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Naval trawler protected from plunderers nearly a century after she sank

23 August 2016
No-one will be able to dive on the recently-discovered wreck of a Great War trawler, sunk by a German mine off Dorset in 1917.

The government has agreed that HMT Arfon, lost with ten of her 13 crew, is designated as a protected wreck and cannot be touched without a licence from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

This is the outline of Her Majesty’s Trawler Arfon, lost to humanity for almost a century – now rediscovered and given protection against grave robbers.

Historians at Historic England feared the wreck of the former fishing vessel – pressed into Royal Navy service at the outbreak of WW1 to act as a makeshift minesweeper – could be plundered by divers.

The crews who served aboard such vessels faced tremendous dangers with unstinting bravery and devotion to duty.

Joe Flatman

Ten of the 13 crew were killed when the Arfon hit a mine laid by U-boat UC-61 off St Alban’s Head in Dorset at the end of April 1917.

She lies on the Weymouth Bay seabed in about 130ft of water – easily diveable by experienced frogmen – with her stern remarkably intact.

The wreck was located by a local dive firm run by Martin and Bryan Jones who asked for the site to be protected ahead of the centenary of the sinking next spring, when there will be a commemorative service.

Originally built for the North Sea fishing trade, like hundreds of trawlers the Arfon was taken over by the RN to meet the overwhelming demand for patrol vessels.

Based in Portland, the boat joined other trawlers in sweeping mines from the inshore shipping lanes off the Dorset coast for three years before her luck ran out.

Although the mine destroyed the bow and forecastle, the stern section of the 120ft trawler is remarkably well-preserved with her mine-sweeping gear, deck gun, portholes and engine room still intact – unlike many other wrecks of similar vintage, which have been salvaged and plundered.

“The Arfon shipwreck is a rare survivor of a type of vessel once very common around the coastline of Britain but which has now entirely disappeared, surviving only in documents and as wrecks like this one,” explained Joe Flatman from Historic England – the advisers to the government on preserving nationally-important objects, buildings, structures and ships.

“Trawlers, minesweepers and other coastal patrol vessels played a crucial role in keeping the sea lanes around the British Isles open during both World Wars – a part of the war effort that is often overlooked.

“The crews who served aboard such vessels faced tremendous dangers with unstinting bravery and devotion to duty.

“Historic England is proud to help tell part of this hidden story of naval endeavour during World War 1 as part of our work’.”

The Department for Culture Media and Sport agrees with Historic England’s assessment of the Arfon and is now safeguarding the site under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

Not only is taking anything from the war grave a criminal offence, but no one is permitted to dive on the Arfon without first obtaining a licence from Historic England.

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