Flurry of interest in Thames wartime wreck packed with explosives

The remains of the SS Richard Montgomery are surrounded by an exclusion zone and monitored around the clock by authorities.

17 February 2022

A Second World War wreck which is packed with thousands of tons of bombs has seen a surprising flurry of tourist interest amid reports that parts of it could be removed.

For decades the three masts of the SS Richard Montgomery have protruded above the water in the Thames Estuary – a constant reminder of the vessel and its potentially explosive payload.

Some of the estimated 1,400 tons of explosives left on board reportedly include bombs weighing more than 2,000lb (910kg), but the UK Government says “the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote”.

Heritage Feb 17th 2022
A view of the masts of the SS Montgomery (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Nonetheless, the remains of the ship are surrounded by an exclusion zone and monitored around the clock by authorities.

Reports that the tell-tale masts are to be removed later this year have led to a flurry of renewed interest in organised boat trips to see the wreck from a distance.

Martin Harmer owns the X-Pilot vessel which offers passenger trips to a number of heritage sites off the Kent coast, including the SS Richard Montgomery.

Speaking to the PA news agency, he said there has been a surge in interest in seeing the wartime wreck following reports in December that the masts could be clipped.

Heritage Feb 17th 2022
The sank off the coast of Kent in 1944 (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“We are normally very, very quiet up until around April time – this has blown up beyond all our expectations,” he said.

“There seems to be an appetite for seeing the ship.”

The American Liberty vessel was carrying some 7,000 tonnes of munitions when it ran aground on a sandbank off Sheerness in Kent in August 1944.

Efforts were made to remove her lethal cargo but the salvage operation had to be abandoned with approximately 1,400 tonnes of munitions still on board.

According to the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, the risk of a major explosion is “believed to be remote” but it is considered “prudent” to monitor the condition of the wreck.

Mr Harmer said the ship has an “air of mystery” because of the rumours over the years of what could happen if the cargo detonated.

Heritage Feb 17th 2022
The Royal Navy is set to dismantle the masts (Gareth Fuller/PA)

He told PA: “We wouldn’t ordinarily do a trip just to the Montgomery, (but) given the circumstances it seems sensible to give people the option.”

“We have now got grandparents bringing their grandchildren along,” he added.

Such is the current interest in seeing the SS Richard Montgomery that most of the slots in the X-Pilot’s weekend sailing schedule are booked up for months, but Mr Harmer said more trips could be organised if interest continues.

For more information on the X-Pilot’s passenger trips, visit https://www.x-pilot.co.uk/

A spokesman for the Department for Transport (DfT) would not comment on any timetable for the masts to be removed.

“We continue to monitor the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery closely and it is understood that it is in a relatively stable condition,” he said.

“Expert wreck assessors are now undertaking detailed surveys which will inform future work to reduce the height of the masts.”

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