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The Thistlegorm Project: Bringing the Sunken Secrets of WWII to the Surface

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3D rendering of the SS Thistlegorm (©thethistlegormproject.com)

A new website has been launched which will let people explore the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm from the comfort of their home computers and mobile phones.

Launched on 6 October – 76 years to the day that the Thistlegorm was sunk by a German bomber just of the coast of the Sinai Peninsula, Egpyt – the 3D virtual reality project is part of a wider maritime archaeological study called Presence in the Past, a Newton Fund project directed by Dr Jon Henderson from the School of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham, in partnership with Al Shams (Cairo) and Alexandria Universities in Egypt.

The SS Thistlegorm was a steam-powered freighter, part of a convoy carrying supplies to support the British 8th Army in the North African desert. Two locomotives, a range of trucks, motorcycles, arms, ammunition and spare parts including generators and aeroplane wings were part of the cargo that still remains on board after the ship was sunk during a surprise raid by German bombers in 1941, with the loss of nine crew members.

Now lying in only 30m of seawater, the wreck is one of the most famous in the diving community, and widely considered to be one of the best in the world, but is much less well known by the general public. Thanks to advances in computer-generated mapping techniques, however, 3D reality projects such as this are bringing submerged subjects to the surface, enabling everyone to appreciate what lies on the seabed.

‘The thing about underwater sites and the importance of underwater cultural heritage is that the only people who’ve ever seen it are divers,’ said Dr Henderson. ‘However, we are now at a point where we have the technology to reconstruct these sites. We can survey them in photo-realistic detail and we can create models that people can explore and interact with from the comfort of their own homes.’

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The digital maps show the wreck in minute detail (©thethistlegormproject.com)

The photogrammetric survey is one of the largest ever carried out on a shipwreck and records over seven acres of wreck through 24,307 high-resolution photos taken over twelve dives on the site (representing just 13 hours and 43 minutes in the water). As well as the outer shell of the wreck, the Thistlegorm’s internal decks and cabins were also recorded, including its rich cargo.

The underwater archaeological project is one of the first to utilise full 360° video. ‘This was one of the most exciting things because with 360-degree video we can now do guided tours around the wreck, so you can actually experience what it’s like to dive it,’ said Dr Henderson. ‘For me, 360 video is a big step forward as it recreates the diving experience. You can get the impression of swimming over it and through the internal parts of the wreck.’

Underwater Photogrammetry allowed the team of experts to reconstruct, in photo-realistic detail, exactly what’s left of the Thistlegorm on the sea bed. They were then able to create 3D models of exactly how the wreck appears.

Dr Henderson said: ‘The Thistlegorm is an amazing resource, it’s a remarkable snapshot in history, it’s got all this material from WWll sitting on it and so there is a lot to learn from the wreck. As it’s a really popular dive site, there is a problem with the amount of divers on the site at the moment, because it’s not policed or managed. Aside from looting, the main issue we have is a lot of the dive boats that go out there are actually mooring onto the wreck itself because there is nowhere else to go. Dive boats weighing 50 and 60 tonnes are tying ropes directly onto the vessel. This isn’t such a problem for the parts of the vessel which are quite strong, but equally we have seen some boats tying on to more fragile areas including the guns, the bridge and the railings – which can cause damage. So we need to protect these sites.’

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Filming 360 video on the Thistlegorm (©thethistlegormproject.com)

Under the UNESCO convention (which Egypt has just signed), protection is available for wrecks that are 100 years old or older, however, this does not cover wrecks from the First and Second World Wars, and therefore the SS Thistlegorm.

Other projects to raise awareness over the years have met with some success among the dive community, but there’s little awareness of the scale of the problem outside those that dive the wreck on a regular basis. In order for the Thistlegorm’s historical significance to be preserved and at the same time remain both a sustainable tourist diving destination and scientific resource, the wreck needs further protection.

‘Carrying out a baseline survey (such as this) of exactly what’s there is the first step in doing that,‘ said Dr Henderson. ‘We can then chart changes over time and look at what we need to protect. We can look at areas that would be better to moor on and come up with a management plan for the site.’

‘This is an important part of Britain’s and Egypt’s shared heritage and a monument to the herculean efforts of the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Nine men died on the SS Thistlegorm, five Royal Navy gunners and four merchant sailors, just a small part of the 35,000 out of 135,000 Merchant Navy sailors that gave their lives during the war. In the Merchant Navy one in four men did not come back – that’s the highest proportion of all the fighting forces. We owe to the memory of these brave men to record and preserve their legacy.’

To take an underwater tour of the SS Thistlegorm visit www.thethistlegormproject.com - and check out the project's introductory trailer below

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