SS “Richard Montgomery” - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:47 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Greenway Lord Greenway Crossbench 7:47 pm, 3rd July 2019

I thank the noble Lord for the invitation, but I am chairman of the preservation society of the old London fire boat, the “Massey Shaw”, which is another Dunkirk veteran, so I may be committed already.

As we have heard, this wreck is surveyed constantly, at least once or twice a year. It was last done in February and March of this year, and another survey is due in August. Huge improvements in the efficiency of side-scanning sonar have meant that surveys can usually be accomplished in just two days—compared with many days, with weather hold-ups, in the past—and we can now measure very accurately any changes in the deterioration of the wreck, even down to centimetres.

The noble Lord mentioned the possibility of some of the bombs having spilled out of the ship. If they had done, they would have been quickly picked up by the new sonar, and there is no evidence that I can see that that has happened. In addition, a remote sensing tripod has been placed on the sea floor to measure any environmental changes—the noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to this—including changes to the seabed, which is constantly scoured by the tide coming out of the River Medway.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is the official Receiver of Wreck in inshore waters, engages an internationally recognised survey company to carry out the work. It either uses one of its own vessels or, if that is not available, it takes one of the Port of London Authority’s well-equipped survey vessels, which have the added advantages of knowing the waters and being more or less on the spot, as they are based in Gravesend. I understand that a technical adviser from the MoD is on board at all times during the surveys.

I also understand that the Department for Transport has set up an expert advisory panel which initially met every two months but now, I gather, tends to meet whenever new evidence comes to light.

Sheerness is no stranger to explosions. On 26 November 1914, HMS “Bulwark”, a pre-dreadnought battleship which was moored a little way up the Medway, exploded while loading ammunition, killing some 750 of her crew. On 27 May 1915, HMS “Princess Irene”, a new ferry built for the Canadian Pacific Railway but taken up on completion by the Royal Navy for conversion to a minelayer, exploded while loading mines at a buoy off Port Victoria, which is approximately three miles west-south-west of Sheerness, prior to making her third voyage; 352 persons were killed, including most of the ship’s company and 78 dockyard workers who were on board to strengthen the improvised gun decks. It later transpired that the mines were in the process of being activated, but the job was done in somewhat of a hurry by untrained staff.

I now continue with the history lesson and turn to two subsequent ship explosions, which may have some relevance in terms of a worst-case scenario. On 6 December 1917, two merchant vessels collided at slow speed in what are known as the Narrows at the entrance to Halifax harbour in Nova Scotia. The departing Norwegian steamer “Imo”—I get confused here, because the International Maritime Organization is known as IMO—which had originally been built for the White Star Line, struck a French steamer, the “Mont-Blanc”, which was arriving from New York loaded with some 3,000 tons of gun-cotton and TNT and had barrels of benzol and picric acid on deck, all destined for the war in Europe. The shock of the collision dislodged some of the deck cargo, allowing vapour to escape, which was ignited by sparks as the two vessels drew apart. The burning “Mont-Blanc” drifted ashore near Pier 6 on the Halifax waterfront and exploded 20 minutes later, killing around 2,000 persons and injuring another 9,000. All structures within a half-mile radius were obliterated, with 400 acres seriously damaged. Some reports speak of a 60 foot tsunami which washed the “Imo” ashore on the opposite side of the harbour.

The second explosion concerned the “Fort Stikine”, another emergency war-built vessel, but not a Liberty ship—she was a Fort built in Canada. She had a part-cargo of 1,400 tons of explosives. When she blew up, it destroyed a large part of the dock area in Bombay in two separate blasts on 14 April 1944. Thirteen other ships were sunk and a similar number were badly damaged, while a shower of burning debris set fire to a nearby slum area. Some reports say that 850 people perished, but the exact figure is not known and it is likely to be a lot more than that. In addition, 50,000 people lost their jobs. To give some idea of the destruction, it took 8,000 men seven months to remove the debris and get the docks working again but, somewhat surprisingly, almost all the gold bars being carried by the “Fort Stikine” in 31 wooden crates, four to a crate, were later recovered.

I have mentioned these examples to indicate what can happen when an ammunition ship explodes, but in three of the examples I have given, heat was the ultimate cause of the blasts. In HMS “Bulwark”, explosives were being stored temporarily too close to a boiler room, and the “Fort Stikine” had developed a fire in her part-cargo of cotton bales, which were stowed beneath the ammunition. In addition, the Halifax and Bombay explosions occurred literally within their respective cities, which multiplied the damage.

Compared with these, the “Richard Montgomery” wreck is situated 1.5 miles off Sheerness and five miles from Southend, and the munitions remaining on board have now been submerged for 75 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said. A former bomb disposal expert who advised the Government on the cargo of the “Richard Montgomery” has said that water is a good mitigator in preventing detonations.

There are, of course, worries about Sheerness and the LNG terminal and storage facilities on the opposite bank on the Isle of Grain. The new storage tanks have nickel-something—I cannot remember the name—inside, with pre-stressed concrete outside and a reinforced concrete roof. They are a bit like a German bunker in many ways, so I am not certain that they would be too badly affected. However, I know that only a few weeks ago a new rail service started up to carry aviation fuel from there to Heathrow.

Some people have proposed either moving the whole wreck, which would be well-nigh impossible, or just removing the munitions. The latter course has been estimated to cost tens of millions of pounds and would probably involve the evacuation of Sheerness.

On balance and in conclusion, I tend to follow the line of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that we should leave well alone but continue to monitor closely the gradual degradation of the wreck.