Were there no environmental problems caused by sunken oil tankers and other ships in the naval war?

Reports and films about naval warfare never address the environmental impact. It’s always the pure facts, such as the tonnage sunk or the loss of people and material. That surprises me. I still roughly remember the sinking of the “Exxon Valdez” several years ago. It was just one ship, but it was enough to cause a huge environmental catastrophe. During the submarine war in the Atlantic alone, the oil from all the merchant ships and tankers must have caused even greater environmental problems. Was there already huge oil pollution during the war or wasn’t that an issue for the people at the time? Thanks.


It was a problem, but there was a war on, and all that. Cities were being burned to the ground, millions of people dying, vast amounts of oil/gasoline were being consumed, and so on. Oil slicks break up and go away on their own. By the time anybody gets over all the dead, any oil issues have pretty much solved themselves.

BTW, “Exxon Valdez” was a “huge environmental catastrophe” only because it was on television. Saddam Hussein set every oil well in Kuwait on fire. That was worse, in pretty much every way. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was worse, even though it wasn’t as large as Exxon Valdez, because of where it was. There are huge forest fires every year. There are hurricanes every year, tornados, earthquakes. The environment, all things considered, is much larger and rugged than one might otherwise think.


Along with the points @xfilesfc notes, there’s another thing to keep in mind: In the 1940s, there was barely any kind of organized “environmental” movement. People in industrialized and industrializing nations just accepted pollution as part of the cost of progress. Remember that even after the war, London suffered from literal “killer fogs”. Water pollution was even less an item of public awareness … the Thames river was one of the most polluted bodies of water in human history.

Raising awareness of preventable pollution went hand-in-hand with the rise of middle class affluence after WW2, and really didn’t take off even in the US until the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I was born in 1960, and my family left England for Canada in 1967. I very clearly remember just how bad air and water pollution was in the heavy industrial town of my childhood, and by comparison how little of it there was in the suburban areas of Toronto. Even downtown Toronto in the 1970s was very clean by British urban standards I’d known growing up … and now, looking at photos of Toronto streets from that time period, I’m astonished how dirty everything seems to be.


Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon were both relatively close to shore. Many ships thank sank in WW2 were far from shore in deep water. Also, in both cases the problem was a substantial oil leak. When a loaded oil tanker is hit by a torpedo it tends go BOOM. Some warships also go with a boom rather a whimper. Burning up the oil presumably results in a lot less water pollution (but more air pollution).


It is a current problem. Many of those wrecks are losing structural containment and are causing environmental problems. The USS Arizona’s fuel tanks leak constantly and it is monitored. The German cruiser Blucher, sunk near Oslo, Norway during the invasion began to leak heavily in the mid 1990’s. The Norwegian Government paid to have the fuel oil pumped out to prevent a spill.

Just as bad is the case of sunken ammunition and explosives. Three years ago ammu ition was found washed ashore in Newfoundland in the Strait of Belle Isle. The Royal Canadian Navy determined it came from a sunken convoy and paid divers to clear it.

Canada and otheer counties dumped thousands of tons of surplus bombs, explosives and ammunition in the ocean after the war. Now we know that was unwise and dangerous.


July 27, 1944: The Liberty Ship SS Richard Montgomery, loaded with 6,127 tons of munitions (that is, explosives of various sorts) arrives in the waters off England, intended for France. Off Southend on the Thames Estuary, the ship is directed to drop anchor and wait for a convenient convoy.

August 20, 1944: The Liberty Ship SS Richard Montgomery, still containing 6,127 tons of munitions, and anchored in the Thames Estuary off Southend - waiting to be routed to Cherbourg – drags her anchor in a storm and runs aground in 24 feet of water (the ship’s draft at the time was 31 feet.) The tide goes out, and the ship breaks its back. A stevedore company is employed to (carefully) remove the cargo. After five days, all that could be gotten out had been gotten out (several holds had flooded), and the salvage abandoned.

The SS Richard Montgomery is still there, her three masts visible above the water. Of her cargo of 6,127 tons, 1,400 tons (mostly bombs) remains on board. A study in 2004 determined that the explosives are still… well, explosive, and might go off under any possible scenario – including doing nothing at all.

Ever speedy in reacting, the British Government has determined to… cut off the masts so tourists won’t sail around the wreck site. (This month, in fact.)

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if the ship had tea, the brits would reached the site the very next second there after the news was out. Unfortunately for the Brits, the ship consisted of bombs and not tea.


Does anyone know of research into the environmental consequences of the two major naval battles in the Philippine Sea in June and October 1944 (the second one also known as the naval battle in Leyte Gulf)?

Those were the largest carrier-to-carrier and naval battles of the war (and possibly of all-time). Must be quite some wreckage there.

Somewhat to the north is Tsushima strait, also a site where many-a-ship was lost during some naval engagement 40-or-so years earlier.

If the SS Richard Montgomery exploded in its sunken condition, it would present the risk of extreme damage in one of the busiest estuaries in Europe. Here’s a video from 2010 that covers some of the risks.

And a more recent post showing some of the illicit activity around the wreck site from 2018.

It wasn’t until well after WW2 that a concerted effort was put in to remove bunker and fuel oil from sunken WW2 vessels however there were a lot of logistical and legal issues surrounding this.

Logistically until the 1980s realistically you could only remove oil and fuel up to 121 meters it could be even deeper but it costs money and time. Most WW2 wrecks are deeper than 304 meters so are basically out of reach.

Add to that there is the ever present danger of UXOs and whether they are stable or not.

Legal side

Any military wreck is automatically considered a graveyard and the sovereign property of the country it’s from so basically it’s hands off unless you get permission from that government. Also in order to remove any oil or fuel it is the responsibility of that vessels country to cover the costs unless an agreement is in place with the salvager.

Unless there is a threat of imminent ecological proportions most WW2 wrecks are generally left alone and monitored by an international consortium.

There is a pretty cool documentary about this that was on Discovery Canada a couple of years ago but be damned if I can find it.


Also there is an ecological disaster in the making in the Baltic Sea as after the war the allies had a huge surplus of ammunition, shells, bombs and mines that they had to deal with. It was costly to ship back to its country of origin so thousands of tons of the above was taken out to the Baltic Sea and dumped overboard. Now chemicals are leeching from the UXOs and potentially causing environmental damage but nobody is really sure how to deal with it as they are too unstable to move and they can’t blow them up.

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