SS Thistlegorm Is A Giant Classic Car Tomb

Oct 5, 2021 3 min read
SS Thistlegorm Is A Giant Classic Car Tomb

This shipwreck is like an underwater WWII museum…


Back in April of 1940 the SS Thistlegorm was launched. The large ship boasted a multi-expansion steam engine with 1,850-horsepower on tap, making the private British shipping vessel an envy of the 7 Seas. Today, the boat sits at the bottom of the Red Sea with plenty of classic cars and other interesting items entombed in the depths, making for an odd sort of time capsule divers have explored and documented.

Divers pulled over 40 cars out of bodies on water in one metropolitan area. See the results here.

Since the SS Thistlegorm was built during WWII, the Merchant Marine vessel was armed. A 4.7-inch anti-aircraft gun helped guard against attacks from above, while a 40 mm machine gun added to the stern after the boat was finished provided additional protection.

It was on October 6, 1941 that the SS Thistlegorm sunk. The ship had departed Glasgow, Scotland in May and was headed for Alexandria, Egypt. Instead of just carrying regular consumer goods, the vessel was laden with supplies for the British 8th Army stationed in Egypt as the fight for North Africa during WWII raged. The captain wanted to avoid the Mediterranean where Italian and German ships as well as planes would be prevalent, so that meant sailing around the southern tip of Africa and passing through the Strait of Gubal.

Among the munitions and other supplies destined for the troops were Bedford Morris and Ford trucks, Norton 16H motorcycles, Matchless G3/L motorcycles, Triumph and BSA motorcycles, tanks, and 2 LMS Stainer Class 8F steam locomotives. However, the ship was involved in a collision in the Suez Canal and had to be moored before reaching the port of Alexandria.

In a turn of events, two German Hienkel HE III aircrafts took off from the island of Crete to look for and sink the Queen Mary. While failing to find their quarry, one of the airplanes did locate the SS Thistlegorm, dropping two bombs on it in the night and scoring a direct hit. The munitions exploded and the craft sank rapidly, killing 4 sailors and 5 Royal Navy gun crew members. It also trapped all those wartime vehicles deep below the surface of the water.

It was Jacques-Yves Cousteau who tracked down the wreckage, rescuing a few items, including one of the motorcycles. People forgot about the discovery until 1992 when an Israeli fishing ship came upon it, spreading the word. Now, divers from around the world travel to the Red Sea to explore the SS Thistlegorm and see all the historic vehicles still left inside the hull.

Diving into the SS Thistlegorm certainly comes with its perils. Scuba diving through any enclosed space, whether it’s an underwater cave or a wrecked ship like this can be risky. Not only is it easy to become disoriented, leading to panic, one dive crew documented how easily someone can be injured by the sharp edges of the wreckage. About 7 years ago they descended into the vessel but weren’t wearing hoods. One of the divers received a pretty good gash in his head, the blood trailing out into the water. Thankfully, that blood didn’t attract a shark feeding frenzy and the injury wasn’t bad enough to knock the man unconscious. This does illustrate that when you find an abandoned stash of classic cars it’s always best to exercise caution. Not only can sharp objects be present, the building might not be entirely sound structurally, plus aggressive animals might have made the vehicles or the area around them their home.

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