Bombing Of The Thistlegorm
By James Donahue
The steamship S. S. Thistlegorm was launched in 1940 for the Albyn Line. While built as a freight
hauler for private owners, the British were already at war with Germany so the ship was immediately placed under the control
of the British Navy.
The Thistlegorm, a 415-foot cargo ship, bore the name of the company’s fleet of so-called "thistle
ships" since each vessel bore the emblem of Scotland somewhere on its hull or stacks . . . a thistle.
This ship made only three successful trips before it was destroyed by German bombs while anchored
in the Strait of Jubal, Gulf of Suez on Oct. 6, 1941.
Her first trips were to the United States for a cargo of steel rails and aircraft parts. Then the
Thistlegorm steamed to Argentina for grain. Her third trip was to the West Indies for rum.
The fourth and final trip seemed fraught with danger from the start. The freighter, under the command
of Captain William Ellis, was carrying heavy cargo heading for Alexandria, Egypt, to supply the newly formed Eighth Army.
Assigned with the regular crew were nine naval officers to man newly installed anti-aircraft and machine guns.
The cargo included Bedford trucks, Universal Carrier armored vehicles, motorcycles, Bren guns, cases
of rifles and ammunition, radio equipment, Wellington boots, aircraft parts and two steam locomotives, their coal and water
tenders, all mounted as deck cargo. The two steam locomotives were for the Egyptian Railways.
Because they were at war, and the ship was loaded with war cargo, the Thistlegorm set sail in June
in convoy. Because there had been a collision of ships in the Suez Canal, the convoy was forced to take the long way around
Africa via Cape Town, South Africa, and then north up the East coast of Africa and into the Red Sea. On the way the light
cruiser HMS Carlisle joined the convoy.
When the convoy arrived at the Suez Canal, the passage was still blocked so the vessels were forced
to anchor. It was here that the German bombers, searching for troop carriers in the area, came upon the convoy. The Thistlegorm
was the largest ship in the convoy and she became the target of one of the bombers. Two bombs hit hold 4 near the stern. The
bombs hit the ammunition stored in that hold and the blast sank the ship. The ship sank in about 100 feet of water taking
four sailors and five members of the naval gun crew to the bottom with it.
The entire cargo was lost.
The wreck was discovered in the 1950s by television personality and undersea diver Jacques-Yves Cousteau,
who raised several items including the captain’s safe and the ship’s bell. It has only been in recent years that
the site has become a haven for recreational sport divers. The explosions at the stern of the Thistlegorm opened the wreck
making it an easy and popular dive site to explore.