The SS Thistlegorm
The Thistlegorm was built by Joseph Thompson & Sons of Sunderland and launched in June 1940.
She was 126.5m in length and displaced 4,898 gross tonnes. Powered by a triple-expansion, 3 cylinder steam engine that generated a very comfortable 365 nominal horsepower. She was one of a number of 'Thistle' ships owned and operated by the Albyn Line. With her construction being part funded by the British Government, however, she was destined for 'War' duties from the moment she was launched.
The Loss of the Thistlegorm In the official history of the Albyn Line, a Mr Harry Bansall recalls his own experiences on the ship. Being well connected within the Company, he had asked to go to sea and was soon offered a berth as fifth engineer in the brand new ship at the age of just 18. Unfortunately, however, apart from the official photograph of her launching, there appears to be no pictures of the Thistlegorm from her days afloat.
In May 1941, the Thistlegorm was in her home port of Glasgow loading supplies essential for the 8th Army and the relief of Tobruk. Though described on the manifest as 'MT' (Motor Transport), this - probably deliberate, non-description hid a wide array of Land Mines, Shells, Ammunition, Weapons, Bedford Trucks, Armoured Cars, Bren-Carriers, BSA Motorcycles, Trailers, Vehicle spares, Aircraft and Aircraft parts, Radios, Rubber thigh-boots - and a great deal more besides.
By the time they arrived at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez it was the third week in September and the Thistlegorm was immediately assigned 'Safe Anchorage F' to await further instructions. The Master let out the starboard anchor and some 250m of chain and was satisfied that all was well. This was 'good holding ground' and, at long last, the main engines were closed down. All they could do now was wait for clearance to proceed through to Alexandria.
Getting through the Canal was dependent on several factors - enemy aircraft activity over the Canal, cargo priority and how long other vessels had been waiting. At this time, however, two vessels had collided further up the Gulf of Suez and were virtually blocking the entire entrance to the Canal. This led to the 'Thistlegorm' - with her valuable cargo, remaining at anchor for a full two weeks.
Up until now these 'Safe Anchorages' - each with it’s own letter of the alphabet, were regarded as exactly that, Safe! There were no enemy ships and enemy aircraft rarely ventured this far south. This was, however, all about to change when German Intelligence received information that a large troopship (possibly the Queen Mary) was due to travel through the Suez Canal with 1200 British Troops destined for North Africa.
Having mastered the relatively new skill of night flying, Heinkel He 111’s from II/Kg26 (No 2 Squadron 26th Kamp Geswader) based in Crete were alerted to the possible presence of such a large vessel. Their task was to seek and destroy. At 2250 hours on 5th October 1941 two twin-engine Heinkels crossed the north Egyptian coast heading southeast in search of this prize.
Aided by a clear moonlit night, they searched in vain for the big ship until fuel levels became critical. Then, just as they were on the point of returning home empty handed, one of the pilots spotted the SS Thistlegorm.
Both bombs penetrated No 5 hold - aft of the bridge, detonating a great deal of ammunition. The resultant explosion sent the two locomotives spiralling into the air as the ship was ripped open like a huge tin can. Even to this day, the rear decks are peeled back towards the Bridge leaving many a Diver wondering what exactly he is looking at. Some accounts have even described this as 'Armour Plating!'
The vessel began to sink and the crew quickly abandoned ship - with hardly any time to launch the lifeboats, most of them leapt straight into the sea. One injured man, however, was trapped on the blazing deck and desperately needed help. Crewman Angus McLeay wrapped some rags around his bare feet and ran across the hot steel plates to rescue him - an action for which McLeay was awarded the George Medal and Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea.
Caught unawares, the Thistlegorm had been given no time to defend herself and she quickly sank. It was timed at 0130 hrs 6th October 1941. Captain Ellis and the other survivors were rescued by HMS Carlisle and then taken to Suez where he reported four members of his crew of 39 and five of the 9 Royal Navy ratings had all lost their lives. Captain Ellis was subsequently awarded the OBE - for 'War Services' by King George VI.
The Ship Today for many years, British vessels passing the site where the Thistlegorm was lost would dip their flags as a mark of respect for those who died. The ship itself, however, remained undisturbed until the early fifties when Jacques Cousteau discovered her. He raised several items from the wreck - including one of the motorcycles, the Captain’s safe and the ship’s bell. Indeed the February 1956 edition of 'National Geographic' clearly shows the ship’s bell in place and his Divers in the ship’s 'Lantern Room' - all of which were also still in place at that time. Not so when the vessel was rediscovered by modern Scuba Divers.
Cousteau, however, did not reveal the ship’s position and, once again, the Thistlegorm passed into obscurity. All that changed in the early nineties when a group of divers happened upon her by chance. In so doing, they had re-discovered one of the greatest diveable shipwrecks of all time.
The SS Thistlegorm sits mast and funnel above all others shipwrecks. Such is the pulling power of this single vessel that she attracts more Divers than any other underwater site - anywhere in the entire world! Since being re-discovered in the early nineties, the Thistlegorm has consistently remained 'The World’s Foremost Diving Attraction' and after my own very first visit, I found myself calling her 'The Mighty Thistlegorm!'
What makes this ship so extra-special is a combination of several factors. Despite extensive damage aft of the Bridge, the main section is upright and on an even keel. Then, there is the story of her passing, with all it’s ingredients of War, Heroism and Tragedy - something that is never re-created in any vessel deliberately sunk. Lest we forget, even the Titanic would have passed into obscurity were it not for the manner of her sinking! Then, prevailing conditions and accessibility all come into play. These include an acceptable climate, relatively warm waters, very good underwater visibility and a maximum depth of just 32 metres to the seabed.
What more could be asked of any shipwreck you might ask - and the word 'Cargo' springs to mind. Within the Thistlegorm, that cargo is a veritable underwater 'World War II Museum.'
The motorcycles have been pushed over by Divers searching for something to remove and keep. The badges, pedals, twist-grips and tool kits are all gone. Within the lorries and trucks, only a few steering wheels are left. Worse still, in order to get at those steering wheels or perhaps a souvenir from the engine, Divers have smashed their way in through the roof or bonnet of each vehicle - thus maximising the damage caused in search of their wretched trophy. Elsewhere, throughout the ship, the brass fittings are, of course, all long-gone.
Despite the manner of her sinking and the ongoing destruction, the Thistlegorm is still in remarkable condition. The front section remains largely intact and sits upright on a sandy seabed at a maximum depth of 32 metres. The starboard anchor is deployed, some railing are still in place and all the winch houses, winches, blocks, windlasses and other paraphernalia.
Each hold was built in two levels with the upper level known as 'tween decks.' Basically, these tween decks are, in effect, a large shelf that stretched under the decks of the ship. There are Bedford trucks and a number of Motorcycles on the starboard side and whilst the same is found on the port side, the top of the hold is bent downwards and, with the presence of the water carrier, perched somewhat menacingly over the edge, it tends to be less well visited.
Inside No 1 Hold, the cargo of parts and spares has come to look like an accumulation of debris which obscures anything of greater interest - including more vehicles. Back at deck level, there is a Tender Railway on each side of No 2 Hold beside which are two 'torpedo' shaped Paravanes. Once again there are some very interesting vehicles in the tween decks but below these on the port side, the Diver will discover two large Armoured Cars - built on Rolls Royce ChassisThe starboard side of No 2 Hold, however, is where an incredible journey begins. Swimming gently above the vehicles, there is plenty of room to explore and inspect the various Lorries, Trailers, Motorcycles and other items as you journey below the bridge and pass through No 3 hold. Here are the small arms - weapons of various calibre in packs of 6 or 8 placed 'Butt to Muzzle' and each pack now concreted together as a single entity. Beyond this, is the fuel store - virtually empty after such a long journey. To one side, however, there is a large gap where the Diver is able to exit through the bulkhead which once formed the bulkhead between No 3 and No 4 Hold.
Emerging into the daylight, the Diver is confronted by the devastation that surrounded the sinking. Ammunition boxes form a large pile of fairly uniform debris - on top of which is an up-turned tracked Bren Carrier. Pointing towards the stern is the broken drive shaft and some 20m further on is the remainder - sticking out of what remains of the stern. Below us, are a number of very large shells - possibly 14inch, once destined for a British Capital Ship.
The stern itself is canted over at an angle of 45 degrees and is as interesting as any other part of the ship. The two deck-mounted guns are still in place and are best viewed from below - where they make excellent silhouettes against the distant surface.
From a Divers viewpoint, what makes a good shipwreck is largely dependent on the individual. Few, however, would disagree that the Thistlegorm is amongst the very best and, she really does stand mast and funnel above the rest. After a dozen or so carefully planned Dives - which allowed us to explore many different aspects of this spectacular shipwreck, it is easy to see why she was catapulted from obscurity to become the World’s Foremost Diving Attraction - virtually overnight.
The Mighty Thistlegorm is a legend amongst Divers and her place will be forever enshrined in Diving’s own 'Great Hall of Fame.' In the meantime, however, she has become a victim of her own status and is in serious decline. Sadly, none of us shall ever see this shipwreck as magnificent as she was on the day she was re-discovered - only a few short years ago. How long she will last is anybody’s guess!
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