SS Richard Montgomery
Historical Background of the SS Richard Montgomery
Launched on the 15th June 1943, the SS Richard Montgomery was built during World War II as an American Liberty Ship. Named after an Ulster General of the same name who was killed during the American Revolution, the ship was said to be carrying around 7000 tonnes of bombs and ammunition when it left Hog Island, Philadelphia in August 1944. She was heading for the UK where she would join a convoy bound for Cherbourg. On arriving at the Thames Estuary, the ship was told to anchor 1 mile off the coast at Sheerness, adjacent to the Nore sandbank, by the King’s Harbour Master. This was a controversal decision because the draught of the SS Richard Montgonmery was 31′ and the depth at low tide of the anchorage was 30′. It’s not sure whether the anchor slipped or the tide was very low (neap tide), but the ship became stranded on the sandbank on 20th August 1944. Efforts were made to alert the Captain of the SS Richard Montgomery as she dragged towards the sandbank, but they failed as he was sleeping and the Officer of the Watch did not respond.
A Ticking Time Bomb?
Work started to remove the ammunition on 23rd August. Stevedores were able to unload the rear holds of the wreck whilst the ship stayed intact. Just 24 hours later the ship’s back broke and eventually separated into 2 pieces flooding the holds. The salvage operation had to be abandoned on 25th August 1944. The front is still laden with corroding explosives – A survey carried out in 2000 by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), stated the ship likely contains more than 9,000 US-made explosives. These include 286 giant 2,000lb bombs, 4,439 1,000lb devices and more than 2,500 cluster bombs. There are concerns that, as the wreckage continues to rust, bombs could be displaced and potentially set off. Also ever present is the risk that the wreck could by hit by one of the many passing ships to navigate this busy area. Experts have equated the explosive power of the bombs on board as half of that which obliterated Dresden. This potential threat has halted plans to build a floating airport in the Thames Estuary, as there are concerns as to whether building and engineering works might tamper with, and potentially set off, the volatile explosives.
Controversy and Speculation
The masts of the sunken ship are still visible above the water’s surface, though speculation continues to abound regarding what is hidden underneath. Although not all of the explosives on board are live, there are rumours that an atomic bomb is on board. Though Southend Borough Council were quick to dismiss the speculation, an unnamed councillor believed that President Roosevolt had sanctioned an atomic bomb, much like the ones used on Japanese territory, to be used on Berlin, and that the bomb in question was on board the SS Richard Montgomery. This theory has not yet been validated, however, and the aircraft bombs that have been identified on board seem to suggest the story is nothing more than an urban myth.
The mysterious tale of the ship’s demise and aftermath has provided inspiration for several works of literature and film. German writer Uwe Johnson, who lived in Sheerness for ten years between 1974 and 1984, wrote a short story entitled The Unfathomable Ship about the wreckage and ruins. More speculative interpretations have also emerged. The blast set off by the bombs left on board is the catalyst for Malcolm Rose’s young adult adventure series, Jordan Stryker, centre on the eponymous hero who is taken in by a secret government organisation after nearly being killed in the blast. In the television drama, Walking the Dead, the ship also features as the crime scene where three murdered women are found in a sunken fishing boat.
Related Article: Liberty Ships