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Thistlegorm. Diving into the Past...

The cargo boat "Thistlegorm"
It was very hot that night and for the first time since our departure I got completely undressed before climbing into my bunk. I was still half-awake when I felt a terrible explosion and heard the bosun shouting up on deck. I tried to get up. It was dark in the cabin; my things were all in a pile and 1 couldn't find my clothes, so I went up on deck with nothing but my lifejacket on. There was an inferno of flames and flashes all around me and the way to the lifeboats was blocked; I thought the best way to save myself was to dive into the water. I dashed over to the railing; it was already boiling hot. I was about to jump when I turned and saw one of the gunners lying unconscious, with flames all over him. I ran towards him but the deck was covered with pieces of glass that stuck in my feet so, before I could pick him up, 1 had to stop and take them out. I managed to get the man up onto my shoulders and was trying get across the burning deck to the lifeboat when I heard someone calling. I saw Jon Dagg, the second officer, coming towards us with some other men; with their help we at last managed, to get into the lifeboat

In this account published in the Stornoway Gazette in 1943 Angus Macleay, a bridge-man on the Thistlegorm, tells of the terrible moments that followed the explosion on board the British cargo ship during the night of October 5, 1943. The Thistlegorm had been launched in Sunderland, in England, on April 9, 1940. Built in the shipyards of J.L. Thompson & Sons, the vessel was 131 metres in length and had a gross tonnage of 9,009 tons. Owned by Albyn Line Ltd., it had a triple expansion, three-cylinder engine (the cylinders, each of a different volume, received pressure from coal-fired boilers and transmitted movement to the drive shaft which turned at 57 r.p.m.):

it was capable of producing 1,860 horsepower giving a speed of 10.5 knots. The Thistlegorm (the name means "blue thistle" in Gaelic) was registered with Lloyds in the 100 A. 1 class; because of the war, it was armed with a 4.7 inch cannon, an anti-aircraft machine-gun mounted on a tower and a transportable heavy machine-gun. Its first mission was to North America, with a cargo of aircraft parts and railway rails. On the second it sailed as far as the East Indies, and on the third to Argentina; both these voyages were made to bring back a full load of foodstuffs. On its fourth mission - tragically destined to be the last - the Thistiegorm left Glasgow in the first week in September, destined for the Red Sea. After a brief stop in Cape Town to take on coal (the temporary closure of the Suez Canal had forced it to take the longer route), the ship headed north-east; it had sailed the length of the Red Sea and reached the Strait of Gobal when, at 1.30 a.m. on the morning of October 6, 1941, it was attacked by the enemy and sank. The dramatic sequence of events - the explosion, abandoning ship and the sinking itself - is still vividly recalled by Harry Bansall, the ship's third engine-room officer: "Jack Blair, the first engineer, was at the helm of one of the two lifeboats drawing away from the huge, burning ship. But he was still staring at the Thistlegorm, his eyes glued to the horrific scene:

in the holds boxes of light ammunition and hand grenades were exploding like fireworks. Great tongues of fire shot skywards, lighting up the still "shellshocked" faces of the men on the lifeboat: besides myself there was Ray GibsOn, the 18 year-old telegraph operator, on his second voyage, Joe Dagg, third bridge officer, and Angus Macleay, bridge-man, injured but alive. 'Skipper, let's get moving!' yelled one of the men to Blair: totally absorbed by the scene, he had practically turned the head of the lifeboat towards the dying ship. The HMS Carlisle was anchored a few hundred metres from the site of the disaster; the two lifeboats reached its side practically simultaneously and the men were still climbing on board when the light from a tremendous explosion turned night into day and the Thistlegorm. was clearly visible, broken in two by the blast, as she sank beneath the water. When Captain William Ellis came aboard the Carlisle we did a quick count to see if anyone was missing: we discovered that five gunners and four sailors had gone down with the Thistlegorm. The Germans had made a lightening attack; the Heinkel He Ills had no trouble hitting at least one target since there were nearly twenty ships at anchor. The second squadron of the 26th Kamp Qeswader, stationed in Crete, was in action that night along the Sinai coast: in the light of a full moon the German pilots spotted the convoy and decided to attack the ship which appeared to be carrying the biggest cargo. They probably had no idea of the importance of the freighter they made their target. The gunners on the British ship had not even had time to load the cannon when the bombs dropped by the Heinkels hit the vessel right by No. 4 hold. The Thistlegorm - newest of the Albyn Line's ships - was carrying a precious cargo of munitions and supplies for the British Eighth Army, engaged at that time in Operation Crusade, a major offensive launched by Montgomery and his men against the troops of General Rommel. Stacked in its holds were huge quantities of munitions and an assortment of military vehicles: Bedford trucks, Moms cars, BSA model WDM20 motorbikes, plus endless boxes of Lee-Enfield rifles, spare parts, generators, Wellington boots, camp-beds and boxes of medical supplies. Stowed in Nos. 3 and 4 holds was a huge arsenal of explosives; anti-tank mines, artillery shells, boxed light munitions and hand grenades. Amid the great freighter's structures on the deck, together with the two paravanes (torpedo-shaped protective devices towed at the sides of the ship in mined areas to sever the moorings of contact mines), were two small tanks, four railway wagons and " two railway engines. It was the colossal weight of its cargo that caused the Thistlegorm to sink so fast: the explosive in No. 4 hold tore the hull apart and the ship very quickly disappeared beneath the waves, dropping - still upright -onto the seabed". In 1956 Cousteau came to the Red Sea with the Calypso, on one of the exploratory missions that made such an important contribution to the advancement of scuba-diving the world over. The crew had no trouble finding the wreck: all the local fishermen knew of the great ship lying beneath the water and the huge fish that populated it. When they descended to the vessel, the French oceanographer and his men found it practically intact: masts, rigging, cargo handling booms, everything was still in place, as though the ship were merely sleeping. Thanks to Cousteau's film "The Silent World" and the extensive documentation he put together, the general public also got to know about the wreck of the Thistlegorm and experienced some of its magic and mystery. Although the fifty years spent on the bottom of the sea have taken their toll, the fascination of this huge freighter - crammed with all the supplies World War Two armies could have been in need of - has in no way diminished.

Diving to the wreck The Thistlegorm lies in the stretch of sea between the Sha'al Ali reef and the west coast of Sinai, north of Ras Mohammed, in the Strait of Gobal. There are no visual points of reference: all that can be seen from here are the coast, far away to the east, and a few oil rigs to the north. The exact site of the wreck can therefore be identified only with the aid of a ship's instruments (GPS and sonic depth finder). The guide usually moors the boat by tying a cable to one of the huge structures on the main deck; it is therefore sensible to approach the vessel about halfway along its length. During dives it is extremely important to follow a number of safety measures. First of all, the descent and ascent must be made holding firmly onto the cable: the currents in this stretch of sea are sometimes very strong and changeable; it can happen that the current takes you in one direction on the surface and in the opposite direction when you are at depth.

Another important precaution: when the air supply of the first diver in the group reaches 80 bar, start to return to the cable for the ascent, since this is a typica! dive at the limit of the safety curve and air supply. Even if you encounter a strong current, one side of the ship is still sheltered: you can therefore plan each dive so that you start your exploration on this side, and are moving with, rather than against the current on the way back. It is difficult to say how many dives are needed to explore the wreck completely: there are so many thrilling things to see that nobody ever wants to leave the wreck behind. Personally I think it's worth making at least four dives. During the first you can take a thorough look at the main deck, at a depth of 18 metres. Finning your way along the promenade decks to both port and starboard, you encounter numerous now well-established coral formations and some members of the underwater community that has made the wreck its permanent home: groupers, twinspot snappers and angelfish, all specimens of an impressive size. As you move towards the bows, "flying" over the gigantic holds, you see the railway wagons, which probably contained coal; close by, on either side of the deck, are the paravanes. Continuing in this direction you reach the structures of the bow section, with the anchor winches and the chains emerging from the hawseholes. The port anchor is still hanging there; on the starboard side a long stretch of chain instead drops vertically to the seabed, at a depth of 31 metres, and then winds its way northwards to the anchor, 60 metres away: unmistakable evidence that the ship was anchored when it was bombed and sunk. Luxuriant coral growths make the vertically hanging chain a splendid subject for photographs. If you descend to the seabed and follow the chain a few metres, you get a real idea of just how huge a 9,000 ton freighter is. Back up at the bows it is time to start making your way back, on the opposite side, finning over the holds again (you will explore them during your second dive). Easily located along the promenade deck is what remains of Captain Ellis's quarters, the only ones with "en-suite" lavatory and bathtub. A short way further along is the entrance to a large room which was the canteen: towering over the scene is a radiator, now left hanging from its pipes. Beside it is the hatchway leading to the storeroom: I suggest you just look in rather than go right inside; it is a small space where there is little room to move and it is easy to kick up clouds of sediment- Nos. 1 and 2 holds are the objective of the second dive.

As soon as you descend through the wide opening of the first forward hold, you see that the cargo was loaded on two levels: deeper down there are still boxes of Lee-Enfield Mk3 rifles in racks of 10, boxes of medical supplies, camp-beds for field hospitals, aeroplane parts, mobile generators and some of the countless pairs of above-the-knee rubber boots with which the holds were packed. On the upper level, still neatly lined up, are the Morris cars, with their spare tyre on the side. Practically nothing is now left of the engines and the dashboards too have been ransacked by uncivilized, selfish scuba divers who have done far greater damage than the water: on some vehicles, however, you can still see the gear-stick, steering-wheel, pedals, rearview mirrors and windscreen. The motorbikes nearby also have numerous parts missing: many are without their headlamp or even their entire handlebars, pointlessly stripped off by ignorant trophy-hunters. Almost all the motorcycles are the BSA WDM20 model, manufactured specially for military use and particularly for the dispatch-riders corps which linked the front with command posts in the rear zone. In the very deepest part of no. 2 hold are numerous trucks on which tens and tens of these motorbikes were transported. This area has suffered least from plundering, partly because it is the most cramped and dark to explore. Do not venture in without an expert guide and, above all, without first inspecting the conditions of the decks above: right on top of the point where you enter this hold are the goods wagons; their weight has already caused part of the main deck to give way, and it is now steeply inclined towards the rear left-hand corner. After taking a long break on the surface, divers are ready for the third descent, to explore the stern. When the ship sank after the explosion it was in two pieces; the stern is now tipped over onto its port flank, no more than 15 metres from the rest of the vessel. Start from the huge propeller and take time to admire the huge stern from its underside. Many pieces of the ship were flung in different directions by the explosion and are still scattered all around. Finning along the port side you can go up to the after bridge where the huge cannon and antiaircraft gun are now encrusted with soft corals in an infinite variety of colours.

For photographers this is perhaps the most interesting area: as you move among the pieces of artillery, you will - with luck - have close encounters with the many groupers and snappers which, with the southerly current, hover practically motionless in the water. Immediately below the main deck you can continue along what is left of the promenade deck, peering from the portholes into the gunners' cabins and through the rudder inspection hatch. The main objective of the fourth dive is one of the two railway engines loaded on the deck above Mo. 4 hold; it was catapulted by the explosion to a spot about 20 metres from the ship. Starting from the point where the ship was torn apart, on the port side, move westwards: after just a few metres, you will see the engine, its wheels resting on the seabed, instantly recognizable from the classic, cylindrical shape of its boiler and the front buffers. Its smokestack has disappeared and the water inside the boiler teems with thousands of glassfish which have made this tortuous place their home, like the groupers, crocodilefish and scorpionfish you have every chance of meeting. The huge metal wheels of the locomotive are decked with multi-coloured alcyonarians, like garlands: even a whole roll of film would not be wasted here. The last part of the dive before your ascent can be spent back on the wreck, exploring the mass of ammunition and supplies thrown from the hold when it was ripped open by the explosion:

huge piles of explosives, bombs and arms, mixed up with remains of the trucks they were being transported on. Also here, almost intact, are two light military tanks, known as tankettes, over which angelfish now stand guard. As you make your ascent, remember to take nothing but photographs and mental pictures with you. This cargo boat is now a monument to a war which left behind thousands of wrecks like this one and the greatest respect must be shown for the five gunners and four sailors of the Thistlegorm wo? like thousands ofothers, now rest in peace in a watery grave.

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