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Fears about SS Richard Montgomery revealed by writer, 70 years after the US liberty ship ran aground off the coast of Sheerness

Seventy years on, the masts of the Richard Montgomery are a familiar sight, but for a 10-year-old evacuee coming home after the war, it was a sinister blot on the horizon.

KM Group history writer Bel Austin shares her memories.

The masts of the SS Richard Montgomery wreckage off the coast of Sheerness
The masts of the SS Richard Montgomery wreckage off the coast of Sheerness

As an evacuee returning to Sheppey in 1945, news of a bomb ship on my island scared me.

The fact it had been there for a year without cause for concern did not matter.

It was there, dark and brooding, and who knew for sure it wouldn’t blow up? In the mining village of Abercynon, South Wales, I had been safe from war. Now, aged 10, I had known nothing about bombing raids other than a dull red glow in the sky when Cardiff Docks got a direct hit.

I heard news on the wireless, of course (I was not encouraged to read newspapers), but it didn’t register. The atrocities were in other countries, too far away to affect me or mine.

Not so this sunken American ship, loaded with unexploded bombs. It was just a few miles out at sea and I could see it.

The SS Richard Montgomery off the coast of Sheerness Picture: Barry Crayford
The SS Richard Montgomery off the coast of Sheerness Picture: Barry Crayford

Older brothers didn’t help. They thought it funny to stand behind me and shout “It’s going up – bang!”

At school it didn’t feature in lessons and friends weren’t interested in my doom-laden fears. It was my own fevered imagination. What if a German plane, pretending to be British, flew over the wreck and dropped a bomb?

Was the family home too far inland to be hit? Would we be cut down with flying glass, suffer burns, be maimed or killed outright? What would happen to the dog? Illogically, I comforted myself knowing the Americans were on our side. So it wasn’t an enemy ship.

But I still walked through the Covered Way to Minster long after target practice ceased at Barton’s Point. I wouldn’t go “around the wreck” on a pleasure boat either – swimming off the raft was as close as I wanted to be to the wreck.

The Montgomery's first voyage. Picture supplied by Bel Austin
The Montgomery's first voyage. Picture supplied by Bel Austin

After a while I thought less about the possible danger until a storm was brewing. Then I imagined lightning would strike the masts, and “whoosh!”, up it would go. Phosphorus on the water’s edge was a worry, too. Were the bombs leaking?

Not until I was a teenage would-be cub reporter did I start listening to older people’s prophecies.

They would rant on about the cliffs area not being developed, because who would buy the houses at the risk of being blown up? Others would argue “Never mind about the cliffs, what about Sheerness – and Southend?”

There would be no Dockyard, and no landmarks like the Rio cinema, and the catholic church. And across the water, Southend pier and the seafront properties would be no more.

It was darkly hinted that Sheppey house prices would remain the cheapest in the South East because only idiots would come here.

There were some old’uns from the Great War who remembered the loss of lives when HMS Bulwark (1914) and HMS Princess Irene (1915) blew up off Sheerness within six months of each other. Such was the impact of these, wreckage and body parts were found in Lower Halstow and beyond. So many families were affected, and Sheppey was in mourning for a long, long while.

Who would be left to mourn if the SS Richard Montgomery suffered the same fate?

The facts

The ship was built by St John’s River Shipbuilding Company and named after General Richard Montgomery, an Irish-American soldier who was killed during the American War of Independence.

The SS Richard Montgomery ran aground on August 20, 1944, on Sheerness Middle Sand, a bank to the north of Sheppey.

It was on a mission to transport mines and explosives for the war effort.

When the American liberty ship sank, it split in two due to the weight of the cargo.

The explosives in the rear section were cleared but there are still munitions in the front part with a net explosive quantity of 1,400 tons.

The ship is monitored by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and there is an exclusion zone around the site.

In 1973, it became the first wreck designated as dangerous under the Protection of Wrecks Act.

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