Southend Timeline

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The Ticking Timebomb...

 

 

The Liberty Ships.

One of 2710 ships built under the lend lease act for Britain by the USA during World War II. These ships were primary built to assist with the supply of food & war material supplies to Britain during the Second World War. 

 

The Richard Montgomery.

The SS Richard Montgomery was named after an Irish soldier born in Dublin who fought in the war against the British in Canada he died during an attack on Quebec on 31st December 1775.

 

Built at St Johns River Shipbuilding Company, Jacksonville, Florida she was the seventh of eighty-two ship produced at the yard.  Registered as ship number 243756 she was launched during July 1943.  Powered by a direct acting condescending three-cylinder triple expansion engine that gave 2500hp at 76rpm.  The Liberty Ship carried a crew of eighty-one, this included Cargo masters, deck crews and gun crews.

 

The Deadly Cargo.

The Richard Montgomery was to leave US shores for the last time in August 1944, as she set sail from Hog Island on the Delaware River, Philadelphia at that time she held in her belly 6127tons of explosives.

 

Hold 1

3223 250lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

2148 500lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

850 1000lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

1429 Cases of White Phosphorous Bombs

895 Cases of Signal Cartridges

 

Hold 2

521 250lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

588 1000lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

286 2000lbs General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

574 500lbs Semi Armour Piercing Bombs (packed loose)

1008 1000lb Semi Armour Piercing Bombs (packed loose)

5279 off cases of Cluster Fragmentation Bombs

817 off cases of Small Arms Ammunition

 

Hold 3

442 100lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

1351 500lb Semi Armour Piercing Bombs (packed loose)

1170 1000lb Semi Armour Piercing Bombs (packed loose)

1522 cases of fuses

28 cases of Bursters

13,630 cases of Fin Assemblies (inert)

 

Hold 4

442 1000lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

1257 Semi Armour Piercing Bombs (packed loose)

3473 cases of Cluster Fragmentation Bombs

1427 cases of Demolition Charges

594 cases of Fin Wire Arming Assemblies

3297 cases of Fin Assemblies (inert)

 

Hold 5

2492 250lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

2108 500lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

2361 500lb Semi Armour Piercing Bombs (packed loose)

4220 cases of Fin Assemblies (inert)

 

23 cases of Signal Cartridges were also carried on deck in the No: 3 Mast Locker

 

The Last Voyage.

The initial stage of the voyage was up the coast of the USA to join up with Scotia, where she joined convoy HXM-301 (HX Halifax—M Mersey)  On the 25the July 1944 she left US waters for the perilous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, she was joined by 94 Merchant ships 12 LST’s (Landing Ship Tanks), six warships (3 corvettes a Canadian minesweeper & two US Navy escorts) Twenty three of the Merchant ships were tankers with no fewer that 44 Liberty Ships making up the numbers, three other Liberty were forced to drop out the convoy through mechanical problems.  Crossing the Pond at a steady speed of 8.5knots it made Loch Ewe, Scotland on the 8th August 1944.  The Convoy then spilt up with the tankers heading for Milford Haven & the rest heading for the Mersey, once again the convoy spit with eight of the Liberty’s being ordered to the Thames Estuary this order was the death knell for the Richard Montgomery.  

 

The Richard Montgomery was followed by seven other liberty ships up the Thames these were the SS Henry M Roberts, SS Henry B Brown, SS John Stevenson, SS George Popham, SS Harry A Gaefield, SS John gibbon & the SS Clyde L Seavey.  Once in the Estuary they came under the control of Thames Naval Control at HMS Leigh (Southend Pier).  Each was instructed to moor off Sheerness middle sands From here they were to await for the rest of the ships to join the convoy that was bound for Cherbourg, France.

 

The Grounding.

The Richard Montgomery had a draft of 31ft (the usual was 28ft) Sheerness Middle Sands had a clearance level at low tide of 24ft, the draft of the mooring given to the Richard Montgomery was just 33ft a margin of a mere 2ft! It was recommended that the Richard Montgomery change births with a smaller frigate with a draft of just 24ft, this was not done.

 

Just before dawn on Sunday 20th August 1944 the winds changed to a Northern direction which resulted in the Richard Montgomery swinging round on her mooring, the stern rid up on the Sheerness Middle Sands, and sank in to the soft sand at the height of the spring tide.  She became so stuck that only by removing the cargo would it become possible to re-float her this would not be possible however until 5th September 1944 when the next tide high enough to float the ship free would happen.

 

As the tides receded the welded plates of the hull cracked and buckled the British Motor launch "British Queen" saw that the crew of the ship had started an emergency evacuation of the ship by escaping in lifeboats, the crew were picked up and taken to Southend where sleeping arrangements were set up. 

 

Emergency Action.

The explosives on board were ordered to be removed from the stricken ship and work to off load it was started on Wednesday 23rd August 1944.  The Empire Nutfield pulled along side and passed a steam hose over to the salvage crew on the Richard Montgomery this enabled the Montgomery's own steam powers cranes to be used.  The Empire Nutfield was chosen, as it was an old vessel that was “expendable” in the event of a blast, but what of the crew?  A second vessel the tug Atlantic Cock also drew along side to help with the unloading.

 

During the process of discharging the deadly cargo a Board of Enquiry was set up, strangely the board decided to meet on the stricken vessel!  The Enquiry found that the Crews of the Richard Montgomery followed the orders given to the letter and that there was no fault to be found with them, they did however find that the orders given to the ship were wrong with the two Naval officers who ordered the Liberty ship to the shallow birth to be negligent they were both removed from their posts.

 

However on Thursday 24th August 1944 the welded steel plates of the ship cracked open fore end of No3 hold this resulted in holds 1+2 being flooded and part of the cargo being washed in to the surrounding sands.  Then on Friday 8th September 1944 the SS Richard Montgomery broke her back making it impossible to salvage her, the mission to salvage the cargo continued up-until it was decided to abandon the wreck on Monday 25th September 1944.

 

Over the period of a month Wednesday 25th August 1944 through to Monday 25th September 1944 an undisclosed amount of various explosives were removed from the wreck with:

 

Hold 1

1500 250lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

2148 500lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

850 1000lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

1429 Cases of White Phosphorous Bombs

639 Cases of Signal Cartridges

 

Hold 2

521 250lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

588 1000lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

286 2000lbs General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

574 500lbs Semi Armour Piercing Bombs (packed loose)

1008 1000lb Semi Armour Piercing Bombs (packed loose)

2362 off cases of Cluster Fragmentation Bombs

 

Hold 3

406 100lb General Purpose Bombs (packed loose)

1351 500lb Semi Armour Piercing Bombs (packed loose)

1170 1000lb Semi Armour Piercing Bombs (packed loose)

226 cases of fuses

11,618 cases of Fin Assemblies (inert)

 

Being left on board the ship.

 

It is known that Holds 4, 5 & the No: 3-mast locker being completely emptied of cargo.

 

As Time Goes By.

As there was a war on people forgot about the deadly ship just off shore, until…

 

On 2nd January 1969 a phone call to Sheerness police saw a massive security operation swing into action after an anomalous caller said that the wreck was going to be blown up as a protest against the Government at the time not spending enough on Schools, Collages & University’s it was later discovered that the threat was a Students Rag Week prank.

 

There was also the significant threat that the IRA might plant Percussion or Limpet Mines on the wreck or that terrorist splinter groups might try to salvage some of the weapons in and around the wreck.

 

Nightmare Becomes Reality.

The true catastrophe of what could happen was brought to life on 22nd July 1967 when a clearance operation on the Polish munitions carrier Kielce, sunk a few miles off Folkestone all wrecks on or near shipping lanes had to be reduced in height to allow ships with a draft of 45ft in low water top pass safely.  The Kielce was only 32ft down and lying on its side, most of the munitions were removed with small detonators used to fragment the hull to a safe height.  However it was found that some were trapped under a bulkhead it was decided to fragment this enabling to recovery of the bombs.

 

It was on this date that the mines were set in place and the detonator readied, the launch went to a distance of 400 yards whilst the rubber dingy with the divers on board remained close to the wreck.  Upon detonating the mine the 100tons of explosives under the bulkhead also detonated a plume of water

was reported to have reached at least 500ft into the air, Richter scale equipment on the Western Coast of America recorded the blast as a 4.5 or a –0.5 earthquake the blast was heard over 7 miles away with many houses being damaged luckily both boats survived.  Investigations after the incident found a creator measuring 153ft x 63ft & 20ft deep on the seabed with very little of the wreck left.

 

The Kielce was at least 3 or 4 miles from land where as the Richard Montgomery in 1mile.  The Kielce was in 32ft of water the Richard Montgomery can be seen ABOVE the water at low tide.  The Kielce had just a fraction of what the Richard Montgomery has on board.

 

Protecting The Wreck.

In 1973 the government set up the “Protection Of Wrecks Act” this was designed to protect all the wrecks in UK waters no matter what their natnality.  The Richard Montgomery was the only wreck listed as an out-of-bounds deadly wreck.

 

Near Disater.

On the 22nd May 1980 the small Danish Fuel Tanker “Mare Altum” was slowly making its way up river, on board was a full load of Toluene, a highly inflammable low flash point liquid.  Medway Approach were tracking the ship on radar, the weather at the time was very poor just less than 100 yards.  As the radar operator watched the screen it became obvious the tanker was off course, it was outside the designated inbound channel, an Immediate Action Order was transmitted to the ship to swing hard starboard this sent the ship on to a northerly course safely into Sea reach as the manure was carried out the wreck of the Richard Montgomery passed by just 600yards away, the Daily Mail reported the story 7 days later under the heading Blast Fear Over Thames – Near Miss the captain of the tanker was find £200,000 for Careless Navigation.

 

However this was not the closest call, for just the day before the British M V Fletching brushed against the No7 Medway Buoy missing the Richard Montgomery by 50feet!

 

Recent Times.

During 2000 the heavy lift topping blocks were removed to help take some of the weight off the mast’s, despite the fact that the ship had sunk 55 years earlier and has been subjected to the full force of the weather in the estuary the shears were still in good condition. The removal should prevent the top-heavy masts collapsing onto the deck & into the hold. 

 

The Maritime Agency/Royal Navy have both carried out regular inspections of the wreck, checking on the stability of its structure.  This survey is carried out by Sonar Technology, which is used to map out the two parts of the hull to see if and/or how they have shifted.   It is known that the wreck is stable and has not shifted fir some time, however the sand around the wreck has been shifting a scour hole has begun forming either side of the wreck, in time the wreck may break-up and fall into the hole with out exploding slowly being covered by silt, but the break-up may cause the munitions still remaining to detonate as they shift.

 

Decay of Munitions

During the late 1990’s the regularity of fishermen dragging up mines, bombs & aerial torpedo’s increased, bomb disposal crews were called to deal with the “nasty’s” before they were detonated in controlled detonations checks were made into the stability of the TNT encased in the shells.  Other tests have proven that TNT can take several decades to begin to turn inert; it has been found that mines dropped in the Thames Estuary during the Second World War were sill as active as the day they were dropped.  However before they become inert they go through a period where they are in a highly volatile state & could explode if knocked.

 

The Cluster Bombs were shipped already fitted with their fuses, these were brass filled with lead compound this would enhance the detonator shock.  However when the fuses exposed to salt water it takes them many many years before they start to corrode, once they do the brass reacts with the lead forming a very highly explosive & unstable compound that is highly likely to explode at the slightest disturbance.

 

Worst Case Scenario.

There is however a very real danger that this deadly volatile cargo will one day erupt, it may be in the highly unlikely planned demolition, or a spontaneous uncontrolled sudden devastating blast coming with out warning at any time of the day or night.  It is known that the cluster

 

In a worst case scenario of the ship exploding the result would be catastrophic.  The blast would produce a shock wave that would exceed that of the 1917 Halifax, USA disaster in which a munitions ship exploded whilst in port more than 3,000 people were killed.

 

This ship was in port the Richard Montgomery is under water the resulting shock wave would produce a tidal wave that would devastate what remained on the Isle of Sheppy, the wave would continue on, preceded by the shock wave created by the blast this wave would sweep down the River Medway taking many of the towns & people with it.

 

In the other direction the wave would rush up the Thames, Canvey would disappear under the massive wave. 

 

As the shock wave dissipates it would hit the oil refinery at Corington with the risk of yet another massive blast, the tidal wave would continue its path up river growing in strength as it is funned down the narrowing river until it reaches a bend in the river at which point it would obliterate what ever stood in its way.

 

Back near the epicenter, Southend would face the wave head on, with nothing in its path the sea front would be slammed into by tens of thousands of tons of water but not before the blast wave from the explosion had decimated the buildings fronting the sea first.

 

The US Government still own the wreck & the munitions on board, the Coast Guard on the River Medway watches it over, it was checked by the Royal Navy, it is checked by the Maritime Agency.  But if doomsday did come the US Government would claim “Sovereign Rights” meaning that no matter how much damage or loss of life had occurred not a penny of compensation would be forthcoming.

 

In spite of the ship's potential for harm, its existence isn't even known by the general public, this may be intentional the fewer people who know of its existence the better, the less chance of a “rouge” nation or terrorist group attempting to salvage the explosives or deliberately setting off the blast that every one is trying to avoid.

 

 

Tick tock tick tock tick....

 

 

 

 

 

 

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