thistle’, was a British transport ship belonging to the Albyn Line shipping company, was 126.5 meters long, a capacity of 4,898 tons (9,009 displacement tons), and had a three-cylinder steam engine developing 1,860 HP that gave the vessel a speed of around 10 knots. The Thistlegorm was built to transport refurbished wartime materials for the British troops. In May 1941 with a crew of 39 men it had left the port of Glasgow, Scotland, with a cargo of munitions,
bombs of different kinds, antitank mines, Lee Enfield MK III rifles, a hundred of BSA motor-
cycles, BSA W-M20, Matchless G3L and Norton 16 H, Bedford, Morris and Ford trucks, two
light Bren Carrier MK || tanks, de two steam Stanier 8 F locomotives complete with two w coal tenders and water tankers necessary for travel in desert zones, transport trucks, portable field generators, spare parts for airplanes and automobiles, medicines, tyres and rubber boots. The cargo was destined for the British 8th c Army stationed in Egypt and Cyrenaica (Lybia); yet the German forces controlled the Mediterranean so circumnavigating Africa and passing through the Suez Canal to reach the port of Alexandria was considered the safer route. The Thistlegorm was already on its way up the Red Sea when it received the order to anchor in the Strait of Gubal and wait as the Suez Canal was temporarily obstructed by a vessel that had hit a German mine. On the night of the 5-6h October two German Heinkel He III
THISTLEGORM Type of ship: steam freighter Nationality: British Construction date: 1940 Propulsion: steam Max. speed: 10.5 knots Length: 126.5 m Width: 17.5 m Tonnage: displacement of 9,009 t Date of shipwreck:
5-6 October 1941 Depth: 15-30 m
bombers, coming from their base in Crete, sighted and attacked the ship. It was hit by two bombs on hold no. 4 where the munitions deposit – among other things – was situated. The explosion was very violent and tore the ship in two whilst the locomotives
despite their weight of 126 tons each and the fact that they were tied to the deck, were catapulted into the air, sinking to the seabed about 30 meters away. The Thistlegorm sank abruptly in an upright position on a flat, sandy seabed 30 meters deep at 1:30 am on the 6th of October 1941. The crew and the captain were saved by the nearby vessel HMS Carlisle, but nine men died during the attack. It was Jacques-Yves Cousteau with his legendary oceanographic ship Calypso, who discovered the wreck in 1955 and who mentioned it
an article published in February 1956 in the monthly National Geographic Magazine. Cousteau, however, did not reveal the position of the wreck, thus it went forgotten for almost 40 years until 1992 when it was rediscovered by an Israeli skipper. In a short time, the Thistlegorm has become a great favourite with scuba divers from all over the world and is now the most visited wreck in the whole Red Sea.
Exploration of the wreck The Thistlegorm lies 19.2 miles from Ras Mohammed and 31 miles from Sharm el-Sheikh. Locating the exact site is sometimes difficult because its framework is not visible from the surface and it is wise to use GPS. As an alternative – based on an empiric system and certainly less accurate – you can use a compass and visible landmarks. Once the position of the wreck is found the diving boat needs to be moored to the wreck’s framework with
two ropes along the bow and
stern parallel to the wreck itself. This operation can be delicate; it should be done by dive guides and normally takes at least 15 minutes. In the course of the years incompetent or ignorant guides tied the ropes of their boats on fragile points (like small staircases, winch arms
or handrails), and not on solid S structures adequate to sustain
strong tractions (such
winches or propeller axis), thus causing massive damage to the ship. Exploration of the ship is usually done in two phases: The first dive is a general tour of the wreck resting in its NW-SE position; the second dive includes penetration of the holds. Descents and ascents are done along the ropes with which the diving boat is moored to the wreck. Visibility is not always good (it rarely goes beyond 20 to 30 meters) and tidal currents from bow to stern can be present and sometimes very strong.
External exploration The stern lists to port at a 46° angle and, at its deepest point of 30 meters, the four-bladed propeller and the rudder can be seen. Ascending a few meters to a depth of 25 meters, on the upper deck there is a 4.7 inch – machinegun and directly towards the bow the 10.3 inch anti-aircraft
gun surrounded by schools of glassfish (Parapriacanthus ransonneti). You continue and examine the wide gash caused by the German bombs at hold No. 4 which contained ammunition, bombs, two Bren Carrier MK II tanks (which now lie on the seabed, overturned but in good condition), and trailers to transport ammunition. The ammunition, much of which survived intact, can still be seen in situ, as can the two stumps of the propeller’s axle.
One of the two Stanier 8 F locomotives, that were part of the cargo of the Thistlegorm, lies on the seabed about 30 meters away from the hull towards the south-west in line with hold no. 4. The main axis of the locomotive, of which only the front portion of the boiler and the first two pairs of wheels have survived, is resting almost parallel to the ship. Moving along the hull towards the bow you come across an open funnel vent amidst the torn wreckage of the deck.
Also located here is the opening to hold no. 3, which mainly held coal. Coming to the central and highest section of the ship, we find the bridge, from which all the contents have been removed, including the beautiful on-board telegraph used to transmit orders to the engine room. Next is the captain’s cabin and further forward is the wide opening to hold no. 2, flanked by the locomotives’ two coal tenders. Away from the opening of hold no. 2, approximately 20 meters to starboard, resting on the seabed at a depth of 30 meters is the second Stanier 8 F locomotive: different from the first in that the front boiler hatch is open. Continuing the ascent along the main deck of the ship towards the bow, one notes the two large capstans of the loading derricks serving hold no. 2, and the tilted main mast, partially supported by the port side tender. Next comes the quarterdeck, where we find the openings that provided ventilation for the
holds. There are also two further winches before the entrance to hold no. I, which is flanked by the two tank wagons used to transport the water supply necessary for the locomotives. On the deck, next to the starboard quarterdeck, a torpedo-shaped paravane is still visible along with the davit for lifting and lowering it into the water. These were devices on board many British vessels during the Second World War; fitted with direction-indicator fins they were paid out to stern and served to cut the cables fastening any potential deep-sea
mines to the seabed. Moving on toward the bow, at a depth of 16 meters, on the port side there is one of the two small stairways to the forecastle whereas the starboard one was torn away in 2001 and rests on the bridge not far away. At the centre of the forecastle
is the perfectly preserved large anchor winch, surrounded by dense shoals of anthias. One may also observe the port side anchor, still in its original position, and its counterpart on the starboard side, which lies on the seabed over a hundred meters from the hull.
The Holds Examining the holds and their cargo is usually the objective of the second dive on the wreck. Hold no. 3 is of minimal interest since it contained mainly coal for the engine boiler. If the current is strong, going through this hold is the easiest way to reach hold no. 2, which is far more interesting. Hold no. 2 is divided into two – an upper and a lower level. On the upper level, you find on both sites numerous WOT 2 Ford trucks, Bedford OY and MW trucks, as well as several Morris commercial CS 8 jeeps. There are also some BSA W-M20 and Norton 16H motorcycles, some of them with sidecars. On the port side of the lower level, there are many trailers (almost all of which are empty) and spare airplane wings; on the starboard side there are Bedford trucks containing some Norton H16 motorcycles with sidecars and a supply of rubber
boots. Hold no. 1, situated the fin towards the bow and connect- ed by two internal lateral bubble passageways to hold no. 2, is metal also of considerable interest. corro Whilst its port side has
their completely collapsed, the many starboard side of this hold the te contains, on the upper level, two empty trailers side-by-side, Matchless G3L and Norton 16 H motorcycles (some with sidecars), and, on the lower level, covers for aeroplane engines, crates of medicines, Lee Enfield MK III rifles, and several portable electric generators.
Conservation the wreck, Unfortunately, nowadays the number of scuba divers visiting the Thistlegorm every day has reached unsupportable levels. Their presence is jeopardizing
the fine state of preservation of the wreck’s framework; the air bubbles accumulating against the metal walls are causing rapid corrosion that is endangering their very survival. Furthermore, many scuba divers cannot resist the temptation to take away
objects, parts of the motorcycles or even ammunition. The Thistlegorm is not only one of the most famous wrecks in the world and one of the major tourist attractions in Egypt (it generates more money than one of the Pyramids at Giza), yet it is above all an extraordinary historic relic of WW2 the conservation of which today becomes more and more urgent and should incite the Egyptian Authorities to introduce severe measures controlling scuba diving – on maybe even closure of the site.
Features • Extremely interesting dives on a wreck that is exceptional for its history and preserved condition. • An abundance of fauna
Comments • The site is hard to find if you do not have a GPS. • Difficult dive because of the depth and the current. • Visibility is often poor. • Ascents and descents must be done using the mooring lines of the diving boat. • Start your ascent with 80 bar. • Carry a torch with you. • Be careful when visiting the inner structures. • Very crowed site with too many boats on the surface and too many divers on the wreck. • Do not take anything from the wreck.