The body’s blood runs slow and deep at 4am. Outside it’s cold, dark and the sun will not show herself for another couple of hours. Most people, the sensible ones at least, are still in bed, wrapped in their duvets, wrapped in the arms of loved ones, wrapped in the bliss of sleep and dreams. And yet across Sharm numerous guests are shuffling bleary eyed to their hotels lobbies, breakfast boxes in hand and the feeling that somewhere someone is having laugh at their expense.
Why are people forsaking their beauty sleep and the warmth of their beds then? Easy. To dive the SS Thistlegorm.
Laying at 30 meters in the Strait of Gubal and forty kilometers as the crow flies from Sharm el-Sheikh (hence the early start), this British merchant navy ship has become, in a relatively short time, an icon of diving in the Red Sea, and is without doubt Egypt’s most famous wreck, if not one of the world’s most famous.
A Short History
The Thistlegorm belonged to the Albyn Line Company, a Scottish shipping company. The Albyn Line launched a total of 18 ships in their Thistle series (the thistle is the national flower of Scotland and the reason why the Albyn Line took the thistle as their company’s logo) and each were given a Gaelic suffix such as the Thistleroy (roy meaning red) and Thistlegorm (gorm meaning blue).
Launched on 9th April 1940, this three cylinder, triple expansion steam ship, capable of reaching an output of 1,850 Hp and an approximate speed of 10.5 knots was assigned transport duties of war materials for the Allied Forces at the beginning of World War II. To protect herself from attacks, she was fitted with a 4.7 inch light anti-aircraft gun and a 40 mm machine gun.
In May 1941, the Thistlegorm, with a crew of 39 men under the command of Captain William Ellis, left the port of Glasgow in Scotland and headed toward Alexandria in Egypt as part of a 16 ship convoy taking much needed supplies to the British 8th Army stationed in Egypt and eastern Libya (at the time known as Cyrenaica). Prior to this voyage, the Thistlegorm had successfully completed three journeys (to the U.S., Argentina and Antilles respectively) but this voyage would prove to be her last and final voyage.
Due to the Axis forces controlling most of the Mediterranean and, more importantly, the Strait of Gibraltar, the safest route for a convoy to travel to Egypt from Britain was around Africa, stopping at Cape Town and Aden to load water, food and fuel, before powering north through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. The convoy successfully completed the first two stages of their journey and were sailing north through the Red Sea when they received orders to cast anchors in the Strait of Gubal and await their turn to pass through the Suez Canal which had been temporarily obstructed by a ship that had struck a sea mine. Approximately two weeks before her sinking, the Thistlegorm anchored in the lee of a large reef (Sha’ab Ali), a place designated as Safe Anchorage F and, until this point, considered a safe berth.
By chance during the night of 5th/6th October two German Heinkel HE 111 bombers spotted the convoy and targeted the Thistlegorm as she was the largest ship in the convoy. At 0:35 on the 6th October they attacked the ship dropping two 2 ton bombs on her fourth hold, near the engine room, and where the ammunition was stored. The explosion was powerful, violent, exploding most of the munitions on board and one of the ships boilers. At 1:30, having been split in two, the Thistlegorm sank to the floor, finally coming to rest upright and, with the exception of the stern portion, on an even keel. HMS Carlisle, which was anchored next to the Thistlegorm, was able to save most of the crew but four crewmen and 5 Royal Navy Gunners (the youngest being only 17 years old) perished in the attack.
Discovery of the wreck
In March 1955 while on his way to the Indian Ocean to carry out a scientific mission on board his famous ship, the Calypso, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau discovered the wreck of the Thistlegorm, identifying the wreck from the ship’s bell. Despite the bombdamage, the divers from the Calypso found most of the cargo on the ship intact and using one of the first underwater movie cameras documented their amazing discovery. These scenes would later appear in the famous documentary, Le Monde du silence (“The World of Silence”), that Cousteau produced and co-directed with Louis Malle. Photographs and a long article in the National Geographic were printed in 1956 and, briefly, the Thistlegorm became an item of wonder before, again, passing in to obscurity.
Rediscovery of the wreck
The wreck was rediscovered in 1974 after an Israeli diver was taken there by a local Bedouin fisherman, but news of the discovery was kept secret and only known to a closed circle of divers. In 1992, Roger Winter started taking the first tourists to the wreck and in the same year an article was published in the Italian diver magazine Aqva, followed shortly by an article in the British diver magazine, Diver. With these two publications the word was out about this amazing wreck laying at rest in the Red Sea and the SS Thistlegorm rapidly became one of the most famous and sought after wrecks in the world.
I am absolutely enraptured by the atmosphere of a wreck. A dead ship is the house of a tremendous amount of life – fish and plants. The mixture of life and death is mysterious, even religious. There is the same sense of peace and mood that you feel on entering a cathedral.
Jacques Yves Cousteau