South African Military History Society

Tel (+27)(0)10-237-0676 Fax (+27)(0)86-617-8002


The meeting of 11th September was opened by our Chairman, Malcolm King, who drew attention to the fact that last month's attendance had been 100. He then went on to remind us of forthcoming outings and events:

This was followed by the popular This Week in History: Malcolm then introduced the first talk of the evening - America's Second Greatest Naval Defeat - the Penobscot Expedition, given by Colin Harris. A small British fleet of 10 vessels entered Penobscot Bay in what is the modern state of Maine in June 1779. Some 700 soldiers under Brigadier-General Francis McLean set about establishing at a site covering a harbour known as Magibigwaduce. The 650 Scots infantry men were supported by a mixed artillery detachment of 50 plus some northern states engineers. The purpose of this invasion was to establish an operating base against the large number of Privateers preying on British merchant ships and also to isolate one of their havens in the Penobscot River.

These were the first British troops to make a presence in the northern states since the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777 and it caused the ruling Massachusetts Council to organize a large force to eject them. Known as 'The Penobscot Expedition', 40 ships including 21 warships sailed from Boston five weeks after the British landing.

The British had made slow progress and the fort was little more than an earthwork surrounding stores and barracks. Only partially completed batteries protected the harbour. On hearing of the expedition, Captain Mowatt, the British naval commander, anchored three sloops of war across the harbour mouth and frantic work was carried out to strengthen the shore batteries.

On their arrival, the Americans lost a golden opportunity by not sailing immediately into the harbour making use of their 350 guns and 3 600 men and overwhelming the paltry number of defenders. In the next 21 days the Americans carried on siege operations against the British with only small successes although gradually shrinking the defenders to a point where one concerted push would bring victory.

On the day that the attack was planned, the arrival of seven British Navy vessels in the Bay threw the Americans into a panic. When night fell they evacuated their shore batteries and trenches, embarked on their ships and left only spiked guns. Daylight saw the swifter American warships overtaking the slower transports as they all fled northwards hoping to outpace the British ships and reach safety at Bangor. This failed. Two ships were captured by the British and, shortly after avoiding the same fate, the first of many ships blew up after the crew ran it aground and set it on fire.

The narrow river resulted in vessels grounding on rocks and sandbanks at bottlenecks whist others collided with the wrecks, where the crews promptly set fire to them and went ashore. The Americans lost 475 men, over half of these attempting to escape through the rough and almost impenetrable forests. As many as 46 ships were lost, despite conservative estimates of 40. The question posed in the end is: was this not a greater defeat than Pearl Harbour?

The main lecture of the evening - Rediscovering the Cargo of the SS Thistlegorm - A British Armed Merchant Navy Ship was given by Garth & Stephanie Harris and was lavishly illustrated with slides. The SS Thistlegorm (Gaelic for 'blue thistle') was one of a number of "Thistle" ships owned by the Albyn Line. She was built by Joseph Thompson & Sons shipyard in Sunderland and launched in April 1940. According to Admiralty records, she was built as an armed merchantman and was fitted with a 4-inch low angle gun, a 3-inch anti-aircraft gun and a heavy-calibre machine gun attached to the stern.

The Thistlegorm set sail on her fourth and final voyage from Glasgow on the 2nd of June 1941, destined for Alexandria in Egypt. She took the long route around Africa, 12,000 miles in all. Although the manifest stated a cargo consisting only of motor parts, she was loaded with assorted munitions, rifles, aircraft parts, wellington boots, trucks, motor bikes and tunics for the Eighth Army engaged at that stage in the relief of Tobruk in North Africa. In addition to the military cargo, two Stanier steam locomotives, two coal and two water tenders destined for the Egyptian railways were loaded onto her deck. The 33 merchant seamen crew of the ship, under Captain William Ellis, was supplemented by 9 naval personnel to man the armaments. The Thistlegorm was bound for Alexandria as part of a convoy via Cape Town. Official records are contradictory but apparently the convoy was delayed for 10 days due to either a collision or blockage in the Suez Canal and could not transit through it to reach the port of Alexandria. Instead the convoy of 20 merchant ships and their escort moored at Sha'ab Ali (aka "Safe Anchorage F", a sheltered location in the inner channel of the Straits of Jubal. On 23 September. Thistlegorm spent the time at anchor with her engines turned off and crew relaxing.

German intelligence had found evidence that possibly the RMS Queen Mary, being used as a troopship, was in the Red Sea. Two Heinkel bombers from 2nd Group, 26th Squadron, based in Crete, were dispatched to track down and destroy it. The specific plane that was responsible for the Thistlegorm bombing was commanded by Leutnant Heinrich Menge with a crew of 4. The aircraft searched in vain for the Queen Mary, and from wartime records we now know that she had passed through 7 hours earlier. They were approaching the end of the Gulf of Suez and with fuel running low they would have to ditch their bombs. Turning in a wide arc over the Strait of Jubal, they came across "Safe Anchorage F"and saw the silhouettes of a number of Allied ships at anchor. There was a distinct lack of activity on board - everyone appeared to be sound asleep! The accompanying destroyer HMS Carlisle was helpless as some of their anti-aircraft guns could not be sufficiently lowered for fear of hitting ships in the vicinity.

The pilot later confirmed that he was flying so low that he nearly hit the mast, prior to releasing the payload directly over the middle of the ship. The time of the strike was officially recorded as 01h30 on 6 October, 1941. The result of this chance encounter was the sinking of the British Merchant Navy's SS Thistlegorm in 30 metres of water, with a total loss of 9 lives.

On the bright moonlit night of the attack the sea was oily calm and, as it was presumed to be a "safe anchorage", only 2 people were on duty: Ray Gibson, 3rd Officer/radio operator was in the radio room while Kahil Sakando (the Donkeyman) was in the engine room. Gibson heard a "swishing noise" over the bridge (obviously the low-flying aircraft) followed by a tremendous explosion. The ship was already burning fiercely by the time he woke Captain Ellis who ordered the crew to lifeboats. There was a large amount of exploding ammunition buzzing like wasps around them as the fire raged on board. Another explosion 15 minutes later ripped the ship asunder and shortly thereafter the SS Thistlegorm slowly sank. The main casualties were unfortunately among the Royal Navy personnel, as they would have been sleeping near the guns on the stern and in close proximity to cargo holds 4 and 5.

After the sinking in 1941 the whereabouts of the wreck disappeared in the aftermath of war. In 1955 famous marine biologist and underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau dived the wreck but only in 1974 was the wreck rediscovered by Shimson Machiah, a retired Israeli military diver based in Sharm el-Sheik. Since 1992 the wreck has become a sought-after dive destination.

Wreck diving is considered a specialty skill as there is a certain amount of training to be undertaken to ensure safety procedures are followed in confined spaces such as companion ways, engine rooms and holds. The Harrisses investigated the contents of the holds, using powerful underwater flashlights to illuminate rows of trucks and motor bikes, ammunition, wellington boots and aircraft wings. The two locomotives had landed bolt upright on the sandy bottom with piles of munitions scattered around. The anti-aircraft guns were still in place on deck. The Thistlegorm's holds contain a veritable time-capsule of wartime supplies. Impressive slides of items in the holds and their wartime (dry) counterparts formed the body of the lecture.

A longer version of this precis is to be found on the website, along with a list of the casualties who perished when the Thistlegorm was lost.

Pat Henning

* * * * * * *


* * * * * * *


For Cape Town details contact Johan van den Berg 021-939-7923
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676

* * * * * * *

* NOTE* Fast mirror and backup site      BOOKMARK FOR REFERENCE     Main site * NOTE*

South African Military History Society /