The SS Thistlegorm was built by Joseph Thompson & Sons shipyard in Sunderland for the Albyn Line and launched in April 1940. She was powered by a triple-expansion steam engine rated to 1,850 hp (1,380 kW). The vessel was privately owned but had been partly financed by the British government and was classified as an armed freighter.
She was armed with a 4.7-inch (120 mm) anti-aircraft gun and a heavy-calibre machine gun attached after construction to the stern of the ship. She was one of a number of “Thistle” ships owned and operated by the Albyn Line, which was founded in 1901, based in Sunderland, and had four vessels at the outbreak of World War II.
The vessel carried out three successful voyages after her launch. 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. Prior to her fourth and final voyage, she had undergone repairs in Glasgow.
She set sail on her fourth and final voyage from Glasgow on 2 June 1941, destined for Alexandria, Egypt. The vessel’s cargo included: Leyland and Albion lorries, Morris Commercial trucks, Universal Carrier armoured vehicles, Norton 16H and BSA M20 motorcycles, Bren guns, cases of ammunition, and Lee Enfield rifles as well as radio equipment, Wellington boots, aircraft parts, railway wagons and two LMS Stanier Class 8F steam locomotives.
The steam locomotives and their associated coal and water tenders were carried as deck cargo intended for Egyptian National Railways. The rest of the cargo was for the Western Desert Force, which in September 1941 became part of the newly formed Eighth Army.
The crew of the ship, under Captain William Ellis, were supplemented by nine naval personnel to man the machine gun and the anti-aircraft gun.
There was a large build-up of Allied troops in Egypt during September 1941 and German intelligence (Abwehr) suspected that there was a troop carrier in the area bringing in additional troops. Two Heinkel He 111 aircraft of II Staffeln, Kampfgeschwader 26, Luftwaffe, were dispatched from Crete to find and destroy the troop carrier.
The bombers failed to find a troopship, but one of the aircraft discovered the vessels moored in Safe Anchorage F near the Straits of Gubal. Targeting the largest ship the aircraft dropped two bombs on the Thistlegorm, with both striking hold 4 near the stern of the ship at 0130 on the morning of 6 October 1941.
The bombing set ablaze hold four. The fire spread quickly until the ammunition stored in the hold blew up, with the explosion tearing the Thistlegorm into two pieces and sinking in a V shape. An eyewitness from HMS Carlisle spoke of seeing the Thislegorm explode and sink in less than a minute, with the loss of four sailors and five members of the Royal Navy gun crew.
The survivors were picked up by HMS Carlisle. Captain Ellis was awarded the OBE for his actions following the explosion and a crewman, Angus McLeay, was awarded the George Medal and the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea for saving another crew member.
Most of the cargo remained within the ship, the major exception being the steam locomotives from the deck cargo which were blown off to either side of the wreck.
In the early fifties, Jacques Cousteau discovered her by using information from local fishermen. The wreck was also marked on a 1948 update to an Admiralty chart – something this project has uncovered. He raised several items from the wreck, including a motorcycle, the captain’s safe, and the ship’s bell. The February 1956 edition of National Geographic clearly shows the ship’s bell in place and Cousteau’s divers in the ship’s lantern room. Cousteau documented diving on the wreck in part of his book The Living Sea.
Following Cousteau’s visit, the site was forgotten about except by local fishermen. In the early 1990s, Sharm el-Sheikh began to develop as a diving resort. Recreational diving on the Thistlegorm restarted following the visit of the dive boat Poolster, using information from another Israeli fishing boat captain.
The massive explosion that sank her had blown much of her midships superstructure away and makes the wreck very accessible to divers. The depth of around 32 m (100 feet) at its deepest is ideal for diving without the need for specialist equipment and training.
Arthur Cain – Aged 26
Archibald ‘Archie’ Giffin – Aged 18
Alfred Oswald Kean – Aged 68
Donald Masterson – Aged 32
Joseph Munro Rolfe – Aged 17
Kahil Sakando – Aged 49
Christopher Todds – Aged 25
Alexander Neil Brian Watt – Aged 21
Thomas Woolaghan – Aged 24