The SS Thistlegorm was a British armed Merchant Navy ship that was sunk in 1941 in the Red Sea by German bombers during World War II.

Today, the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm is one of the world’s premier dive sites, offering divers a unique window into wartime history amidst vibrant marine life.

We’ve included a gallery of amazing images of the wreck at the end of the article.

Contents

Background

Constructed by Joseph Thompson & Son in Sunderland, England, SS Thistlegorm was launched in April 1940. Commissioned by the Albyn Line, this British armed Merchant Navy ship, spanning 128 meters in length, was primarily designed to transport cargo.

Read More Muroc Maru – The Wooden Warship In The Desert

As its maiden voyage suggests, its role was not limited to peaceful times alone. The ship took to the seas during the stormy era of World War II, tasked with the vital responsibility of transporting arms, ammunition, and other essentials to support the war effort.

The Thistlegorm’s propeller. Image by
Woodym555 CC BY-SA 3.0

World War II witnessed ships playing a pivotal role in supplying essentials to various fronts. SS Thistlegorm, named after the Scottish Gaelic phrase for ‘Blue Thistle’, was no exception.

In its brief operational period, the ship participated in several supply missions. Its voyages took it to the United States, Argentina, the West Indies, and finally to the fateful waters of the Red Sea.

On its last mission, SS Thistlegorm was transporting a massive inventory – including rifles, motorbikes, trucks, locomotives, aircraft parts, and other crucial supplies – to the British 8th Army in Egypt. Unfortunately, the vessel would never reach its final destination.

Sinking Of The Thistlegorm

On October 6, 1941, while anchored at the Straits of Gubal in the Red Sea, waiting for clearance to navigate through the Suez Canal, the Thistlegorm became the target of German Heinkel He-111 bombers.

Read More Hugh B. Miller – Left For Dead In The Pacific

Despite not being the primary target (the German bombers were initially seeking a troopship), a successful hit on the SS Thistlegorm led to a massive explosion, owing to the ammunition onboard. The resultant devastation sunk the ship, taking nine members of its crew along with it to the watery depths. The world had lost another vessel to the devastations of war.

The Thistlegorm Is Rediscovered

For years, the Thistlegorm rested silently beneath the Red Sea waves, its existence and location known only to a select few. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the ship was ‘rediscovered’ by the legendary French marine explorer, Jacques Cousteau.

The ship’s stern gun. Image by Diver ZorG CC BY-SA 4.0

Armed with knowledge from local fishermen about the presence of a submerged vessel, Cousteau and his team located and explored the wreck, retrieving several artifacts and even the ship’s bell.

Yet, SS Thistlegorm’s real rebirth was in the late 20th century when the location became accessible to recreational divers. Thanks to advancements in diving technology and a surge in Red Sea tourism, Thistlegorm emerged as a premier diving site.

Read More Charles Jackson French – The Human Tugboat

The wreck, sitting between 16 to 32 meters underwater, provided an unparalleled window into the wartime era, with its cargo holds still containing the remnants of its last mission – the motorbikes, trucks, and even the boots meant for the troops.

Is the Thistlegorm a war grave?

The UK considers the SS Thistlegorm a war grave since it was a commercial ship sunk while it served the Royal Navy. Though the majority of the crew was rescued, nine on board died during the Nazi Luftwaffe air raid. The steamship sunk in 1941 while it was transporting Allied troops rearmament. Now, the sunken ship is a popular scuba-diving destination.

An Underwater Time Capsule

Divers visiting the SS Thistlegorm often describe it as a journey back in time. The relatively shallow depth and clear Red Sea waters offer excellent visibility, allowing divers to witness the remnants of the ship’s fateful cargo.

Unexploded ordnance was found on the wreck. Image by Diver ZorG

The eeriness of the rusted vehicles, juxtaposed against the vibrant marine life that now calls the wreck home, creates a surreal experience. Over the years, the ship has transformed into an artificial reef, housing various species of fish, corals, and other marine organisms.

One of the ship’s anti-aircraft guns. Image by Roland Unger CC BY-SA 3.0
Some of the motorbikes found on the wreck. Image by Roland Unger CC BY-SA 3.0
More of the ammunition found on the Thistlegorm. Image Roland Unger CC BY-SA 3.0
Amazing wildlife can also be seen inhabiting the ship. Image by Albert Kok2 CC BY-SA 3.0
Several trucks are located on the ship. Image by Albert Kok2 CC BY-SA 3.0