For nearly eight decades, a sunken Second World War cargo ship has been lurking beneath Kentish waves off the coast of Sheerness.
The SS Richard Montgomery, commonly known as the SS Montgomery, holds the potential to unleash serious devastation, as it contains an estimated 1,400 tonnes of explosive material. Fortunately, the UK government is making moves to reduce the threat from the wreck, which has lain on the seabed since 1944.
The SS Montgomery And Its Final Voyage
The SS Montgomery was part of a fleet of American Liberty Ships, which transported ordnance and war material from the US to Europe during the Second World War. On its final voyage, the SS Montgomery was carrying 6,225 tonnes of bombs and ammunition, some of which were fused and ready for use. When the ship ran aground and began to break apart near Sheerness in Kent, there were expeditions to salvage as much of this dangerous ordnance as possible, but the work ceased when the Admiralty refused to pay the workers danger money for unloading the bombs.
For decades the wreck has sat 15 metres below the surface of the water. From locals fishing atop the wreck during the 1960s to fishing boats depositing war bombs on its decks, the population has failed to appreciate the danger of the SS Montgomery and its potential for causing disaster on a terrifying scale.
Recognising The Danger
Although little has been done to manage the threat of this UXO-laden wreck, some preventative measures have been taken. The masts stick out of the water in the middle of a 100-metre-wide exclusion zone and the whole area is under constant radar and visual surveillance. Yet, the SS Montgomery’s location amidst busy marine activity is cause for real concern.
Thousands of vessels pass within 200 metres of this ticking time bomb every year, as they traverse a busy shipping lane. Concerningly, the Isle of Grain less than 5 kilometres away plays host to an oil-fired electricity generating station and large tanks of liquified natural gas, with LNG supertankers passing close to the wreck regularly.
Nor does the SS Montgomery only threaten the sea – it lies 2.4 kilometres from the populated town of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey. If there were to be an explosion, there could be widespread devastation, with metal and ammunition fired up to three kilometres into the air.
The Government And The SS Montgomery
The wreck has undergone thorough risk assessments and routine surveys, with the government stating their determination to act before the wreck collapses, potentially causing an inadvertent detonation event. Cleaning up the wreck will be a complex task and extreme caution will need to be exercised to avoid causing an explosion, as was the case with a Polish wreck bearing unexploded munitions.
However, with the SS Montgomery at risk of disintegrating and causing one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, doing something has become imperative. The UK government plans to cut back the iconic steel masts to reduce the weight and stop them from falling back onto the hull and triggering a blast.
Questions remain – when will the bombs be removed, and how could an explosion be prevented?