The Wreck of the SS Thistlegorm
The remains of the British steam ship Thistlegorm is regularly listed amongst the top dive sites in the world. She began life as a cargo ship, built in Sunderland in 1940 for the Scottish Albyn Line, whose ships’ names all started with “Thistle” followed by various colours (“gorm” means blue in Gaelic). But the early years of World War Two was a dangerous time to be an Allied merchantman. Packs of U-boats roamed the Atlantic, and German and Italian aircraft dominated the Mediterranean. The newly-built Thistlegorm had only completed three voyages before she left Glasgow in June 1941 bound for Alexandria in Egypt with a mixed cargo of military stores for the Allied forces based there.
With the direct route through the Mediterranean closed to shipping by enemy aircraft, the Thistlegorm was instead routed around Southern Africa, through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. As she approached Egypt and the end of her long voyage, a collision between two ships from a previous convoy temporarily blocked the canal. She was diverted to wait in an anchorage near Ras Muhammad. It was here that two German He111 bombers found her, a stationary sitting duck, on a moonlit night in October 1941.
It was the ammunition carried in her stern hold that sunk the Thistlegorm. She was struck by two bombs which pierced her deck and set off a huge explosion. Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai dessert saw the flash as it briefly turned the night sky to day. The force of it peeled back the deck so it now lies across her shattered superstructure like the pulled lid on a tin of sardines. Two steam locomotives that were part of her deck cargo were tossed through the air like discarded toys, striking the water 30 metres to either side and settling to the bottom, still upright on their wheels. Nine of the crew perished in the blast, and the rest were picked up by a nearby warship, HMS Carlisle. Mortally wounded, the Thistlegorm sunk below the surface.
The Thistlegorm’s story might well have ended there, were it not for the legendary scuba pioneer, Jacques Cousteau. Fourteen years later, he arrived in the Gulf of Suez on his research ship Calypso, hunting for wrecks. He asked local fishermen to identify where concentrations of fish were to be found, deducing that these might indicate the presence of a wreck. So it was that he came across the Thistlegorm resting upright on the seabed. He thoroughly explored the ship, raising various items including the captain’s safe and the ship’s bell, and wrote an article about her for National Geographic Magazine. Although the stern half of the wreck had been badly damaged, forward of the bridge the ship and her cargo were intact. It was this that made her such an astonishing window into a vanished world, and the Thistlegorm one of the most iconic of dive sites.
Last month I had the privilege of diving on the Thistlegorm with fellow members of Mid-Herts Divers. We made four separate visits to the wreck, including one at night. We passed along dark abandoned corridors, as if entering a tomb. Veils of glassfish parted as we approached, working our way towards the forward holds. Once inside the silver beams of our torches flickered across serried rows of army trucks, their split windscreens and curved bonnets from another age. In every direction the space is crammed with all the paraphernalia of a war that ended before any of us were born. The hold is tightly packed, just as the dockers who stowed her cargo intended, for the long sea voyage from Glasgow. Trucks and tanks, motorbikes and rifles, aircraft spares and sea boots. We squeezed over them all, through the narrow gap between cargo and deckhead. As we left, the dark of eighty years returned in our wake.
Thistlegorm is such an astonishing time-capsule that it now draws visitors from across the world. This has led some to worry about her future. The expelled air from so many divers remains trapped within her, accelerating her decay. Dive boats mooring themselves directly to the wreck do more damage. But there are other signs pointing to her future. Green turtles and moray eels now live in her cable tier. Clouds of brilliantly coloured fish dart through the superstructure. Coral spreads inexorably across her hull. All make it abundantly clear that the Thistlegorm will share the fate of all wrecks. She will be slowly absorbed by the sea, until only a fresh coral outcrop on the sand will remain to mark her resting place.