Diving With The Thistlegorm

In December 1998 I was visiting the Red Sea for the very first time and, with a most successful indoctrination into the delights of some outstanding aspects already behind me, I found myself contemplating my very visit to the Thistlegorm. For me, this was a very long-overdue visit and, I have to say that, as I entered the water, I was wondering whether or not any shipwreck could live up to the hype – both good and bad, which had gone before.

Then as now, I was visiting the Red Sea as a guest of Diving World and spending a week on board their luxurious live-aboard Diving boat “Miss Nouran” – an excellent live-aboard by any standards. Easy to say I know – but, believe me, I saw much of the competition over those two visits and, well, you don’t want to know about some of those – much less Dive with them! Our Guide on the first trip was that well known character Ali Baba – a man who has been deaf since birth but, who can lip-read in five languages. Ali Baba was an exceptionally fine Diving Guide and Instructor with a great sense of humour and, in a world where other Diving Boats can often make things chaotic for the novice, his one outstanding quality is that he cares!

Our Guide on the second occasion was Geof Loe – an ex-Marine who has previously spent 15 years at sea in another career. During the past year, however, he and his delightful wife Trudy have made Diving their new way of life and I was now very impressed by his approach and overall knowledge. On both occasions however, Both Ali Baba and Geof explained the difficulties associated with mooring above the Thistlegorm. The first person into the water is always the Dive Guide and they took a chain loop attached to a stout rope all the way down to the anchor chains at the Bows while the Skipper kept “way” on the boat to make the task easier.

Once we were secure, the engines were switched off and, my Diving Partner and I always tried to be first in. We followed the rope halfway down before crossing to the Bridge just as soon as it came into view. Dropping down in front of the Bridge we suddenly saw those three WW2 vehicles on the starboard side of No 2 Hold – exactly as depicted in some of the many accounts I had studied. Below these we found another level with sufficient room to swim into the hold, over the tops of many more vehicles still parked as though, even now, they were waiting to be unloaded. Behind each cab, we found three motorcycles – stowed in this fashion purely for the sea passage. With the powerful lights from twin strobes illuminating this incredible scene, it suddenly became all too obvious why so many “downbeat” articles have also been written about this single shipwreck.

The motorcycles have been pushed over by Divers searching for something to remove and keep. The badges, pedals, twist grips and tool kits are all gone. As for the lorries and trucks, there are only a few steering wheels left – but that is not all. In order to get at those steering wheels or, in some cases a souvenir from the engine, Divers have smashed their way in through the roof or bonnet of each vehicle – thus maximising the damage caused in search of their wretched trophy.

So much for the cargo – what about the ship’s brass fittings, I thought, and of course these too were all long-gone. I could not help but wonder how many visiting “tourist” Divers will have had either the time or the equipment to remove anything of significance – telegraphs, portholes etc.

Perhaps those writers who have had the audacity to publish photographs of these stolen goods have the answer… Strong words I know, but the SS Thistlegorm is an unofficial War Grave and whilst the Ministry of Defence would never seek to prevent Scuba Divers from visiting the ship – and never have!, they do regard all items taken from her as simple theft!

But worse was to come with the discovery that the greatest damage of all, occurs each and every day and is caused by the Diving Boats themselves. Anything up to 20 Boats might be moored over the Thistlegorm at any one time. The first to arrive generally tie up to the shallower reaches of the wreck such as the Bridge – and the shallower the better for the Dive Guide who has to retrieve the mooring line at the end of the day. Then, when there is no more space, the Boats tie to each other. Some of the larger boats weigh several tons, so it is easy to see how the combined force of such a fleet – all pulling together as they take a single wave, is able to exert pressures that no ship’s superstructure was ever designed to withstand. In 1998 large sections of the Thistlegorm’s Bridge were to be found on the seabed off the starboard side, whereas another, even larger section, was found hanging down and swaying precariously on the port side.

When I returned in 1999 the Bridge section was even shorter and the large portion hanging down the side of the wreck had finally fallen to the seabed below. Even as our own craft lie quietly tugging at her mooring line, another vessel came upon us so suddenly that, for a brief moment she was wedged between ourselves and an adjacent boat. Seeing that she had been slightly damaged by the mild impact, I hailed the “skipper” and drew his attention to the existence of a sharp protrusion hanging menacingly under their Diving Platform. He really was not that fussed!

It remains the supreme irony, therefore, that the World’s foremost Scuba Diving attraction is literally being pulled apart by the very Diving Boats who are dependent on her for their livelihood! Looking back to that day in 1998, I must confess that – before I got into the water, I had wondered why Ali Baba had taken that little extra time to take our line down as far as the ship’s anchor chains. Suddenly, it was rather obvious – he insisted on using one of the Thistlegorm’s strong points. In 1999 Geof Loe insisted on doing exactly the same and, for me at least, this says an awful lot about Diving World!

Despite the manner of her sinking and the ongoing destruction, the Thistlegorm is still in a remarkable condition. The front two thirds or so remain largely intact and sit upright on a sandy seabed at a maximum depth of 32 metres. The starboard anchor is deployed, some railings are still in place and all the winch houses, winches, blocks, windlasses and other paraphernalia are there to be found. Working our way from Bows to Stern, the Diver drops down from the forecastle to the main deck and is immediately confronted by two 4-wheeled railway water carriers on either side of No 1 Hold – with the one on the port side resting precariously over the edge of the Hold.

Each hold contained two levels with the upper level being known as “tween decks.” Throughout the ship, these tween decks provided a storage space that was, in effect, a large shelf that stretched under the decks of the ship and several vehicles are still found here. Bedford trucks and a number of Motorcycles are found on the starboard side. Although the same is found on the port side, the top of the hold is damaged and bent downwards and, with the presence of that water carrier, perched somewhat menacingly over the edge, this side tends to be less well visited.

Below this, in the hold itself, much of the cargo of parts and spares has come to look like an accumulation of debris that serves to obscure much that might have been of interest – including more vehicles, trapped beneath.

Above No 2 Hold on either side are the two Tenders beside which are two “torpedo” shaped Paravanes. Here, there are more interesting vehicles in the tween decks but below these on the port side, the Diver will discover two large Armoured Cars built on Rolls Royce Chassis – looking like a pair of armour-plated boxes with tiny viewing holes for the driver. The plating is some two inches thick – though the doors have now come away revealing a curious communications system that few would understand today.

On the starboard lower side, however, there begins that incredible journey. Swimming gently above the vehicles, there is plenty of room to explore and inspect the various Lorries, Trailers, Motorcycles and other items as you journey below the bridge and pass through No 3 hold. Here are the small arms – weapons of various calibre in packs of 6 or 8 placed “Butt to Muzzle” and each pack now concreted together as a single entity. Beyond this, is the fuel store – virtually empty after such a long journey. To one side, however, there is a large gap where the Diver is quite easily able to exit through the bulkhead which once formed the outer wall of No 4 Hold.

Emerging into the daylight, the Diver is confronted by the devastation and twisted metal that surrounded the sinking. A little further on and Ammunition boxes form a large pile of fairly uniform debris – on top of which is an up-turned Bren carrier with it’s characteristic tracks. Further over to the left is another resting on it’s side. Jutting out from the fore section is the broken drive shaft and some 20m further on is the remainder – sticking out of what remains of the stern. Below this, is a number of very large shells – possibly 14inch and once destined for a British Capital Ship. The stern itself is canted over at an angle of 45 degrees and is as interesting as any other part of the ship. The two deck-mounted guns are still in place and are best viewed from below – where they make excellent silhouettes against the distant surface.

Turning around and swimming back – but this time above the wreck, the Diver passes over the most extensively damaged section once again, before the ship begins to take shape. Here, is that upper deck which was “peeled” back almost as far as the Bridge. The evenly spaced steel girders which once supported the deck are now on top and who knows what lies trapped below it. Off the port side, one can also see the remains of one of the two Railway Engines – sitting, remarkably, upright the seabed. Finally, there what remains of the Bridge which, even though it was stripped bare long ago, is still well worth a visit.

A gentle current generally prevails from bow to stern. Large Grouper, Blacktip Sharks, Jacks and Tuna are amongst the largest fish encountered – with the latter two species providing an early morning display of speed and agility as they attack shoals of smaller fish at breakfast time. All the common Reef Fishes are also present – including a pair of Lionfish just aft of the Bridge.