When SS Thistlegorm sailed from the River Clyde in July 1941, bound for the Middle East, it was only her fourth voyage. Unfortunately it would be her final one.
As the Mediterranean was now closed to through shipping after the loss of Crete, all supplies from Britain had to be routed round the Cape of Good Hope and up through the Red Sea. The voyage to Suez alone was well over 12,000 miles and it was a further 250 miles to Alexandria. If the route through the Mediterranean had still been open, the voyage from Glasgow to Alexandria through the Straits of Gibraltar would have been reduced to about 4,500 miles. The loss of Crete meant that three times as many ships were required to deliver the same quantity of supplies to the Allied Forces in Egypt round the Cape within the same timescale. An immense and much more difficult task!
Once loaded in Glasgow, Thistlegorm joined a convoy, part destined for Gibraltar and part for the West Indies. These convoys were escorted until out of enemy aircraft range and then split to sail to their various destinations. After the convoy split, Thistlegorm was ordered to sail independently to Suez. As she was sailing independently she would have largely kept clear of recognised direct shipping routes, to avoid becoming the victim of a U-boat attack. As there were radio reports of U-boat activity in the Freetown area, Thistlegorm made a further detour away from the danger area and then sailed direct to Cape Town, a voyage which took 37 days.
This length of voyage was beyond the capacity of Thistlegorm’s coal bunkers, but the possibility of this had been foreseen as the after part of hold number two contained the necessary extra coal. It is now empty but traces of coal are still there. Food supplies must have been running low and the diet monotonous but the main complaint from the crew was that they had run out of cigarettes.
At Cape Town the crated aircraft on the deck was unloaded but the Locomotives, their Tenders and Water Tenders remained. The coal bunkers were replenished and provisions topped up. This five day stopover was a welcome break for the crew after the dreary conditions in wartime Britain. The South African hospitality was generous and greatly appreciated by all the merchant navy crew members and the 9 naval gunners.
After a short stopover at Aden, Thistlegorm sailed up the Red Sea to an anchorage off Sha’ab Ali known euphemistically as “Safe Anchorage F”, to await clearance to transit the Suez Canal with about 20 other ships. This gathering of ships was guarded by the Royal Navy, and they had been held there for about 10 days as the Suez Canal had been closed due to the Germans dropping bombs and mining the canal. This was a boring interlude for the crew, as it meant waiting until the Suez Canal reopened. With the radar-equipped anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Carlisle as the guard-ship Thistlegorm was due to sail through the canal the next day. There were no air raid warnings, the merchant ships guns were secured, leaving their protection to the Royal Navy and by midnight most of the crew had turned in.
As the ship was not moving there were no air currents to cool the ship so at night many crew members resorted to sleeping on deck, either in hammocks by the aft superstructure or on mattresses on the aft cargo hatches. It was quiet and serene in the anchorage, a brilliant full moon was up and the war still seemed far away.
On the 6th October 1941 only three people were on watch; the radio operator, keeping watch for any further movement signals, the “donkeyman” keeping the auxiliary machinery working and a seaman on anchor watch. As the ship was due to sail the next day to the Suez Canal, steam would be supplied from the auxiliary boiler and low fires would be lit in the main boilers to prepare for steaming the next day. Unfortunately she never made it as that night the fatal attack took place at about 1.15am.
Keep an eye out for our next newsletter, where we will tell the last part of the story; her tragic ending. RSDC runs weekly trips out to this outstanding wreck. You can dive it for fun or integrate