The SS Thistlegorm; A WWII warship and Underwater Museum in Egypt’s Red Sea

Unlike conventional museums which are often endless halls filled with echoes and hushed voices, The Thistlegorm, a Royal Navy warship sunk by German Luftwaffe in 1941, is a unique, interactive, and thrilling underwater museum. While most museums are accessed by conventional means, The Thistlegorm is only accessible via a boat and a dive tank. This museum is not meant for the faint of heart looking to gaze upon a Rembrandt; this underwater museum is 25 meters under the waves of Egypt’s Red Sea and a dive into the last moments of a war time vessel. If you are interested in diving one of the world’s best shipwrecks, you might want to start looking for an upcoming flight to Egypt.

A Batfish
PHOTOGRAPH BY Alicia Johnson

Arriving on top of the site in the early morning, the dive boat’s bell rings and you’re rolling out of bed and scrambling to your dive briefing. Readying yourself for the dive as the rising sun glints across your face—it’s time to dive.

The guns on board The Thistlegorm
PHOTOGRAPH BY Alicia Johnson

Surrounded by 15 to 20 other divers, you jump from the boat’s stern and immediately grab on to the line attached to the wreck. There’s a swift current, but with a tight grip on the line you descend until the outline of the wreck emerges. As the features of the Thistlegorm become more apparent, you are greeted by a school of batfish swimming playfully in the current.

As the site is surrounded by a strong current, the Thistlegorm is not for beginner divers, but for those with the experience of Advanced Open Water or its equivalent; however, while you are entering the wreck and navigating the labyrinthine wreck, the sheer size of the warship can be overwhelming. Exploring the rooms of the ship, the classic cars, the cargo hold, the famous guns on the stern, the blast site, and the looming shadows of the bow you can’t help but marvel at the sights of the 131m ship. A sea turtle swims by as you shine your torch to illuminate a dark hall, impressed and a bit intimidated you continue your dive towards the bow.

For a diver, the Thistlegorm is often a bucket list item; regularly recognized by PADI and other dive organizations, the Thistlegorm is one of the best wreck dives in the world. An underwater museum for the adventurous spirit, the shipwreck is a historical monument to the efforts of the North African theatre in World War II and a modern attraction for divers from all over the world.

A diver explores the enormous propellor of The Thistlegorm
PHOTOGRAPH BY Alicia Johnson

History of the Thistlegorm

While the SS Thistlegorm site has become a flagship of Scuba and Egyptian tourism, the wreck is, more importantly, a grave and a reminder of the sacrifices made during WWII’s North African theater. Lost during WWII, the Thistlegorm was a commercial freighter ship refitted by the Royal Navy in Glasgow and sunk by a Nazi Luftwaffe air raid in 1941. Operating with a crew of 42, the 131m Thistlegorm was an Albyn Line merchant vessel which Admiralty paid for fitting of and supplied all armaments including the 4in high angle anti-aircraft gun, 12pdr low angle gun for surface targets, and machine guns. When she let port in a convoy, she was carrying a large cargo of bombs, trucks, motorbikes, Wellington boots, rifles, shells, aircraft wings with a couple locomotives. Thistlegorm was built in 1940, thus fell under the Defensively Armed Merchant ship scheme established by the Admiralty Trade Division from 1939 onwards. Despite armaments the ship remained civilian but on War Office service.

Due to the near total Nazi blockade of the Mediterranean, the Thistlegorm’s convoy was forced to sail around the Horn of Africa to deliver the rearmaments to the Allied troops in Alexandria. At this point in time, Allied General Auchinleck, later to be replaced by Field Marshal Montgomery, was tasked to combat Nazi Generalfeldmarschall Rommel, i.e. the Desert Fox, in the infamous WWII North African campaign.

 The remains of refrigeration on The Thistlegorm
PHOTOGRAPH BY Alicia Johnson

Whilst in the final stages of the voyage, the Thistlegorm was halted at the straits of Gubal, the entrance of the Suez Canal. The sudden hum of a Luftwaffe’s Heinkel engine eradicated the cool silence hanging over the October night in 1941. A moment later, explosions blew apart the deck, fire engulfed the deck, and the ship began to sink (specific damage was taken to hold IV, which is accessible for divers). Most of the crew were rescued by the HMS Carlisle.; however, the sinking led to the death of nine of the 42 English Merchant Navy seaman and RN Gunners.

For nearly fifteen years, the ship’s whereabouts remained relatively unknown until Jacques Cousteau international publicization of his “rediscovery” of the vessel in 1955; however, it is largely speculated that the ship’s location was well known by local Bedouin fisherman before Cousteau. The Thistlegorm rose to fame with Cousteau’s photographs publicizing the ship and his scuba diving expeditions of the Red Sea. Largely in part to his documentation of the superb diving of the Red Sea, Cousteau’s initiative to explore the seas and the underwater world inspired a generation and lead to the development of SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) diving as an internationally accessible recreation.

The Thistlegorm as a Diving Destination

A diver explores the bow of The Thistlegorm
PHOTOGRAPH BY Alicia Johnson

Today, the Thistlegorm is a major tourist attraction and endearingly called “The Old Lady” by local dive guides and instructors. Annually, the Thistlegorm attracts more than 75,000 annual visitors and is a driving force in the marine tourism industry of Egypt. Generating more than 5,000,000$ a year for the Egyptian GDP a year. With the advent of social media, more people are sharing their experiences on the wreck site and encouraging others to visit Egypt and dive the underwater museum.

While the wreck is an incredible dive, it is important to acknowledge the site is a wartime grave for the 9 sailors who died when the ship was bombed. One can investigate the wreck and still see the personal item’s sailors left behind as they fled the sinking vessel; it is an eerie reminder of how life can change in an instant and the sacrifices made by military personal. The shipwreck is as enticing as it is haunting; a part of our shared cultural heritage which must be protected if we wish to enable future generations the chance to peer into the past.

Due to limitations by the UNESCO Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) Protection laws, the Thistlegorm does not fall under Antiquities and Heritage site laws as the site fails to meet the 100- year age requirement. The lack of protection and limited outreach with the diving community has resulted in the loss of many items on board which have been looted, moved, or taken as personal souvenirs since the rediscovery and popularization of the site. It is recorded that the ship’s bell, the maker’s plate, compass binnacle, an entire motorcycle, and many other smaller items have been removed from the ship. In addition to the looting, the frequent numbers of divers, many being inexperienced divers, have damaged the structural integrity of the site—it was recently reported the anchor chain has broken and become detached from the ship.

Dr. Emad Khalil and Dr. Jon Henderson lead the Wrecks at Risk Project
PHOTOGRAPH BY Alicia Johnson

As the underwater museum faces unavoidable threats such as weather and currents, our human impact on the site is manageable. Ongoing Maritime Archaeological Projects, such as the Wrecks at Risk and Project Thistlegorm, are working to document the site and have created a photogrammetric model of the wreck. In the future, efforts are being made to create a more efficient mooring system and to have the site recognized as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site; but thus far, the shipwreck is open year-round to divers and a destination offered by many dive companies from the Sinai and Hurghada.

If you can visit Egypt and want to dive The Thistlegorm... be sure to book a live aboard safari out of Sharm el sheikh or Hurghada. Egypt has some of the world’s most beautiful and affordable diving while consistently ranking as one of PADI’s top countries to dive. Enhanced by historical shipwrecks, such as The Thistlegorm and The Carnatic, the Red Sea’s diving is characterized by the colorful and vibrant corals and aquarium like reefs teeming with sea goldies. Diving the Red Sea grants visitors access to an interactive experience with marine biodiversity and a chance to explore the rich history of the Indo-European trade and military history. A visit to the underwater museum of The Thistlegorm will be unlike any other trip to the museum you have ever had, and you’ll swim away with travel photographs to last a lifetime. If you would like to know more about the Thistlegorm, please check out the book: Diving the Thistlegorm: The Ultimate Guide to a World War II Shipwreck

The bow of the Carnatic off of Sha’ab Abu Nuhaus
PHOTOGRAPH BY Alicia Johnson

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Alicia Johnson

Alicia Johnson is a Maritime Archaeologist in Alexandria, Egypt pursuing research on the historical shipwrecks of the Red Sea. A lifetime traveler and digital nomad for over a decade, Alicia seeks to be a connection between social media and education. Using her photography and background in marketing, Alicia brings the underwater world, and its history, to the public. In her free time, Alicia is an avid diver and devotes her and abilities to local women’s empowerment opportunities and cultural heritage outreach.