Heads in the sand

Toby Harris on the strange, unresolved tale of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery

At the height of the Second World War, the St John’s River Shipbuilding Company in Jacksonville, Florida, built 82 Liberty Ships for the United States government. The vessels were regarded as expendable and they were not built to last.

In August 1944 one of these ships laden with over 6000 tonnes of high explosive was instructed to berth over the Sheerness Middle Sands. The instruction came from the King’s Harbourmaster, who overruled the advice of his deputy that the water was too shallow.

On 20 August in a force eight gale, the SS Richard Montgomery dragged her anchor and ran aground. Its plates began to buckle and crack, and the crew abandoned ship. For the next few weeks, attempts were made to remove the munitions until this was considered too risky. (The Admiralty refused to pay danger money to the salvage crew).

While it is generally thought that over 3000 tonnes of bombs and shells are thought to remain on board, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency believe it is more like 1400. Either way, it’s a lot – given that a half-tonne unexploded bomb closed London City Airport last February.

Since 1944, virtually nothing has been done to make the wreck safe or remove the remaining explosives. Yet, the SS Richard Montgomery sits only 2.4 kilometres from the town of Sheerness and its 11,000 population. And perhaps even more worrying, 3 to 5 kilometres from the Isle of Grain with its oil-fired power station and four storage tanks (each the size of the Royal Albert Hall) of liquefied natural gas, as well as 18 more used for storing oil. 

It is also a mere 200 metres from a busy shipping lane. In May 1980, the Danish-registered Mare Altum, a chemical tanker of almost 1600 gross tonnage – carrying low flash-point toluene – was on a direct collision course with the wreck. A catastrophe that was only just averted.

In 1970, The Royal Military College of Science estimated that in the event of an explosion, the remaining cargo could see a 3000 metre-high column of water and debris, followed by a five metre-high tsunami. With the latter then overwhelming Sheerness and the water wave – possibly carrying burning phosphorus – reaching the petrochemical installation at Grain.

It strikes me as rather odd that nothing has been done in the intervening decades. So this Wednesday I will lead a short debate in the House of Lords where I hope the Minister responding for the Department for Transport will provide some answers to a number of concerns.

What is the current assessment of the state of the munitions that remain and how does the government know, given that the periodic surveys only look at the exterior of the ship? What are the contingency plans for the protection of the Isle of Grain and the residents of Sheerness? Why were the offers made by the US government to make the wreck safe rejected? And what does the UK government plan to do instead?

My fear is that Ministers are hoping the problem will simply go away, leaving them to bury their heads in the Sheerness sands.

Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is a Labour Peer and a member of the joint parliamentary committee on National Security Strategy. He tweets at @LordTobySays

Published 2nd July 2019

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