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SS Thistlegorm Bow

I like fish.

When SCUBA diving, as you descend through the water, just at that point where the reef or wreck features become clear, fish of all kinds will often swim right up to you and nibble anything they can, in order to get a better idea of just what you are.

It’s common practice to tuck away longer hair and keep your fingers balled up to avoid having them nicked by pesky fish passing-by.  In some parts of the diving world, the nibbles seem to take this habit to another level.

SS Thistlegorm Stern

I’ve dived in some of the same pristine blue waters as the “Father” of SCUBA diving, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and his legendary dive team, but I’ve never descended through water in the Egyptian Red Sea where these were first ‘discovered.’

I’m talking about the SS Thistlegorm.

It’s a 4,900 ton British armed freighter that was launched in April 1940 during World War II.  In 1952, Jacques Cousteau ‘re-discovered’ the SS Thistlegorm Wreck after following fishermen’s information and in 1956, the National Geographic with Cousteau made the first documentary on this war grave.  The local folklore is that Cousteau chopped down the mast so others would not as easily find the wreck.

Cousteau on SS Thistlegorm.  Article in the February, 1956 National Geographic Magazine.  Photo by Luis Marden

After the SS Thistlegorm three successful voyages to collect war related resources from the United States, Agentina, and the West Indies, she set sail on her fourth voyage from Glasgow in June 1941, destined for Alexandria, Egypt.

The vessel’s cargo included trucks, armored cars, Norton 16H and BSA motorcycles, guns, ammunition, radio equipment , aircraft parts, railway wagons, and two steam locomotives, which were carried on deck. The cargo was to resupply allied forces in Egypt, which would become part of the famed British Eighth Army in September 1941.

The Albyn line named all of their ships after the thistle, the national flower of Scotland. Gorm is Gaelic for blue.  Between 1901 and 1960 the Albyn Line owned 18 ‘thistle’ ships, from the first Thistledhu, the black thistle, to the last, Thistleroy, or red thistle, the second of her name.

Motorcycles in Hold #2

Notably, there were more than 100 motorcycles aboard the SS Thistlegorm. The Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) produced the famous motorcycles found on the wreck, which are located in Hold #1.  The Norton 16H’s are in the lower level of Hold #2 and many are loaded onto Fordson War Office Transport (WOT) trucks.

Norton was the primary motorcycle supplier to the British Military during WWII, almost 100,000 of the Norton 16H Model were built for service. Due to the relatively high ground clearance and solid reliability the Norton, it was favored for despatch work, it was also used for training, reconnaissance, convoy control and escort duties.

Motorcycles in Hold #2

The Norton 16H had an extraordinarily long lifespan, they were originally introduced in 1911, then built through to 1954. The 16H was fitted with a 490cc side-valve engine and had a bore/stroke of 79/100mm. The “H” in the name simply means “Home”, the Nortons that were built for service overseas with the Australian, New Zealand, Indian and the Canadian Armies were denoted with a “C” for “colonies”.

The SS Thistlegorm was part of a convoy of 16 ships heading to Alexandria resupplying the British 8th Army at Tobruk.  The convoy was halted at Sha’ab Ali (Safe Anchorage F) because a tanker had run into a German mine at the entrance to the Suez canal, and the convoy had to wait until the wreckage was cleared.  The Thistlegorm was sunk during a surprise attack by a pair of Heinkel He-111 bombers dispatched from Kampfgeschwader (flight squadron) KG26 in Crete.  The German bombers were originally ordered to search for, and sink, the RMS Queen Mary.

After failing to find the RMS Queen Mary, they were heading back to base in Crete due to being low on fuel when they came across the ship convoy by accident.

SS Thistlegorm Prop

Four sailors and five members of the Royal Navy gun crew died in the bombing (Wreck Location Map: 27° 49′ 03″ N, 33° 55′ 14″E) as ammunition stored in Hold #4 exploded and ripped open the hull.

Most of the cargo remained on board following a long period of disinterest.  Until Dr. Adel Taher, the founder of Sharm’s Hyperbaric Medical Centre, ‘rediscovered’ the wreck in the early 1990s with three friends and dived it in secret for a few years.

Then growth of sport diving took off in the Red Sea and Sharm El Sheikh became a popular scuba diving destination.  The depth of the wreck is around 100 feet and makes it ideal for diving without the need for specialized equipment and training, but dive operators didn’t practice social distancing and word spread as the location became the most popular scuba diving and tourist destination in Egypt and the Red Sea.  Now there are severe issues with preserving artifacts and the history of the ship wreck.

1940’s Norton-Model-16H-Military

It would be tempting, even with unexploded ordinance, to retrieve a Norton or two, but the ship wreck is a war grave and not to be disturbed.

Bonus: A 1942 training film prepared for the British Army during World War II on maintenance of the Norton 16H via YouTube HERE.

References: Wikipedia, Dive Magazine UK, Dive Zone, Red Sea Wreak Project, The Thistlegorm Project 

NOTE: Trademarks, copyrights and other names or brands may be claimed as the property of others.

Photos courtesy of Denis Zorzin, National Geographic, Luis Marden, Dive Magazine UK, Super Jolly

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