Potentially explosive shipwreck in River Thames to be broken up

Detonation may create ‘mass damage’ and five-metre wave, survey says

Jon Sharman
Thursday 30 December 2021 14:18 GMT
<p>Some 1,400 tons of explosives remain in the forward holds</p>

Some 1,400 tons of explosives remain in the forward holds

The wreck of a Second World War cargo ship that contains hundreds of tons of explosives will be broken up after decades at the bottom of the Thames.

Specialists from the Royal Navy will advise government sub-contractors on safety as they negotiate the SS Richard Montgomery, which has lain broken over a sandbar in the Thames estuary since 1944.

She was one of about 2,700 Liberty ships built by America to run supplies for the war effort in Europe.

The 7,000-ton cargo vessel ran aground near the Medway approach channel in August 1944 and, though workers were able to salvage about half her cargo before she sank, some 1,400 tonnes of explosives are still inside her forward holds.

The tops of all three masts protrude above the surface.

The masts of the SS Richard Montgomery protrude above the surface in the Thames estuary

It is feared that if the Richard Montgomery’s entire remaining cargo were to detonate at once, it would produce a 3,000m column of debris and water and a huge tsunami that could threaten London – as well as nearby oil and gas works.

This worst-case scenario is considered unlikely, but even a partial explosion could be dangerous for the tens of thousands of people living nearby.

Experts make regular surveys of her wreck which, until recently, had been more or less stable. But the newest report found that deterioration of the ship’s masts threatened to trigger the explosives, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Although the risk of a major detonation is deemed remote, two Royal Navy experts have been tasked with “providing specialist survey and identification advice and expertise” to contractors who will eventually remove portions of the masts, the MoD told The Independent.

The Department for Transport awarded a contract for the work earlier this year.

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Lieutenant General Ian Cave, Commander Home Command and Standing Joint Command (UK), added in a statement: “Standing Joint Command (UK) is responsible for what are called ‘resilience operations’ through the provision of military aid to the civil authorities.

“That assistance ... can include anything from the advisory support provided to those working on the SS Richard Montgomery, to rapid relief following extreme weather, security at major events, explosives and ordnance disposal, and, most visibly, duties undertaken as part of Operation Rescript – the name for the defence contribution in support of the brilliant NHS.”

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