The Thistlegorm story starts at the Yards of J. L. Thompson and sons at Sunderland, for the Albyn Line. It was here that the 4898 ton, 415ft, cargo ship was built in 1940. She was driven by a triple expansion stream engine, built by North East Marine Engineering, which could deliver some 1850 hp driving her along at a speed of 10 knots.
She was one of a number of "Thistle" ships owned and operated by the Albyn Line. Each vessel carried the emblem of Scotland, the thistle, which formed the prefix of each vessels name followed by a Gaelic word; Thistledhu, Thistlegorm, Thistleglen and Thistlenuir.
Soon after completion she was quickly requisitioned by the navy for allied WW2 duties and armed with the guns which she still carries today - world war one vintage guns in fact. By September of 1941 she had completed three successful voyages (America, Argentina and the Dutch Antilles). Her next however, was to be her last.
Constructed: 1940 (Sunderland, England)
Length of ship: 127m (415ft)
Wreck location: Sha'ab Ali, North Red Sea, Egypt.
Depth range of wreck: 18m to 33m
Her final journey started in Glasgow. She was loaded with a cargo which contained rifles, munitions, aircraft parts, Wellington boots, trucks, motor bikes and tunics for the Eighth Army in North Africa. Even two steam locomotives, tenders and rolling stock were loaded onto her deck. These were for the Egyptian railways and had been built in Glasgow at the North British loco works at Springburn.
The voyage, to what was to be her final resting place, was a long one. Germany had control of virtually all the Mediterranean, so the vital supplies she was carrying for the 8th Army had to transported around Africa via the Cape, and finally up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal. She left the Clyde on the 5th September 1941 and proceeded without incident to Freetown, South Africa, before rounding the Horn, passed Madagascar, through the Mosambique channel, until she reached Aiden where she bunkered for two days. From here she was escorted up the Red Sea by HMS Cairo to the anchorage in Sha’ab Ali. Here she was delayed for 10 days due to the wreck of the Tynefield blocking the entrance to the Suez Canal. Here fate was to deliver divers one of the most fascinating wreck dives outside of Truk Lagoon.
In addition to Wellington boots, generators, trailers, 2 armoured cars, Lee Enfield rifles and aircraft parts, the Thistlegorm's cargo consisted of the following:
• STANIER 8F 2-8-0 STEAM LOCOMOTIVE
The Stanier 8F steam locomotive was perhaps the work horse of the rail network in the 30's and 40’s and indeed over 200 of the 852 made, were exported to the Middle East. Designed by Sir William Stanier, her 2-8-0 numbering refers to her wheel/axle layout - one front bogie and 4 drive axles. The coal tenders and water tank cars made up the locomotive, the water tank cars extending the engines range by provided an extra supply of water for desert operations.
• BSA M 20 MOTORBIKE
A staggering 126,000 of these motorbikes were produced during WW2 and were used by dispatch riders. They were assigned to Field Marshall Auchinleck, who was in charge of the British troops fighting the desert fox-Rommel.
• MATCHLESS G3L MOTORBIKE
The Matchless G3L was a two-seater single cylinder motorbike, with a 4 speed foot change gearbox. Designed for desert use, it was later to become a domestic vehicle in the form of the G3 Clubman.
• NORTON 16 H MOTORBIKE
The Norton 16 h was very similar to the BSA motorbikes, and was again specially designed for despatch riders in the desert campaign. So successful was the design that 100,000 were manufactured during World War 2 alone.
• BEDFORD MW; Built on a 15cwt chassis, with a 6 cylinder Bedford engine, they were versatile lightweight.
• BEDFORD OY; With almost double the payload of the MW, the Bedford OY 3 ton truck was the mainstay of the British Army, with some 72.000 produced.
• MORRIS COMMERCIAL CS8; Easily recognizable by it’s distinctive bonnet, these trucks were fitted with Ford 8 cylinder engines.
• FORD WOT 1; The largest of the vehicles in the wreck, this double axle truck was used for heavy payloads and was over 20ft long. Only a small number of these vehicles were produced for the army.
• FORD WOT 2; One of the most commonly used trucks, some 60,000 being produced, the 15cwt vehicle was generally fitted with planked tray and canvas top.
• FORD WOT 3; Larger than the WOT 2, this truck was fitted with a ford V8 engine 85hp,with some 18,00 seeing military service in WW11.
• TILLING STEVENS TS19; The largest of the 4 wheel trucks in the wreck, at 6.4 metres long, they weighed some 400kg and could carry a substantial payload.
• UNIVERSAL CARRIER; Three of these small multi-purpose tracked vehicles can be seen in the debris field between the two sections of the wreck. Built by Vickers Armstrong. They were used as infantry support and were usually fitted with a 303 Bren light machine guns hence their nick name 'Bren Gun Carriers'. They were powered by Ford V8 engines and could reach speeds of 48km/h. They carried up to 5 persons.
The Sinking of the Thistlegorm
A flight of German Bombers, having failed in their mission to find and sink the Queen Mary (then being used as a troop ship), looked for a secondary target and found the Thistlegorm. After strafing the ship, the circling Hienkel 111 dropped two bombs which hit the aft holds which were carrying the ordinance. The initial and secondary explosions almost ripped the ship in two and sent both steam locos hurtling through the air. Her fate was sealed and as she sank the crew abandoned ship and were taken on board the S.S Salamanua and HMS Carlisle. The explosion also caught the fleeing bomber, which eventually crashed a few miles to the north. Nine of the Thistlegorm's crew were killed. The date October 6th 1941. For the crew this was to be the start of their misery - not only was their pay stopped but they had to make their own way home.
CAPTAIN WILLIAM ELLIS: "On 6th October 1941 at about 2am, while the vessel was at anchorage F in the straits of Jubal (Gobal) with other vessels under Naval Control, I was awakened by the sound of explosions. I immediately went on deck and found the vessel had received a direct hit from an enemy bomber. The after part of the ship was enveloped in fierce flames and I realised right away there was no hope of saving the ship. Orders to abandon ship were given. As the crews quarters were aft, the sailors and firemen of the watch were cut off from the boats. Two boats were launched and the men whose quarters were amidships were safely got away. My boat drifted aft and was successful in picking up three or four men who had jumped overboard."
Discovery of the Wreck (and subsequent 're-discovery')
In the mid 1950's Jacques-Yves Cousteau discovered her by using information from local fishermen. He raised several items from the wreck, including a motorcycle, the Captain’s safe, and the ship’s bell. The February 1956 edition of "National Geographic" clearly shows the ship’s bell in place and Cousteau's divers in the ship’s "Lantern Room". Cousteau's exploration of the wreck was also documented in the film 'The Silent World'.
The Thistlegorm was then forgotten.
It was not until about 1991 that the Thistlegorm wreck was re-discovered by local diving operators.
The Wreck Today
The wreck has now been extensively dived and diver overload has taken its toll. Thoughtless mooring by dive masters to the handrails means they have long since gone, along with their soft corals. The front boiler cover of the port steam train has now fallen off, the port deck above number 1 hold has collapsed, threatening to send a water bowser down into the hold (as it has for years) which would flatten trucks bikes and rifles. Sadly the last remaining paravane on the starboard side has been destroyed - again through thoughtless mooring - the water bowser having been lifted and then dropped onto the towing array. All but a few of the portholes have disappeared. Never the less, the Thistlegorm is still a superb dive.
Diving the Wreck
Dropping on to her bow is quite a sight - her starboard anchor chain plunging down to the seabed below.
Swimming over the foc’sle, railway stock, and in to hold number one. Dropping down through rows of trucks and motor bikes, it is possible to continue aft to hold number two. Swim passed 'six packs' of rifles and aircraft wings. Number two hold is full of more trucks, boots and gives access to the bunkering hold. This is very roomy and has a resident school of sweepers hovering in its upper reaches. Again moving aft, the wreck seems to disintegrate. This is where the bombs struck. Shells litter the collapsed hold and there are three bren gun carriers.
Fifty feet to port sits one of the two locomotives - bolt upright like her twin on the starboard side. All that remains is the smoke box - the boilers lie elsewhere and there is no sign of the engineers cab anywhere - as these contained many brass controls, levers etc they may have been removed during a salvage operation.
The stern section lies over to port, and the aft hold has all but disappeared, leaving piles of munitions scattered around. The 3.5" gun and anti aircraft guns are still in place. Stern companionways around the weather deck make great swim throughs and more glass fish fill in the gaps. With care the rear accommodation area can be explored. Rounding the stern provides a view of her now motionless prop and rudder in 32 metres.
Above & Below images: The two guns are both found on the weather deck,
at the stern of the wreck.
The return swim to the bridge section passes the triple expansion engine and here the force of the explosion can be seen – the deck is folded back on itself, and above the galley hang sinks - upside down! There are several access points to the bridge level. The radio room can also be located here. Hidden under the upturned deck is the entrance to the galley, with it's ranges still intact.
Swimming forward now, along companionways accompanied by Batfish, Jacks, Snapper and Barracuda, the true splendour of the Thistlegorm can be experienced. Here amidst drones, masts, winches and davits swim all the resident Red Sea fishes, and tucked away safe from the constant fining action of divers there are still bushes of soft corals surviving. Visit the entire foc'sle before returning to the shot line.
The experience of night diving the wreck is not to be forgotten. Torchlight reveals the Red Sea in all her glory, the coral encrusted metal alive with invertebrates, her hull a mass of anemones, and every vertical face alive with delicate shrimps, crabs and other invertebrates. Basket stars and urchins patrol the decks and huge shoals shelter in the holds. Her foc’s’le is often the home to a huge turtle.
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