A ship filled with explosives is lying in the Thames. Now experts say it’s ready to blow

  • london
  • January 24, 2024
  • Comments Off on A ship filled with explosives is lying in the Thames. Now experts say it’s ready to blow
A ship filled with explosives is lying in the Thames. Now experts say it’s ready to blow thumbnail

A sunken battleship containing 1,400 tonnes of unexploded bombs has been submerged in the River Thames for decades.

Now experts fear it could blow at any moment.

The SS Richard Montgomery – nicknamed the ‘Doomsday Wreck’ – has become an unlikely tourist attraction over the years since it was moored in the Thames Estuary near Sheerness in Kent and Southend-on-Sea in Essex in 1944.

But after 78 years underwater, the World War II battleship has become severely corroded, and there are concerns that the ship’s three masts – which can still be seen poking above the water’s surface – could collapse and fall onto the dormant explosives, triggering a ‘catastrophic’ blast.

If the payload goes off, it could potentially trigger an enormous tsunami, which could devastate everything in its path.

A parliamentary report from Medway Council suggested the ensuing blast ‘would hurl a 1,000ft wide column of water, mud, metal and munitions almost 10,000ft into the air – risking wildlife and the lives of many people.’

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Meanwhile, researchers at Defence Research and Development Canada told New Scientist in 2022 that the Montgomery has the potential to be ‘one of the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosions, causing widespread destruction and death.’

Southend Labour councillor Lydia Hyde said things had degraded to the point where it was now necessary to act as soon as possible.

She said: ‘There was an assessment in the summer, and then there was a more detailed one in November, to basically go and look at the condition of themasts.

‘The concern is that corrosion means they catastrophically fail, their structural integrity goes, the mast falls down and then lands on the wreck, and then that could set off an explosion.

‘Following the dive, they’ve assessed it and they’ve gone “actually, no, we need to bring this forward because the corrosion was more than expected”.

‘So they’ve got to be taken down.’

How did the SS Montgomery sink?

The ship was named for the famous American General Richard Montgomery, who performed a great service to his country during the Revolutionary War.

President Franklin D Roosevelt claimed the ship, built to carry vital supplies to the Allies during WW2, would help restore ‘liberty’ to Europe.

During the summer of 1944, the Montgomery sailed to the UK from America carrying around 7,000 tonnes of explosives.

But when it finally arrived at the Thames Estuary, a force 8 gale caused the ship’s anchor to drag into shallow waters, where it drifted into a bank.

A weakness in the ship’s design then caused the hull to snap in two, and it sunk to the bottom of the river, where it still resides today with its masts visible to onlookers.

A ‘catastrophic’ threat

Following the initial crash, specialist teams managed to remove over 5,000 tonnes of munitions which were stored onboard the ship.

But the salvage effort stopped once the ship became flooded, leaving around 1,400 tonnes still onboard.

There are three types of bombs still thought to be on the ship: unfused TNT bombs, about 800 fused cluster bombs and a large number of smoke bombs.

While a March 2000 report on the wreck suggested that ‘TNT does not react with water and is extremely stable, particularly if stored at a steady, low temperature,’ the real danger is to be thought the white phosphorus filling of the smoke bombs, which is stable underwater and is capable of spontaneous ignition if exposed to the air.

Councillor Hyde said: ‘It’s obviously been there for a number of decades now, but over time the metal is going to rust.

‘Even though it’s been fine up until now, over time it is degrading and it’s just tipped through that threshold now where the safe thing to do is remove the masts.’

What is the risk of an explosion?

During a House of Lords debate in 2019, Lord Harris of Haringey gave an assessment of what would happen if the entire remaining cargo were to explode.

Citing a 1970 assessment by the Royal Military College of Science, he said the wreck could trigger ‘a 3,000 metre-high column of water and debris and a five metre-high tsunami’. 

‘This would overwhelm Sheerness, and the water wave, possibly carrying burning phosphorus, would reach the petrochemical installation on the Isle of Grain.’

But Hyde believes the impact would be real enough in Southend, over five miles away.

She said: ‘If that blast was to go off then we’re talking about the windows blowing out on the seafront.

‘I don’t know what the risk to life is at that distance – it might be quite small directly from it.

‘But if it’s enough to blast out your windows, knock people over, and knock people into things, then things could fall on them, so it could be quite dangerous for pedestrians.’

She estimated it would be ‘more severe’ on the Isle of Sheppey, the island’s second-largest town, which is just two miles away from the wreck.

Will the masts ever be removed?

Plans to remove the masts were first made in 2020.

At the time, the responsible ministry – the Department for Transport – said the masts could be ‘placing undue strain on the rest of the vessel’.

But the work has been delayed for years and the masts still stand.

Hyde said they were now slated for removal in March.

She said: ‘It’s obviously been there for a number of decades now, but over

time the metal is going to rust.

‘Even though it’s been fine up until now, over time it is degrading and it’s just tipped through that threshold now where the safe thing to do is remove the masts.

‘There’s significant planning and expertise that’s going into this so we

don’t expect there to be a catastrophic incident.’

A Department for Transport spokesman said: ‘Our priority will always be to

ensure the safety of the public and reduce any risk posed by the SS Richard

Montgomery.

‘We commissioned experts to carry out vital surveying work to the wreckage.

‘Based on their findings, we are now reviewing and updating our plans to remove the ship’s masts as soon as safely as possible.’

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at [email protected].

For more stories like this, check our news page.


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