Red Seas most famous WW2 casualty celebrated
her 65th Anniversary in 2006
Mention the Thistlegorm to anyone who has dived in the Red Sea, and most will gladly tell you about their experiences of diving this stunning wreck. Such is the magnetic quality of this very special wreck; it keeps bringing divers back to the Red Sea time and time again.
Dive briefings have become more and more factually accurate over time, but how many guides (and guests!) know the real story.
To mark the 65th Anniversary of her demise, it seems only right to tell her true story.
Built by Joseph Thompson & Sons of Sunderland, and launched in June 1940, the SS Thistlegorm was owned and operated by the Albyn Line, although her construction was partly funded by the UK Government.
The name Thistlegorm is Gaelic for blue thistle and should be pronounced “thestlegorom”. Since she was not designed as a war ship, despite being classified as an armed freighter, she was not given the title HMS (His Royal Majesties Service), instead simply SS (Steam Ship)
As for her vital statistics, she was 126.5m in length, displacing 4898 tonnes and was powered by triple expansion 3 cylinder steam engine that generated 1,850 EHP.
She had two guns fitted to the stern for self defence. The gun right at the stern was a 4 inch (100mm) low angle gun for defence against surface submarine attack, and the one forward of that was a 3 inch anti-aircraft gun. Both weapons were of pre WW2 Vintage (almost certainly of late WW1 vintage).
There was a large pool of 4 inch guns surplus from the secondary armament of old battle cruisers, destroyers and cruisers, and a very large number of the shorter barrel version (25 calibres) from WW1 DEMS (defensively armed merchant ships). Maximum range would be about 10,000 yards with a rate of fire of 15-18 rounds per minute (rpm). The 3 inch AA gun was probably a Mark 1 hand loaded semi-automatic gun firing a 12lb shell with a range of 10-12,000 yards and a rate of fire of 20 rpm.
Ian Taylor, Historian and regular guest of the college has kindly provided us with the following information on Additional information on Armament fitted to Thistlegorm
Contrary to popular belief, her maiden voyage was not the fateful trip which saw her destroyed, she first set sail destined for the States. On her second voyage, this time to Africa, they tried to fire the 4 inch gun. The gun misfired and when tried again with the aid of a long rope and from the safety of the mast house, managed to light up the whole stern with a huge flash but only fired the round a short distance from the ship. This was the end of this 4 inch gunnery practice onboard the SS Thistlegorm. Her penultimate voyage was to India, after which she went to the Clyde for two months of repairs before being loaded for her fatal voyage.
For what was to be her final voyage, she was loaded in Glasgow with every inch of space being used. The manifest stated a cargo of only motor parts, hiding what the ship was truly carrying. The Albyn Line took advantage of the upper deck to load two locomotives with rolling stock – two half-coal half-water and two with only water to allow for the high temperatures and long distances.
She set sail from the Clyde with William Ellis as her captain. There were 42 men on board – 9 Royal Navy personnel & 33 merchant seamen. She took the long route around Africa, over 12,000 miles in all, but at the time this was thought to be safest option due to the loss of Crete in May 1941, which gave the Axis powers complete aerial control of the Central and Eastern Mediterranean and making it impassable to merchant shipping.
The ship stopped briefly in Cape Town and Aden to refuel. Two of the crew went AWOL, only to be taken back to the ship just before it sailed, one was later to lose his life. On leaving she was joined by the cruiser HMS Carlisle, to protect her and her precious cargo.
In the third week of September, she reached what was still, at the time, called “Safe Anchorage F”, although this was soon to change. The Heinkels had recently mastered the art of flying by night, and were doing so regularly, travelling further and further from their base.
Passage through the Suez was closed it is said due to 2 ships colliding and blocking the way. Ships often had to wait for passage, this was not uncommon. Due to German activity, and given the priority of the cargo and their place in line.I suspect that Thistlegorm could have been held up because of a lack of Naval Escorts as well as canal mining. Remenbering that the British Navy had been decimated after the loss of Crete in May. Thistlegorm spent 2 weeks at anchor during which time the main engines were turned off and the crew relaxed, trying to fill their time. No-one was to know that she would still be there 65 years later, lying in a watery grave.
At the end of September, German intelligence reported the existence of a large troopship, which it is also said may have been the Queen Mary, bringing 1200 troops to North Africa. On the 5th Oct, acting on this information, the Luftwaffe dispatched 2 Heinkel he 111 bombers from No. 2 squadron, 26th Kamp Geswader, based in Crete, both with a five man crew, two bombs and twin engines. Only one was to make it back, but it was the other that took all the glory.
Although it is possible I do not think it could have been the Queen Mary as her war time capacity was 8-10,000 on a long voyage and up to 20,000 on a transatlantic voyage. There had been a large convoy in the 3rd week of July comprising Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Aquitania and lle de France, carrying about 25,000 Australian troops, to Suez which gave the Navy much concern due to the risk of air attack. I can also not find any records showing the Queen Mary in the area during this time With the help of a cloudless moonlit night, both planes searched in vain for the troop carrier which it is now said had already passed through, some 7 hours before. With fuel becoming low, the planes split to cover more ground. Each would have had to drop their bombs before the journey home as they would not have had enough fuel to return and it was not possible to safely land with them still attached to the plane. Both desperate to find a target one came across Safe Anchorage F. He picked the largest ship and, without a single shot being fired in return, managed to drop 2 bombs – both hitting cargo hold 4 of SS Thistlegorm. The time of the strike was officially recorded as 01:30am on the morning of the 6th October 1941.
The Heinkel then turned and headed back for Crete. During its return flight, it was shot down, and from the crew of five, only two survived. Ltn. Heindrich Menge and his colleague spent the rest of the war in a POW Camp.
The explosion which followed illuminated the whole area, and it is widely believed this may be responsible for giving away the location of the Rosseli Muller, another renowned Red Sea wreck, to the other plane, which one can only presume had already ditched its load. The Rosseli Muller was sunk 2 days later.
The massive blast, aided by all the munitions in the cargo hold, blew the 2 locomotives high into the air and set the deck ablaze. Sadly, 9 men lost their lives that morning, if not for the exceptionally hot weather meaning most of the crew slept on the deck that night, a lot more lives may have been lost. The main casualties were from the Royal Navy personal, as their position would have been near to the guns on the stern, and thus, closer to cargo hold 4-5. Of the 9 who lost their lives, 5 were gunners and 4 were merchant sea men employed by the Albyn Line. The Albyn crew had their wages stopped from the time of sinking and the survivors had to make their own way home.
Survivors were picked up by the HMS Carlisle. Captain Ellis was later awarded an OBE by King George VI for his actions that night. Crewman Angus McLeay was awarded the George Medal and Lloyd’s war Medal for Bravery at sea after rescuing a fellow crew member from the burning ship.
Unsurprisingly, Safe Anchorage F was no longer referred to as “safe” and for many years British ships would lower their flags when passing the spot.
Given this past, the ship did not need to be discovered but only explored. The Local Bedouin have fished off the Wreck since its untimely end, as copious fish congregate around this huge structure; however, its “discovery” is credited to Cousteau in 1955. At this time, some of the ship could still be seen from the surface. He went on to feature the wreck in a film, where he showed the ships bell, which it is said he then removed, starting a tragic trend. The ships official GPS Position is (SA OFF) N-27 48,849 E-33 55,222.
The co-ordinates Cousteau made public for the location of the wreck were well off the mark, indicating a lapse in his navigating skills or a desire not to share the wreck. The latter seems more likely, given that before leaving the wreck, it is also said that he removed the part of the mast that was visible, further disguising her presence. There are many tales and fables surrounding the Thistlegorm, passed down through dive guides, guests and locals. Much has been written about the mighty ship, published in various media, although not all sources agree on some key points. Some of the most common myths can now be dispelled.
The ship was not loaded with supplies for the 8th army under Lt-Gen. B.L. Montgomery. The 8th army had only been formed in September of the same year under the control of Lt-Gen Sir Allan Cunningham. Montgomery did not take control of the 8th army until August 15th 1942.
The supplies were part of a huge consignment sent earlier to General Percival Wavell, commander of the UK Dessert Force by Churchill, against his military advisors wishes, as Wavell had suffered many defeats at the hands of Rommel.
Wavell had to hand over control of his dessert force to Gen. Sir Claude Auchinleck in November 1941. This was to become part of the 8th army and the turning point of the war in North Africa. The 8th army had first seen action in November, only after the ships sinking.
Although the Ships manifest simply stated Motor Transport, the cargo included Morris cars, Tilling Stevens, Bedford Trucks, Ford 6×4’s and Ford 2×4’s, BSA M-20’s Norton 16H Motorbikes, Matchless G3L’s, Bren guns, tanks, although not tanks as we would normally think of them but 4 ton multi use tracked vehicles, Two Stanier 8 F locomotives with rail cars, 303 Enfield carbines, Mines and many aircraft parts, Hospital equipment, Fuel wagons, WW 1 armoured cars modified and fitted with radio equipment, 2 Knockers (paravanes), Navel and field artillery, trailers, water purifiers and much more.
There were only two locomotives, not three, as stated in some publications. The layout of the ship simply would not have allowed for a third locomotive to be carried. There where 2 small gauge Stanier 8 F locomotives onboard and what can now be seen port and starboard are only the smoke boxes which sit above the 2 support wheels and the first 2 drive wheels. The loco’s had 10 wheels, so what some authors refer to as the third loco someway from the ships stern, is actually the boiler section and the 6 drive wheels.
Much has been written about the cargo, and the intended use of this cargo. It is a constant source of rumour and speculation. What better place to start than the Wellington Boots. There are many reasons given for having them onboard such as a decoy when loading to give the impression the ship was going elsewhere. That they were all extra large so if found they would scare the Germans and that they were all left footed. The actual purpose was to cut down on static build up with the ground crews when refuelling the many aircraft which was often done between quick landings and take off’s. On the wreck you will find refuelling wagons at the lower level of cargo hold one as well as many aircraft parts, wings, engines and many other parts throughout the ship.
The Captains cabin is often pointed out on the port site of the ship complete with bath. In fact, the Captain quarters are always found on the starboard side and would have been on the next level. This bath may have been used as part of the sick room which should have been above and for the very occasional use of the officers.
On the sea floor, at the stern of the wreck, you will see what looks like dried spaghetti strands. In fact, this is cordite, which was bailed together and acted as the propellant for heavy artillery.
To dive the SS Thistlegorm is truly an unforgettable experience. When you plan to dive her, please give the old lady the respect she deserves. Much has been damaged and taken from the ship over the years but she is still a real treasure. It would have been possible to provide pictures of stolen pieces of memorabilia with interviews, as those who have taken them are only too proud to show them off, but this only glorifies the actions of those poor sad fool’s.
Many thanks to Ian Taylor who has helped no end in the research of this information. Ian is a valued College guest and fantastic naval historian.