This is possibly the most famous shipwreck in the world and certainly the most dived. Much has been written about the Thistlegorm and a search for a video on “You Tube” alone will bring you over 24,300 results. Within any twenty four hours over 300 divers will visit the Thistlegorm and at some periods it can be over a thousand.
The SS Thistlegorm was a general cargo Merchant Navy ship built in 1940 by Joseph Thompson & Son in Sunderland, England. She was sunk on 6 October 1941 and was classed as “Armed”, however although she was armed as such, the armaments were just what were lying around and mostly ineffective left overs from the first world war. All of the armaments pointed to the rear as they were for defence not attack. She couldn’t fire forwards.
She was powered by a triple expansion steam engine which generated 365 horse power and was capable of 11 knots. She was built for the Albyn Line, partly funded by the British Government and launched in 1940. The Albyn line had a number of ships all bearing the name “Thistle”
The SS Thistlegorm made three successful journeys before her final voyage. After her third voyage to the West Indies she returned to the River Clyde where repairs to her boilers were undertaken. She was then loaded and departed Glasgow for the port of Alexandria on the Egyptian Mediterranean coast. The cargo was to supply the Western Desert force which later became the 8th Army.
The Cargo included: Bedford trucks, Universal Carrier (armoured vehicles), Norton 16H and BSA motorcycles, Bren guns, cases of ammunition, and 0.303 rifles as well as radio equipment, Wellington boots (you cannot believe the size of them), aircraft parts, and two LMS Stanier Class 8F steam locomotives. The Locomotives had their coal and water tenders and were welded to the deck. For the final voyage the ship was commanded by Captain William Ellis, In addition to the crew there were 9 Royal Navy gunners.
To arrive at Alexandria via the normal route would have been through the straights of Gibraltar but due to high risk, the route planned was the long way around Africa, through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The Thistlegorm sailed as part of a convoy via Cape Town, South Africa, where she refuelled before heading north up the East coast of Africa and into the Red Sea. In Cape Town, the light cruiser HMS Carlisle joined the convoy.
On arrival at the Gulf of Suez Thistlegorm was told to moor at moored at Safe Anchorage F as the Suez Canal was blocked and several other ships were anchored in the area. It was the third week of September 1941 (no specific date known) and she remained at anchor until her sinking on 6 October 1941. The HMS Carlisle was said to be at the same anchorage.
It’s said that the Allied forces were amassing troops in the area and German intelligence were looking out for the Queen Mary which was thought to be carrying troops. Two Heinkel He-111 aircraft were dispatched from Crete to destroy the Queen Mary. This search failed but one of the bombers piloted by Ltn. Heinrich Menge from the 26th Kamp Geswader, second Squadron discovered the vessels moored in Safe Anchorage F. Menge went for the largest ship and released his bombs which hit near hold four of what turned out to be the SS Thistlegorm. Hold 4 had ammunition and the blast from the bombs and the explosion led to the loss of the Thistlegorm, four of the crew and five of the Navy Gunners. The survivors were picked up by HMS Carlisle. Captain Ellis was awarded the OBE for his actions following the explosion and a crewman, Angus McLeay, was awarded the George Medal and the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea for saving another crew member.
The wreck of the Thistlegorm stayed at peace for over a decade until Jacques-Yves Cousteau discovered her by using information from local fishermen. 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. He’s also said to have taken a BSA motorcycle and the ships safe.