Virtually Explore a World War II Shipwreck in 360 Degrees

High-resolution video and 3D scanning brings the SS Thistlegorm to armchair archaeologists everywhere

Last Friday, 76 years to the day it was sunk by German bombers off the coast of Egypt, the British merchant ship SS Thistlegorm resurfaced in digital form, reports the Press Association.

Back in July, researchers from the University of Nottingham, in partnership with Ain Shams in Cairo and Alexandria University surveyed the wreck site, taking 24,307 high-resolution images of the wreck as part of the Thistlegorm Project, an ongoing underwater archaeological survey. The researchers also used special 360-degree cameras to create ultra high-definition (4K) videos of the wreck site. The result of their efforts: a stunning 3D re-creation of the ship, which they uploaded online to give armchair divers as good or better a view than if they were swimming around the wreck themselves.

“The thing about underwater sites and the importance of underwater cultural heritage is that the only people who’ve ever seen it are divers,” Jon Henderson, director of the project, says in a press release. “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.”

The BBC reports that the Thistlegorm was carrying motorcycles, trucks, trains and airplane parts to support British forces in North Africa when it was sunk on October 6, 1941. Nine people died, including five Navy gunners and four merchant sailors. Decades later, the wreck, located in the Straits of Gubal in the Northern Red Sea has become a popular dive destination, not only because it is in crystal clear waters, but because the damage from the bomb and the ship's cargo are easily visible.

Henderson tells the BBC that while the Thistlegorm Project is the cutting edge of digital archaeology, it is also a way to raise the profile of the thousands of sailors who died supplying the Allies during World War II. "[These nine men were] just a small part of the 35,000 out of 135,000 merchant navy sailors that gave their lives during the war,” he tells the BBC. “In the merchant navy, one in four men did not come back – that’s the highest proportion of all the fighting forces. We owe it to the memory of these brave men to record and preserve their legacy.”

For the United States, the death rate among the U.S. Merchant Marine wasn’t as high. About one in 26 died in the line of duty, but that was still the highest casualty rate of any U.S. war service. The merchant fleet, which carried men, weapons and supplies to military posts around the world, were subjected to submarine attacks, aerial bombardment, artillery fire and kamikaze attack not to mention plowing through rough and stormy seas on tight deadlines. In 1942, 33 Allied ships per week were sunk.

The Thistlegorm Project is the first in a series of projects called Presence in the Past, a multi-institution effort to perform 3D scans and preserve wrecks in Egyptian waters. The Thistlegorm was an ideal candidate for the project not only because it’s an interesting wreck site, but after 76 years in salt water and hundreds of visits from divers and boaters, the wreck is at risk. Researchers hope to use the new massive survey as a baseline to monitor deterioration and damage to the site.

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