Diving the SS Thistlegorm.

Boom! The explosion was massive and ripped through the ammunition stores in Hold 4 onboard the SS Thistlegorm and lit the dark sky for miles around. It is 1:30am, September 6th 1941.

There was no warning for the crew onboard, just the roaring engines of the two Heinkel bombers BMW engines and the whistling of two bombs scoring direct hits on their target. The SS Thistlegorm had been moored in the Suez Canal, awaiting orders to move north and deliver its much needed cargo of military supplies to British troops of the Western Desert Force, based in North Africa for the war effort.

The ship contained weapons, vehicles, ammunition and uniforms, all desperately needed for their defence against the onslaught of German and Italian troops in the Egyptian desert.

Things were looking grim for Britain and its Allies in September 1941. The previous year, allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk having been expelled by a rapidly advancing German force. German U-boats had begun attacking merchant ships in the Atlantic. The Desert Fox, German Fieldmarshal Erwin Rommel, had started attacking Tobruk, and the Germans had just begun their advance on Moscow for Operation Typhoon.

With the German and Italian Naval and Air forces controlling much of the Mediterranean, Allied ships couldn’t go through the Strait of Gibraltar. The SS Thistlegorm was forced to sail as part of a convoy to Egypt, hugging the west coast of Africa, refuelling at Cape Town and then up to the Red Sea. This was quite a detour, but it was safer for the war and supply ships to use the Suez Canal and dock at Alexandria on Egypt’s north coast.

When the convoy arrived near the Suez canal, an incident had forced shipping to anchor of the south coast of the Sinai Peninsula, before they could receive orders to pass through.

At the same time, German Intelligence had picked up reports of an Australian troop ship destined for the Egyptian front as part of the Allied military build-up in 1941. The Luftwaffe dispatched two Heinkel bombers from Crete, modified with extra fuel storage to travel deeper into Allied territory for its hunt. The bombers failed to find the troop ship, but spotted the Thistlegorm and HMS Carlisle at anchor.

The Thistlegorm was armed with a 120 mm anti-aircraft gun and a heavy-calibre machine gun, attached after construction to the stern of the ship, but it didn’t expect to need them at the safe harbour points close to the Suez, supposedly out of range of German Bombers.

After being hit by high explosive bombs from the Luftwaffe, fires raged on board, as crew scrambled to help each other and abandon ship. Four sailors and five members of the Royal Navy gun crew were killed, while the rest of the crew were rescued by another ship. The Thistlegorm sank fast, landing perfectly upright on the sea floor. The British supply ship would rest there until famous explorer Jacques Cousteau

discovered it again in the early 50s, with the help of local fishermen. Jacques recovered several items, including a motorcycle, the captains safe and the ship’s bell.

After Jacques’ visit, the wreck, at a depth of 30 metres would be forgotten, except by local fishermen. It wouldn’t be until the 90s, as Sharm el Sheik developed as a tourist destination, that recreational divers would visit the SS Thistlegorm.

Scuba Diving

The massive explosion that sank the Thistlegorm had blown much of her midships superstructure away, making the wreck very accessible to divers. The depth of around 30 m, (100 feet) at its deepest is ideal for diving without the need for specialist equipment and training.

Quite a few dive operators run tours out of Sharm El Sheik on day trips, or if you have plenty of cash, you can dive from a posh liveaboard boat and get extra dives in.

Generally, the first dive on the wreck starts with a deep dive around the stern and then continuing to explore the exterior of the wreck. This is what we did. Myself, Kiwi Daryl, and an ex Royal Navy sailor, Pete, made the trip from Dahab to the dive site. The huge propeller and rudder are a must-visit followed by making your way around to the back, passing the anti-aircraft guns and the area that was bombed and exposed. Next stop is the captain’s cabin and the bridge where you can briefly enter the wreck to explore. Before the ascent, divers then swim along the top deck to view the well preserved equipment, masts and winches that are intact there.

After my first dive on the Thistlegorm, I ascended slowly with my buddies and rested on the surface interval, taking some water and food on board. I was shaking from the experience of basically flying around an incredible museum, and we were all so excited to get back down for the second dive, which would take us into all the cargo holds inside the ship wreck.

Before heading to Sharm El Sheik, we embarked on the PADI Nitrox course so we could scuba dive with enriched air and extend our bottom times before having to resurface. We reprogrammed our computer watches to 32% Oxygen, and then computer does all the calculations for you to ensure safe diving.

Ready for our second dive, our team descended the line attached to the wreck and entered the wreck at the best access point at Hold 3, where the bomb damage opened up the ship. The second dive is all about the interior. We then moved to Holds 1 and 2 which house Morris automobiles, motorcycles, Bedford trucks, ammunition, Enfield rifles still loaded in their racks, as well as crates of medicine, tyres and mounds of welly boots. Aircraft parts and two LMS Stanier Class 8F steam locomotives were also on board, and can be viewed once you find them.

One can always be acquainted with the giant resident Moray eel - who we named Eddie inside the ship on the second dive, saying Hello, before slowly moving through the holds and taking photos of this well-preserved museum.

After completing the second dive, we made a third dive on another wreck before it was time for a cold bottle of local Sakara beer in Sharm el Sheik, to talk about an incredible diving experience. I would certainly recommend this dive to keen scuba divers in Fermanagh, warm waters and welcoming locals make for an incredible adventure.

There are many other wrecks in this shallow region of the Red Sea, some of which we also visited, so it is worth doing your homework on what you would like to see.

Environmental considerations.

With the Thistlegorm being a popular wreck, many boats tie off to the crumbling rails of the degrading ship, causing more damage than is necessary. It would be great to see new mooring blocks placed on the sea floor, to minimise their impact on aquatic life and the wrecks structure. It would be an important project for the dive companies who depend on this wreck for their livelihood. Another factor is also the environmental impact of tourism and plastic waste. Much plastic waste finds it way into the oceans, killing and damaging aquatic life. So it is important to consider sensible, low impact tourism.

Is Egypt safe?

The short answer is: no. While most Egyptians are incredibly welcoming people, tourists in some of the resorts and the airport have been targeted by jihadist Extremists. Understanding how important tourism is to Egypt, the Egyptian military have tried, but are struggling, to contain the insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. Many tourists, therefore, are opting to go else where unfortunately to other dive sites in the region deemed safer. Hopefully in the future, events can stabilise and tourists and travellers can enjoy the delights that Egypt has to offer and worry only about how much sun cream they need to bring with them.