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Diving the Thistelegorm

by Mark Webster

Reproduced from in focus 48 (June 1993)

Like most divers I have often relished the thought of diving almost virgin, intact wrecks in clear warm waters. The locations which first spring to mind are the WW II Japanese wrecks in Truk Lagoon or Papua New Guinea or perhaps the Italian Umbria in the Sudanese Red Sea. The first locations are extremely expensive propositions and the second relatively remote with very few organised excursions, which are also priced on the high side. However, recently I had been hearing rumours of a newly discovered wreck in the Northern Red Sea which was accessible from the Sinai peninsula ports or possibly from Hurghada in the South.

Further investigations revealed the rumours to be fact and that the wreck was of a British registered ship named the Thistlegorm sunk in during WWII and although previously explored in the 1950's very few divers have had the opportunity to dive her. My own opportunity to explore this wreck came when running a photographic workshop aboard a live-aboard sailing from Sharm El Sheik when it transpired that all the members of our group were equally keen to try to locate this alluring site.

LAUNCHED

The history of the Thistlegorm is a short but fascinating one. She was built in 1939/40 by the North Eastern Marine Engineering Co. Ltd of Sunderland and launched to join the war effort on 9th of April 1940. She was a medium cargo vessel, 415 x 58 x 25ft, with a gross tonnage of 4898t. She was built for the Albyn Line fleet and named Thistlegorm as the latest vessel prefixed with the 'Thistle' name. At the time of her launch there was a severe shortage of weapons and she was therefore only armed with a 4.7' gun and one machine gun both of which were surplus from the First Worlid War.

FLASH, BANG, FIZZ

The age of her gun led to an unfortunate incident during her second voyage to the river Plate for grain. The master, Captain Whitfield, decided that gunnery practice was required and it was then discovered that the traversing mechanism was badly worn and prone to jamming. This was replaced by a manual method which simply consisted of pushing the barrel around by hand! The first round was fired without incident but on the second the breech jammed with the shell still in place and a further solution was required. This eventually consisted of attaching a long lanyard to the firing pin and then firing the gun from the shelter of the after mast house. When fired there was a huge report and blinding flash and the offending shell was projected only 50 yards astern - Captain Whitfield concluded gunnery practice at this point!

LAST VOYAGE

The Thistlegorm's third voyage took her to the West Indies for sugar and rum during which she developed boiler problems which resulted in two months of repairs in Glasgow. She was then loaded for what was to be her last voyage with a cargo of small arms ammunition, shells, land mines, armoured vehicles, jeeps, motor bikes, steam locomotives and rolling stock and, surprisingly, wellington boots. All this was destined for the allied forces in North Africa and as the Mediterranean was closed to allied shipping the routing of the voyage was to be via the Cape and then up the East coast of Africa and into the Red Sea. The journey was uneventful and the log shows that she anchored safely with other convoy ships at anchorage 'F' off Shadwan Island in the Straits of Jubal (now Gubal) at the Southernmost end of the Gulf of Suez. At 2 a.m. on October 6th the silence was shattered by the arrival of four Heinkel He 11 I's of flight 1 I/KG26 one of which singled out the Thistlegorm for attack.

SUNK

Two bombs struck the Thistlegorm just aft of the bridge which immediately started a blazing fire. The crew began to abandon ship without delay as it was obvious that there was imminent risk of explosion from the cargo of munitions. All but nine of the crew survived and the survivors were picked up by HMS Carlisle which was anchored nearby. One crew member, a gunner, owed his life to an act of heroism by able seaman Angus McLeay from Stornaway, who spotted the man lying unconscious by the poop winch and then picked him up bodily and carried him through the flames to the safety of the life boats. McLeay was badly burned during the rescue and his bravery was recognised by the award of the George medal and the Lloyds War Medal for bravery at sea. Ten minutes after the attack there was a huge explosion and the Thistlegorm quickly sank from sight.

REDISCOVERED

The wreck was then forgotten until the early 1950's when Jaques Cousteau and the Calypso discovered and identified her. The wreck was then featured in the February 1956 edition of National Geographic Magazine and Cousteau's exploration was documented in the film 'The Silent World'. It soon became a custom for masters to dip their ensigns as a mark of respect when passing the wreck site. There then followed an even longer period of disinterest until the growth of sport diving in the Red Sea when the Thistlegorin was rediscovered once more in 1991.

LOCATION

Now a handful of the more professional live-aboard dive boats operating from Sharm El Sheik, Eilat and Hurghada occasionally visit the wreck. The site is a long way from these ports and particularly exposed so there may only be a handful of days in the year when conditions are ideal. I was particularly lucky our recent trip aboard the MV Sally when conditions proved perfect for the run around Ras Mohammed at the Southern tip of the Sinai and up into the Gulf of Suez. The site is not buoyed and requires GPS to locate the wreck which in fact lies at the South Eastern end of a reef called Sha'ab Ali which is a substantial distance from Shadwan Island. Our first sight of the wreck as we descended a line attached to the bows was nothing short of stunning!

The Thistlegorm sits bolt upright on the seabed and is one of the most intact wrecks I have dived. As you land on the bows (only 15m) you see below you the starboard anchor run out to the seabed and the anchor handling winches before you which are now festooned with dazzling soft corals. The visibility in this area of the gulf can be variable but we were fortunate to have between 20-25 metres which enabled us to appreciate the full impact of the size and condition of the vessel.

DIVING

As you swim off the bow deck and down the stairway it is immediately obvious that this ship is both the wreck diver's and photographer's dream rolled into one. So many features are intact and recognisable and the encrusting life and fish species so profuse that initially you may find you do not know where to go next! Moving down the ship you encounter the first of the steam engines on the upper deck with its boiler partially imploded and close behind are items of rolling stock. Adjacent are the forward holds, now without their hatches, which hold munitions, motor cycles and jeeps at a depth of 22 - 25m. Beyond the holds you make a decision to either explore the bridge and accommodation areas or continue down the companionway towards the stem section.

The bridge and accommodation areas are still very intact and safe to explore. This is the shallowest part of the wreck at 10-12m, and everyday items from glassware to bathrooms can be explored. The greatest damage to the ship is behind the bridge superstructure where the bombs first struck and the subsequent explosion tore into the hull. Here the holds are well opened up and below you are tracked vehicles (possibly bren gun carriers), shells and land mines, but also watch out for some enormous resident Jew fish (perhaps 6ft in length!) who are both very bold and inquisitive. Beyond this badly damaged area you can see the stern section lying slightly to her port side. That 4.7' gun and a heavy calibre machine gun is still there, but now home to a selection of corals and sponges. The rudder and propeller are still in place, home to more extremely large groupers and maximum depth here is 3 1 m.

As you explore the wreck you realise that it has become an artificial reef system supporting a huge variety of Red Sea corals, invertebrates and fish. The latter show no concern at your intrusion and if their habitat is respected then this should remain so. The depth range and configuration of the ship makes for easy and reasonably safe diving (computer recommended), although you should be wary about penetrating too deep as there is some silt about and there is no telling how unstable the cargo is. Being at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez the Thistlegorm is exposed to currents, although our dives were made over a slack water period, so you should ensure that you always return to your down line as open water decompression could take you quite a way up or down the Gulf'

PERMIT

Live-aboard boats visiting the wreck require a permit from the Egyptian authorities and you should be aware that the wreck is considered a war grave and that it should not be disturbed, no matter how tempting. There are already stories of 'enterprising' divers attempting to recover souvenirs and if true this is both thoughtless and dangerous in view of the cargo. Should it continue then the authorities will simply not allow boats to visit the wreck site which would be a tragic loss to future visiting divers.

So if you thought you had to go to Truck Lagoon to experience an intact wreck in tropical waters think again! The Northern Red Sea is easily accessible and an economic proposition and mixing this style of wreck diving with the delights of the coral reefs makes for a memorable diving holiday.
Information

For further details of excursions aboard the MV Sally contact Oonasdivers on 0323-648924.

Reproduced from in focus 48 (June 1993) with kind permission of Mark Webster (http://www.photec.co.uk/)


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