A Dive into History
Words & Photography by Grace Taylorson Smith Pritchard
Diving into the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm, a ship sunk by German bombers during World War II on its way to supply the British Eighth Army at Tobruk.
It’s 5.00am. My alarm sounds but I’m already wide awake. I have been for the last hour, lost in my own meandering thoughts, fantasising about today’s dive. I’ve formatted my SD cards, charged my camera and dive light overnight, and cleaned my underwater camera housing of residual salt water from three amazing dives the day before. I’ll be the first to admit that I can be disorganised when it comes to preparing my camera gear, but not this time. The anticipation for this dive has been years in the making. The thought of entering the wreck I’ve been dreaming about for so long, only for my camera to read ‘No Memory Card Inserted’, doesn’t bear thinking about.
I’ve been in Sharm El Sheikh for over a week now, sampling some of the healthiest reefs I’ve ever had the pleasure of diving. But today’s adventure is what I have come back to Egypt for. I think about rigging up and pressure testing my camera now before I leave the hotel room, but then I remember the four-hour boat journey ahead of me to reach the dive site. Best save this task for later. I head out to the front of the hotel and find my dive guide, Bebo – I would later find out this obscure nickname came from the former Egyptian football striker Khaled Bebo – already parked out front, waiting to take me down to the port.
Later, on the boat, I find a quiet spot in the crow’s nest and think about my journey to this moment. The Rea Sea is where, in September 2019, I dived on a stunning wreck called the SS Dunraven, a British steamer sunk in 1876. Despite the boat’s modest size, it was one of the most beautiful wreck dives I had ever done. As I made my way through the ship’s upturned hull, I found it teeming with minuscule, translucent glass fish that obscured my surroundings in the most magical way possible – an ever-morphing iridescent curtain of life. Life, in fact, had entirely engulfed the wreck and transformed it into an artificial reef, home to the tiniest, most beautiful nudibranchs, alongside large Napoleon wrasse and rays. I remember surfacing from the dive and turning to my guide, telling him it was one of the most beautiful wrecks I’d ever seen. He simply said, ‘You think that’s good? Wait until you get on the Thistlegorm.’
And now here I am two years later, finally about to dive deep inside this very wreck.
SS Thistlegorm holds a magnetic attraction for me. But it isn’t anything to do with its behemoth size – it’s colossal, at 127m. Instead, I am fascinated by the incredibly rich history of this World War II vessel. She was sent to her watery grave by German bombers in 1941, and rediscovered by Jacques Cousteau in 1955. Today I am only hours away from taking a deep dive into British naval history.
My train of thought is cut short by shouts from the captain: ‘Dolphin! Dolphin!’ I run over to the port side and see a small pod of dolphins cruising through the tranquil water just off the bow. They stay with us for a while as if leading the way and then, suddenly, a black silhouette begins to emerge in the depths – gigantic, distorted, a god of the ocean. We have arrived at the burial ground of the SS Thistlegorm.
My tank clatters as I get into my dive gear. Bebo secures the buoy line, and I take a giant stride off the back of the boat into the water. Without so much as a ‘let’s descend’ hand signal from Bebo, we start our journey down the fixed line to the top of the wreck. My vision begins to adjust to the dimmer illumination beneath the surface. Soft, dappled blue light cuts through the slightest underwater haze – visibility is good, and by Bebo’s eager movements, swimming powerfully downwards, I guess that he is as excited as I am to see the vessel in all her glory.
Immediately, she comes into sharp focus. Or at least a part of her does. I don’t think I’d been prepared for how big Thistlegorm really is. The wreck is so long that not even the incredible visibility can reveal its full length, and at each end the wreck disappears into the watery mist. We reach the bottom of the line at about 15m before we let go and continue dropping to 28m on the stern side. Immediately I’m face to face with the squat, squarish form of a Mk II Bren Gun Carrier armoured vehicle, frozen in time amongst the rubble left by the bomb that dealt Thistlegorm’s fatal blow.
I’m confused when Bebo starts swimming out into the blue, parallel to the wreck. I’ve barely seen the wreck; why is he swimming away from it? But as I follow him I see a huge train emerge from the underwater mist, furred by marine life, standing perfectly upright on the seabed as if ready to haul away along unseen tracks to some aquatic railway station. Later I would find out that the train had been catapulted from the ship by the bomb blast. I’m unsettled by the distance it has landed away from the wreck – I can’t help dwelling on the sheer energy it must have taken to move such a colossal metal object.
We return to the main wreckage. As I take in its vast scale once again, I suddenly realise I’ve been so overwhelmed I’ve forgotten to even turn my camera on. Bebo swims ahead as I fiddle with my lights and get my settings correct. I find him floating behind a huge anti-aircraft gun, its barrel pointing skyward in a re-enactment of the final defence against the German bombers. We carry on around the stern, which is littered with munitions cases – and another tank – before Bebo makes a beeline for a small doorway amongst the rubble. He disappears into the black belly of the wreck.
Bebo guides me through Hold 3 of the ship: room after room filled with crates of munitions, grenades, bombs, and anti-tank mines, all on board to reach Alexandria for the British Eighth Army at Tobruk. This resupply mission never reached its destination. As I swim past it all, the endless boxes and piles and stacks of weapons intended for destruction, I begin to feel that there is something poetic here – that these tools of death are now in peaceful repose, to be studied and enjoyed by visitors. Visitors who can learn from this wreck and its history.
Once more Bebo descends. For a disorienting moment it’s as if he’s simply vanished; I’m alone in the hold, turning my head this way and that to see where he has gone. Then I see the trail of bubbles rising out of a small opening in the floor and I follow him down into Hold 2. Immediately my vision is bombarded by a scene of complexity: row beyond row of crates perfectly stacked with BSA motorcycles and Morris cars – and, as we make our way down into Hold 1, light shines down onto ranks of carefully parked Bedford trucks. Despite the rust now encasing each and every one of these vehicles, they’re in excellent condition. I can’t help but think how they would have aided the troops in Alexandria had they been successfully delivered. Perhaps they would have saved lives. Now all that human potential lies latent here. But for marine life it has become a new environment, full of crevices and niches where animals can hide, feed, live out their own lives. Perhaps nothing is wasted.
Bebo’s taking me in circles and I feel disorientated again. For a moment I’m convinced we’re doing laps of the same cargo holds, then suddenly the true scale of this ship really hits me. I’m not covering the same ground at all. Each hold is almost an identical replica of the last, filled with the same boxes, the same cargo, but they are distinct. This ship really would have contributed a massive amount to the war effort. Endless rooms filled with endless crates, and the sea mist drifting eternally between them, carrying plankton and tiny marine animals along with it. I’m transported back to my dive two years previously on the SS Dunraven and my guide’s parting words, ‘Wait until you get on the Thistlegorm.’ I can’t help chuckling to myself, and I taste salt water seeping into my mouth around my regulator. He wasn’t kidding. This wreck is worlds apart from other wrecks I had previously dived.
Although numerous species of wildlife have colonised the Thistlegorm, there is also a distinctly barren quality to it – there’s more rust than seaweed. The balance between history on pause and new life exploding through its veins is different here. Unlike the Dunraven, this still feels like a ship. For the most part, other than the portions devastated by the bomb blast, the wreck has survived perfectly intact, frozen in time. I can almost picture her afloat, making her journey across the Red Sea, and the chaos both above and below decks when the bombers were first spotted overhead.
Bebo ascends through a small passageway in the ceiling and we emerge in the captain’s quarters. A pristine bathtub immediately greets me. I can almost visualise the captain ending a long and arduous day on deck with a refreshing bath. As I look up at the ceiling, I see myself looking back, reflected in an otherworldly mirrored surface. Bubbles from the exhalations of divers visiting this place have collected on the ceiling and spread across the entire width of the room, creating an evenly distributed mirror of air. It breathes a new humanity into this haunting environment that was once so full of life.
Exiting through a window in the corner of the room, Bebo and I arrive on the top deck of the ship towards the bow. We pass huge railway freight carriages that line the sides of the ship as we make our way back to the ascent line. As I begin to ascend, I look back down at the ship disappearing behind me, receding into the mist with every metre I rise. The visibility has deteriorated since we started the dive. How long have I been down there? All sense of time has disappeared. As I emerge from the water, remove my regulator, and take my first natural breath, I can’t help but feel like I’ve just surfaced from reading the most intense history book I’ve ever had the pleasure of indulging in. But my experience on the SS Thistlegorm has given me a greater sense of appreciation and empathy for the events of World War II than any history book ever could.
First published in Sidetracked Volume 23
Words & Photography by Grace Taylorson Smith Pritchard // @grace.t.s.p