Tour of the Maunsell Forts (Redsands U6) and SS. Richard Montgomery

By Paul V. Dudman.

Southend Cliff Railway
Royal Hotel and Terrace Southend-on-Sea
The Jacob Marley


I am dipping my tow back into the word of local history with this blog posting, pulling together a linked history of Medway where I was born and Southend-on-Sea where I am now based.  This post will focus on the shared WWII histories of the Red Sands Maunsell Forts situated in the Thames Estuary and the legacy of the SS. Richard Montgomery, situated in the mouth of the River Medway opposite Sheerness.

I have been interested in both of these WWII relics for a number of years now, the long deserted and rusting Red Sands Forts and the stories of the munitions still located within the broken hull of the SS. Richard Montgomery, whose story I grew up with as a child and whose masts could still be seen from the Strand Leisure Park where we used to visit during the summer holidays for a game of pitch and putt.  As a rare chance to explore, I took the chance to join a Jet Stream Tours cruise to visit both sites on the same trip.  Although the first scheduled trip was cancelled due to high winds forecast in the Estuary, I was able to re-book and join my fellow sailors on the MV. Jacob Marley, a class IV passenger vessel of catamaran design, named after the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ `A Christmas Carol.’

It is always a lovely walk overlooking the Thames Estuary from Westcliff-on-Sea into central Southend.  Notable landmarks include the Cliffs Pavilion built in 1960 although plans for a theatre on this site date back to the 1930s.  Following the Pavilion are the always welcoming Southend Cliff Gardens with their myriad of small paths and flower beds to explore. As we approach Southend, we pass the Southend Cliff Railway the shortest funicular railway in the UK, before passing through Royal Terrace and arriving at Southend Pier, the longest pleasure pier in the world with a length of 1.33 miles (2.14 km.). A wooden pier was originally constructed here in 1830 but was replaced by an iron pier designed by James Brunless due to the increase in visitors to Southend from East London as a consequence of the arrival of the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway.  It is always an experience to take the Southend Pier Train out to pier head travelling at the princely speed of 8 mph whilst enjoying the views of both banks of the Thames Estuary.

Maunsell Forts (Redsands U6)

After my first attempt at the Red Sands Forts trip was postponed due to the risk of high winds in the Thames, the second trip albeit on the rather ominously dated Friday, 13th August, proved to be much more successful.  Somewhat not surprisingly, the weather on the day proved to be a rather all too familiar overcast and grey mid-August day as we departed the pierhead at Southend, the greyness of the sky almost merging with the sea to give a rather eerie sense of both excitement and foreboding as we set sail. The Maunsell Forts were constructed during World War II as defensive measures against air and sea attacks by Nazi Germany.  These forts, with designs specific for both the army and the navy, were named after their designer Guy Anson Maunsell.  The Maunsell Naval Forts included the Rough Sand Fort (U1), Sunk Head Fort (U2), Tongue Sands Fort (U3), and the Knock John Fort (U4); whilst the Maunsell Army Forts included the Nore Fort (U5), Red Sands Fort (U6), Shivering Sands Fort (U7), and the Liverpool Army Forts.  The U standing for the Forts official code-name, Uncle. For this article we will be predominantly focusing on the army forts which were constructed in the Thames Estuary, including the Nore Forts off Sheerness (now demolished); the Red Sands Forts, and the Shivering Sands Forts, situated further out in the Thames Estuary.  All the London forts saw action during WWII, where “[t]hey jointly shot down 22 enemy aircraft and 30 V1 flying bombs.” (Red Sands: The Abandoned Estuary Sea Forts From The Second World War, 2013). However, the forts were not designed to last beyond the end of the War and soon fell into a state of rusty, forlorn disrepair, in-between a brief period as bastions of the pirate radio movements during the 1960s.

The three River Mersey forts were called Queens AA Towers, Formby AA Towers and Burbo AA Towers.  These forts were constructed at Bromborough Dock and installed in Liverpool Bay, although they never saw action during WWII and were demolished by 1955.  Bromborough Dock was situated on the banks of the River Mersey at Bromborough and was once the largest private dock in the world.  Permission for construction was granted by the Bromborough Dock Act of 1923 and it remained fully operational until 1969 until eventually closing in 1986 following the Bromborough Dock Act of the same year.

The Forts were initially designed in 1942 as part of a plan to help protect the London ports from attack. Guy Maunsell had designed a self-burying footing system  that firmly anchored each tower in place. Construction began in August 1942, and the last tower was completed sixteen months later. At each site, the Bofors gun platform was erected first to defend the construction crews as they assembled the rest of the fort. (MSW, 2020).

For the Thames forts, Maunsell had adapted the design that he had used for the forts on the River Mersey to take into account the River Thames being less deep at the planned points of construction.   The plan was to construct seven forts (49 towers). However, in the event, only three were built, at a cost of £724,000. HM Fort Nore (U5) was deployed between 20th May and 4th July 1943. HM Fort Red Sands (U6) between 23rd July and 3rd September. HM Fort Shivering Sands (U7) was deployed between 18th September and 13th December. (Thames Estuary Sea Forts, no date).  Guy Anson Maunsell was a civil engineer and a former commissioned officer who served in the Royal Engineers during WW1, who, in his spare time, had a keen interest in Jersey cows.  Maunsell had worked on a number of projects pre-war included Putney Bridge and the Storstrømsbroen (Storstrom Bridge, pictured left) in south-east Denmark (Asquith, no date), and post war he established his own company, G. Maunsell & Partners, who were responsible for a number of civil engineering projects including the “Narrows Bridge (1957-9) in Perth, Australia (then the world’s largest pre-stressed concrete bridge)” (Asquith, no date) and the Hammersmith flyover in London.

The army forts each consisted of seven towers connected by steel walkways with each of the towers having a different function, with five being gun towers containing anti-aircraft and bofars anti-aircraft guns with one tower positioned with a search light and the other a control tower.  Buildings were constructed of steel with two internal floors and measured 36 feet by 36 feet. The gun towers are arranged in a circle around the control tower (equipped with radar), with the searchlight tower further away. This disposition was based on the successful layout of land fortifications. The outer towers were connected to the central tower by tubular steel walkways (now demolished). The searchlight tower was the power station for the whole fort, and was equipped with three 30kW diesel generators. (Thames Estuary Sea Forts, no date)

As with the Navy forts, the Army forts were fabricated, fitted out and equipped on the south bank of the Thames at Red Lion Wharf, a disused and derelict cement factory that Maunsell had discovered between Northfleet and Gravesend. (A London Inheritance, no date; Thames Estuary Sea Forts, no date).

The bases support the four raking columns of each fort. The cylindrical columns (or legs) are concrete reinforced with 32mm diameter steel bar. They are 19.8m high, with an external diameter of 90mm and wall thicknesses of 300mm. The columns were precast in three sections, joined by solid concrete. A cast-in-situ 4.3m square x 1.2m deep concrete cap, with a 1.8m diameter hole through it, joins the legs with the steel pod above, which is connected to two 13.1m long steel joists embedded in the cap. (Thames Estuary Sea Forts, no date)

The forts consisted of a central observation tower, surrounded by anti-aircraft gun towers and a searchlight tower.  The Red Sands Forts were operated by the army with crews spending a period of 4 weeks on-board the forts followed by a 10-day rest period ashore.  Situated in nearby proximity to the forts is the Kentish Flats Offshore Wind Farm consisting of some 30 wind turbines, and having lived on the Thames Estuary a number of years now, I can reliably surmise that these turbines are regularly put to good use.

The parallel walls of the octagonal pods are 11m apart and constructed in 6.3mm steel plate, with steel-framed windows. The walls of the living accommodation are insulated with hardboard and all floors have a 19mm layer of asphalt. Armoured parapets surround the armour-plated top deck (pod roof) and the magazine chambers. The armouring is made up of two steel plates with a layer of stones embedded in tarmacadam between. (Thames Estuary Sea Forts, no date)

Because the Ministry of Defence believed that a combination of bad weather and tidal action would quickly destroy them after the war, no thought was taken for their disposal  (MSW, 2020). This led to maintenance crews being stationed on the forts following the end of WWII from May 1945 through to April 1956, when it was decided to abandon the forts.  The ship Baalbeck crashed into the Nore group of Towers in 1st March 1963, knocking over the bofars tower and a gun tower, killing four members of the maintenance crew. The Nores Towers were subsequently demolished in 1969 following another incident in June 1963, when another ship crashed into the Shivering Sands Fort demolishing a gun tower. Sunk Head Fort was destroyed by the Royal Engineers shortly after the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act became law in 1967, whilst Roughs has been occupied since 1967 as the quasi-independent Principality of Sealand. Whilst Tongue Fort collapsed in 1996 following a severe storm.

Project RedSands ( who maintain and look after the Red Sands Forts, and who hope to reinstate the Fort back to its original condition. The Red Sands Forts were described by the photographer Scott Amling in 2018:  “The forts had this rust and patina in the surface of the metal sides and you could see how they were constructed… [and] … [t]he winter fog and lack of visibility on added to the mystery of the forts.” (Olito, no date).

The forts certainly have an eery science fiction feel to them, reminiscent of water-bound At-At Walkers from the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back or something out of War of the Worlds.  Given the grey and leaden sky we had throughout our trip, this seemed almost an appropriate context to great these eerie monoliths who have stood deserted for so many years in the face of time and tide.  One can only imagine what it must have been like for those stationed on board during the Second World War.  It is perhaps not surprising that they were used in the 1968 Doctor Who serial Fury from the Deep starring Patrick Troughton as The Doctor, where the forts stood in for a North Sea Gas Refinery besieged by a seaweed-type creature.  Sadly, this is one of the early Dr. Who serials that has been lost to time, although this series was re-released as an animated version of the story during 2020. (Troughton, Hines and Maddern, 2020).

The Maunsell Forts have their own Twitter account which can be followed via @MaunsellForts.

Estuary Sea Fort (Army Type) complex Estuary Sea Fort (Army Type) complex © IWM (MOD 532)
Thames Estuary (Army type) Sea Fort (single tower only) Thames Estuary (Army type) Sea Fort (single tower only) © IWM (MOD 57)
Thames Estuary Sea Fort (Naval Type) Thames Estuary Sea Fort (Naval Type) © IWM (MOD 426)
Wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery
Drawing showing how she lies (Submerged)
Composite Image of the Wreck from Sonar
Recent Image of the Wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery
Maritime & Coastguard Agency (12013589)
Maritime & Coastguard Agency (12013595)

SS Richard Montgomery

The SS Richard Montgomery was an American “Liberty Ship” named after an Irish soldier who fought against the British after being elected to the American Congress and who was eventually killed in combat during the final assault on Quebec in 1775. (‘The Richard Montgomery’, 2009). She was a US Liberty ship (type EC2-S-C1) of 7146 gross tons constructed by the St. John’s River Shipbuilding Company of Jacksonville, Florida. (‘Ss Richard Montgomery’, no date). Liberty ships were designed to be constructed in only 42 days as a fast and economical way of to carry cargo and help to support the War effort.  On completion, the Richard Montgomery was allocated to Agwilines Inc on the 29th July, 1943.  Liberty ships were designed for speed and were considered expendable, given the economic nature of their construction to ensure they were construction time was kept to a minimum, lower grade construction materials were used.  This is reflected in a speech by Lord Harris of Haringey in a speech to the House of Lords on the 3rd July 2019, “the hull plating was welded rather than riveted, so was more susceptible to cracking, and the low-grade steel used becomes brittle in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The ships were not built to last.” (SS “Richard Montgomery” – Question for Short Debate, 2019).

She sailed in 1944 after being loaded with munitions at Hog Island, Philadelphia on the Delaware River, on what was intended to be her final voyage carrying thousands of tons of munitions to help support the war effort in France.  After arriving in the Thames Estuary, the Richard Montgomery sought safe anchorage, subsequently coming under the control of the Thames naval control operations situated out of HMS Leigh situated on Southend Pier. The King’s Harbour Master, who retained control over all shipping movements within the confines of the Thames Estuary, ordered the Richard Montgomery to anchor at the Great Nore Anchorage, located just to the north of the Sheerness Middle Sands sandbank.  At low tide, the water level at the Great Nore Anchorage is in the region of 30 feet.  However, “the general dry cargo Liberty ship had an average draft of 28 feet (8.5 metres), but the Richard Montgomery was trimmed to a draft of 31 feet (9.4 metres)” (‘Ss Richard Montgomery’, no date).  This resulted in an argument in the Harbour Masters Office over the dangers of anchoring the Richard Montgomery in such low water, to the extent that “the Assistant Harbour Master refused to carry out the order [to anchor the ship] unless it was put in writing.” (The Richard Montgomery – Submerged, no date). The Assistant Harbour Master was subsequently moved to a new posting a few days later and surprisingly or not he was not asked for his evidence at the subsequent Board of Enquiry investigation.

The Richard Montgomery subsequently anchored at the Great Nore Anchorage off Sheerness awaiting a convey to depart to Cherbourg in France. However, the Richard Montgomery broke free during the early morning of the 20th August and despite warnings from other ships, the Richard Montgomery’s Chief Officer failed to do anything to save the ship or wake the ship’s captain, Captain Wilkie, who was asleep in his cabin at the time.  She continued to drift before coming aground on the sea bank known as the Sheerness Middle Sand. “As the tide ebbed, the ship settled down and more firmly on her silty bed and buckled some of her plates, causing them to emit noises that sounded like gunfire.” (The Richard Montgomery – Submerged, no date)  She quickly “cracked like an eggshell at the front end of No.3 hold. Flooding quickly swept through No.1 and No.2 holds, and early the next day the Richard Montgomery completely broke her back. Salvage continued until all of No.4 and No.5 holds, which were still above water, were emptied.” (‘The Richard Montgomery’, 2009).  Although a significant amount of munitions were recovered utilising the ship’s own cargo handling equipment, an estimated 1,400 tons of munitions still exist on the wreck along with some 2,000 cases of fragmentation cluster bombs and 208 tones of TNT-containing bombs remain on board.  The wreck is designated under Section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and continues to be monitored 24/7.

There continues to be a mixed view in regard to the liability and security of the wreck.  The SS. Richard Montgomery has become known as the Doomsday Ship given the potential for damage to the communities of Sheerness and beyond should the munitions explode.  However, “two reports from the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) published in 2017 and 2018 suggest the wreck is deteriorating, leaving the future of dangerous cargo uncertain.” (Bostock, 2019).  Labour peer Lord Harris, who takes a close interest in the vessel, said that experts had told him “the wreckage of the SS Richard Montgomery may only have a few years remaining before it disintegrates completely”. (Doward, 2019). Whilst an 1999 MCA report confirmed only that “the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote”. In 2004 a New Scientist investigation concluded that the cargo could be detonated by a collision, an attack or shifting tides. (Doward, 2019)

A recent survey has indicated, “Subsidence of up to 60cm was seen in the collapsed deck plating around Hold 2, the bridge deck area has continued to show evidence of collapse with some debris falling onto the seabed below…” (quoted in Hambling, 2020), whilst a “split in the deck in the rear (aft) section has subsided by 20cm.” (quoted in New photos of bomb ship wreck, 2019).  [Maritime & Coastguard Agency Image 12013592].  The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has recently tendered for the removal of the ship’s masts due to their potential risk for collapse, as they “may be placing undue strain on the rest of the vessel structure. (quoted in Hambling, 2020).

Regular visitor the wreck, sailor Tim Bell quoted as saying, “I would’ve thought it would’ve been best to leave the masts up,” he said. “Once they’re removed there will be nothing to see and it will be forgotten about. It will just be leaving the risks to fate.” (Holmwood, 2021).

Notable Other Sites

This three hour boat trip was also an opportunity to view a number of other notable landmarks located within the Thames Estuary between Southend Pier and the Red Sands Forts.  An early example was the wreck of a Phoenix Caisson, also a design project of Guy Anson Maunsell as part of the covert Mulberry harbour project designed to support the D-Day landings in France in June 1944.  They were designed to help support the outer breakwaters of the Mulberry Harbours known by the code-name “Bombardons.”  The plan was for the construction of the Phoenixes to be undertaken by different civil engineering contractors, including one at Tilbury further up the Thames, before being moved and sunk at Dungeness and Pagham prior to being re-floated in time for the D-Day landings.  It was the idea for re-floating that resulted in their code-name.  The surviving remnant of a Phoenix Caisson off of the shore of Thorpe Bay, was originally designed for Southsea (Portsmouth) this particular caisson was being towed from Immingham, the caisson began to leak and was subsequently brought into the Thames and beached at it’s current location for repair.  However, it was subsequently to break its back on the sand dunes and was left to became the wreck that we now see. A video of the wreck, Mulberry Harbour – Wreck in river Thames 2km away from Southend, can be found online via YouTube here:

We also sailed close to the wreck of the HMS London, which was discovered as part of a large-scale archaeological survey undertaken ahead of the dredging work required for the creation of the Thames Gateway port at Tilbury. (‘London Gateway’, 2021). The HMS London was initially constructed in Royal Dockyard at Chatham in 1656, during the Interregnum of Richard Cromwell.  Having worked at the Historic Dockyard in Chatham for two summer seasons following my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, this was a fascinating experience to learn more about the working life of the Dockyard and the role it played in our history.  It is not often you get the opportunity to work on an historical site this large, containing such a diverse cultural heritage.  I think I maybe talking myself into another blog post reflecting back on my experiences here.  Anyway, must try not to digress too much!

I was not aware that HMS London had been constructed at Chatham, or that she “was part of a fleet sent to the Netherlands in 1658 to restore Charles II to the [English] throne. As the only surviving second-rate Cromwellian warship, she is of high significance on both a national and international level.” (The London Shipwreck Trust, no date). This was part in due to the nature of the Thames Estuary mud into which the London sank, which enabled a much higher degree of preservation than that which would normally be expected.  The London suffered an early demise when it accidently blew up in March 1665. Cotswold Archaeology was commissioned by Historic England to produce a virtual mapping of the wreck site which is now freely accessible virtually here:

The wreck is now managed and preserved by The London Shipwreck Trust.  It is located not far from Southend at latitude: 51.49572164 and longitude 0.73355836. (Historic England, no date). We were also able to pass the Shoeburyness Boom, which represents “two successive defensive barriers across most of the Thames Estuary in the mid-20th century.” (‘Shoeburyness Boom’, 2021).  On our return leg, it was also possible to make out (just!) through the greyish mish of the Thames Estuary, a surviving castle located in the entrance to the River Medway known as the Grain Tower Battery.  This along with the other River Medway defensive forts of Fort Hoo and Fort Darnet I had been unaware of previously and will in due course I hope, feature in a blog post here.  It is good to know there is always some new to explore.

The Phoenix Caisson Wreck
The Derelict Fort Guarding the Mouth of the River Medway
Virtual Tour of the Wreck of the London
Maunsell Fort


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The Southend Pier Train