Atlas Obscura

The Wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery

Masts visible of the SS Richard Montgomery at high tide.

Photo: Clem Rutter/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

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In 1944 an American war ship loaded with supplies and explosives never made it to its destination. Bound for Allied-controlled territory in France, a side-trip to join up with a shipping convoy—and an inconvenient sandbank—got in the way.

When the SS Richard Montgomery (named for an Irish-born Revolutionary War general) met its sandy end it had only served the war effort for a little more than a year. The ship’s final orders were to take 1,500 tons of explosive munitions to the European theater via a maritime convoy from England to Normandy. It left Philadelphia in July of 1944 headed for the convoy, but while traveling through the estuary of the River Thames, a sandbank rose up to greet it and broke the hull of the ship in half.


What to do with a broken ship full of explosives? That question has been debated off and on for the past seven decades, and the consensus has been to leave it alone, safer right where it is. So there the ship sits at the bottom of the estuary, the area around it cordoned off by buoys where no water traffic may tread (float? sail?). And after 70 years of 24/7 monitoring of the area by the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency, it still poses the same question is has since 1944: What on Earth to do with it?

That question has become more urgent in recent years with proposed development of a huge floating airport nearby. The plans for the airport would allow for three times the air traffic of nearby Heathrow (already the fourth-busiest airport in the world). They have brought new scrutiny to the fate of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery. And that fate hasn’t escaped the imagination of a few novelists and TV producers either, who have made plot use of the wreck: As the old saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor robkam.

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