The SS Thistlegorm is undoubtedly one of the world’s premier wreck dives, and Editorial Director Mark Evans’ son Luke had wanted to explore this underwater military museum since he first saw the vessel on a grainy old VHS tape when he was about five. At 15, he finally achieved his dream – and the old girl more than lived up to expectations.
Photographs by Mark Evans
The SS Thistlegorm is a world-famous wreck dive, and justifiably so – and this is all down to the cargo it was carrying. The vessel itself makes a fine dive in its own right, but the treasures contained within the holds are what attract literally thousands of divers per year.
The Thistlegorm was less than a year old when it was sent to the bottom of the Egyptian Red Sea on 6 October 1941, succumbing to damage from German Heinkel He 111 bombers while at anchor in Sha’ab Ali, just east of the Straits of Gubal, waiting to go through the Suez Canal. This British armed merchant navy ship was chock-full of Allied military supplies, including motorbikes, Bren gun carriers, trucks, rubber boots, Lee Enfield rifles, munitions of all shapes and sizes, airplane parts – today it is like diving through a museum. Every dive you do you will spot something you hadn’t seen on previous excursions, and as well as the rich cargo to keep you captivated, there is plenty of marine life that calls the holds home, including moray eels, lionfish and scorpionfish, crocodilefish and even several species of nudibranch.
On the sandy seabed on either side of the Thistlegorm lie the remains of two steam locomotives, which were blown some 100 metres into the air by the explosion that decimated hold four of the vessel (where much of the ammunition was stored, hence the devastation) and then landed upright, and are now seemingly steaming along the bottom.
The stern section, just behind the bomb damage to hold four, is tilted to port, and you can see the two anti-aircraft guns still in place, now host to plenty of coral growth, as well as the immense propeller and rudder.
The rest of the ship is perfectly upright, and swimming along the decks, which contain the water carriers from the locos, cranes and more, into the superstructure – you can even see the captain’s sink and bath-tub – and through the multiple hold levels, is an experience that will stay with you forever. You only scratch the surface of this vast ship with a couple of dives – most day trips feature a dive around the exterior of the vessel, followed by a second when you penetrate into the holds to see the magnificent cargo – and you’ll be left wanting more as you surface from your final dive.
Incredibly, while the Thistlegorm was first discovered way back in 1956 by one Jacques-Yves Cousteau, it was then inexplicably lost again until it was rediscovered in 1992, and it has been a staple on trips to the northern Red Sea ever since.
Inspired at a young age
Luke has grown up surrounded by diving paraphernalia and was snorkelling from the age of three or four. He has always had an affinity with the water, and soaked up anything about the underwater world like a sponge. I vividly remember him watching an old VHS video of divers on the SS Thistlegorm and stating unequivocally that he wanted to dive it. He was only five.
Roll on some ten years, and he was now a qualified diver with over 150 dives under his belt. His Junior Advanced Open Water Diver had become a full Advanced Open Water Diver certification, with the associated increase in depth limits, so it was a prime time for him to return to Egypt – where he notched up his Junior AOW in the first place – on a mission to dive the Thistlegorm.
We were diving with Red Sea Diving College and spent a couple of days on reefs and walls, including the majestic Shark and Yolanda Reefs in Ras Mohammed National Park, to get him back into warm-water diving (he had been drysuit diving in the UK for months) and then it was the big day – Thistlegorm time!
The regulations when we were out there last year stated that only particular vessels with the necessary permissions were allowed to make the long journey to the Thistlegorm, so early doors we were out of our accommodation at the Camel Dive Club and Hotel and down at the main road awaiting pick-up.
Did you know?
SS Thistlegorm was a British cargo steamship that was built in North East England in 1940 and sunk by German bomber aircraft in the Red Sea in 1941. Her wreck off the Sinai Peninsula is now a well-known diving site.
We were expecting to just head off as a trio – myself, my wife Penney and Luke – so it was a pleasant surprise when the minibus rolled up and the grinning face of RSDC diveguide supremo Paul ‘Hooch’ Winkworth was leaning out of the window! We had been diving for Hooch for the previous two days, and Luke had formed a strong bond with him. I was confident of giving Luke a decent exploration of the Thistlegorm having dived it some 60-plus times over the years, but with Hooch boasting more than 1,000 dives on the mighty wreck, I knew that Luke was going to be given the grand tour.
Around the outside
We followed the normal plan on a two-tank dive at the Thistlegorm. For the first dive, we set off to explore the exterior of the enormous vessel, which helps to orientate you to the wreck, as well as really allow you to soak up the sheer size of its rusting hulk.
Dropping down the descent line, there was a bit of current, but by the time we’d hit the wreck, it was next to nothing. Hooch wasted no time and headed over the railings and down to one of the locomotives sitting on the seabed alongside the Thistlegorm. A quick circuit of this curiosity – this one in particular really does look like it is ready to set steam – and we were back over to the wreck to skirt through the debris field, stopping to look at shells of varying sizes and the bren gun carriers, before checking out the anti-aircraft guns on the twisted-over stern section. Luke’s face as we rounded the stern and were confronted by the gigantic prop and rudder was a picture!
From here we made our way towards the bow at deck level, past bollards, winches, water carriers and more, until we reached the bow itself. All too soon, our computers were nudging towards our NDL, so we reluctantly finished the dive and headed back up to the surface.
Luke was positively bouncing during our lunch break. He was already blown away by the wreck and saying it was the best dive he has done – and he hadn’t even been inside yet!
It has often been said that the main reason that the Thistlegorm is such an iconic dive is because of its military cargo, and this is undoubtedly true. It really is like touring around a World War Two museum exhibit. Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of row upon row of army trucks, laden with motorcycles, rubber boots, Lee Enfield rifles, and more. Then there are airplane engine cowlings, bed frames, coils of wire – the list is almost endless.
When we dropped in, there was a little more current than the morning, but on leaving the line at deck level, we headed straight into one of the holds and once inside, we were free to head off wherever we pleased. Hooch took us on a meandering tour around each level of the holds, pointing out all of the military items to Luke, who at times didn’t know where to look!
Once we had completed a loop of the lowest level, we moved up a deck and did the same again, until eventually we were back up to deck level.
As a finale, Hooch took us up and into the upper superstructure, where we explored the bridge and the captain’s quarters, where you can see his bath and sink. We popped out of this looking towards the stern – and swimming into the current. We punched out and to the starboard side, where we drifted along the deck to our descent line.
I snapped a photograph of Luke as he grabbed on the line – the grin and look of sheer delight was unmistakable! We had a trio of batfish escort us back up to our safety stop, and then we were back topside.
Luke was absolutely stoked to have finally achieved his long-held ambition to dive the Thistlegorm, and Penney and I were proud to have been with him as he did it. Despite clocking up plenty of dives on the wreck, it still never fails to enthrall me – I don’t think anyone could tire of diving on this unique piece of military history lying in the depths of the Egyptian Red Sea. If you haven’t dived it yet, I suggest you plan a trip soon – and let’s see if the old girl can cast a spell over you as well.
Red Sea Diving College
The Red Sea Diving College has been in operation since 1991, and is one of the longest-established dive centres in Sharm el Sheikh. It occupies a slice of prime real estate right off the beach and on the main promenade in Na’ama Bay, and offers everything from try dives through entry-level dive courses to continued education and even professional certifications.
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #72