Monday 27 April 2015

Richard Montgomery

Richard Montgomery was born in Swords, Co. Dublin in December 1738. He attended Trinity College Dublin in due course and after a couple of years of 'study' joined the British army to serve with distinction in the North American theatre of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). When the shot that was heard round the world was fired on 19th April 1775 in Lexington MA, Montgomery threw his lot in with the patriots; bringing his considerable military experience with him.  The following year he led the revolutionaries in their, ultimately abortive, invasion of Quebec and was blown to buggery by a whiff of grapeshot in the assault of Quebec City; he was only 37.  His life was full of chivalry, bravery and romance and his name has been given to 13 US counties, a handful of cities and a number of ships. 

As a Man of Kent [not to be confused with those spineless Kentish Men), the ship I'm most interested in is the SS Richard Montgomery, a liberty ship [see Blob I, II] laid down in Jacksonville, Florida 15th March 1943 and completed 20 weeks later on 29th July. The following Summer she was loaded with munitions and set sail for Europe with 3,500 tons of bombs, fuzes and other explosives ultimately bound for Cherbourg to supply the invasion of France following D-Day 1944.  In August, she was given orders for the Thames Estuary to be marshalled into the next convoy for France.  The RN officer in charge of the Estuary, based at Southend-on-sea in Essex and concerned at the nature of her cargo, ordered her to wait on the Kentish side of the deep-water channel just off the Isle of Sheppey. A storm blew up, the Richard Montgomery [plethora of links] dragged her anchor, ran aground on a sandbank and broke her back on a subsequent low tide.  Some effort was made to salvage her valuable cargo but only half the holds had been cleared when the now two parts of the hull shifted ground again and it was deemed too expensive and time consuming [there was a war on!] to try for any more. It has been suggested locally that the salvage rights to the carcase were disputed by the dockers of Rochester vs Maidstone and this log-jam helped fuel the decision of abandon ship.

Apart from a, now much diminished, interest in my native county, I have a certain Boy Chemist interest in the explosive potential of TNT; nitroglycerine; meteorites; Chernobyl; Kyshtym; polypropylene; gunpowder; methane; volcanoes; ammonium nitrate; crude oil; and even carbon dioxide. There are 1500 tons of phosphorus and other bombs lying underneath the still visible masts of the SS Richard Montgomery. If it went up it would cause a modest tsunami up and down the Thames, briefly overwhelming the flood defenses on both side of the estuary, it would break all the windows within a 3km radius and severely damage any ships in the immediate vicinity. So far, so bad. One of the older youtube minidocumentaries [Wrecks; Shipwrecks; Time-bomb] on the past and future of SS R.M. has some pundit saying there is no immediate cause for alarm, the cargo is safe until . . . 2015.  But the elephant in the rumour is that the Richard Montgomery was carrying 'insurance against the possibility' that the Germans might use chemical weapons.  On 2nd December 1943, a German air-raid on Bari in Southern Italy blew up the SS John Harvey, another liberty ship, whose cargo of munitions included 100 tons of mustard-gas bombs.  That toxic cloud killed at least 1,000 service-men and an equal number of civilians before it dissipated.

Things have changed considerably over the last 70+ years.  1) Some bright spark in the Planning Department approved the construction, within the potential blast zone, of a huge Liquid Natural Gas LNG storage depot for the National Grid: 0.7 million tons of gas would go up with a whoomph 150x bigger than the blast that flattened Hiroshima. 2) It has not escaped the notice of several novelists since 9/11 that dropping something heavy in the vicinity could trigger the potential energy currently stored underwater.
At the moment, no government minister, no government department is going to own the problem because the clean up costs are estimated to be in excess of £17 million. That's a lot of sugar, but what price the mustard-gassing of 2,000 Men and Maids of Kent? . . . or 8 million Londoners in the LNG scenario?

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