In an age of global terror where whole countries can be thrown into panic by a few envelopes of white powder in the mail system, you would think that Western governments would try to limit the possibilities of potential terrorist attack wherever they could. Let us hope that any potential terrorists do not enquire too much about three exposed masts sitting in the middle of the Thames Estuary, and find out the secret of what lies beneath the waves.
The Liberty Ships
In the early stages of World War II, German U-boats were causing havoc on the British Merchant Navy. With most shipyards concentrating on building warships, the merchant fleet was slowly dwindling. Without them to supply the sceptred isle, the United Kingdom, and the last bastion of democracy in Europe, would fall. The Americans answered the call, producing 2,751 ships, the biggest run of any ship of a single design, under the lend-lease scheme. Displacing 14,000 tonnes, these ships, with typical American bravado, were called Liberty Ships.
Among the 80 or so Liberty Ships built by the St John's River Shipbuilding Company, Florida, was the SS Richard Montgomery, launched in 1943. She was named after an Irish-American fighter in the American War of Independence, a rather tactful name for a ship built to help the British!
More Bangs for the Buck
The ship's last voyage, under the command of Captain Wilkie, was to take explosives from Hog Island, Philadelphia and join a convoy from England to Cherbourg, on Normandy's Cotentin Peninsula. It managed to get its cargo of 6,127 tonnes of bombs to England without a serious problem. Waiting to join the convoy, it was to be moored in the Thames Estuary. The harbour master, located on the end of Southend-on-Sea Pier (called HMS Leigh) ordered the ship to a berth north of Sheerness, Kent. This was very close to a lot of sandbanks. Heavily loaded, the ship had a draught1 of almost a metre more than a Liberty Ship's normal 8.5 metres. With a strong wind blowing, the assistant harbour master realised the oncoming danger, but his requests to have the ship re-berthed were denied. The storm duly blew the Richard Montgomery onto the sandbanks while its captain slept.
Attempts were made to lighten the ship, but as the tides receded, the ship broke its back.
Split into two parts, it was decided that it was safer to leave the wreck, with its deadly cargo inside, alone. Parts of the ship are always visible above the waterline, and it is clearly marked.
Clear and Present Danger
3,173 tonnes of high explosives remain on board the Richard Montgomery. In theory, this is all quite safe2, as the best environment to keep a bomb from exploding is cold water. If any of the chemicals leak, they can be diluted and washed away by the water pretty quickly. Another factor is that the tide has dug away a kind of crater around the ship and it is hoped that any bombs that fall out will come to rest in the crater.
The wreck is monitored by the Marine and Coastguard Agency, but no attempt has been made to remove the rest of its cargo. American help offers have twice been refused by the British government. Attempts in 1967 to remove cargo from another sunken ship, the Polish-built SS Kielce, resulted in an explosion causing a tremor that hit 4.5 on the Richter scale off the coast of Folkestone. After this, the policy of non-interference with hazardous wrecks has been reinforced.
Although the actual explosives on board the Richard Montgomery are not a major problem on their own, the detonators and the cluster bombs with detonators installed are. These are naturally more unstable and their prolonged exposure to the environment can lead to them going off. This may be enough to set the rest of the cargo off.
Unlike the SS Kielce, which sank out at sea, the SS Richard Montgomery is in coastal waters. Plans to remove all the cargo may involve moving 40,000 people out of their homes for a projected six months. An 1,800-metre earthwork has also been suggested as a possible solution.
At this point it should be pointed out again that the explosives on board constitute a bomb on the kiloton scale. This is the power of a small atomic blast. Imagine a 300-metre-wide wall of water being blasted three kilometres into the sky. With the towns of Sheerness and Southend-On-Sea, not to mention the oil refineries of Canvey Island and Thames Haven, in close proximity, the effects of the blast would be catastrophic.
Hope it Goes Away
At the moment, this seems to be the strategy adopted by the government, like many administrations before it: hoping that the time-bomb will not go off on their watch, as the chemicals inside grow ever more unstable.
The wreck sits in the middle of the Thames Estuary, a busy shipping lane serving the Port of London, and the channel to the River Medway passes by the other side of the sandbanks. The wreck is marked with warning buoys and the Kent police are on standby, but is that enough? Many people remember when, in 1984, the MV Kingsabbey ran though Southend Pier. If a boat can miss spotting a large object such as a pier, it wouldn't seem that implausible for one to disturb the wreck on a dark and stormy night.
A group of students once threatened to disturb the wreck for a Rag Week prank. If somebody had more sinister motives, it would not take much effort to unleash a major catastrophe on the south-east of England.