It’s 1955 and Jacques Cousteau and his fellow underwater explorers are anchored above a site in the Red Sea. As one frogman descends to a depth of about 100 feet, he finds a rusting anchor chain. Following it, he comes to a vessel that no one has seen since 1941. It’s the S.S. Thistlegorm, a British merchant ship sunk by German bombers during WWII. And once the divers enter the wreck, what they find stuns them.
German bombers sank the Thistlegorm while she was at anchor in the Red Sea. She was in the Gubal Straits near the entrance of the Gulf of Suez which leads to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. The ship had been forced to delay her passage through the canal for two weeks as it had been blocked by two vessels which had crashed into each other.
Today that part of the Red Sea where the Thistlegorm lies beneath the waves is a highly popular spot for recreational divers sailing from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. And one of the most popular diving day-trips is a visit to the Thistlegorm wreck. It’s easy to see why – the ship is well-preserved and represents a fascinating – if eerie – underwater scene.
Cousteau was the first western diver to survey the wreck in 1955 although it’s said that local fishermen were already aware of its presence. After the Frenchman’s dives to the Thistlegorm no one else explored it until the early 1990s. Dr. Adel Taher was one of the people in the next team to make the dive down to the ship.
In a 2015 film about the wreck, S.S. Thistlegorm – The Epilogue, Taher remembered that dive. “We went and did our first dive, four friends of mine and myself. We descended and we were just flabbergasted…The wreck was so overwhelming that our hearts started to race. And then you come to the conclusion that ‘Wow! This is so big, this is so intact, this is so beautiful!’”
Were it not for the fact that her wreck is so exceptional and much-visited today, the story of the Thistlegorm could be just another of the many maritime tragedies of WWII. The shocking truth is that more than 30,000 merchant mariners lost their lives during the war. The ship was built by Joseph Thompson & Sons in Sunderland, a port city by the North Sea in the north-east of England.
Sunderland has a long history as one of Britain’s prime ship-building locations, dating as far back as at least the start of the 18th century. Yet like so much of Britain’s heavy manufacturing industry, by the end of the 20th century the town’s ship-building yards had vanished. The once bustling centers lay silent and empty.
Still, in its day, the shipbuilder Joseph Thompson & Sons had been a thriving concern. It was founded in 1846 and at the turn of the 20th century the Thompson yard was the largest on the bank’s of Sunderland’s River Wear. By this time the company was focused on building liners for transatlantic crossings.
Like so many businesses, the Thompson yard was hard hit by the Great Depression of the 1930s; it produced no ships at all for a period of years. Then came the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 and the shipyard was busy with commissions for vessels to help the war effort. Although hit by Luftwaffe bombing in 1943, the yard was rebuilt and continued to produce shipping for the Allied forces.
It was early in the war that work on the Thistlegorm started, and by June 1940 the ship was ready for launch. Although the boat belonged to a private concern, the Albyn Line, it had been partly financed with British government money. And she was more than a mere merchant vessel: she was armed.
The Thistlegorm had two guns mounted on her stern section, a 4.7-inch anti-aircraft gun and a large-caliber machine gun. However, despite this armament, she was classed as an armed freighter rather than a battleship. That was why she was designated S.S. – Steam Ship – rather than HMS, which stands for Her Majesty’s Ship. The latter denotes a ship of the British Royal Navy.
The Thistlegorm was launched in April 1940 and measured 415 feet from stem to stern; she was powered by a 1,850 horsepower, three-cylinder engine. She went into service with the Albyn Line. It called all of its ships Thistle-something and the name Thistlegorm means “Blue thistle” since gorm is the Gaelic word for blue.
The Albyn Line had been founded in 1901 and was another Sunderland company, one well-used to the vagaries of war. During WWI, the firm had owned four ships. One of those was seized by the Turks, and the other three were all lost to enemy action. Later, of the four ships on its books at the outbreak of WWII, only one survived the conflict.
After her launch the Thistlegorm soon set off on her maiden voyage. She sailed to the U.S. and picked up a cargo of railroad and plane parts, essential supplies for Britain’s war against the Nazis. Her second trip was to Argentina where she loaded her hold with grain. The U.K. was heavily dependent on food imports during WWII.
On her third cruise Thistlegorm sailed to the Caribbean where she took rum and sugar aboard. Although perhaps not as essential as aircraft parts or grain, her cargo would surely have been welcomed by a country laboring under severe restrictions on luxury goods of all kinds. Her next voyage would be her fourth. It would also be her last.
Before her last voyage, for two months Thistlegorm was docked in Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland where she underwent repairs. There, she was loaded with an extensive selection of military hardware. Her mission was to transport this to British forces serving in Egypt, where they were facing determined attacks by the Germans across the North African desert.
Writing in Diver magazine in 2006 James Tunney lamented some of the inaccurate lore that has arisen around the story of the Thistlegorm. In particular, he exploded a myth surrounding part of the ship’s cargo on its last voyage. A consignment of Wellington boots, rubber knee-length footwear, has led to some wild stories, according to Tunney.
A yarn has been bandied about over the years claiming that these galoshes were intended to bamboozle any German spies as to the Thistlegorm’s true destination. After all, who would send a cargo of rubber boots to soldiers fighting in the desert? The unlikely myth also claimed that the boots were all sized extra-large to frighten the Germans.
The boots were also said to have all been left-footed Wellingtons. While this is an entertaining anecdote, Tunney says it’s without any foundation in reality. He pointed out, “The actual purpose [of the boots] was to cut down on static build-up among ground crews when refueling aircraft.” Since static electricity and aircraft fuel are not a good mix, this is a rather more plausible explanation for those Wellingtons.
Normally the route for a journey from Scotland to Egypt would have been through the Mediterranean, easily the most direct course. But German U-boats and planes were patrolling there, making that sea too dangerous for transport vessels. Instead, the Thistlegorm took an alternative route, a detour around the south of Africa some 12,000 miles long
By the time she was ready to set sail the Thistlegorm’s holds were packed with military vehicles and other supplies, including those Wellington boots. There were even two steam locomotives lashed to her deck. The ship was skippered by Captain William Ellis in command of a crew of 42, including nine Royal Navy sailors to man the guns. Her destination was the port of Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.
The ship embarked on June 12, 1941 from the Clyde, the river that runs through Glasgow and on into the Atlantic. Her journey entailed sailing south from Britain and on to the west coast of Africa. The ship would make its way down the Atlantic coast of the continent to South Africa where it would round the Cape of Good Hope and set a northerly course for the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
The Thistlegorm stopped briefly in South Africa’s Cape Town to take on fuel and then she sailed on up the east coast of Africa to the Gulf of Suez. For this part of the journey, a Royal Navy vessel joined the merchant ship as an escort. HMS Carlisle was a light cruiser launched in 1918.
The Carlisle shot down 11 German aircraft during the war, more than any other British cruiser. But she would be unable to save the Thistlegorm from the Luftwaffe. When the Royal Navy ship and the transport she was escorting reached the mouth of the Gulf of Suez, their progress came to a crashing halt.
The seamen discovered that their passage to the Suez Canal had been blocked by two ships that had accidentally collided with one another. The days passed by and soon the Thistlegorm had been stuck for two weeks, unable to progress to her destination. That was when her position caught the attention of the German air force.
The Thistlegorm was anchored at a point known as Safe Anchorage F, a designation that would soon have a bitter irony. Meanwhile, the Germans had noticed that there was an increasing concentration of Allied troops in Egypt. And German intelligence believed that a troopship carrying reinforcements was on its way to strengthen this force.
With that in mind, the Luftwaffe ordered two twin-engined Heinkel He 111 bombers to hunt for the suspected troop carrier. Flying from the German-occupied Greek island of Crete, the pilots couldn’t find this transport ship. But one of the planes did come across Thistlegorm, lying more or less helplessly at anchor in the Straits of Gubal. The two guns at the ship’s disposal offered little protection from the pair of German bombers.
At 1:30 a.m. on October 6, 1941, one of the Heinkels dropped two bombs on the Thistlegorm. Both of those detonated on Hold Four, which was towards the rear of the ship. Whatever elation the Germans felt at their successful sortie soon evaporated, because their plane was shot down on its return journey. Of its five crew, three were killed and the other two spent the rest of the war as prisoners of the Allies.
Once the bombs hit the Thistlegorm the ship was engulfed by a huge explosion as the armaments in the hold detonated. The two locomotives on the deck were hurled into the air and the vessel burst into fierce flames. The blast split the boat in two and eyewitnesses aboard the HMS Carlisle said that she sank in under one minute.
It’s truly difficult to imagine the horror of what it must have been like to be aboard a ship that had just been bombed and was being consumed by fire. But one survivor’s account, published in John Kean’s 2009 book, S.S. Thistlegorm – The True Story of the Red Sea’s Greatest Shipwreck gives a flavor of the scene. Angus McLeay recalled, “I made for the side to jump overboard and the rail was almost red-hot under my hand.”
McLeay continued, “I don’t know why, but, just as I was going to jump, I looked back and saw the gunner crawling along the deck on the other side. The deck was covered with broken glass and I had to take the bits out of my feet before I could carry the gunner through the flames, which came up to my chest in places.” A true tale of heroism indeed.
Nine men lost their lives in that attack on the Thistlegorm: four merchant seamen and five Royal Navy sailors. Tunney has asserted that many more might have died but for the fact that numbers of the crew were sleeping on deck because of the summer heat on the Red Sea. The 32 survivors were picked up by HMS Carlisle.
Tunney has also reported that Arab fishermen soon started to fish around the wreck, which attracted large shoals. But it was Jacques Cousteau who laid claim to the discovery of the Thistlegorm’s remains in 1955. After that, it seems that no one else dived on the wreck until the early 1990s. That was when Dr. Taher and his friends, mentioned earlier, explored the sunken vessel.
It seems that an explosion of interest in exploring the wreck came from the early 1990s onwards. This was driven by the fact that Sharm el-Sheikh became increasingly developed as a premier diving resort, with visitors arriving from around the world. The sea above the wreck can be crowded, with as many as 35 dive boats at a time in a kind of recreational diving feeding frenzy.
One estimate has that as many as one million people have swum down to marvel at the wreck of the Thistlegorm. And those visitors, it’s been calculated, may have been worth as much as $100 million to the Egyptian tourism sector. So what is it about this particular wreck that proves so irresistible to divers?
For an answer to that question, we need to go back and examine exactly what was included in the cargo of the Thistlegorm when she left Glasgow for Alexandria in 1941. It’s an extraordinary catalog of military equipment, spare parts, motorcycles and cars. And many of those items are still in the hold in a remarkable condition of preservation despite their watery environment. It’s these WWII artifacts that go a long way to explaining the allure of the wreck.
The goods in the hold of the Thistlegorm were a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of wartime supplies. There were motorcycles from the factories of legendary British manufacturers Norton and BSA. Small arms included light machine guns called Bren guns and the British Army’s standard WWII personal weapon, the .303 caliber Lee Enfield rifle.
Then there were the trucks. These included vehicles made by British firms Bedford, Albion and Morris. There were Bren gun carriers, the small tracked vehicles equipped to carry light machine guns. Other items in the Thistlegorm’s hold included aircraft parts, radios – and of course those Wellington boots.
So diving through the wreck of the Thistlegorm is rather like visiting a military museum. Certainly, the cargo has rusted and is covered with coral outgrowths, but nevertheless it’s remarkably well-preserved. And when it comes to the wreck’s role as a diving attraction, we haven’t even mentioned the abundant sea creatures: barracuda, hawksbill turtles, lionfish and an aquarium’s-worth of other species swim through the wreck.
There’s no doubt that the Thistlegorm is a fantastic place to dive. But sadly the sheer number of visitors and diving boats has over the years led to a serious decline in the state of the stricken vessel. In fact, you can now explore the wreck through the medium of stunning 3D images created by The Thistlegorm Project. Perhaps it would be better if people stuck to online exploration.