SS Thistlegorm was a British armed merchantNavy ship built in 1940 by
Joseph Thompson & Son in Sunderland, England. She was sunk on 6 October
1941 near Ras Muhammad in the Red Sea and is now a well known diving
The SS Thistlegorm was built by Joseph Thompson & Sons shipyard in
Sunderland for the Albyn Line and launched in April 1940. She was
powered by a triple-expansion steam engine rated to 365 hp (272 KW). The
vessel was privately owned but had been partly financed by the British
government and was classified as an armed freighter. She was armed with
a 4.7-inch (120 mm) anti-aircraft gun and a heavy-calibre machine gun
attached after construction to the stern of the ship. She was one of a
number of "Thistle" ships owned and operated by the Albyn Line, which
was founded in 1901, based in Sunderland, and had four vessels at the
outbreak of World War II.
The vessel carried out three successful voyages after her launch. The
first was to the US to collect steel rails and aircraft parts, the
second to Argentina for grain, and the third to the West Indies for rum.
Prior to her fourth and final voyage, she had undergone repairs in
She set sail on her fourth and final voyage from Glasgow on 2 June 1941,
destined for Alexandria, Egypt. The vesselís cargo included: Bedford
trucks, Universal Carrier armoured vehicles, Norton 16H and BSA
motorcycles, Bren guns, cases of ammunition, and 0.303 rifles as well as
radio equipment, Wellington boots, aircraft parts, railway wagons and
two LMS Stanier Class 8F steam locomotives. These steam locomotives and
their associated coal and water tenders were carried as deck cargo and
were for the Egyptian Railways. The rest of the cargo was for the Allied
forces in Egypt. At the time the Thistlegorm sailed from Glasgow in
June, this was the Western Desert Force, which in September 1941 became
part of the newly formed Eighth Army. The crew of the ship, under
Captain William Ellis, were supplemented by 9 naval personnel to man the
machine gun and the anti-aircraft gun.
Due to German and Italian naval and air force activity in the
Mediterranean, the Thistlegorm sailed as part of a convoy via Cape Town,
South Africa, where she refuelled, before heading north up the East
coast of Africa and into the Red Sea. On leaving Cape Town, the light
cruiser HMS Carlisle joined the convoy. Due to a collision in the Suez
Canal, the convoy could not transit through the canal to reach the port
of Alexandria and instead moored at Safe Anchorage F, in September 1941
where she remained at anchor until her sinking on 6 October 1941. HMS
Carlisle moored in the same anchorage.
There was a large build-up of Allied troops in Egypt during September
1941 and German intelligence (Abwehr) suspected that there was a troop
carrier in the area bringing in additional troops. Two Heinkel He 111
aircraft of II Staffeln, Kampfgeschwader 26, Luftwaffe, were dispatched
from Crete to find and destroy the troop carrier. This search failed but
one of the bombers discovered the vessels moored in Safe Anchorage F.
Targeting the largest ship, they dropped two bombs on the Thistlegorm,
both of which struck hold 4 near the stern of the ship at 0130 on 6
October. The bomb and the explosion of some of the ammunition stored in
hold 4 led to the sinking of the Thistlegorm with the loss of four
sailors and five members of the Royal Navy gun crew. Mr. Rejda
single-handedly saved most of the sailors by swimming into the wreck and
towing them to safety. The survivors were picked up by HMS Carlisle.
Captain Ellis was awarded the OBE for his actions following the
explosion and a crewman, Angus McLeay, was awarded the George Medal and
the Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea for saving another crew member.
Most of the cargo remained within the ship, the major exception being
the steam locomotives from the deck cargo which were blown off to either
side of the wreck.
Discovery by Cousteau
In the early fifties, Jacques-Yves Cousteau discovered her by using
information from local fishermen. He raised several items from the
wreck, including a motorcycle, the captainís safe, and the shipís bell.
The February 1956 edition of National Geographic clearly shows the
shipís bell in place and Cousteau's divers in the shipís Lantern Room.
Cousteau documented diving on the wreck in part of his book The Living
Rediscovery and recreational dive site
Following Cousteauís visit, the site was forgotten about except by local
fishermen. In the early 1990s, Sharm el-Sheikh began to develop as a
diving resort. Recreational diving on the Thistlegorm restarted
following the visit of the dive boat Poolster, using information from
another Israeli fishing boat captain.
The massive explosion that sank her had blown much of her midships
superstructure away and makes the wreck very accessible to divers. The
depth of around 30 m (100 feet) at its deepest is ideal for diving
without the need for specialist equipment and training.
The wreck attracts many divers for the amount of the cargo that can be
seen and explored. Boots and motorcycles are visible in Hold No. 1.
Trucks, motorcycles, Wellington boots, rifles, Westland Lysander wings,
about twenty Bristol Mercury radial engine exhaust rings and a handful
of cylinders and Bristol Blenheim bomber tail planes are visible in Hold
No. 2. Universal Carrier armoured vehicles, RAF trolley accumulators,
and two Pundit Lights can also be found. Off to the port side of the
wreck level with the blast area can be found one of the steam
locomotives which had been stored as deck cargo and the other locomotive
is off the starboard side level with Hold No. 2.
The wreck is rapidly disintegrating due to natural rusting. The dive
boats that rely on the wreck for their livelihood are also tearing the
wreck apart by mooring the boats to weak parts of the wreck, leading to
parts of the wreck collapsing. For this reason, in December 2007 the
Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) a
non-governmental organisation installed thirty-two permanent mooring
buoys and drilled holes in the wreck to allow trapped air to escape.
During this work, the vessel was closed off to recreational diving.
However, as of 2009, none of these moorings remain as the blocks
themselves were too light (resulting in ships dragging them), and the
lines connecting the moorings to the wreck were too long (meaning with
the strong currents in the area, people would find it impossible to
transfer from the mooring to the actual wreck). As a result, all boats
now moor off directly to the wreck again.
Common interesting animals around the wreck are tuna, barracuda,
Batfish, Morey eel, Lionfish, Stonefish, Crocodilefish, Scorpionfish and
The Times named the Thistlegorm as one of the top ten wreck diving sites
in the world.