It was designed for war but sank during a training exercise. Now the wreck of SMS Grosser Kurfürst has been granted special protection by the British government.

Added to the National Heritage List for England, the wreck can now be explored by recreational divers, but its contents remain safeguarded. A memorial to the disaster in a Folkestone graveyard has been listed as Grade II.

The wreck of the SMS Grosser Kurfürst, which lies off the Kent coast, has been given protected status.
The wreck of the SMS Grosser Kurfürst, which lies off the Kent coast, has been given protected status. Images: Historic England

During a training session in the English Channel in May 1878, SMS Grosser Kurfürst was accidentally rammed by another German warship, SMS König Wilhelm, while attempting to avoid a collision with two sailing ships.

The damaged Grosser Kurfürst sank within minutes. More than half of the 500 men on board were lost, with those who were washed ashore buried in the Folkestone cemetery.

SMS Grosser Kurfürst was one of three Preussen-class ironclad warships built by Germany in 1867. Their construction was a consequence of the Second Schleswig War of 1864, when a then-weak Prussian navy had been unable to break a blockade imposed by the neighbouring Danish.

At that time, naval construction was in a state of evolution, characterised by a move away from wooden ships towards the armoured ones that would become the norm during the First World War.

The ship sank in May 1878
during a training exercise in the
English Channel, as depicted in
this sketch.
The ship sank in May 1878 during a training exercise in the English Channel, as depicted in this sketch. Images: Historic England

During construction, Grosser Kurfürst had been modified to mount a pair of revolving twingun turrets. Previous surveys of the wreck have confirmed they lie on the seabed upside down, in accordance with the way in which the ship sank.

Commenting on the significance of the wreck, 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.’

German naval training exercises off the coast of England – an area long littered with shipwrecks – would became unthinkable just a few decades after the Grosser Kurfürst sank.

This article was published in the August/September 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.




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