Egypt Red Sea Shipwrecks - The Thistlegorm

The Thistlegorm By Ned Middleton

Note: Ned Middleton is a professional Underwater Photo-Journalist who has published a number of articles in recent years about Red Sea Wrecks. Please send corrections to Ned Middleton here.

Day Boat

Safari Boat

Shore Dive


Diving Grade







27 49' 03" N, 33 55' 14"E. Northeast of Shag Rock, Shaab Ali


Day or Safari boat from Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada

Minimum Depth to Wreck

10m (at Bridge)

Maximum Depth to Seabed:

31m (Railway Engine)

Average Visibility:


The Ship

The Thistlegorm was built by Joseph Thompson & Sons of Sunderland and launched in June 1940. She was 126.5m in length and displaced 4,898 gross tonnes. Powered by a triple-expansion, 3 cylinder steam engine that generated a very comfortable 365 nominal horsepower. She was one of a number of "Thistle" ships owned and operated by the Albyn Line. With her construction being part funded by the British Government, however, she was destined for "War" duties from the moment she was launched.

The Loss of the Thistlegorm

In the official history of the Albyn Line, a Mr Harry Bansall recalls his own experiences on the ship. Being well connected within the Company, he had asked to go to sea and was soon offered a berth as fifth engineer in the brand new ship at the age of just 18. Unfortunately, however, apart from the official photograph of her launching, there appears to be no pictures of the Thistlegorm from her days afloat.

Despite her designation as an "Armed Freighter" with an additional armoured Gun Deck built over the aft section, an overall shortage of weapons, meant that only an old 47" gun and a heavy calibre machine gun - both of WW1 vintage, were all that could be spared for the Thistlegorm. Her maiden voyage was to the USA to collect steel rails and aircraft, her second voyage was to South America for grain and her third was to the West Indies from where she returned with sugar and rum.

It was during the second trip that the Captain decided on some mid-ocean gunnery practise. The traversing mechanism of the 47" gun was badly worn and had been replaced with a manual mechanism which meant that a second person had to push the barrel around by hand as it was being fired! After the first shot, the second round jammed in the breech. Such misfires are always dangerous - because an attempt to fire the round has been made and it can, therefore, now explode at any time. A long rope was, therefore tied to the firing mechanism and this led away to a shelter behind the aft mast house. The resultant flash engulfed the entire stern of the ship - with the projectile managing a whole 50m before dropping into the sea. Thus ended all gunnery practise.

The Thistlegorm now returned to the Clyde where she was laid up for two months for repairs to her boilers before being assigned her final cargo.

In May 1941, the Thistlegorm was in her home port of Glasgow loading supplies essential for the 8th Army and the relief of Tobruk. Though described on the manifest as "MT" (Motor Transport), this - probably deliberate, non-description hid a wide array of Land Mines, Shells, Ammunition, Weapons, Bedford Trucks, Armoured Cars, Bren-Carriers, BSA Motorcycles, Trailers, Vehicle spares, Aircraft and Aircraft parts, Radios, Rubber thigh-boots - and a great deal more besides.

To save cargo space, the Motorcycles were placed onto the back of the Bedford trucks - three at a time before loading. Finally, being a commercial company, the Albyn Line also took the opportunity to deliver two sets of rolling stock to Egyptian Railways - each comprising an 0-6-0 Railway Engine, one Tender and one Water Carrier - all six items being carried as deck cargo.

Because of her classification as an "Armed Freighter" the Skipper - Captain William Ellis, had an additional team of nine Royal Navy personnel on board to man these guns. Thus it was that on 2nd June 1941 Captain Ellis ordered the mooring lines slipped before easing his ship out of Glasgow. Sailing independently down the west coast of the British Mainland, the Thistlegorm made good time to her secret rendezvous off the south coast of England. Here she joined a large convoy and, being Armed, was assigned a prominent position by the Convoy Commodore.

With Axis Forces occupying almost all of the northern Mediterranean coastline, the safest route to Alexandria was via South Africa - a lengthy detour. After refuelling in Capetown, they were joined by HMS Carlisle - a Light Cruiser of 4,190 tons. The Convoy then proceeded up the east coast of Africa before finally entering the Red Sea.

By the time they arrived at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez it was the third week in September and the Thistlegorm was immediately assigned "Safe Anchorage F" to await further instructions. The Master let out the starboard anchor and some 250m of chain and was satisfied that all was well. This was "good holding ground" and, at long last, the main engines were closed down. All they could do now was wait for clearance to proceed through to Alexandria.

Getting through the Canal was dependent on several factors - enemy aircraft activity over the Canal, cargo priority and how long other vessels had been waiting. At this time, however, two vessels had collided further up the Gulf of Suez and were virtually blocking the entire entrance to the Canal. This led to the "Thistlegorm" - with her valuable cargo, remaining at anchor for a full two weeks.

Up until now these "Safe Anchorages" - each with its own letter of the alphabet, were regarded as exactly that, Safe! There were no enemy ships and enemy aircraft rarely ventured this far south. This was, however, all about to change when German Intelligence received information that a large troopship (possibly the Queen Mary) was due to travel through the Suez Canal with 1200 British Troops destined for North Africa.

Having mastered the relatively new skill of night flying, Heinkel He 111's from II/Kg26 (No 2 Group 26th Kampf Squadron) based in Crete were alerted to the possible presence of such a large vessel. Their task was to seek and destroy. At 2250 hours on 5th October 1941 two twin-engine Heinkels crossed the north Egyptian coast heading south-east in search of this prize.

Aided by a clear moonlit night, they searched in vain for the big ship until fuel levels became critical. Then, just as they were on the point of returning home empty handed, one of the pilots spotted a ship at anchor. Turning away in order to put his aircraft in the best possible attacking position, the pilot turned again as he continued to lose altitude. He came in low over the sea and, as he approached the bows of the Thistlegorm, he released two bombs right over her bridge.

Both bombs penetrated No 5 hold - aft of the bridge, detonating a great deal of ammunition. The resultant explosion sent the two locomotives spiralling into the air as the ship was ripped open like a huge tin can. Even to this day, the rear decks are peeled back towards the Bridge leaving many a Diver wondering what exactly he is looking at. Some accounts have even described this as "Armour Plating!"

The vessel began to sink and the crew quickly abandoned ship - with hardly any time to launch the lifeboats, most of them leapt straight into the sea. One injured man, however, was trapped on the blazing deck and desperately needed help. Crewman Angus McLeay wrapped some rags around his bare feet and ran across the hot steel plates to rescue him - an action for which McLeay was awarded the George Medal and Lloyds War Medal for Bravery at Sea.

Caught unawares, the Thistlegorm had been given no time to defend herself and she quickly sank. It was timed at 0130 hrs 6th October 1941. Captain Ellis and the other survivors were rescued by HMS Carlisle and then taken to Suez where he reported four members of his crew of 39 and five of the 9 Royal Navy ratings had all lost their lives. Captain Ellis was subsequently awarded the OBE - for "War Services" by King George VI.

The Ship Today

For many years, British vessels passing the site where the Thistlegorm was lost would dip their flags as a mark of respect for those who died. The ship itself, however, remained undisturbed until the early fifties when Jacques Cousteau discovered her. He raised several items from the wreck - including one of the motorcycles, the Captains safe and the ships bell. Indeed the February 1956 edition of "National Geographic" clearly shows the ships bell in place and his Divers in the ships "Lantern Room" - all of which were also still in place at that time. Not so when the vessel was rediscovered by modern Scuba Divers.

Cousteau, however, did not reveal the ships position and, once again, the Thistlegorm passed into obscurity. All that changed in the early nineties when a group of divers happened upon her by chance. In so doing, they had re-discovered one of the greatest diveable shipwrecks of all time.

The SS Thistlegorm sits mast and funnel above all others shipwrecks. Such is the pulling power of this single vessel that she attracts more Divers than any other underwater site - anywhere in the entire world! Since being re-discovered in the early nineties, the Thistlegorm has consistently remained "The Worlds Foremost Diving Attraction" and after my own very first visit, I found myself calling her "The Mighty Thistlegorm!"

What makes this ship so extra-special is a combination of several factors. Despite extensive damage aft of the Bridge, the main section is upright and on an even keel. Then, there is the story of her passing, with all its ingredients of War, Heroism and Tragedy - something that is never re-created in any vessel deliberately sunk. Lest we forget, even the Titanic would have passed into obscurity were it not for the manner of her sinking! Then, prevailing conditions and accessibility all come into play. These include an acceptable climate, relatively warm waters, very good underwater visibility and a maximum depth of just 32 metres to the seabed.

What more could be asked of any shipwreck you might ask - and the word "Cargo" springs to mind. Within the Thistlegorm, that cargo is a veritable underwater "World War II Museum."

Diving the Thistlegorm

A few years ago, I was visiting the Red Sea for the very first time and, with a most successful indoctrination into the delights of some outstanding shipwrecks already behind me, I found myself contemplating my very first visit to the Thistlegorm.This was long-overdue and I was wondering whether or not any shipwreck could live up to such a reputation.

My Diving Guide was called Ali Baba - a man who has been deaf since birth but, who can lip-read in five languages. Ali Baba is an exceptionally fine Diving Guide and Instructor with a great sense of humour. In a world where some Guides often make things chaotic for the novice, his one outstanding quality is that he cares!

As the boat was positioned above the Thistlegorm, Ali Baba was the first person into the water - taking a stout rope all the way down to the anchor chains at the Bows while the Skipper kept "way" on the boat. Once we were secure, the engines were switched off and in we went. We followed the rope halfway down before crossing to the Bridge just as soon as it came into view. Then we suddenly saw three WW2 vehicles on the starboard side "tween decks" of No 2 Hold.

Below these, in the main hold itself, we swam right into the hold, over the tops of many more vehicles - still parked as though, even now, they were waiting to be unloaded. Behind each cab, we found three motorcycles where they had been stowed for the sea passage. With the powerful modelling lights from twin strobes illuminating this incredible scene, it suddenly became all too obvious why I had also read so many "downbeat" articles about this single shipwreck.

The motorcycles have been pushed over by Divers searching for something to remove and keep. The badges, pedals, twist-grips and tool kits are all gone. Within the lorries and trucks, only a few steering wheels are left. Worse still, in order to get at those steering wheels or perhaps a souvenir from the engine, Divers have smashed their way in through the roof or bonnet of each vehicle - thus maximising the damage caused in search of their wretched trophy. Elsewhere, throughout the ship, the brass fittings are, of course, all long-gone.

Perhaps those writers who have even published photographs of these stolen goods have the answer... Strong words I know, but the SS Thistlegorm is an unofficial War Grave and whilst the Ministry of Defence would never seek to prevent Scuba Divers from visiting the ship - and never have!, they do regard all items taken from her simply as "theft!"

The greatest damage of all, however, is caused by the Diving Boats themselves. Anything up to 20 Boats might be moored over the Thistlegorm at any one time. The first to arrive generally tie up to the shallower reaches of the wreck such as the Bridge - and the shallower the better for the Dive Guide who has to retrieve the mooring line at the end of the day. Then, when there is no more space, the Boats tie to each other.

With the larger boats weighing several tons, it is easy to see how the combined force of such a small fleet - all pulling together as they take a single wave, is able to exert pressures that no ships superstructure was ever designed to withstand. When I returned to the Thistlegorm one year later the Bridge section was even shorter with a large portion now residing on the seabed.

It remains the supreme irony, therefore, that the Worlds foremost Scuba Diving attraction is literally being pulled apart by the very Diving Boats who are dependent on her for their livelihood!

No wonder Ali Baba had taken that little extra time to take our line down as far as the ships anchor chains. It was rather obvious - he was using one of the Thistlegorms strong points - but then her cares!

Despite the manner of her sinking and the ongoing destruction, the Thistlegorm is still in remarkable condition. The front section remains largely intact and sits upright on a sandy seabed at a maximum depth of 32 metres. The starboard anchor is deployed, some railing are still in place and all the winch houses, winches, blocks, windlasses and other paraphernalia are there to be found. Leaving the focsle, on the main deck there is a railway water carrier on either side of No 1 Hold with the one on the port side resting precariously over the edge of the Hold.

Each hold was built in two levels with the upper level known as "tween decks." Basically, these tween decks are, in effect, a large shelf that stretched under the decks of the ship. There are Bedford trucks and a number of Motorcycles on the starboard side and whilst the same is found on the port side, the top of the hold is bent downwards and, with the presence of the water carrier, perched somewhat menacingly over the edge, it tends to be less well visited.

Inside No 1 Hold, the cargo of parts and spares has come to look like an accumulation of debris which obscures anything of greater interest - including more vehicles.

Back at deck level, there is a Tender Railway on each side of No 2 Hold beside which are two "torpedo" shaped Paravanes. Once again there are some very interesting vehicles in the tween decks but below these on the port side, the Diver will discover two large Armoured Cars - built on Rolls Royce Chassis.

The starboard side of No 2 Hold, however, is where an incredible journey begins. Swimming gently above the vehicles, there is plenty of room to explore and inspect the various Lorries, Trailers, Motorcycles and other items as you journey below the bridge and pass through No 3 hold. Here are the small arms - weapons of various calibre in packs of 6 or 8 placed "Butt to Muzzle" and each pack now concreted together as a single entity. Beyond this, is the fuel store - virtually empty after such a long journey. To one side, however, there is a large gap where the Diver is able to exit through the bulkhead which once formed the bulkhead between No 3 and No 4 Hold.

Emerging into the daylight, the Diver is confronted by the devastation that surrounded the sinking. Ammunition boxes form a large pile of fairly uniform debris - on top of which is an up-turned tracked Bren Carrier. Pointing towards the stern is the broken drive shaft and some 20m further on is the remainder - sticking out of what remains of the stern. Below us, are a number of very large shells - possibly 14inch, once destined for a British Capital Ship.

The stern itself is canted over at an angle of 45 degrees and is as interesting as any other part of the ship. The two deck-mounted guns are still in place and are best viewed from below - where they make excellent silhouettes against the distant surface.

By now it is time to head back - swimming just above the wreck as we do so. Once again we pass over the most extensively damaged area before encountering that decking which was "peeled" back and now reaches almost to the Bridge. The evenly spaced steel girders which once supported the deck are now on top and who knows what lies trapped below. Off the port side, we see the remains of one of the two Railway Engines - remarkably, it is upright the seabed. Then we arrive at the Bridge and, although stripped bare long ago, still well worth a visit.

A gentle current generally prevails from bow to stern. Large Grouper, Blacktip Sharks, Jacks and Tuna are amongst the largest fish encountered - with the latter two species providing an early morning display of speed and agility as they attack shoals of smaller fish at breakfast time. All the common Reef Fishes are also present.


From a Divers viewpoint, what makes a good shipwreck is largely dependent on the individual. Few, however, would disagree that the Thistlegorm is amongst the very best and, she really does stand mast and funnel above the rest. After a dozen or so carefully planned Dives - which allowed us to explore many different aspects of this spectacular shipwreck, it is easy to see why she was catapulted from obscurity to become the Worlds Foremost Diving Attraction - virtually overnight.

The Mighty Thistlegorm is a legend amongst Divers and her place will be forever enshrined in Divings own "Great Hall of Fame." In the meantime, however, she has become a victim of her own status and is in serious decline. Sadly, none of us shall ever see this shipwreck as magnificent as she was on the day she was re-discovered - only a few short years ago. How long she will last is anybodys guess!

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Last Updated: May 29th, 2011