View of a steering wheel inside a Bedford OYC water tanker 3-ton lorry from another Bedford OYC truck, deep inside a hold of the wreck of the Thistlegorm
I-SPY the Thistlegorm, in a whole new light
DARK, SILTY AND CONFUSING. Words that regularly represent the reality of a dive into the amazing underwater museum that fills the holds of the Thistlegorm.
But that is not what I am experiencing today. For the first time, everything makes sense.
I know that the trucks I am swimming over are Zwicky aircraft-refuellers and the next row of lorries are Crossley Type Qs, another favourite of the RAF.
For years I had pretty much labelled all my photographs of trucks on the Thistlegorm as Bedfords! Today, I know that there were only five Bedford lorries out of 63 trucks and lorries in the two forward holds.
The Thistlegorm is one of the most dived wrecks in the world, and one of the most written about. And as the main lure for divers is seeing what’s inside, you’d imagine that the identities and positions of the WW2 vehicles in the holds were sorted out years ago. Not so.
I find it almost impossible to believe that nobody has done a proper survey of the wreck before, but what motivated us is that the correct information about the 170-plus vehicles in the holds is definitely not out there.
THROUGHOUT THIS PROJECT, each time we figured out a new vehicle ID, I’d Google the “name + Thistlegorm”, and time and again get almost zero returns.
It was very exciting to realise that so much of the story had not been told in 20 years as one of the world’s most popular dive-sites.
And now, making my first dive on the wreck after completing the research, I am revelling in the fruits of that labour. I can see the symmetry in how she was loaded and that the two levels have almost completely different vehicles.
Even among the 100-plus motorbikes, the lower level was loaded only with Nortons and the upper level BSA bikes. All the BSAs were stacked in lines of four with a fifth across the back in Morris trucks, and all the Nortons are threes in the back of Ford trucks.
I now know that there are no Bedford MWs nor Tilling Stevens lorries. There are also no trailers. Without their windscreens and canvas roofs, many of the lorries can be easily overlooked.
It’s like learning to read: the jumble of rust and dust is now resolved into radiators, engines and cabs of Albion BYs and Leyland Retrievers.
The Thistlegorm is also not home to Rolls-Royce armoured cars nor, despite the number of bikes, motorcycle sidecars.
The “sidecars” are actually RAF accumulator trolleys used for powering up aircraft, and the “armoured cars” are pundit lights, used for identifying airfields. What is very clear is that much of the cargo was destined for the RAF.
The degree of confusion is not surprising, however. First, the ship’s manifest apparently lists the cargo as “Motor Transport“, giving no other clues. Furthermore, the vehicles have been immersed in salt water for almost 75 years, and they are also half-buried in debris and at least partially dismantled.
During the Thistlegorm’s first couple of years as a publicised dive-site, it was a free-for-all for looting. It was almost expected of divers to bring up a trophy, and it didn’t take long for all the name-badges and other identifying features of the vehicles to be pilfered by people seeking something to rust away unseen in garden sheds.
It remains a tough place to work. Our maps have been through umpteen editions, and while we feel we’ve reached a point of reasonable certainty, I’ve still yet to make a dive on the wreck without seeing something new, hidden behind bedframes, beneath aircraft spares or between airfield equipment.
Some of what we have discovered is definitely new; other findings simply confirm what’s been known for a long time. However, I am certain that nobody has produced such accurate maps of the holds, and it is these that have really transformed my dive today.
Like many readers, I’ve been visiting this wreck for years, but I have never experienced it like this. The chaos of deteriorating vehicles has been transformed into a parade, in perfect military order.
I marvel at each one – it’s a deeply fascinating experience and I am, without doubt, seeing the Thistlegorm with completely new eyes.
THIS ADVENTURE STARTED FOR ME, not on my first dive on the wreck, but after many years of collecting Thistlegorm images. The more vehicles I photographed, the more motivated I became to know what they were.
Previously I used books and magazine articles. Instantly, I could tell I’d photographed the same truck and copied down the name (and happily sent my images off to publishers, further propagating misinformation).
As my interest grew, I found others working on the same problem. Tony Edge and Keith Francis were surveying the wreck as part of an RAF expedition. It was an ideal project for them, not only because of the cargo’s Air Force connections, but as a challenge for developing servicemen in the RAF’s adventurous training programme.
We quickly found that the more we tugged at the strings of established knowledge, the more the supposed facts unravelled.
We started out checking names against historic images of vehicles and the pictures would rarely match. Bits can be pulled off trucks, but they can’t grow wheel-arches or an extra pair of wheels!
Something was wrong. But how could we identify 75-year-old military vehicles, rusted, buried and purposely stripped of their badges and markings
I stumbled onto the answer completely by chance: the HMVF. The Historic Military Vehicles Forum is a website where restorers swap tales, find parts and share details of their latest rebuild project. It’s a concentration of people who not only know their British WW2 machinery, but are also probably more used to seeing it disassembled than complete!
I posted pictures and began to get answers like this: “The Fordson WOT3 trucks are early models, as I can make out the early air-cleaner hose in your photo. Also the radiator hoses are one-piece rubber rather than later rubber and metal tubing.”
The 12 Fordsons are some of the most commonly seen and photographed vehicles on the wreck, being mostly uncovered and complete in a spacious area of the lower deck of hold 2. But they have been almost universally misidentified as Bedfords, a mistake I think that comes from the BBC documentary, because the narrator casually mentions Bedford trucks as the camera pans over them. The name stuck.
Piece by piece, the jigsaw came together. With a bit of digging I found both Jacques Cousteau’s original 1950s footage and the BBC’s 1994 documentary online, which were very useful for glimpses of the vehicles in better condition than they are today.
THE FINAL PART OF MY STORY came from attending historic military vehicle rallies and seeing restored versions for myself, as a final confirmation of identities.
There remains much more to describe about the Thistlegorm’s cargo. Our account describes just the main vehicles in holds 1 and 2, with the maps drawn as we feel they were loaded into the ship.
A few motorbikes have been moved or removed, a couple of vehicles have fallen down to the lower level, and in a couple of places vehicles are buried too deeply to be properly visible. These are shown as slightly faded in our maps. There is a lot to cover!
So, for now, we’re ignoring the Stanier locomotives and Universal carriers outside the holds, or the Lysander and Bristol aircraft parts, accumulator trolleys, boots, rifles, airfield lights etc inside the holds.
I strongly recommend also reading Chris Frost’s excellent piece Plane Truth About The Thistlegorm, which is now on Divernet, for more info on these artefacts.
Most dives start exploring the holds on the lower level, circulating anti-clockwise from the rear, starboard corner, so I’ll cover the vehicles in that approximate order, giving key identification features in their current condition (well aware that their name badges are long gone).
ENTERING THE LOWER LEVEL of hold 2, from the aft end, the first vehicles are two rows of Fordson WOT3 trucks, most of which are loaded with three Norton 16 H motorbikes. Fordson was a sub-brand of Ford, and WOT stands for War Office Transport.
The WOT3 was a large 4x2 pick-up, used by both the Army and RAF, with a 3.6-litre V8 engine. These trucks stood quite high off the ground, although with deflated tyres and buried in debris, you don’t get this impression floating over the top of them. There are 12 in total in a symmetrical layout, all facing forward.
Two of the Ford WOT3s are partially buried so we can’t tell what was in their load bays, but of the remaining 10, nine have three Norton motorbikes in the back. This means there are definitely 27, but 33 Norton motorbikes were probablyloaded into the Thistlegorm.
The motorbikes are either Nortons or BSA M20s. The two makes look very similar but can be distinguished in a few ways, despite most identifying features having been removed.
One that survives is the drum brake, which is on the left side of the front wheel on the Norton and on the right on the BSA. Easier still, all Nortons are on the lower level and all BSAs on the upper.
Curiously, the Thistlegorm’s Nortons are not military-standard bikes, having exhausts that dog-leg up at the end.
SWIMMING OVER THE WOTs on the starboard side, we find a lorry parked across the ship, with the cab buried. This is a Leyland Retriever. Although very hard to see, you can make out the large transmission tunnel in the cab and the characteristic vertical fuel tank behind
the passenger side of the cab.
There are two Retrievers on the wreck and the other is much easier to see, just a little further on in the same hold, facing aft and against the starboard hull. The distinctive oval radiator is clearly visible.
The Leylands were large and tall 6x4 lorries with six-cylinder, 5.9-litre engines (the biggest engines in the holds).
Their canvas roofs and doors are gone, as are their four-pane windscreens, although the second one does have one pane still in place. Field-Marshal Montgomery used a converted Retriever as his field caravan.
THE OTHER 10 LORRIES in the lower level of hold 2 are all Crossley Type Q, which are a similar size to the Retrievers, despite having two fewer wheels, and were powered by a 5.3-litre four-cylinder engine with all-wheel drive.
These lorries are positioned around the centre of the hold, their rears against the hull or bulkheads and the fronts of their cabs partially, or entirely, buried.
The Crossley Type Q is a rare truck, which was not used by the Army but favoured by the RAF. I am not sure if any in this configuration survive on land, despite there being 10 in the Thistlegorm.
The cab is distinctive, and always reminds me of a garden shed, with an arched roof and vertical sides. The windscreen is split in two and the radiator protrudes only slightly from the flat front.
These vehicles have been confused with the more common AEC Matador, which also has an arched roof but is larger,
with a sloping front windscreen split into four panes, not two, and is not present on the wreck.
MANY GUIDES LEAD GROUPS through into hold 1, through a hole in the bulkhead on the starboard side, and this brings us out between some unusual trucks. These are Albion AM463, with a Zwicky aircraft-refuelling system consisting of a fuel tank with three fuel trumpets guiding the fuel hoses from the valves at the back of the truck to the roof of the boxy cab.
These 4x2 vehicles were powered by four-cylinder 4.4-litre engines, with 450-gallon fuel tanks.
The cabs remain in good condition and there are six Zwicky refuellers across the back of hold 1, three on each side of the central bulkhead.
You can still see the fuel hoses, which look more like springs because the rest of the hose material has disintegrated.
ON THE STARBOARD SIDE, the next vehicles are those that have fallen through the opening to the upper level of hold 1, crushed under the covers that sealed the top of the hold.
This suggests that there was a temporary floor on the upper level of hold 1, because there is no space around the edges of the upper level for these vehicles to have been parked.
We show them in their original positions on our map, in faded colours.
The final vehicles on the lower level of hold 1 are almost entirely buried, but the eight distinctive pylons sticking up out of the debris are from two bridging lorries, almost certainly Albion BY3 or BY5.
This would make them the only vehicles found on both the upper and lower level of the holds.
ASCENDING TO THE UPPER LEVEL, we’ll start at the aft end of hold 2 and then head into hold 1.
The upper level is a tighter squeeze, and was almost impenetrable for a diver when Cousteau first dived the wreck, with bedframes and the framed canvas roofs and glass windows of the trucks entirely blocking access.
Parked up against the rear bulkhead of hold 2, easily seen in the light that penetrates the opening behind the bridge, are the five Bedford OYC lorries. The Bedford OY was one of the most abundant British 3-tonners, with some 72,000 built during the war.
The ones on the Thistlegorm are the OYC tanker variants, with the cylindrical tank (probably for water rather than fuel) concealed beneath a frame and canvas roof.
The Bedford OY has a distinctive, metal-roofed cab, with a bluff, squared nose and flat bonnet joined to a curiously curvy cab section, with split screen.
These 4x2 lorries were driven by a 3.5-litre, six-cylinder engine.
There are three Bedford OYCs on the port side, the rearmost two still with their steering wheels, and two OYCs on the starboard side. They all face-to-stern, except for the one against the starboard hull, which faces forward.
SWIMMING FORWARD FROM the Bedfords into the dark narrow space on the starboard side, we encounter the most common vehicles on the wreck: Morris-Commercial CS11/30 trucks, which were loaded with five BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) M20 motorbikes.
The BSA motorbikes were typically loaded four in a line with the fifth across the back of the pick-up load section.
There are 15 Morris CS11/30 trucks on the Thistlegorm, which, fully loaded, would make 75 BSA motorbikes.
I have not counted and checked the identity of all 75, but have yet to see any on the upper deck that are not BSAs, nor any Morris CS11/30 trucks that don’t have five bikes. Cousteau is reported to have taken one; perhaps others did too.
The wreck is reported to have also contained Matchless G31 motorbikes, which are quite distinct from the BSA or Norton bikes, probably most easily differentiated by having a single, large front fork on the front wheel.
I have yet to see a Matchless on the wreck, though there are two “potentials” I have to check on my next dive.
The Morris-Commercial CS11/30 was a 4x2 truck, powered by a 3.5-litre six-cylinder engine. Like many of the Thistlegorm’s vehicles, most are partly buried, with deflated tyres and missing windscreen and canvas roof.
This acts to conceal their height, making them look more like a car than a truck. It is a common trick of the wreck.
Distinctive features are the bluff vertical radiator, wheel-arches that were attached to the nose swooping up over the wheels, and cooling slats down the side of the nose. They all also have a spare wheel attached to the side, just behind the driver’s seat.
The 15 Morris CS11/30 are in varying states of disassembly, but one feature that remains visible in almost all of them is a large cylindrical water tank for the engine at the rear of the engine bay.
The Morris CS11/30 and BSA motorbikes account for almost all the remaining vehicles in hold 2, upper level, with the exception of the engineless, and very distinctive, stepped pundit lights, used as airfield markers.
These are on the port side and difficult to miss. You can see the controls inside one of them, and at the rear the small pylon that would be placed on top as the light.
HEADING FORWARD ON THE starboard side and swimming through into hold 1 we find ourselves floating over what appear to be trailers, although if you shine your torch through to the wheels below you’ll see the driveshafts and differentials of these Albion BY3
With their canvas roof and glass windscreens gone, the highest point of these workhorse 4.2-litre, six-cylinder lorries is actually the spare wheel that was behind the cab. Spot these and the cabs become obvious.
There are seven of these large lorries in hold 1, six in a line across the rear of the hold and then one in at the forward end on the port side. The Albion BY3s on the port side are in better condition, and you can see the distinctive peaked radiator, rather like that of a classic Rolls-Royce, on the flat fronts of the cabs.
They all face forwards, except for one on the port side, which is missing its rear. This has fallen down to the lower section, crushed under the falling roof of the hold.
Another of the Albion BY3s has been squashed by the collapsing deck on the port side, as indeed has the rear of another Morris CS11/30, although its nose escaped the crush.
Seemingly the largest vehicle on the wreck is another Albion BY, this time probably a BY5. It isn’t actually any larger than the others, but because it is not buried and has more of its bodywork intact, it appears much bigger.
It is also a 6x4 lorry, powered by a 4.5-litre six-cylinder engine. The four pylons on the corners of the load bay and the structure behind the cab make this a bridging vehicle, which would have carried equipment for both bridging and rafting across water. It is the most forward vehicle on the starboard side of the hold.
THE FINAL VEHICLE in hold 1, upper level, is the Morris-Commercial CS8 light pick-up truck. There are four in the hold, with a pair against the hull on each side.
This vehicle is easy to recognise because of its distinctive angular bonnet and wheel-arches that are not attached to the rest of the bodywork.
The canvas roofs and small flip-up glass windscreens are no longer present on this 3.5-litre four-cylinder 4x2 truck.
These are the smallest trucks on the Thistlegorm and their load bays are empty, save for the soldierfish that now stand guard in all the military vehicles.
|THE WRECK OF THE THISTLEGORM has captivated the imagination of divers since its rediscovery more than two decades ago. As a wreck it is fairly standard above decks, but once we descend into its dark holds we are treated to one of the most amazing spectacles in the underwater world – a larger collection of British WW2 vehicles than you’ll find in almost any museum. |
Our survey has also revealed that much of the cargo was destined for the RAF, indeed that there was almost everything aboard needed to set up an airfield. Perhaps the cargo would
have been enough to provide decent air defences in the region and, ironically, stop the German bombers roaming down from Greece – just like the Heinkel He111 that bombed and sank the Thistlegorm.
Much of what has been previously written about the wreck has focused on the Thistlegorm’s human stories.
We hope our work in deciphering the MT or Motor Transport will enhance every diver’s appreciation of this unique diving experience.