The SS Richard Montgomery was a US Liberty Ship built in 1943 in response to the WWII Emergency Shipbuilding Programme. In August 1944 she was loaded with 7000 tonnes of munitions and headed to Britain with the intention to continue on to Cherbourg, France. Unfortunately her mission was cut short and her permanent resting place is east of the Isle of Grain and 250 metres north of the Medway Approach Channel. About 1,400 tonnes of explosives remain on board and still present a hazard today.
SS Richard Montgomery was named after an Irish officer who fought against the British during the American War of Independence. In August 1944, she left on her final voyage from Philadelphia. She travelled to the Thames Estuary and was told to anchor near Sheerness whilst awaiting a convoy to head to Cherbourg. The town and port had been retaken by the Allied forces a month previously.
On 20th August, SS Montgomery dragged anchor and ran aground on a sandback in around 7.3 metres of water. Efforts were made to unload her cargo but the next day, as the tide went down, she broke her back on the sandbanks. Attempts to rescue the cargo continued until the 25th September. By then about half of the munitions had been removed but work had to be abandoned as the vessel flooded completely.
It was revealed in the enquiry after the shipwreck that a number of nearby moored ships had noticed that SS Montgomery was heading to the sandbank. They had tried to alert the ship by sounding their sirens. This was unsuccessful as Captain Wilkie was asleep; the Chief Officer did not have a response to why he had not awoken the Captain. The outcome of the inquiry was that the anchorage assigned to SS Richard Montgomery had put the ship in jeopardy. Captain Wilkie was returned to full duty within a week.
All three masts are visible above the water, even at high tide. It is the job of Medway Ports to ensure the safety of the wreck due to the quantity of unexploded ammunition on board. There is a clear exclusion zone surrounding Montgomery which is marked out by buoys. The wreck is also under 24 hour radar surveillance and Medway Ports operation room is within sight of the wreck.
In 2000 a survey of SS Montgomery was conducted by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and they discovered that were approximately 1,400 tonnes of TNT high explosives on board. In 2004, the New Scientist magazine concluded that the cargo was still deadly and could be set off by a collision, attack, or shifting of the cargo. It was revealed in declassified documents that the wreck was not appropriately dealt with immediately or during the 60 years after the sinking due to cost.
According to the BBC in 1970, it is believed that if the wreck exploded it would throw debris nearly 3,000 metres into the air and generate a wave 5 metres high. It would also cause every window in Sheerness (population 20,000) to break.
In June 2020, the Department for Transport announced their plans to remove the ship’s three masts due to them putting strain on the vessel. The Ministry of Defence warned that the collapse of the masts could detonate the ordnance on board and Navy specialists would be needed to remove them. It was announced the project would start in June 2022. However, by the end of June 2022 the contractors stated it would be delayed by a year.
We booked onto a tour to get up close to the Red Sands Fort as well as the SS Montgomery. Whilst there is not much left to see of the wreck, except the three masts breaking out above the water, the history surrounding the ship is fascinating and it might not be around for much longer. Our mid-week tour was on a RIB with a very knowledgeable guide who gave us as much time as we wanted to take photos and ask questions. On our way back we were treated to high speeds and tricks to get our adrenaline pumping!
Last Updated on 12 March 2023 by Michael