SS Richard Montgomery: What if he exploded?
Dozens of kilometers of beautiful beaches and bays occupy the Kent coastline, overlooking the English Channel and the Thames Estuary. Beneath the surface, however, lurk powerful risks for the Garden of England and neighboring London. The SS Richard Montgomery was an American ship that sank and split in two during a storm in the Thames Estuary off Sheerness during World War II. He has stayed there ever since.
It sits just 1.5 miles from the shore, with its rusty masts, which rise eerily from the water, visible from land.
Even today, 77 years later, it is monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by the port authorities.
The 441-foot-long (134 m) vessel is subject to a 500-meter exclusion zone.
The worrying cargo that remains on the ship, some 1,400 tonnes of high explosives, could in theory explode at any time.
The BBC reported in 2015 that if it exploded it could cause “one of the most devastating non-nuclear explosions ever seen in peacetime.”
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The SS Montgomery could cause a tsunami which would “flood London”.
The masts of the ship are visible from the shore.
Terrifyingly, a 2004 New Scientist report suggested that a spontaneous detonation of the entire charge could cause a column of debris to be thrown up to 1.8 miles (3 km) into the air and send a tsunami to the Thames.
It would “damage buildings for miles around” including liquid gas containers on Grain Island on the Hoo Peninsula.
Ken Knowles, a director who spent several years making a film about the SS Montgomery, echoed tsunami fears.
He told KentLive in May: “If the Montgomery exploded, it could cause a tsunami that would flood London.
Local historian Colin Harvey told the BBC: “The area of intervention for the explosion would be Margate in central London.
The ship is in the Thames Estuary, not far from the shore.
“It would level Sheerness and a 30 or 40 foot (12.19 m) wave would violate the sea defenses. Sheppey has a population of 25,000 people. Where would they go?
A report released in 2000 by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency found that there were holes in the vessel, possibly due to deterioration.
The report detailed three potential risks to the vessel.
A collision with another vessel “could disrupt the ammunition on board sufficiently to produce the conditions necessary for a mass explosion.”
Due to the exclusion zone, which is delimited by navigation buoys with lights and smaller additional buoys in between, this is unlikely.
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SS Richard Montgomery is just 1.5 miles from the Kent coast and 5 miles from Southend.
Erosion of the surrounding seabed could cause capsizing or significant movement that the report said could cause a massive detonation, or the ammunition could escape and be washed out by the tide.
However, the seabed is regularly monitored and is considered stable.
The third risk, the rupture, is that the ship will break. If this were to happen, there is a chance that the ammunition inside the ship’s hull would be washed away by the tides.
The report said: “This could result in the dumping of individual ammunition on the beaches.
“This reduces the effect of a massive explosion of the remaining ammunition, however, a new risk of explosion or combustion of individual ammunition on beaches is created.”
An estimate of the appearance of the explosion.
The zone of intervention of the explosion would extend to Margate and London.
The cluster bombs, which are of greatest concern, are said to be stowed in hold number 2. This is located in the part of the wreckage subject to the greatest movement in the event of displacement.
Cracks also appeared in this part of the wreckage.
The report concluded that structural failure “will occur” at some stage, and that the risk of this naturally increases over time.
However, the report also said: “The risk of a major explosion is considered low and probably becomes even less likely over time. It may eventually pass completely, but it probably won’t be for a while.
“It would probably be very dangerous to try to find out the true situation inside the wreckage, especially if it involved significant interference.”
Dave Welch, a former Royal Navy bomb disposal expert, said: “The idea that if one thing goes ‘bang’ then it all will be, I think, quite unlikely.
“Unless you have intimate contact between two munitions below the surface, you will rarely detonate the other, as water is a very good attenuator.”
He added, however, that the condition of the wreckage is what poses a danger: “The objects are not the time bomb, the wreckage is.
“It’s the fact that they’re inside a slowly decaying ship that might have the potential to generate enough energy to detonate them.”
Work will begin soon to remove the masts from the ship. A spokesperson for the Department of Transport told KentOnline: “As part of our prudent risk management, wreck assessment experts are now undertaking detailed studies that will inform future work to reduce mast height. “
A contract has been awarded for the removal of the masts for 2022.