The convoy anchored in the secure haven off Shadwan Island; Straits of Gubal on a bright moonlight light, blissfully unaware of its impending doom. Believing that the Royal Navy would give warning of any air raids, the ships settled down for the night under the illusion of safety
Elsewhere 2 Heinkel HE111 bombers were deployed from Crete headed toward the Red Sea, becoming increasingly low on fuel they were anxious about returning to base. As a means of conserving precious fuel the bombers prepared the bombs for release to the sea when they spotted the sheltered convoy. SS Thistlegorm was anchored away from the convoy due to her large cargo of ammunitions, her bigger size and this small distance made her the ideal target for the bombers.
After a fly-by, one of the HE 111 planes dropped its 2 bombs which penetrated the aft of the vessel, one finding the fourth hold stowing the ammunitions cargo. There are conflicting reports surrounding the initial explosions but the survivor statements indicate that there were dull thuds causing a massive fire engulfing the 2 rear holds of the ship.
The ammunitions within the holds started to heat up in the blaze as bullets and tracer ammunition started to fly in all directions. About a quarter of an hour after the attack there was a massive explosion in the aft holds, it is suggested that this may be due to one of the bombs being lodged in the hold and being gradually “cooked off” by the fire. This heat finally caused the remaining bomb to explode, sealing the fate of the ship.
In the early hours of October 6th 1941 at 1.39 am the Thistlegorm finally sunk with a massive explosion that was heard in Cairo over 200 miles away. The blast broke the ships back as she folded like a jack-knife sinking almost instantly. Flying debris from the ship damaged other ships in the vicinity and large parts of the ship, including 2 large locomotives, were blown up to 80 metres away from the ship where they remain to this day on the sea bed.
Surviving crew members were picked up by the HMS Carlisle and taken to safety. Seaman Angus Mac Leay, one of the crew, was awarded the “George Medal” for his heroic actions that night as he carried a badly wounded gunner through the flames, across the deck and onto a lifeboat. Sadly the boat lost nine men that night; 5 gunners and 4 merchant seamen. For many years after many British vessels passing the area would lower their flags in respect for the ship and the lives that were lost. Today the wreckage remains in permanent memorial and as one of the most exciting dives available in the Red Sea.
This was the last part of our Thistlegorm series. 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.