Thistlegorm

Dr. Mussaad M. Al-Razouki
5 min readJun 10, 2019

The SS Thistlegorm was a British armed Merchant Navy steamship whose legacy endures as the greatest wreck of WWII. The etymology is a portmanteau of “thistle,” the national flower of Scotland, and “gorm” which comes from the Gaelic word for blue.

Launched in April of 1940, the Thistlegorm saw three wide-ranging successful voyages across the Atlantic and back, before succumbing to its watery fate on it's fourth (and final) voyage from Glasgow to Alexandria, Egypt. On the 6th of October, 1941, two Heinkel He 111 aircraft of II Staffeln, Kampfgeschwader 26, of the German Luftwaffe, were dispatched from Axis-occupied Crete to seek and destroy Allied ships. Serendipitously, they came across the Thistlegorm and dropped two bombs both sinking it almost instantly resulting in the loss of four sailors and five members of the Royal Navy gun crew. Thankfully for drivers, most of the cargo remained within the ship, the major exception being the steam locomotives (destined for the Egyptian National Railways) from the deck cargo which were blown off to either side of the wreck, the remnants of which can still be seen today.

Indeed, Red Sea diving enthusiasts are treated to a menagerie of Universal Carrier armored vehicles, Bedford trucks filled with beautiful BSA and Norton 16H motorcycles, and large cases of ammunition. The highlight is no doubt the 4.7-inch (120 mm) anti-aircraft gun attached to the stern of the ship (for a lovely 3D tour of the wreck click here).

Now, the obvious comparison to the sinking of the SS Thistlegorm would be the inevitable sinking of a large part of the British economy post-Brexit, but what struck me the most during my dive was the somber symbiosis of mother nature mixing in with the man-made. Life really does find a way. Like the proverbial phoenix, the wrecked Thisltegorm found a way to rise from its ashes and cover itself with large swaths of swimming marine life (and multiple diving teams as well).

As a human race, we worry about our impact on our planet. We worry about the smog and ash of the last three polluted industrial revolutions and the potential doomsday man-vs nature or man-vs machine of the 4th. Spoiler alert! Nature always wins. In a world with a landmass that is still lightly populated and oceans that are 80–95% still unexplored (99% of the ocean floorbed in still unexplored), our species impact is seemingly immaterial. However, that is not to claim that Climate Change is a leftist conspiracy, pollution is real and we have to take immediate action, both from grassroots as well as a policy perspective. Otherwise, our great cities may find themselves thistlegormed into the vast obtrusiveness of oceanic oblivion.

BONUS STORY: SHARM SHARK ATTACK!

After five amazing dives, I asked my diving instructor Hassan what was the most memorable thing he had ever seen in all his years of diving in the red sea. In a macabre drawl, he began to retell his first-hand account of the infamous 2010 Sharm El Sheikh Shark Attacks. He had just descended into 10m check dive with an Italian client, just off of the 4km shoreline of the Domina Rey hotel when he noticed a rare sight; a 3.5m long whitetip shark was headed straight towards them. Hassan was thrilled and knew that his client would be too as seeing a shark up close was definitely a treat for any diver.

It wasn’t until the shark started circling them that Hassan felt shivers running down his spine, he began to recite the shahada. On the white tip’s third envelopment, Hassan was whiplashed across his face by the shark’s caudal fin. He was still frozen in shock as the predator sought easier prey and sunk its three rows of teeth into a 71-year-old German woman, who sadly passed away by bleeding to death on shore after the whitetip tore off her entire left leg. Four days earlier, four tourists in the Ras Nasrani area had also been attacked, with multiple limbs lost but thankfully no deaths.

In his seminal book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, author and former options trader Nassim Taleb focuses on the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events — and the human tendency to find simplistic (or even simply fantastical) explanations for these events, retrospectively. In the case of the aftermath of the Sharm Shark Attacks, conspiracy theories involving GPS controlled Israeli cyber sharks BBMed across the Arab world like wildfire.

Back to the central idea of Taleb’s book, i.e. avoiding the temptation to predict Black Swan events, and instead build robustness to negative events and the innate ability to benefit from positive events. Taleb contends that banks, hedge funds and other types of robber baron financier are vulnerable to hazardous Black Swan events and any attempts to forecast economic downturns are worthless. Instead, financial gymnasts must stay focused on identifying areas of vulnerability in order to “turn the Black Swans white”. In my personal opinion, I slightly disagree with the fruitless prediction paradigm. Call it a whitetip deviation.

In the case of the December 2010 Sharm Shark Attack, the economic indicators of doom were plentiful. Beyond the immediate threat of the four shark attacks four days earlier, the divers should have been aware that the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha fell two weeks earlier on the 16th of November, a festival where every Muslim family is encouraged to sacrifice a sheep. There were reports (again in hindsight) of cargo ships dumping dead sheep carcasses into the Red Sea, chocking the sea with blood and thus bringing sharks unusually close to the shoreline…with a hemophilic taste for easy prey.

In response to the first attack, the Egyptian authorities closed off all the beaches only to reopen them the day before Hassan witnessed the deadly attack and after claiming that the “shark from the attack had been captured.” Even until today, almost an entire decade after the attacks, no robustness has yet been built into the $15 billion dollar beach tourism industry of Egypt. Shell-shocked from the attack, (who could blame him) Hassan stayed out of the water for an entire month and until today laments about a law preventing divers from carrying protective blades.

The 2010 Sharm Shark Attacks were certainly a Black Swan event, as only nine attacks by whitetips had been reported worldwide in the last 439 years and only one, the one witnessed by Hassan, had sadly proved fatal.

The Whitetip Shark in Question Allegedly Caught a Few Days Later by Egyptian Fisherman

--

--