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Fears grow that American WW2 munitions shipwreck may finally explode

PortandTerminal.com, August 18, 2019

It is 75 years ago this Tuesday since the American cargo ship SS Richard Montgomery sank and split in two off of the English coast on its way to Allied-occupied France. The ship sank in shallow water while carrying over 7,000 tons of munitions. Fears are growing now that after 75 years in the sea those munitions have grown unstable and are ready to explode.

Map produced by The Guardian

The SS Richard Montgomery

SS Richard Montgomery

The SS RICHARD MONTGOMERY was a US Liberty Ship of 7146 gross tons. She was built in 1943 by the St John’s River Shipbuilding Company of Jacksonville, Florida and was one of over 2700 of these mass-produced vessels built to carry vital supplies for the war effort.

In August 1944 the ship was loaded with a cargo of some 7000 tons of munitions and joined convoy bound for the UK and then on to Cherbourg in Allied-occupied France.

Photograph of the shipwreck 40 years after its sinking

On the 20 August 1944, she dragged her anchor in shallow water and
grounded on a sandbank.

A sonar image of the ship taken in 2006. The forward holds of the ship still contain at least 1,400 tons of explosives

The vessel grounded amidships on the crest of the sandbank. Intensive efforts began to unload her cargo. Unfortunately, by the next day, a crack appeared in the hull and the forward end began to flood. The salvage effort continued until the 25 September, by which time approximately half of the cargo had been successfully removed. The salvage effort had to be abandoned when the vessel finally flooded completely.

Naval personnel survey the wreck (1944)

The wreck of the SS RICHARD MONTGOMERY remains on the sandbank where she sank with her masts clearly visible above the water at all states of the tide. There are still approximately 1,400 tons of explosives contained within the forward holds.

Concerns that ship could explode are growing

Footage of the munitions Ship SS John Burke, a US Liberty Ship that was hit by a kamikaze attack in 1942 and exploded with the loss of all hands on board.

Two surveys, from November 2017 and April 2018, indicate that the wreck is stable overall but is showing accelerated levels of deterioration.

Labour peer Lord Harris, a British politician who takes a close interest in the vessel, said that experts had told him “the wreckage of the SS Richard Montgomery may only have a few years remaining before it disintegrates completely”.

“There is an awful lot of evidence suggesting these kinds of explosives, having been sitting on the seabed for 70 years or so, actually get more dangerous rather than less.”

Labour peer Lord Berkeley 

In 1970 the former Royal Military College of Science predicted that an explosion on board would trigger a five-metre-high tsunami. More recently, in 2004 a New Scientist investigation concluded that the cargo could be detonated by a collision, an attack or shifting tides.

Discussions on how best to manage the risk are ongoing.

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