Appeared in DIVER December 2006

The truth behind the icon
A panoramic sweep over the wreck, with one of the loco tenders to the left

Armed freighter Thistlegorm, everyones favourite Red Sea wreck, met her end 65 years ago. Now James Tunney reckons its time to dispel some of the myths surrounding this must-do dive site. Panoramic pic by Dan Burton

MENTION THE THISTLEGORM TO ANYONE who has dived in the Red Sea, and most people will gladly tell you about their experiences of diving this stunning wreck. It has a magnetic quality, bringing divers back time and time again.
Dive briefings have become more factually accurate over time, but how many guides (or guests!) know the real story of the Thistlegorm Sixty-five years on from her demise, it seems a good time to tell her story.
Built by Joseph Thompson & Sons of Sunderland, and launched in June 1940, Thistlegorm was owned and operated by the Albyn Line, though her construction was partly funded by the UK Government. The name, Gaelic for blue thistle, should be pronounced thestlegorom (though unless you are Scottish this may sound a bit affected!).
Thistlegorm was not designed as a warship but was classified as an armed freighter, which is why she was given the simple ss (steam ship) prefix rather than HMS.
She was 126.5m long, displaced 4898 tonnes and was powered by triple-expansion three-cylinder steam engines that generated an effective 1850 hp.
Two guns were fitted to the stern, a 4.5in and a heavy-calibre machine-gun, both pre-WW2 vintage.
Contrary to popular belief, Thistlegorm was not destroyed on her maiden voyage, on which she had in fact sailed to the USA.
On her second voyage, this time to Africa, an attempt was made to fire the 4.7in gun. It misfired, and when tried again, using a long rope from the safety of the mast-house, the round travelled only a short distance from the ship, despite the huge flash that lit up the entire stern. This was the end of 4.7 gunnery practice aboard Thistlegorm.
Her penultimate voyage was to India, after which she went to the Clyde for two months of repairs before embarking on her fatal voyage. Every inch of space was used in loading her in Glasgow.
The manifest stated a cargo only of motor parts, but the Albyn Line took advantage of the upper deck to load two locomotives complete with two coal and two water tenders.
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.
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. 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 to protect her and her precious cargo.
In the third week of September she reached what was then called Safe Anchorage F, though this was soon to change. The Luftwaffes Heinkel bombers had recently mastered the art of flying by night, and were doing so regularly, travelling ever further from base.
Passage through the Suez Canal had been closed after two ships had collided and blocked the way, but having to wait to pass through was not uncommon.
Thistlegorm spent two weeks at anchor, her engines turned off and the crew relaxed, trying to fill their time. No-one was to know that she would still be there 65 years later.

AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER 1941, German intelligence reported the existence of a large troopship, which may have been the Queen Mary, bringing 1200 troops to North Africa.
On 5 October, acting on this information, the Luftwaffe dispatched two Heinkel He111 bombers from No 2 squadron, 26th Kamp Geswader in Crete, both with a five-man crew, two bombs and twin engines.
Only one would make it back, but it was the other that took all the glory.
It was a cloudless moonlit night. The aircraft searched in vain for the troop-carrier, now thought to have passed through some seven hours before. Fuel becoming low, they split to cover more ground. They would have had to drop their bombs before heading home, because they would have had too little fuel to return and would not have been able to land safely while they were still attached to the plane.
Desperate to find a target, one came across Safe Anchorage F. He picked the largest ship and, without a single shot being fired in return, managed to drop two bombs. Both hit cargo hold 4 of ss Thistlegorm. The time of the strike was officially recorded as 1:30am on 6 October, 1941.
Heading back to Crete, the Heinkel was shot down. Lt Heindrich Menge and his colleague, the only two of the crew of five to survive, spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp.

THE EXPLOSION THAT FOLLOWED the bombing of the Thistlegorm illuminated the whole area, and it is widely believed that this may have been responsible for giving away the location of the Rosalie Moller, another renowned Red Sea wreck, to the other plane, which may well have already ditched its load.
The Rosalie Moller, sailing from Durban to Alexandria with a cargo of coal, was sunk two days later with the loss of two people.
The massive blast, aided by all the munitions in Thistlegorms cargo hold, blew the two locomotives high into the air and set the deck ablaze.
Sadly, nine men lost their lives that morning. If not for the exceptionally hot weather, which had encouraged most of the crew to sleep on deck that night, many more lives may have been lost. The main casualties were among the Royal Navy personnel, as they would have been near the guns on the stern, so closer to cargo holds 4 and 5.
Five of the dead were gunners and four merchant seamen employed by the Albyn Line. The Albyn crew had their wages stopped from the time of sinking, and the survivors had to make their own way home, as was customary.
Survivors from the Thistlegorm were picked up by HMS Carlisle. Captain Ellis was later awarded an OBE by King George VI for his actions that night.
Crewman Angus McLeay was awarded the George Medal and Lloyds War Medal for bravery at sea, after rescuing a fellow crew-member from the burning ship.
Unsurprisingly, Safe Anchorage F was no longer referred to as safe after that, and for many years British ships would lower their flags when passing the spot.
Given this past, the ship did not need to be discovered, only explored. The local Bedouin have fished off the wreck ever since its untimely end, as copious fish congregated around the huge structure, but its discovery is credited to Jacques Cousteau in 1955.
At this time, some of the ship could still be seen from the surface. Cousteau featured the wreck in a film in which he showed the ships bell, which it is said he then removed, starting a tragic trend.
Thistlegorms official GPS position is 27 48.849N, 33 55.222E. The co-ordinates Cousteau made public for the location of the wreck were well off the mark, indicating either a lapse in his navigating skills or a desire not to share the wreck. The latter seems more likely, given that before leaving the wreck it is also said that he removed the part of the mast that was visible, further disguising its presence.
Many tales and fables surround the Thistlegorm, passed down through dive guides, guests and locals. Much has been written about the mighty ship, although not all the writers agree on certain key points. Some of the most common myths can now be dispelled.
First, the ship was not loaded with supplies for the 8th Army under Lt-Gen Bernard Montgomery. The 8th Army had been formed only that September, and was under the control of Lt-Gen Sir Allan Cunningham. Montgomery did not take control until August 1942.
The supplies were in fact part of a huge consignment sent earlier to General Percival Wavell, commander of the UK Desert Force, by Winston Churchill. This was against his military advisors wishes, as Wavell had suffered many defeats at the hands of Rommel.
Wavell had to hand over control of his desert force to General Sir Claude Auchinleck in November 1941. It would become part of the 8th Army, and this was the turning point of the war in North Africa. The 8th Army first saw action in November - after the Thistlegorms sinking.
The ships manifest stated simply motor transport, but the cargo included Morris cars, Tilling Stevens and Bedford trucks, Ford 6x4s and Ford 2x4s, BSA M20 and Norton 16H motorbikes, Matchless G3Ls, Bren guns, tanks (or rather 4-ton multi-use tracked vehicles), two small-gauge Stanier 8F locomotives with rail cars, 303 Enfield carbines, mines and many aircraft parts, hospital equipment, fuel wagons, WW1 armoured cars modified and fitted with radio equipment, two knockers (mine-sweepers, found port and starboard between the loco tenders), naval and field artillery, trailers, water-purifiers and much more.
There were only two locomotives, not three, as stated in some reports. The layout of the ship would not have allowed for a third to be carried.
What can now be seen port and starboard of the Stanier locos are only the smoke-boxes that sit above the two support wheels, and the first two drive wheels. The locomotives had 10 wheels, so what some authors refer to as the third loco, some way from the ships stern, is actually the boiler section and the six drive-wheels.

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about the Thistlegorms cargo, and its intended use is a constant source of rumour and speculation. What better place to start than with the Wellington boots
There is a theory that they were a decoy, designed to give the impression when loading that the ship was going elsewhere; that they were all extra-large so that if found they would scare the Germans, and that they were all left-footed. But the actual purpose was to cut down on static build-up among ground crews when refuelling aircraft, which often had to be done fast between landing and a quick take-off.
On the wreck you will find refuelling wagons at the lower level of cargo hold one, as well as many aircraft parts, wings, engines and many other components throughout the ship.
The Captains cabin is often pointed out as being on the port site of the ship, complete with bath. In fact, the Captains quarters are always found on the starboard side and would have been on the next level. This bath may have been used as part of the sick-room, which should have been above and was for the very occasional use of the officers.
On the sea floor, at the stern of the wreck, you will see what look like dried spaghetti strands. This is cordite, which was bailed together and acted as the propellant for heavy artillery.
To dive Thistlegorm is an unforgettable experience. When you dive this old lady, please give her the respect she deserves. Much has been damaged and taken from this wreck over the years, but it is still a real treasure.
It would have been possible to provide pictures of stolen pieces of memorabilia, along with interviews, as those who have taken them are only too proud to show them off, but this would only glorify the actions of these sad fools.

One of Albyn Lines Thistle- ships
Stanier 8F locomotive, front section on the port side
divers above the deck are seen through the ships fairlead
Bedford truck, one of many such vehicles on Thistlegorm
This BSA M-20 is one of many bikes to be found in the cargo holds
Bren-gun carrier
starboard coal tender
heavy-calibre machine-gun
Diver exits from the bosuns locker between the anchor chains
Diver about to enter the bosuns locker
The anchor winch is a popular place for dive boats to secure their lines - so its still doing its job 65 years on