Council considered dedicating a plaque on the
town's waterfront to the Richard Montgomery so that tourists' questions about the wreck would be answered. To find out more about the ship, Lieutenant-Colonel H. H. McKechnie, the council's Sea Front Controller, wrote to the American Navy headquarters in London, and his query was relayed to the Pentagon. Eventually Colonel McKechnie was informed that the American Navy's records indicated that the Richard Montgomery " was raised and scrapped in April 1948 and sold to Philipp™s Craft and Fisher Company on 28 April 1948". Somehow the American Navy has convinced itself that the ship doesn't even exist.
When bomb-disposal expert Major Hartley was told about the Richard Montgomery and her abandoned cargo he was astounded. "Leaving that ship there," he said, "is like finding a long forgotten bomb dump in a crowded suburb and then walking away from it without bothering even to tell anyone. In my opinion those bombs are a major hazard. They won't make themselves safe. On the contrary, as time passes they may become more dangerous. A lot more dangerous.
The major then explained that fragmentation bombs such as those in the Richard Montgomery have very thick steel casings-so thick that they account for sixty per cent, of the bombs' weight. Although he doesn't doubt that these particular bombs were originally packed in the ship very carefully, and although he is sure that they have never had fuses in them, he says that these facts do not make the bombs safe now. "The paint they used on American wartime bombs was of such good quality he explained, "that when I fished a Yank fragmentation bomb out of the Ipswich harbour fifteen years after it had been dropped there, and when I'd wiped off the muck, I could read its stencilled markings." Such protective paint, he feels, would prevent the casings of the bombs in the Richard Montgomery from rusting for a long time. And, he then added, "Those bombs' water-tight casings are so thick that salt water might take a thousand years or more to penetrate them."
And what of the explosives inside those bombs? Major Hartley had this to say: "Some sixteen different basic combinations of explosives were used in American fragmentation bombs during the war. Those that were filled with TNT might remain comparatively safe for a long time provided, of course, the TNT hadn't crystallized (crystalline TNT is so unstable that the tip of a penknife blade scraped across its surface may cause it to detonate). And provided that the TNT was pure to begin with. But the production standards of all explosives made by the warring nations Allied and Axis became less rigid toward the end of the war. And by 1944 manufacturers were required only to produce explosive fillings with sufficient 'shelf life' to get them through the war. Those bombs inside your ship have existed long past their intended shelf life."
If the bombs inside the Richard Montgomery contain other explosive substances than TNT  and the only way to ascertain this is to open them to see Major Hartley believes that they will be much more dangerous. He explained: "Most of those sixteen combinations of bomb fillings contain one or more nitrates which, in my experience, tend to break themselves down as they age. In this process of breaking down, these explosives begin to generate gases. They build up pressure inside bombs, generate heat, and will, I think, in time set themselves off." Thus, even with no-one tampering with them, the bombs in the Richard Montgomery could explode at any time.
Major Hartley isn't sure that if one of these bombs bursts it would necessarily set off all the others. Nobody could be sure of this. "But," he cautioned," the detonation of one of them could set off all the others. And even if one went off without doing that, it would, in addition to hurting anyone who happened to be in the vicinity of the explosion, probably scatter the rest of the bombs. And their recovery would become one of the most complicated and dangerous bomb-disposal operations of all time."

 


But what worries Major Hartley far more than anything else is the fact that the Richard Montgomery's bombs lie unattended beneath the Thames, well within reach of anyone. An amateur frogman exploring the wreck could easily set off the bombs accidentally and, said the major, " I dread to think what would happen if a malicious person began tampering with them."
An endless number of other things could also cause the bombs to detonate. The rotting away of the wooden packing around them could cause them to shift and set themselves off. So could a strong enough current. Although a deep draught ship probably wouldn't be able to plough through the silt to strike the Richard Montgomery, a shallow draught ship lost in a storm or just plain lost could hit her. According to boatmen in Sheerness, the currents around the wreck are very dangerous, and at least one small vessel has been holed because it veered off its course and scraped over the wreck. Many of the ships that enter the Thames are shallow-draught coasters some British, many from the Continent and not all of these boats take on river pilots when they enter the estuary. The possibility of an amateur frogman tampering with the Richard Montgomery's bombs is not at all remote. According to Sheerness boatmen, at least one amateur frogman has already been down in the wreck and has carried away some of her brass fittings.
Beyond doubt the Richard Montgomery is a menace and will remain a menace as long as she is left in the Thames Estuary with those millions of pounds of bombs inside her. "If the Admiralty could be persuaded to do something about her right away," Major Hartley said," the operation might still be relatively easy." He feels that it might even be done without ordering a mass evacuation from the shores of the Thames Estuary. But if the ship is left to sink into the mud, as the Port of London Authority says she will, he is sure that the bomb disposal job is going to be a lot more difficult.
Although none of the facts concerning the case of the Richard Montgomery is secret, assembling information on the wreck took a long time.
Repeatedly during this investigation the responsible authorities were made aware of the information that came into wide world's possession. Yet no-one could be persuaded to take any positive action to render the Richard Montgomery's bombs harmless. Everyone accepts what the Admiralty calls its "consensus of expert opinion" as an excuse to do nothing possibly because it would be embarrassing to admit after all these years that nothing had been done.
And everyone forgets that the Admiralty has never stated that the ship could not explode but, rather, as they put their case in a reply to our query, "it is far safer to leave the wreck alone than take any action which might lead to an explosion".
This seems to imply that the uncontrolled risk of leaving the ship alone is preferable to the controlled disposal of the bombs.
All attempts to compel the authorities to take action have failed, to publish the facts seemed the only answer.
Perhaps now someone may be forced to do something about the Richard Montgomery and its lethal cargo and at last remove from the people of Sheerness the shadow of death which hangs over their town. This is a race against time.

 

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