Today marks the 68th anniversary of the abandonment and beginnings of salvage on the SS Richard Montgomery. The ship ran aground near an approach channel to the Thames River on August 20, 1944 and salvage operations began on August 23rd after it was determined the ship could not be saved. Named after Revolutionary War General Richard Montgomery, the SS Richard Montgomery was a Liberty Ship carrying a cargo of ammunition from the United States to the UK. Liberty Ships were designed by William Francis Gibbs to be cheap, mass-produced cargo haulers for the Allied powers during World War Two. Over 2,500 were built and only two survive today, carrying on service as museum ships – SS Jeremiah O’Brien and SS John W. Brown.
Salvage operations were unable to remove all of its deadly cargo and according to a survey performed in 2010 by the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the wreck has 1,500 tons of high explosives still aboard. Due to the presence of so many tons of TNT, the ship remains a serious hazard to navigation and is closely monitored with yearly surveys by UK authorities. A detonation of the ship’s cargo could occur from natural deterioration, a collision with another vessel or even an act of terrorism and would result in an explosion 1/12th the size of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The BBC reported in 2004 that UK authorities believe an explosion could cause a 1,000 x 10,000 foot column of debris and water as well as a 16 foot high wave that would swamp low lying coastal areas.
In death, the SS Richard Montgomery has taken on a pop culture life of its own and has been featured in numerous novels and tv shows. It was even the centerpiece of the fictionalized plot of a 1970s novel wherein terrorists attempted to use speedboats to detonate the ship’s explosives and wreak havoc on the English coast.