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Wreck of German warship that sank in English Channel in 1878 given protection

By Michael Drummond
The wreck of a pre-First World War battleship that sank off the coast of Kent and a memorial to those who died have been granted Government protection.

The experimental ironclad warship went down in 1878, with nearly 300 crew losing their lives in the tragic accident.

SMS Grosser Kurfurst had been preparing for training exercises in the English Channel when it was accidentally rammed by another German ship.

Unfortunately for SMS Grosser Kurfurst, the ship that crashed into it was Konig Wilhelm, which featured a strengthened ram bow designed to sink enemy ships.

Armour plating on SMS Grosser Kurfurst was ripped away and a huge hole was gouged in her side.

She sank rapidly, leading to the deaths of 284 men.

Many of their bodies were recovered and interred in Cheriton Road Cemetery in Folkestone, where a large memorial stands in honour of those who lost their lives on board the ship.

Now the wreck has been given scheduled protection and added to the National Heritage List for England, and the war memorial has been listed at Grade II.

Recreational divers are still allowed to dive the wreck but the new measures give its contents a level of protection.

Heritage minister Nigel Huddleston said: “The listing of the SMS Grosser Kurfurst and the memorial plaque is a fitting tribute to the 284 men who died when the ship sank more than 130 years ago.

“I hope that the increased protection for both sites will ensure that the ingenuity of the early ironclad ships and their influence on modern navy vessels is not forgotten.”

SMS Grosser Kurfurst was one of only three Preussen-class ironclad warships authorised under the naval programme of 1867, which had been approved by the Reichstag to strengthen the North German Federal Navy.

This happened in the wake of the Second Schleswig War (February to October 1864) involving the weak then-Prussian navy which had been unable to break the blockade imposed by the Danish navy.

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, said: “This historic shipwreck tells the story of Germany’s increasing naval strength in the late-19th century at a time when Britain and Germany were on friendly terms.

“The SMS Grosser Kurfurst is important as the only non-Royal Naval warship recorded as wrecked in English waters for the period 1860-1913.

“The listing of the associated memorial in Folkestone with its German inscription is a poignant reminder of the loss of nearly 300 crewmen on board. It is right that we continue to remember them.”

Damian Collins, MP for Folkestone and Hythe, also hailed the granting of protection to the wreck and memorial.

He said: “Folkestone would go on to play an important role in the First World War, as a port of passage for many soldiers travelling to and from the trenches in France and Belgium, which I have worked to commemorate as chairman of the Step Short charity.

“In that spirit, I believe the monument is an important reminder of Anglo-German friendship and solidarity in times of disaster, to be remembered as well as times of enmity.”

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