The WW2 pub journey that set a time-bomb ticking within the Thames | UK | Information


The SS Montgomery may trigger a tsunami that may ‘flood London’. (Picture: Getty Photos)

Settling down for an evening within the Jolly Sailor pub, Captain Charles Wilkie couldn’t shift a nagging fear about his ship, the SS Richard Montgomery, which he had left anchored little greater than a mile away off the Kent coast within the Thames estuary. It was August 1944, simply 11 weeks after D-Day, and as historical past has proven, he had good cause to be involved.

The US-built cargo vessel was carrying 6,862 tonnes of bombs and ready to hitch a convoy of ships heading to Cherbourg, France, to replenish Allied provides. However a storm was already whipping up the waters of the Thames estuary.

Wilkie, an American, had been directed to drop anchors by Royal Navy Lieutenant Richard Wilsley however, involved he may turn into grounded on a sandbank, he and his boatman had gone ashore to hunt a second opinion from the native knowledgeable at Sheerness dockyard. Delivery controller Reginald Coward agreed it will be safer to anchor the place the estuary had been deep-dredged and there have been three solidly-anchored buoys to lock to.

However destiny was already conspiring towards Wilkie: the gathering storm made it unsafe to danger a return journey in a small boat at night time.

That’s how J C Wilkie and his boatman got here to check in as friends on the Jolly Sailor whereas his ship and crew have been left underneath the command of his first officer, in accordance with historian Colin Harvey.

The SS Richard Montgomery in her prime

The SS Richard Montgomery in her prime. (Picture: Colin Harvey)

Even because the captain slept in a room above the pub, within the Blue City space of Sheerness, a calamity was unfolding at sea.

The ship, buffeted by sturdy winds, was dragging its anchors simply throughout the muddy seabed. By the point the skipper returned to his vessel on the morning of August 20, she was firmly caught on a sandbank, with no probability of being refloated.

Now, 78 years on, {the catalogue} of clangers nonetheless haunts the individuals dwelling on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, and people eight miles throughout the estuary in Southend, Essex. For the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery, or Monty as locals name her, stays laden with submerged bombs equal to 1,400 tonnes ofTNT.

A leaked MoD report says a blast may produce a 16ft tsunami, which might threaten lives – together with important fuel and oil installations on the Kent shoreline.An explosion “would throw a 300 metre-wide column of water and particles almost 3,000 metres into the air and generate a wave 5 metres excessive”. And historian Mr Harvey, 79, from close by Sittingbourne, Kent, is deeply involved in regards to the probability of such a catastrophe because the wreck turns into extra unstable.

The ship’s three steel masts protrude above the water from the submerged and crumbling deck, and are corroding badly under the waterline. In the event that they collapse into the munitions, they might set off an enormous explosion and subsequent tsunami.

The Jolly Sailor pub

J C Wilkie spent an evening above the Jolly Sailor. (Picture: Colin Harvey)

The pub’s August 1944 guest book showing Captain Wilkie ’s name.

The pub’s August 1944 visitor ebook displaying Captain Wilkie ’s title. (Picture: Colin Harvey)

“Sheerness, the most important city on the Isle of Sheppey, is under sea degree, so you may think about how a lot injury a 16ft tsunami would trigger,” says Mr Harvey.

“Whenever you take a look at the historical past, all this might have been prevented. The ship was directed to anchor at a spot the place she may have rested on the ocean mattress at low tide. She ought to by no means have been there within the first place. Coward was completely proper to counsel the captain transfer her, however it was too late. If solely Wilkie and Coward had put the plan into motion instantly, catastrophe would have been prevented.”

He explains: “After spending the night time on the Jolly Sailor, Captain Wilkie returned to his vessel the next morning to see she had moved place on to a big sandbank referred to as Sheerness Center Sand. She was caught there.

“Just a few days later the ship began to crack underneath the immense pressure, however the captain and crew stayed on board. They did handle to get some munitions off-loaded however she broke in two and the final of the US civilian crew deserted ship.

“Stevedores remained on board for a number of extra weeks to get extra munitions off however then it turned too harmful. An inventory of what was taken off has been destroyed so no person truly has a listing of that. Some munitions have been taken to Chatham and Sheerness however it isn’t clear what occurred to them then.”

Local historian Colin Harvey with wreck in the background

Native historian Colin Harvey with wreck within the background. (Picture: Colin Harvey)

An inquiry into the grounding was rushed, claims Mr Harvey. It heard that close by vessels reported seeing the ship transferring in darkness however that the primary officer, who was on responsibility that night time, was at a loss to elucidate why he did not get up the captain.

The historian suspects the primary officer couldn’t inform the inquiry why he didn’t wake the captain as a result of Wilkie was on the Jolly Sailor pub – and never aboard his vessel as he ought to have been.

“You need to keep in mind this occurred at a vital time in World Battle Two when everybody was working underneath strain,” he says.

“This was an issue to come back again to as soon as the warfare was over, however it was by no means correctly resolved.All of the munitions ought to have been taken off quickly after the warfare however it was dominated too expensive and possibly too harmful.

“Nevertheless, the scenario isn’t any higher now than it was then. The truth is, it is in all probability rather a lot worse. Monty has been hit as soon as by a vessel and there have been greater than 20 close to misses. It’s proper by a busy transport lane. There are cracks and holes within the hull now, so munitions may finally escape.

A montage of sonar images of Monty on the Thames riverbed

A montage of sonar pictures of Monty on the Thames riverbed. (Picture: Colin Harvey)

“To securely take away the munitions now would price about £300million and would contain constructing a large enclosed construction across the wreck, draining off the ocean water and air, then pumping inert fuel into the enclosure to cut back the chance of explosion. It could be a large operation.”

As a part of his inquiries, Mr Harvey found a baffling, misguided, letter despatched to Sheerness Council in 1962 from the workplace of the Commander in Chief of the US Naval Forces in Europe, denying the existence of the wreck.

Signed by a Lieutenant J S Cohune, the letter states: “On 20 August 1944 she [The SS Richard Montgomery] went aground on the backside of the Thames River Anchorage. Since solely her superstructure remained seen, she was declared a maritime wreck. She was raised and scrapped in April 1948 and offered to Phillip’s Craft and Fisher Firm on 28 April 1948. Maybe you may maintain this workplace posted as to the progress you make in fixing the riddle.”

Partly due to that letter, some locals in Sheerness jokingly seek advice from Monty because the “ghost ship”.

Others speak ominously of Monty’s Revenge if she does blow, sending a 16ft tsunami into Kent, Essex and up the Thames.

In a partial repair, Briggs Marine, based mostly in Fife, Scotland, will start dismantling the masts this June, supported by Royal Navy consultants and 29 Ordnance Disposal Group in a £4.6million operation lasting two months.

“It is going to be extraordinarily harmful and I fear for these finishing up this work. I additionally tpitHp assume they’re going to need to evacuate 1000’s of individuals from Sheerness and Southend whereas it takes place,” says Mr Harvey, who offers talks on the world’s most treacherous wreck. He understands the masts will probably be held in place by cranes on salvage vessels however they are going to nearly definitely need to be minimize off the deck space under the waterline, presumably with divers utilizing oxy-acetylene torches.

“This MoD report has highlighted the chance of a masts collapse inflicting an explosion.”

It’s the mixture of munitions on the SS Richard Montgomery that alarms salvage consultants, with white phosphorus smoke bombs together with excessive explosives.

Munitions guide Andrew Crawford carried out a danger evaluation in 2009 and described 2,600 cluster bombs as armed.

INSIDE every bomb is a chrome steel tube with a chrome steel ball on the high, held in place by a spring with a Mazak (zinc aluminium alloy) pin. Though stainless-steel doesn’t corrode, Mazak dissolves over time. This implies the ball would roll down the tube, arming the bomb.

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“A seamless worry is that the higher deck – containing 2,600 armed cluster bombs – will finally collapse on to a group of 1,000lb and a couple of,000lb bombs saved under,” says Mr Harvey.

“On the Isle of Grain in Kent, some 5.5 nautical miles from the wreck, is a liquid fuel distribution and storage centre. Ships carrying the liquid fuel repeatedly journey by the sunken bomb ship. This all makes lots of people like me who reside on the Kent shoreline really feel very uncomfortable.”

The 441ft lengthy, 56ft vast SS Richard Montgomery, one among 14 so-called Liberty ships ordered by wartime Britain, was inbuilt Florida in 1943 from a design submitted by Winston Churchill in 1940. After D-Day in June 1944, she was despatched to Hogg Island in Philadelphia to load her cargo of 6,862 tonnes of munitions earlier than crossing the Atlantic and arriving within the Thames Estuary.

For a lot of many years after her sinking she was a vacationer attraction.

Locals ran boat journeys to the wreck with guests even capable of contact the masts throughout calm climate. One skipper, Dave Hopper, wrote in 2009: “Having spent a few years doing commodores’ cruises across the SS Montgomery it will be a disgrace for it to be eliminated, touched or disarmed. A few of its magnificence and intrigue is its hazard.”

Indicators on the masts warn individuals to remain away and buoys encompass the vessel.

Peel Ports is accountable for guarding the wreck, which they do visually and by radar 24 hours a day.

A spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Company claimed the chance of a significant explosion was “distant” though, in 2010, there have been reviews of a hearth on the wreck, which was put all the way down to burning phosphorus from a number of the munitions. For now, she rests peacefully, a supply certainly of intrigue and thriller.

It stays to be seen if that peace will final.

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