“ Diving location in the Red Sea. The world famous wreck SS Thistlegorm was sunk in 1941 in the area of Sha¿ab Ali in the Gulf of Suez. „
All week I had been nursing a cold with ears that had become increasingly harder to clear during each dive that I did however now I was poised to plunge into the water and dive the Thistlegorm one of the best known wrecks in the diving world and always in the top five wreck dives of most divers. To be honest barring a bust ear drum I was determined to get at least one dive on this famous Red Sea wreck and as it was I managed to complete all three of the planned dives before my ears finally admitted defeat 24 hours later and prevented me from diving for the remainder of the trip.
A Brief History
One of the great attractions about diving wrecks is the sense of getting to observe a part of history in its final resting place and this is very much the case with the Thistlegorm as not only is it in a pretty good structural condition but also a lot of its cargo is still on the ship.
The ship met its end on the 5th October 1941 although it did not actually sink until just after midnight on the 6th the German bombs did all of their damage on the 5th.
The ship was actually moored up in what was supposed to be safe anchorage waiting for its escorts to take it through the Suez Canal having started its journey a few days before from Glasgow. It was rather unlucky to get sunk as the two Heinkels had actually been looking for a troop ship and were returning home after a fruitless search and were planning on dumping their bombs to conserve fuel when they spotted the Thistlegorm which was essentially a sitting duck with very limited guns to provide any protection.
The Thistlegorm was also not helped by the fact that part of its cargo contained military shells alongside the Bedford trucks, rifles, motorbikes, Bren gun carriers and two train engines.
On that fateful day nine of the crew lost their lives with the other 35 including the Captain being rescued.
Today the vessel sits in about 32m of water to the bottom with the upper structure accessible at about 12m making it a great dive for both experienced and novice divers.
Diving the Thistlegorm
You have two basic options when deciding to dive the Thistlegorm. For a land based holiday option most of the day boats depart Sharm El Sheikh in the early hours of the morning usually about 3.00am looking to arrive some time around 7.30 in the morning which allows for two dives on the wreck before heading back after lunch. The downside of doing this is the early start and the fact that you dive the wreck at the same time as all of the other day boats and it gets really busy to say the least and at times really chaotic and not without its dangers.
Alternatively you can dive it as part of a one week liveaboard experience spending your entire holiday living on the boat, the benefit of this is that you can moor up on the wreck overnight and be first into the water in the morning and be well away before the arrival of the day boats. Also it means that you can also get a night dive in on the wreck which is a fantastic experience. In all we enjoyed three dives on the Thistlegorm which I found to be just right as it gave us plenty of time to explore the whole of the vessel without having to race against time and air consumption and also we got a night dive in as well. You could just about do the whole wreck in one dive if you had a twin set and decent air consumption however you would definitely total up a bit of deco time if you did and part of the enjoyment of diving such an interesting wreck is taking the time to pick out the detail as no two dives are the same.
The first dive was mid afternoon after the day boats had departed and we were one of only three liveaboards on the wreck. The Thistlegorm is subject to fairly strong currents and this first dive was no exception, rather than a gradual descent down the shot line I found myself having to use both arms to pull myself down however once on the wreck there is plenty of shelter from the current.
We started our exploration through the bridge, to our left we see the two locomotive engines still standing proudly erect however on this dive it is the plan to explore holds one and two which are packed full of military supplies. Each of the two holds have an upper and lower level and provide easy access into them, it is possible to swim through a gap from one hold to the other however for the less confident you merely exit out of one and then dive down into the next one. Inside there is little need for a torch and we are soon rummaging around in the Bedford Vans that lie at the bottom of hold two alongside which there are wracks of BSA motorcycles. Finding ourselves still with plenty of air we enter hold three to check out the bundles of rifles and ammo scattered on the floor.
Exiting the holds we explore the upper deck taking a quick look into the Captains quarters with his bath still in place. On that first dive the sea life is not so evident Im so busy staring at all the metal to really notice much of anything else. Fortunately for our ascent the current has abated and it is a nice leisurely safety stop before reaching the surface and a warm cup of coffee.
The second dive was a total transformation as it was at night, then the wreck comes alive in a swath of colour and all of the fish come out to play. This time there was little evidence of a current as we descended into the gloom and it was a fantastic sight as the wreck came into our view with a couple of existing divers torch beams bouncing around on it. For this dive we stayed in the upper areas as it was the fourth dive of the day and our depth needed to be on the conservative side no deeper than 20 meters. For this dive we again explored the wheel house followed by a host of fish and then swam past the collapsed water towers before entering the wheel house. We then swam over to the bow of the ship to check out the anchor and a first look at the bomb damage which ripped a huge hole in hold four. It was a real buzz to see the Thistlegorm at night full of vibrant colours and teeming with sea life although unfortunately we did not encounter the resident turtle that often sleeps under the rolling stock. The return to the shot line did prove quite difficult as by now the current was at full blast which made for an exhilarating safety stop as I did my best impression of a kite as my body was at 90 degrees to the rope and it was even strong enough to move my mask if I turned my head side on.
The next morning saw an extremely early start as the plan was to be first on the wreck and then back on the boat and on our way before the horde of day boats arrived. Once again dropping down the line to see the entire structure of the boat was a breathtaking sight. This time the plan was to go deep to the seabed checking out the bomb damage to hold four. First we dropped down off the side to view the two gun emplacements before swimming around to the rear to view the enormous propeller, this is an awesome sight and anyone that says size does not matter is so wrong when it comes to propellers at least. As is tradition we gave the top of one of the blades a little rub in memory of the nine sailors and those divers who have lost their lives on the wreck ensuring that the little patch of metal remains free from coral growth.
Then is was on into the hold, checking out the two intact toilet cubicles which actually have air pockets in them, not that you would want to breath it after 65 years before checking out the intense damage to the hold, for anyone who wants a visual reminder close up of what a bomb can do this is quite a chilling experience made a little more uncomfortable by the huge artillery shells that litter the floor slowly corroding away, needless to say nobody tried removing those babies.
Looking up from the hold provided a fantastic view of a shoal of fish who framed a Lionfish perfectly as it hovered in open water and the whole shot was then perfectly framed by the ships structure this was probably the only time when I wished that I had a camera as it was a superb shot. All too soon a dwindling supply of air meant it was time to hold on tight to the shot line as the current did its best to sweep us off into the Gulf of Suez.
As I got onto the boat with a big smile on my face I did reflect that there cannot be many better ways to start celebrating your 40th birthday.
Tips for Diving the Thistlegorm
You do need to be able to dive in strong currents although because of the varying depth of the wreck it is suitable for both novice and experienced diver.
It is best dived using Nitrox, if you are qualified, for longer bottom times.
Having a torch is always recommended for when you enter the holds however there is a great deal of natural light available and on the day dives my torch was hardly ever used except to read an inscription on one of the shell cases.
Personally a liveaboard gives you more time and quieter time on the wreck and allows for a night dive however this type of intense dive holiday is not right for everyone, if doing it by day boat expect an early start. In Sharm there are numerous dive boats available and it is also possible to dive the wreck from Hurghada and Dahab however often at additional cost because of the distances involved.
The Thistlegorm is one of the best wrecks in the world and a must see for most divers, I must admit that every dive was different on it and I would have gladly stayed for another three dives however there is just too much to see in the Red Sea. One thing is certain I will be back.
Thanks for reading and rating my review.
1941 It was the third week of September when the SS Thistlegorm moored at Safe Anchorage F in the Gulf of Suez to await passage through the Suez Canal to Alexandria. A journey that had started from Glasgow on the 2nd June 1941 and proceeded in convoy via Cape town then up the East Coast of Africa. The wait for passage was to last 2 weeks. The ships manifest simply marked MT (Motor Transport) covered a multitude of war supplies destined for the 8th Army at Tobruk from Bedford trucks, Bren-Gun Carriers, BSA Motorcycles, Armoured cars, Weapons, Ammunition, Aircraft, Radios, Boots, and more besides. Even the owners the Alban Line had taken the opportunity to load two sets of Railway rolling stock for delivery to the Egyptian Railways, carried as deck cargo. The drone of the propellers and the rushing of wind through the cockpit kept the chilled pilots of the two Heinkel HE111?s from Number 2 Group 26th Kemp Squadron alert as they searched the dark night sky for a sign of their prize. Having taken off earlier in the evening from their base in Crete after intelligence reported a large troopship was due to travel through the Suez canal carrying 1200 British troops they were beginning to feel they were hunting for a needle in a haystack. As the needle on their fuel gauges sank the pilots turned for home looking to jettison their cargo of bombs to lighten their load and make it back to base. As they headed down the Gulf of Suez, their fuel critical, a dark shape appeared on the water. The pilot now knew where to drop his bombs. Dropping altitude the pilot came in low releasing his bombs right over the bridge of the Thistlegorm. Both were on Target and penetrated number 5 hold aft of the bridge detonating a great deal of ammunition. On 5th October 1941 hell had come to the Thistlegorm. The explosions from number 5 hold ripped back the armour-plated decks sending the 2 locomotives and their rolling stock high into the air. With
hardly time to launch the lifeboats the crew abandoned ship. The raging fires and heat forcing men to leap into the sea. The deck peeled back from the explosion like a tin can trapping an injured man. One member of the crew, Angus McLeay, wrapped rags round his feet and raced across the now red hot deck to rescue his comrade an act of bravery winning him the George medal. At 0130 hours 6th October 1941 the Thistlegorm sank with the loss of 9 lives. Captain Ellis and the 35 remaining members of his crew were rescued and safely taken to Suez. Present Day ?Mooring line attached if we go we go now. Kit on, follow the line, meet at the deck? the boat heaves in the swell as the dive master disappears beneath the waves the first divers jump, like freefall parachutists, single file the line moves to the back of the boat and as the stern drops off the swell the divers jump descending the line immediately, in conditions like this you do not want to be on the surface. It is 0600 on a November morning 2001 and we are the only boat to have moored at the Thistlegorm having left Sharm at 0200 and slept on the boat (very big tip if you do this take the inside cabin it may feel warm on the sun lounger in dock but after 4 hours at sea you will be freezing whereas those of us in the know have slept warm and snug inside!) We meet at the deck to starboard of the Bridge the waters calm not even a current. A quick check of my gauges to ensure all is ok, a signal from my buddy says the same and as the final diver arrives we swim for?ard for an external view of the wreck. Over the deck past the locomotive water carriers still standing tied down, past the gaping hole above hold 2 wondering how the deck can still be supporting these trains after all this time. We continue to head forward and drop over the bows dropping slowly to the seabed, to head aft along the port side. Corals form beautiful patterns and barracuda school above us. Looking a
way from the wreck a steam train engine sits upright on the seabed as though placed, turning back to the wreck the gaping mess of hold 5, or what remains, shows why the ship sank so quickly. Here the ship is more or less ripped in two her stern tilted 45 degrees while the rest of her structure sits upright on the sand. Her cargo is spread and thrown, a jumbled mess of smashed army supplies. Continuing towards the stern her sole gun hangs disconsolate not having fired a shot in defence. Many fish have made their home here giant Barracuda hang off the port side, lion fish patrol below the wreck and scorpion fish sit waiting for the unwary. Finning round the stern we are faced with the enormous propeller now the size of this ship really sinks in the brass still shining in the water. We move forward again past the remains of hold 5 and ascend to the bridge to take the line for the surface. As soon as we are on the line the swell takes hold and as we near the surface are tossed like rag dolls. Breaking the surface shows utter confusion dive boats are everywhere trying to tie to the wreck and each other, Piccadilly Circus springs to mind, to add to this melee there is a 6 foot swell and exiting proves tricky. Back on the boat a quick tank change, a mixture test and we kit up, deciding to head back down for the second dive after only a 30 minute surface interval rather than have lunch and then dive. The weather is worsening and more boats are arriving by the minute. We use the same procedure to enter and descend clearing the surface as fast as possible. This is the big dive we are actually going into the wreck. We are lucky enough to be diving with Alastair from the Red Sea Diving College, who was a member of the 1991 team that mapped the Thistlegorm, and as such knows this wreck inside out. As we descend into the gloom of hold 2 our torchlight picks out the Bedford trucks with the BSA Motorcycles still lined u
p as if waiting for unloading. We curve into hold 1 where aircraft parts are stored; looking up we can make out the trains on the deck hanging ominously over the hold. Dropping into the lower hold we find boxes of Lee Enfield 303 rifles set into their cases by the effects of concretion. As we swim back through hold 2 we can make out the vast store of Lorries, Motorcycles, trailers and various other cargo. While our eyes adjust to the gloom we need to take care not to catch on any of the jagged edges that abound or to put unwary hands onto spars in case scorpion fish lurk. Passing into Number 3 hold we come across box after box of Lee Enfield rifles and beyond this is what was the fuel store. Single file we move into a smaller passage and find ourselves in what was the galley, along another corridor we can peer into what was once the Captain's cabin. Dropping down a walkway we swim through the remains of hold 5 all are caught by a solitary boot laying on the seabed a grim reminder that this is a war grave and sailors lost their lives here. Moving on we find a Bren-gun carrier turned turtle, boxes of shells, more rifles, and more lorries faint markings for the 8th Army. Ascending slightly we start to swim for'ard encountering other groups of divers. All too quickly we are back at the line having completed a full circuit of this amazing wreck. Ascending I watch back as she is swallowed in the gloom. On board the dive boat we have a few more pressing problems some seasickness and more importantly a broken anchor. After much maneuvering and no lack of skill by our crew one anchor is duly retrieved and we head for home. A final treat though, we are escorted by a school of dolphins playing with the boat, what a day! Statistics The Thistlegorm was built in 1940 being 12.65m in length and 4,898 gross tones. She was owned by the Albyn Line and partly funded by the British Government as part of the war effort. Armed wi
th one anti aircraft gun mounted on the stern she was designated an armed freighter. After being sunk in 1941 Jacques Cousteau rediscovered the wreck around 1956. Cousteau did not reveal the position of the ship and it was not until the early 90?s that the ship was marked. The Thistlegorm sits on the seabed at 32meters with the top of her bridge at around 10m. My Family and the Thistlegorm The Thistlegorm will always hold a special place in my heart. One of the men of the 8th Army waiting for her to arrive was my Grandfather, a tank driver pushed forward by Montgomery to break the Middle East deadlock. Although short of supplies their battle group still pressed forward from Tobruk against Rommel's Army. Unfortunately my Grandfather was never to know peace giving his life for his country in the desert in Libya. If you ever dive her take a moment and spare a thought for the brave men who sailed in her and those who relied on her cargo. Take care not to damage her nor be tempted to take items from her, allow others to experience her as she is now. Diving Trips Most diving centres in the popular resorts of Sharm Hurghada and Dahab run excursions to the Thistlegorm but these trips are not generally included in your standard dive package. There is also an entrance fee payable for the Dive Boat to enter the Ras Mohammad National Park, as this area of sea is designated due to the beautiful corals. You will also need your passport on this trip, as it has been known for Egyptian authorities to board Dive Boats and check identities. The cost of this for us was 60USD each. Conclusion This is one of the most outstanding wrecks in the world and well worth a visit. If you are qualified dive on Nitrox to enable a longer bottom time as there is so much to see and take in from this well preserved wreck, unfortunately you will need to be at least a PADI Advanced diver as this wreck lies much deeper than th
e 18m open water limit.