The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Rediscovering the Cargo of the SS Thistlegorm

by Garth & Stephanie Harris

Main Lecture to SAMHS Jhb branch in September 2014

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.

Shipping Movement Cards record the movements of British and Allied vessels engaged in the war effort and are obtainable from the National Archives. Each set of cards records the name of the ship, its tonnage, to whom it was registered, its destination, estimated date of arrival and sometimes ports of call en route. They also capture the cargo taken aboard. Importantly, the cards indicate if the ship was torpedoed, mined, damaged or sunk. This type of record was kept for each and every merchant vessel. In the pre-computer era one can just imagine the clerical workload involved in maintaining handwritten records such as these. The final entry in red ink simply reads -.swastika -October 8, attacked by aircraft at Straits of Jubal and sunk. We, of course, know that the event occurred on October 6th but perhaps this is just an indication of clerical error or the date was initially incorrectly communicated and quickly recorded on the card.

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 p ort 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. There were conflicting accounts of the numbers of Allied troops on board. One of the largest and fastest troopships, the Queen Mary was known to carry as many as 15,000 men in a single voyage, often travelling out of convoy and without escort - this was a prize that could not be ignored. 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, but 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 and radio operator was in the radio room while Kahil Sakando (the Donkeyman) was in the engine room. Ray 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. We were not prepared for the state of the wreck as we dropped down onto her bow in a strong current. During our 2nd dive later in the day, we investigated the contents of the holds, using our 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 are still in place on deck.

The Thistlegorm’s holds contain a veritable time-capsule of wartime supplies. Bedford trucks were loaded to capacity with motorcycles packed in like sardines while tucked into any available space were crates of medical supplies. Enfield rifles still stand in their racks surrounded by boxes of assorted ammunition. Other military vehicles on board the Thistlegorm include a number of heavy Ford trucks and some small multi-purpose Universal Carrier tracked vehicles plus BSA motorcycles. Thistlegorm also contains a number of aircraft parts, some of which were destined for planes stationed at various air bases in Egypt as the Westland Lysander was used quite extensively by RAF to support the 8th army. There are also parts for The Bristol Blenheim: ‘Pundit lights’ to show the identity code of an airfield: trolley accumulators with sufficient power to turn over the standard aircraft engines of the day. The Thistlegorm's cargo also contains cylinders from Bristol Mercury radial engines and around twenty Bristol Mercury engine cowlings. It contained hundreds of tons of munitions - from sea mines measuring 5 feet in length to massive 15-inch shells weighing almost 2,000 pounds.

Seldom recognized but a vitally important component of Thistlegorm’s cargo are the medical supplies. During the inter-war period, an American drug company developed a self-contained ‘Hypodermic Unit’ of morphine for inclusion in personal First-Aid kits which was known as the Syrette. After injection, the used tube was pinned to the receiving soldier's collar to show the dose administered once the injured man received formal medical attention. Camphor oil diluted in cottonseed oil in measured 12cc ampoule does was a common component of medical aid kits during the 2nd World War - it was extensively used for the antiseptic treatment of minor burns and also extremely useful for the treatment of intestinal parasites and fungal foot infections that were rife. Also on board were handy Lysolats tablets neatly packaged in doses for inclusion in personal medical kits and use at field dressing stations.

List of crew who perished and the role they had on the Thistlegorm:

Angus McLeay was awarded the George Medal and the Lloyds War Medal for Bravery at Sea for rescuing Thomas Middleton. The George Medal was similar to the George Cross and was generally awarded to civilians. The Lloyds War Medal for Bravery as Sea was instituted by Lloyds Insurance Company of London. This medal was presented during the 2nd World War only to officers and hands of the Merchant navy and fishing fleet for exceptionally courageous conduct. From merchant navy cargo carrier to wartime supply ship and now an artificial reef rich with marine life, adopted as one of the diving fraternity’s most visited wrecks and a rich treasure trove of wartime supplies .Quite prophetically the Thistlegorm’s bell was inscribed –“Doth suffer a Sea Change into Something Rich and Strange”.

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