By Frank Turner 7 July 2022
In 1940, the UK Government was seeking to replace ships lost to U-boats. J.L. Thompson & Sons of Sunderland suggested 60 vessels of the “Dorington Court” specification, but the USA, isolationist at that time, proved uncooperative, having no spare facilities, yet demanded payment in any case. Two companies eventually agreed to build 30 ships each, of a simple, low-cost, all-welded construction, employing mostly female labour. It initially took 240 days to build a ship, but eventually a 60 days turnround was achieved, the “Robert E. Peary” being built in just 4 days 15 hours 29 minutes as a publicity exercise.
By early 1941, the USA, also losing ships to U-boats, required 200 ships of the same design, so 2710 in total were constructed, dubbed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt “Liberty Ships”. The “Richard Montgomery”, completed at Jacksonville, Florida in July 1943, was 441’ in length, 57’ in beam, 82’ from keel to masthead, with a 28’ draught. Weighing over 10000 tons deadweight, she cost about $2.1m [@ $4 to £1]. A dry cargo vessel, she could do 11 knots, used 30 tons of oil a day, carrying a crew of 46 plus 35 gunners, with a master and a military captain in joint charge.
In August 1944, loaded with 6127 tons of munitions, she sailed from Hog Island, Pennsylvania for Cherbourg, France, by way of a rendezvous with others in the Thames Estuary, near Southend Pier (rebranded HMS Leigh). She was directed by Lieut.-Cdr Walmsley of HMS Leigh as to precisely where to anchor, despite her draught being such that she would run aground at low tide. The commander’s deputy, Roger Foley, advised against this order, but was overruled, so consequently the ship ran aground, firmly wedged on a sandbank off Sheerness, her back broken. Abandoned in September 1944, she was partly unloaded, sank deeper, and, with stevedores demanding extra ‘danger money’, no further unloading took place.
Her ship’s manifest listed the various explosives on board, including white phosphorus and cluster bombs of 500lbs to 2000lbs in weight. Seven days after the sinking, a Board of Inquiry concluded that the harbourmaster was guilty of misconduct. Foley was away but was not summoned, and it seems that Walmsley simply wished to save his own neck. Fortunately, Captain Wilkie of the “Richard Montgomery” was exonerated and returned to duty soon afterwards.
Nearly 80 years later, just three of the ship’s masts are visible, but since the wreck lies close to shipping channels, a real attendant fear of collision obtains. The US Government did offer to remove the obstacle, originally in 1948 and later, in 1967, but the UK Government declined those offers. Given the right detonator, a potentially lethal situation could send a veritable tsunami in a wave a few metres high, whereby Sheerness would, conceivably, lose almost all its windows as well as suffer considerable damage to its buildings. Last December, the Royal Navy issued tenders for the removal of masts and derricks, this work to commence in June 2022, but the plan has been shelved, pending further investigation.
So, in summary, this unfortunate little ship had an active career lasting just over a year, failed to be able to fulfil her intended rôle in the Normandy campaign, and rests on a sandbank grave, her remaining cargo perhaps safe, perhaps live, perhaps potentially destructive on a huge scale. Who knows?