|THE THISTLEGORM WAS BOMBED AND SUNK IN THE EARLY HOURS OF 6 OCTOBER 1941, so this year is the 60th anniversary of the sinking. This was drawn to my attention by Red Sea diving instructor John Kean, an enthusiast who collects any information he can lay his hands on about the Thistlegorm, making presentations to groups of divers and writing a book about it.|
Found in the 50s then forgotten again, the Thistlegorm first re-appeared in Diver early in 1993, when John Bantin wrote about it. In late October 1992 Simshon, an Israeli skipper who did diving as well as fishing charters, was told about a good site for fishing by Bedouin fishermen, he told me. He was the person who rediscovered the Thistlegorm, and told all the other Israeli skippers. The foreign boat-operators wanted to keep the position secret from the Egyptians, for just an elite few!
Bantins article referred to a unique opportunity to dive a wreck that has been virtually undisturbed for 50 years... this has to be the best shipwreck in the world.
He ended, however, with an ominous comment about the depressing noise of the wreck being vandalised by a group that arrived as his boat was departing. On his return a few months later, he commented: I was shocked to witness the results of the diver activity which had already taken place. The souvenir-hunters had already started their vandalism.
Mark Hobday visited the wreck later that year. It was my first liveaboard trip in coral waters. I had read John Bantins article and was astounded at how she was a real time capsule, just as he described her. The Thistlegorm will remain the best wreck dive ever, because it was so pristine and complete - upright and full of an armys shopping list. What sticks is being down first with no silt, floating into the hold with the collection of Bedford trucks. With powerful torches it was like lighting up the inside of an aircraft hangar on a war-film set - all that was missing were people.
Photographer and writer Gavin Anderson visited the wreck later in 1993. I made 10 dives on the Thistlegorm over two days, he says. Since then Ive been back fairly regularly and must have made at least 50 dives, all the time stretching it out to the last breath of air.
After the first trip I wrote an article for Scotlands Sunday Post. Ray Gibson, the Thistlegorms Third Radio Officer, saw it and got in touch. I travelled to Preston and we had fish and chips in his living room. It was one of those rare occasions where we both felt really privileged, me to meet someone from a part of history I had become involved with, him to meet someone who had dived the old girl, as he referred to the ship.
It was the first he had even heard of the Thistlegorm since abandoning ship in 1941. After the sinking, the survivors were just given their pay and assigned to other ships.
Andersons most recent visit was last year. Even with deterioration caused by the sheer number of divers, its still the best wreck I have ever dived, he says.
Caroline Hawkins made the BBC documentary Last Voyage of the Thistlegorm, having been one of the first to dive the wreck in 1992, when it was still a well-kept secret. It blew my mind. It was a divers dream, upright, largely intact and full of cargo. I thought: Someones going to make a film about this. Im a diver, a producer and a director. Its going to be ME!
She and assistant producer Sally Lindsay trawled through naval records, electoral registers and retired seamens associations, painstakingly piecing together the story. Each day brought a new revelation. It was unbelievably exciting. One thing started to become very clear to us: the largely unrecognised bravery of the Merchant Navy. They suffered appalling losses.
One in four merchant seaman died during World War Two, a higher casualty rate than in any of the Armed Forces.
I felt that through Thistlegorms story I could in some way paint the bigger picture. When we finally met Harry [Engineer Officer], Glyn [RN DEMS Gunner], Ray [Third Radio Officer], John [MN Able Seaman] and Denis [Marine Gunner on the rescue ship HMS Carlisle] it was a humbling experience.
For most the memories were painful, but without exception they generously told us their stories and helped in every way they could. They went on to become very special friends, and although many of them have passed away since we made our film in 1994, I feel a certain contentment at having recorded their bravery in 1941.
By 1998 demand had turned the Thistlegorm from the preserve of a few liveaboards to a mainstream destination for day-boats. Overcrowding was now an established feature of the wreck.
We arrived early so the first dive was uncrowded, but Piccadilly Circus was not in it later on! says Simon Hayter. Our liveaboard was fairly small and I dont think we were there on a particularly busy day. We went down in pairs but day-boats seemed to tip divers off by the bucketload. We had strict instructions to ascend via the line to avoid being run down or squashed.
Mike and Lindsay Gibbons also dived from a liveaboard. We arrived very early and spent the whole day there, ending up with a night dive. That meant we did four dives, and we enjoyed them, despite the large numbers of other divers.
The thing that really spoiled the experience for us was overcrowding on the surface. There must have been about 30 boats in the area. Combined with the skippers disregard for human life and property, this was a lethal combination. We were doing a safety stop on our boats line when another boat crashed into it, destroying a section of railing. If we had been a couple of metres shallower we would probably have lost our heads.
I have to admit that it was only at the start of last year that I lost my Thistlegorm virginity, off a day-boat trip from Sharm el Sheikh. Buddied with another experienced diver, we had a couple of very enjoyable dives away from the guided groups, but I wouldnt rate the Thistlegorm any higher than many other warm and coldwater wrecks I have visited, despite having one of the more interesting collections of cargo.
Alex Poole, a regular buddy of mine, dived the Thistlegorm a few weeks later. Most people seem to grade it as a world-class wreck, but it depends what you want out of a dive, he says. For a competent diver its a pleasant, easy dive. For the dedicated wreckie I think its a bit of a disappointment, not in the same league as wrecks like the Murree out of Dartmouth, or the Markgraf in Scapa Flow, which depth make rather more challenging.
Everyone seems to rave about the Thistlegorm - perhaps that had raised my expectations unrealistically high. We arrived on site along with 15 other boats, all determined to put their divers in the water at exactly the same time. It was chaos.
There was only one guide on Alexs boat, so as an instructor he got roped into leading half the customers: The only part of the dive I enjoyed was when the group got lost briefly. I was diving with a twinset, which meant I was easy to see and follow - until a boatload of tekkies turned up going in the opposite direction!
I eventually found my group again in the third hold. But I did enjoy the peace and tranquillity of my brief solo exploration!
I dont consider it very responsible letting a boatful of inexperienced divers, many of them having completed fewer than 10 dives, loose on a wreck in 30m-plus with a screaming surface current. Two aborted as soon as they discovered this.
Another pair ended up shooting to the surface when one discovered her air was turned off! Im sure this is not an uncommon experience with the number of divers visiting the site, Im just amazed there arent more casualties!
I might consider diving it again, if I was diving from a liveaboard with a group I knew. As it was, I think I just experienced package-diving at its very worst.
What does a dedicated deep-diving wreckie make of the site I dived the Thistlegorm in 1998, says Mark Andrews. It was a bit hyped but worth a couple of dives.
Its one of the better Red Sea wrecks as its steeped in history, full of general cargo, trucks, steam engines and bikes - not your normal wreck contents!
I saw the Jacques Cousteau video from when he discovered it. He wasnt the most environmentally friendly diver, lifting cases of guns and bike parts. Since then all the bike badges are gone, speedos, anything that can easily be dispatched. I even saw peoples names carved on parts of the wreck and what year they dived. Theyre turning it into a public toilet.
The guides were pretty good - too good, as I wanted to penetrate beyond the normal holds and they said no. I accidentally got lost and found myself in the ships belly; there are still lots of goodies in her that the average diver will never see!
But the wreck is now an accident waiting to happen. The holds are buckled badly and it wont be long before they come crashing down. With hundreds of divers per week visiting the Thistlegorm, the chances are very high that some will be present when this happens. Maybe its about time to stop the penetration dives but then, who would want to dive her
John Kean, the Red Sea instructor, also commented on the structure of the wreck: Dive guides must be careful where they tie-in mooring lines. Weaker parts of the wreck can easily be damaged by a badly located line. They need to pick a strong point such as the anchor winch. In the long term, says John, the local association of dive centres wants to install permanent moorings and ban tying-in to the wreck altogether.
Perhaps the wrecks magic is best appreciated by the less-experienced divers who make up the bulk of visitors. Michael Trefall of Explorers Tours visited this April by day-boat from Sharm. I was surprised to find four dive boats already there, three more close behind us, and our guide commenting that diving should be good as it wasnt too crowded! Fortunately, the groups seemed to stagger their dives and not too many people swarmed on the wreck at any one time.
This was my first wreck dive and I was more than a little nervous. Our guide gave a thorough briefing in which every eventuality was covered and question answered, so that by the time we entered the water, I was more than comfortable with what was to come.
Ive listened to people rave about this dive for years, but I didnt anticipate the eerie sense of history I felt when I entered the hull. It was more than just visual.
Its evident that people have been taking souvenirs for quite some time. Even so, the wreck is still in incredible condition.
I like to think that the Thistlegorm has been at least partly responsible for attitude changes among UK divers. Over the past decade we have seen a growing swing away from toolkits and salvage towards a respect our wrecks attitude, and I doubt whether this would have happened without the growth in overseas dive travel, particularly to the Red Sea and the Thistlegorm.
Most UK wrecks have been broken by storms and explosives, either to clear the sea for navigation or for commercial salvage. But then travelling divers got to see wrecks as pristine as this one was in clear tropical waters, protected as a valuable asset by the local dive operators.
Damage by souvenir-hunters or vandals is readily visible on wrecks such as the Thistlegorm but this damage is abhorred by most visiting divers. Nudged by various action groups, we are now seeing this concern transferred back to the wrecks in our home
|Among the sights still to be seen on the Thistlegorm are BSA motorcycles |
|the remains of a goods locomotive |
|Lee-Enfield 303 rifles held in clamps |
|stern gun |
|the ends of four 4in shells in their canister |
|a Bedford truck cab |
|a mine-sweeping drone |
|1939 ||Construction started in Sunderland|
|April 1940 || Launched, carried cargoes from USA, South America and West Indies|
|May 1941 || Carried military supplies for 8th Army in Alexandria, via Cape Town and Suez|
|September 1941 || Convoy anchored off Shadwan Island, waiting for Suez Canal to be cleared |
|5 October 1941 || Four Heinkel 111 bombers depart from Crete|
|1952 - 1953 || Cousteau expedition discovers wreck and recovers bell and captains safe|
|1956 || National Geographic features expedition|
|1956 - 1992 || Site forgotten by all but local fishermen|
|1992 || Wreck rediscovered by sport divers|
|May 1993 ||John Bantin writes about Thistlegorm for Diver|
|1994 || Caroline Hawkins Last Voyage of the Thistlegorm shown on BBC|
|6 October 2001 || 60th anniversary of sinking|