Firm appointed to assess safety of Second World War shipwreck

A specialist firm has been appointed to assist the Royal Navy in examining the stability of a Second World War shipwreck carrying 1,400 tons of deadly explosives laying five miles off the Southend coast.

The Navy will support specialist firm Briggs Marine in initially dismantling masts which protrude above the 15 metres of water in which the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery.

The ship sunk off the coast of Southend in 1944.

The team will also assess the stability of the ship’s deadly cargo, said to be capable of causing a 15ft tidal wave and major loss of life to those on the Southend and Kent coasts, according to a previous Ministry of Defence report.

The report also warned that the unexploded ordnance could cause damage to nearby oil and gas facilities in Sheerness and Canvey.

  • The YA brought the growing danger of the wreck to the attention of Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon seven years ago when the paper’s editor Mick Ferris, deputy editor Steve Neale and chief reporter Charles Thomson met with her at the palace of Westminster and she subsequently raised the matter in the House of Lords.

Bomb disposal experts trained in specialist underwater demolitions will remove the ship’s masts during a two-month operation. If the wreck is found to pose a substantial risk it is likely further removal of the wreck will take place.

Previous assessments have concluded there is no imminent danger of explosions and it was thought best to leave it untouched, but the need for continuing monitoring has prompted the new investigation, which is set to take place in June.

A Maritime and Coastguard Agency spokeswoman said there was currently no cause for alarm. The spokeswoman said: “Our views on the risk have not changed in that we continue to monitor the wreck.

“The agency’s view is that the risks of explosion are thought to be small whilst the wreck is in a relatively stable condition.

“Whilst the risk of explosion is thought to be low, it is considered prudent to take sensible steps to mitigate the risk. As part of the ongoing assessment of the wreck and to manage the risk, a decision has been taken to reduce the masts.

“The Department for Transport is managing that project.”

Southend Council will assist Government departments involved in the project. A spokesman said: “The council has and continues to work closely with the Royal Navy, the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Defence and partners in the Essex Resilience Forum regarding the planned works on the SS Montgomery shipwreck.

“Our role as the local authority is mainly around providing any necessary assistance to the lead agencies as and when they carry out any works on the shipwreck, although exact details are yet to be confirmed.”

The SS Richard Montgomery was a US Liberty Ship which ran aground a year before the end of the Second World War.

Despite frantic attempts to remove its deadly cargo, the hull of the 7,146 tonne ship cracked, split in two and sank off Medway in Kent.

The 56ft wide vessel contained highly explosive Blockbuster bombs, the largest conventional bombs used in the Second World War by the Royal Air Force.

The ship was built in Florida to carry vital supplies for the war effort. In 1944, loaded with a cargo of 7,000 tonnes of munitions, the SS Richard Montgomery joined a convoy bound for the UK.

Arriving in the Thames Estuary the vessel was anchored off Sheerness to await further directions but on August 20 she dragged her anchor in the shallow water and grounded on a sandbanks near the Isle of Grain.

Desperate attempts were made to unload her cargo before the ship cracked and sank. Approximately half the cargo was removed before she went down. Today about 1,400 tonnes of highly unstable explosives remain in the forward holds.

During the enquiry following the shipwreck, it was revealed that several ships moored nearby had noticed the Richard Montgomery drifting towards the sandbank. They tried to alert the ship by sounding their sirens, to no avail because the captain was reported to have been asleep. However, a board of inquiry concluded that the anchorage the harbour master assigned had placed the ship in jeopardy, and returned the captain to full duty.

The wreck has a large exclusion zone around it and warning signs are attached to each of the three protruding masts reading ‘Danger unexploded ammunition – do not approach or board this wreck’.

The rusting masts of the 441ft long vessel are clearly visible above the water at all states of the tide

A document, from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, revealed the mast cutting would help reduce stress on rest of the structure.

The Ministry of Defence last year offered to pay £5million to any company that was able to safely remove the ship’s masts before awarding the contract to Briggs Marine.

The wreck is subjected to regular surveys since its disastrous sinking but the latest work will be perilous for divers.

Any physical surveillance of the site will come with some risk to the teams carrying it out according to Leigh fisherman Paul Gilson.

Mr Gilson, who was recently appointed chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisation, said: “Keeping an eye on these things isn’t a bad thing but sometimes it puts people’s lives at risk when perhaps it should be left alone. I’ve read none of the bombs or munitions are fused so they are relatively stable but sometimes what you read isn’t the truth. Taking the masts down is a milestone though.

“During my time at sea I’ve seen a man having a picnic on the bridge and a body was once dumped there. That all gradually sunk into the mud. During the 1950s the Americans offered to clean it up but we were still using the Medway as a submarine base so they didn’t want them there.”

Mr Gilson added: “It will be a lot of work. Diving can only take place when the tide is slack. This is when it is not moving at high and at low tide which last for about 30 minutes. That area is very muddy. The divers will have to be very specialised and highly trained.

“They won’t be able to go in while the tide is moving and it will be very dark and scary doing everything by touch but May and June is when the water becomes clearer.”

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Christine Sexton

Local Democracy Reporter