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Keep Out! England’s Forbidden Places

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Spring 2020 sees the publication of my book Keep Out! England’s Forbidden Places.

It is, as the title suggests, an exploration of some of the more secretive, exclusive, dangerous or inaccessible places in England.

I’ll write more about the book itself nearer the time of publication. I did want, however, to share with you one of the more interesting sites I chose to be in the book.

The photograph shows the masts of a wrecked ship jutting above the frigid waters off the coast of Essex.

Images of shipwrecks are always evocative. Regardless of whether the ship in question might have been the most humble of sea faring craft or as world famous as Titanic (and who hasn’t found their breath being snatched away at the first sight of its mighty bow looming up in its final resting place?) there is always an accompanying story. And they’re rarely, if ever, happy ones.

SS Richard Montgomery (SS RM) has laid, inert, on a sandbank off Sheerness for a little over 75 years now. Yet, rusting hulk that she is, the real story relating to her is not so much about what happened to her one night in 1944 but what might still happen to her.

SS RM was one of 2,710 ‘Liberty Ships’ built in the USA in order to provide essential supplies to the war effort from across the Atlantic. They had a short lifespan-no more than 5 years-but, during the time, would be expected to carry thousands of tons of material to destinations all over Europe. She set sail from the US in the Summer of 1944, full loaded with 7,000 tons of high explosives, a deadly cargo that included a number of 1,000 lb bombs. She had an uneventful Atlantic crossing (can you imagine how nervous you would be sailing on a ship that contains 7,000 tons of high explosives?) and arrived at Southend, her final destination before a planned crossing of the English Channel for Cherbourg, that part of the journey now dependent on her waiting for a convoy to accompany her on the trip. She therefore needed an overnight mooring off the Essex coast, and was directed, by the Harbour Master to make for an area known as the Great North Anchorage to do so. This decision was duly challenged by the Deputy Harbour Master who, aware of the enormous weight of her cargo, felt that it was, given how shallow the waters were at that point, an unsuitable mooring location. He was, however, over ruled and took his challenge no further.

His caution was understandable. SS RM was heading for a mooring that, at low tide, had a depth of less than 30 feet whilst the fully loaded draft of SS RM was around 31 feet. Things were, clearly, not going to end well and the Deputy Harbour Master had already worked that out for himself. The ship anchored and, over night, started to drift towards the shallow waters of the sandbanks. This was noted by the members of other craft in the vicinity who sounded warnings in her direction but these were steadfastly ignored by the Officer of the Watch who didn’t even bother to wake his sleeping Captain up in order to at least appraise him of the potential situation. SS RM ran aground in on the sandbank which meant that she would be left there for two weeks, the time it would take for a high enough tide to float her off again-providing, that is, all of her cargo was removed. This work commenced but, over time, the stresses on the ships body led to her breaking in half and sinking atop the sandbank she had drifted onto.

With no-one knowing exactly what to do next, the wreck was eventually abandoned and she remains there today, part of her superstructure still visible above the dark and cold waters of the Thames Estuary. Complete, still, with 3,500 tons of high explosives sealed within her sunken hold, explosives that could, quite feasibly, and at any given time, explode. If this was to happen, it would be, according to a study that was done by explosive experts, the biggest ever non-nuclear explosion in the history of mankind, one that would send enormous chunks of molten steel and iron up to 2 miles in the air and create a tidal wave that would be at least 40 feet high, big enough to cause considerable damage along the coast and in London as it surged up river, overwhelming the Thames Flood Barrier (not that there would be time to put the barriers into place) en-route.

Damage and loss of life on an incalculable basis-or, as one local resident has opined, ‘biblical’. Yet, in spite of all that, the residents of Sheerness and the neighbouring towns all get on with their lives as normal. ‘Monty’, as she is referred to, is a part of their daily lives and one that is, for many, still visible.

But what else can they do but, as one wartime phrase famously stated, ‘Keep calm and carry on’?

 

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