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Why US Navy believes sunken warship SS Richard Montgomery is no threat


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By Bel Austin

A sunken warship, heavily laden with a lethal cocktail of bombs, will not explode off the coast of Kent, or cause mass devastation.

Why not? Because, according to the United States Navy, it isn't there.

The SS Richard Montgomery under sail on its way to Sheerness.Picture courtesy of Ken Rowles
The SS Richard Montgomery under sail on its way to Sheerness.Picture courtesy of Ken Rowles

If only that were true.

The SS Montgomery has remained a danger to shipping since August 20 1944, when she ran aground off Sheerness loaded with explosives, and still has 1,400 tonnes of bombs on board.

Earlier this month we reported how Navy specialists have been tasked with helping to remove her masts in a two-month operation in June, after the Ministry of Defence (MoD) offered to pay £5 million 'danger money' to any willing company.

A MoD document states that if the masts were to collapse, in the worst case it could lead to: "an explosion impacting the local area including the nearby oil and gas facilities in Sheerness leading to mass damage and potential loss of life."

The report warns it could create a "300m wide column of water and debris nearly 3,000m into the air and generate a wave 5m high".

The SS Richard Montgomery in 1944
The SS Richard Montgomery in 1944

But we have it, in writing, that the American Liberty ship is no longer resting on the seabed after all.

According to the US Navy, when eventually she broke in two, spilling her bombs, she was classified a marine wreck and the order was given for her to be raised.

The operation was supposedly carried out in April 1948 and she was sold to Phillips and Fisher Company for scrap.

The letter containing this misinformation was written in 1962, and addressed to Lt Col Henry McKechnie in his civilian capacity as sea front controller.

The wreck was such a tourist attraction pleasure boats ran trips around it and the officer was successful in raising funds to buy and install two powerful telescopes along the sea front which offered close up viewing.

A US Navy letter from 1962 confirming the SS Montgomery has been recovered
A US Navy letter from 1962 confirming the SS Montgomery has been recovered

He wrote to the Commander-in-Chief US Naval Forces Europe in London asking for a photograph and history of the vessel which could be placed on the bases.

"This was the reply," explained Colin Harvey, historian and film maker, who is also, the late inspector's son-in-law.

"Neither the Sheerness Urban District Council, the MoD nor the government of the day chose to reply, rectifying the obvious error."

The letter had also asked that, if a plaque was being dedicated to the ship, an American officer could be present and allowed to photograph the event.

It must have presented a first class riddle - and not a funny one but apparently didn't warrant the courtesy of a reply.

Lt Col Henry McKechnie of Sheerness Urban District Council
Lt Col Henry McKechnie of Sheerness Urban District Council

Lt Col McKechnie had spent most of his long career with the British Army in India up to the time of Independence in 1947.

He remained in the country for two more years training the new Indian Army. After a term in retirement he felt the need to work in the community and found job satisfaction in patrolling Sheppey sea front.

The wreck was of particular interest to him and to the hundreds of visitors curious about the warship, which was the last to be built in Jacksonville, Florida.

Its first and last journey was to Cherbourg, when it ran into foul weather and foundered off Sheerness, laden with bombs. It was on loan under the General Agency Agreement to AGWI Lines.

Mr Harvey - who has long had a keen interest in the wreck and has made films, DVDs and given countless interviews to radio, television and national newspapers - explained Army rather than Navy personnel were on board under commercial captain Charles Wilkie.

Telecopes allow visitors to get a close-up of the bombship's masts
Telecopes allow visitors to get a close-up of the bombship's masts

"We do know that when it went aground frantic efforts were made to unload as much of the cargo as possible," he said.

"Dock workers and stevedores worked tirelessly to unload then reload the bombs as safely as possible but were beaten by the weather so several tonnes were still on board."

He, like many others, is fearful that when the British Navy take on the task of dismantling the masts in June, the danger is very real.

Over the years Islanders have become used to "Monty " and most are content to let sleeping wrecks lie, undisturbed, and think it unlikely the bombs will be live after so long.

They feel the reverberations from the MoD firing range at Shoeburyness across the water in Essex would have caused a disaster by now, if they were.

In the event of an explosion though, there would be no time to evacuate the thousands of people living in Sheppey, Southend and Grain.

That's without thinking of what would happen to the nearby gas and oil terminals.

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