Built by Joseph Thompson & Sons shipyard in Sunderland, the SS Thistlegorm was launched by the Albyn Line in April 1940. At 4898 tons and 128 meters, the ship was powered by a triple expansion steam engine and armed with a 4.7-inch (120mm) anti-aircraft gun and a heavy caliber machine gun. She was one of a number of “Thistle” ships owned and operated by the Albyn Line, but had been partly financed by the British government and was classified as an armed freighter.
After her launch the Thistlegorm quickly carried out three successful voyages: 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. After this she went into Glasgow for two months of repairs.
On June 2, 1941 Thistlegorm set sail for Suez from the Clyde with William Ellis as her captain and 42 men aboard – nine Royal Navy personnel and 33 merchant seamen. Every inch of space was used when they loaded her in Glasgow; her cargo included two LMS Stanier Class 8F steam locomotives recently purchased by the Egyptian Railways as well as several military trucks, Universal Carrier armored vehicles and several Norton 16H, BSA M20 and Matchless G3L motorcycles; Wellington boots, aircraft parts, small arms and ammunition and various other military hardware.
The cargo of Wellington boots created a small mystery; there wasn’t an obvious need for them in the Egyptian deserts, but many now believe they were primarily destined for Allied airfields where they were worn by the mechanics as insulation against static electricity.
She took the long route around Africa, 12,000 miles in all, but this was considered the safest option while German U-boats were so active in the Mediterranean. The ship stopped briefly in Cape Town to refuel and two of the crew went AWOL there, only to be found and taken back to the ship just before she sailed: one would later lose his life. The cruiser HMS Carlisle now joined Thistlegorm for protection, and by the third week of September she reached what was then called ‘Safe Anchorage F’ off the coast of Alexandria. Two ships had collided and blocked the Suez but this was not uncommon; Thistlegorm spent two weeks at anchor, her engines turned off and the crew relaxed, trying to fill their time. No one knew that she would still be there 70 years later.
On October 5 1941 the Luftwaffe dispatched two Heinkel He111 bombers from No 2 squadron in Crete on reports of a large troopship which was probably the Queen Mary on her way to North Africa. It was a cloudless, moonlit night. The aircraft searched in vain for the troop carrier but with their fuel levels low they split to cover more ground. Unable to return safely while loaded and desperate to find a target, one of the bombers came across Safe Anchorage F. He picked the largest ship and immediately dropped two bombs. Both hit cargo hold 4 of SS Thistlegorm at 1:30am on October 6, 1941. On the return to Crete one of the Heinkels was shot down; Lt. Heindrich Menge and one of the crew survived to spend the rest of the war in an Allied POW camp.
Nine men on the Thistlegorm lost their lives that morning; the exceptionally hot weather had encouraged most of the crew to sleep on deck that night or many more lives may have been lost.
Survivors from the Thistlegorm were picked up by HMS Carlisle, and Captain Ellis was later awarded an OBE by King George VI for his actions that night.
|BSA M20 and Norton 16H cargo
Considering its well documented history and location the ship did not need to be “discovered”, only explored; the local Bedouin have fished off the wreck for decades as the huge structure formed an artificial reef, and until Jacques Cousteau explored the wreck in 1955 the mast still protruded from the water providing a convenient anchoring point. Following Cousteau’s visit the site was forgotten again except by local fishermen, but in the early 1990s Sharm el-Sheikh began to develop as a diving resort and the Thistlegorm became a popular attraction.
|Crates of Lee-Enfield rifles
Today the wreck is rapidly disintegrating due to natural elements. The dive boats that rely on the wreck for their livelihood are also reportedly tearing it apart by mooring to weaker parts; in December 2007 the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) installed 32 permanent mooring buoys but they were gone within two years as the blocks were too light (resulting in ships dragging them) and the lines connecting the moorings to the wreck were too long (making it impossible to transfer from the mooring to the actual wreck). As a result all boats now moor directly off the wreck again.
Thistlegorm’s official GPS position is 27 48.849N, 33 55.222E.
|Matchless G3Lmachines still ready to unload…