by Ian Taylor
Why was Thistlegorm in the Red Sea and what is her historical importance?
The wreck of S.S. Thistlegorm is the “Jewel in the Crown” of the diving delights of Sharm-el-Sheikh. It is recognised as one of the best wreck dives in the world and attracts more divers than any other dive site in the world. It is only a few hours by boat from Sharm-el Sheikh and, with a maximum depth of 30 metres is accessible to all advanced open water divers.
Thistlegorm was one of a number of general purpose cargo ships (otherwise known as “Tramps“) owned by the Albyn Line which was founded in 1901. All their ships names began with the word “Thistle” and the suffix “Gorm” means “Blue Thistle”. She was built by Joseph L Thompson & Sons Ltd at Sunderland on the River Wear in County Durham, England. At the time of her construction the British Shipping and Shipbuilding Industries were slowly recovering from the effects of the “Great Depression”. As war appeared a possibility, the British Government initiated financial grants to owners ordering new ships in anticipation of the passing of the “British Shipping Assistance Bill”. This grant was gratefully accepted by the owners and construction of the £115,000 vessel began. Thistlegorm was launched on 9th April 1940 and as WWII was already a reality, she was completed as a “Defensively Armed Merchant Ship“. She was fitted with an obsolete 4-inch gun right at the stern and a 3-inch anti-aircraft gun in the middle of the poop deck. Concrete slabs were fitted round the bridge and superstructure to protect against machine gun fire and shell and bomb splinters. Her fateful final trip was only her fourth voyage.
The war was going badly for Britain in the latter part of 1941. In the Mediterranean the Germans had driven the British Forces out of Greece and had captured the vital Island of Crete in a daring parachute launched invasion. With the loss of Crete, access to the Eastern Mediterranean was shut off from the West and all supplies from Britain to the Navy, Army and Airforce in Egypt had to be brought round the Cape of Good Hope and up through the Red Sea, a voyage of about 12,000 miles, and then through the Suez Canal.
The British were attempting to build up their supplies and forces in Egypt in order to confront and expel Rommel in “Operation Crusader” and Thistlegorm was one of the many ships bringing these urgently needed supplies to Egypt. She was loaded at Glasgow in July 1941 with war supplies destined for the newly formed 8th Army and for the Royal Navy at Alexandria. This army was in the process of re-grouping and being re-equipped to make up for the massive equipment losses suffered during the disastrous military campaigns in Greece and Crete and in the desert. The Navy was desperately short of anti-aircraft ammunition, comprising 4-inch shells, 2-pounder pom-pom shells and 20 mm Oerlikon Cannon shells. In the battle for Crete alone the British Navy fired 8-10,000 4-inch shells and more than 20 times that number of the smaller shells.
Thistlegorm had a Gross Registered tonnage of 4,898 tons but this was deceptive. When fully loaded she displaced (weighed) nearly 13,000 tons and she was loaded to capacity with an incredible mix of war supplies. Her holds were filled with ammunition of all types for both the Navy and Army, Bren Gun Carriers, lorries, motorcycles, naval mines, rifles and ammunition, aircraft engines and parts, generators, medical supplies, Wellington boots and many other items. Gigantic 15-inch naval shells are still visible, each one weighing 1920 lbs and could be fired up to 18 miles. On deck she carried two large steam locomotives each with a coal tender and a separate water tender needed for operations in the desert. The safe arrival of this cargo was of vital importance to the British Campaign in the Middle East. With this unique cargo, much of it still in place, Thistlegorm is an underwater time capsule from nearly 70 years ago. Tragically she is also a war grave
Keep an eye out for our next newsletter, where we will tell the story of her final voyage and it’s tragic ending. RSDC runs weekly trips out to this outstanding wreck. You can dive it for fun or integrate the dives into a speciality course such as “Wreck Diver” or “Deep Diver”. Check out our web site for more details on the courses and how to pre-book them.
What is the story behind this great shipwreck, and why is she so important to divers and historians alike?
These are common questions asked about this fabulous wreck, so we here at Red Sea Diving College will begin a series of articles in our newsletter to enlighten you and hopefully answer some of your questions.