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SS Richard Montgomery - Thousands of Tonnes of High Explosives and Poison Gas Waiting to Detonate

A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.

SS Richard Montgomery

SS Richard Montgomery

Poor photo of newspaper article on fires above wreck

Poor photo of newspaper article on fires above wreck

Approaching wreck of Richard Montgomery shortly after grounding

Approaching wreck of Richard Montgomery shortly after grounding

Unidentified Liberty ship breaks in half

Unidentified Liberty ship breaks in half

Mustard Gas bomb

Mustard Gas bomb

250lb General Purpose bomb

250lb General Purpose bomb

Letter from US Government claiming Richard Montgomery raised and salvaged in 1948.

Letter from US Government claiming Richard Montgomery raised and salvaged in 1948.

Effects of a white phosphorous bomb

Effects of a white phosphorous bomb

Sonar image wreck Richard Montgomery

Sonar image wreck Richard Montgomery

Wreck of Richard Montgomery as seen today.

Wreck of Richard Montgomery as seen today.

Unloading explosives

Unloading explosives

SS Richard Montgomery

SS Richard Montgomery

The SS “Richard Montgomery” is an American Liberty Ship of 7146 gross tons and approx. 440ft long built by the St. Johns River Shipbuilding Company and was number 7 of the 82 ships, of the same class, built by that yard. Laid down on 15th March 1943, she was launched on 15th June 1943, and completed on 29th July 1943. She was given the official ship number 243756, and named after General Richard Montgomery, an Irish-American soldier who was killed during the American Revolutionary War.

In August 1944, she left Hog Island, Philadelphia, as part of convoy HX-301, loaded with 6,127 tons of munitions for the US air force. Its route was from the Delaware River to the Thames Estuary where she was to remain anchored while awaiting the formation of a convoy to travel the final stage to Cherbourg. When the Richard Montgomery arrived off Southend-on-Sea, it came under the authority of the Thames naval control at HMS Leigh located on Southend Pier. The harbour master, who is responsible for all shipping movements in the estuary, finding the main river berths all fully occupied with post D-day traffic, ordered the ship to a berth in the Great Nore anchorage off Sheerness middle sands. On 20th August 1944, she started dragging her anchor and despite warning sirens from surrounding ships ran aground on a sandbank around 270 yards from the main Medway Approach Channel, in a depth of 33 feet of water. Normally a liberty ship has an average draught of 28ft but the Montgomery, at this time, actually drew 31ft. Her overloaded and early welded construction, made her vulnerable to the severe stress of grounding and several serious cracks appeared in her hull, she eventually broke her back on the sand banks near the Isle of Sheppey about 1.5 miles from Sheerness and 5 miles from Southend. As the tide ebbed the ships plates snapped with a sharp crack heard over a mile away and the crew, mindful of its hazardous cargo, abandoned ship at 0300hrs using floats and lifeboats.

A Rochester-based Master Stevedore T.P.Adams of Watson and Gill, was given the urgent highly hazardous job of removing the cargo, which began on 23rd August 1944 at 1000hrs, using the ship's own cargo handling equipment, driven by a venerable old expendable steam ship the “Empire Nutfield” moored alongside. By the next day, the ship's hull had cracked open further, causing several cargo holds at the bow end to flood. The salvage operation continued until 25th September, when due to a severe gale they were forced to finally abandon the ship before all the cargo had been recovered. Subsequently, the ship broke into two separate parts, roughly at the midsection.

During the enquiry following the shipwreck it was revealed that several ships moored nearby had noticed the Montgomery drifting towards the sandbank. They had attempted to signal an alert by sounding their sirens but without response, as Captain Willkie of the Montgomery was asleep. The ship's chief officer was unable to explain why he had not alerted the captain or carry out any remedial action. A Board of Inquiry held aboard the ship during the initial unloading, concluded that the ship’s crew had acted in accordance with their instructions and that the anchorage the harbour master assigned had possibly placed the ship in jeopardy, and returned the Montgomery's captain to full duty.