Germany’s Vanished Aircraft Carrier

The Never Completed German Aircraft Carrier Graf Zeppelin

On December 8, 1938, the German navy launched its first aircraft carrier, Graf Zeppelin, in Kiel.

By the end of 1939 the ship was 85% complete, but due to the invasion of Norway and subsequent shortages of material, as well as constantly changing requirements and specifications, she was never completed.

The keel for Graf Zeppelin in December 1936
Flugzeugträger “A”. Baustadium v. 28.12.1936 Deutsche Werke Kiel

In 1941 she was towed to the Port of Gdynia and then the Port of Stettin where she lay alongside piers gradually rusting away as an occasional barracks and warehouse.

drawing of Graf Zeppelin had she been completed in September 1942

By 1942, the RAF decided not to waste bombs on the hulk, and she fell into Soviet hands after the war. The Soviets at least got some use out of her as a target ship, which is more than the Kriegsmarine could say.

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Actually, it was probably a good thing for the Kriegsmarine that the ship was never finished.

For one, when she was designed in 1936, she was obsolescent in concept.

Lacking any experience with aircraft carriers, the Germans drew on publicly available data from the Royal Navy’s Courageous class carriers, which were converted WW1 battlecruisers, and on information and design plans for the carrier Akagi, provided by the Japanese.

Graf Zeppelin moored at Stettin in mid-1941
Graf Zeppelin. Flugzeugträger. Stapell.: 8.12.1938 B 676 (R IX E 7845)

Japanese assistance might have been helpful, but what the Germans didn’t know at the time was that Akagi was planned for a massive modernization and what the Germans got were Akagi’s initial design plans…plans for a 1920’s battlecruiser conversion not unlike that of the Courageous class.

One result of this was that Graf Zeppelin’s flight deck did not extend to the bow and the retention of powerful anti-ship armament mounted in the hull.

Computer rendering

Also her hangar space limited her air complement to fewer than 40 aircraft, while equivalent Japanese and US carriers being designed at the same time could operate between 70 and 80 aircraft.

German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin at Swinemünde on 5 April 1947. The former German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin on 5 April 1947 at Swinemünde (today Świnoujście, Poland) while in Soviet custody. The scuttled carrier had been refloated in March 1946 and was sunk as a target in the Baltic Sea on 16 August 1947. Source: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command NH 78311

The Navy Department Library Master Drawing of CV GRAF ZEPPELIN 

But the real flaw in Graf Zeppelin’s design was uniquely German.

Rather than use rolling takeoffs that the IJN and USN favored, the Germans developed and installed a massively over-complicated catapult system that employed a system of two carts or carriages that aircraft were placed on (with gear already retracted)that then shot forward launching the planes.

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The carriages were then lowered below the flight deck and brought back to the launching spot, raised via an elevator back to the flight deck, where the next airplane was attached. These catapults were tested, and were capable of shooting heavily loaded aircraft into the air, but the process of retrieving and repeatedly mounting aircraft on them would certainly have been cumbersome and time consuming.

To avoid air raids for second half of the war she was based in Stettin

One can imagine a Japanese or American carrier launching a whole squadron of planes with rolling takeoffs while the crew of Graf Zeppelin were dealing with just two.

Then there were the aircraft.

Only two were specifically designed from scratch for carrier deployment, the Fieseler Fi 167 torpedo bomber and the Arado Ar 197 fighter.

Fieseler Fi 167 torpedo bomber
Arado Ar 197 fighter

Both were biplanes of an obsolescent conception. The Fi 167 proved to be successful, and would have been assigned to the Graf Zeppelin.

The Ar 196 was a failure, leading to the development of the Bf 109T, a straight-forward adaptation of the standard Bf 109E of 1940, differing only in having longer span wings for better low speed characteristics and arresting equipment.

The Junkers Ju 87C was the intended dive bomber.

Junkers Ju 87C

Oh, and these planes and their crews would be under independent Luftwaffe command, not under naval command.

Graf Zeppelin after her launching on 8 December 1938

Finally, the ship would have been a failure, simply because the Kriegsmarine needed one carrier like it needed a hole in the head.

One can fantasize a whole slew of “what if’s” relating to “Plan Z”, but in reality Germany barely had a surface Navy in WW2, and any attempted sorties of German heavy units accompanied by this inferior carrier operated by a navy with absolutely no experience in naval aviation would simply mean one more ship sunk by the RN.

But here is the problem with Germany and aircraft carriers.

A country with aircraft carriers must have immediate access to the oceans with ports near industrial centers.

An aircraft carrier is the most complex of warships that requires extensive sea-time to perfect its operations, and readily available industrial availability of technical expertise to keep the carrier operating.

Secondly, as an almost land-locked nation surrounded by enemy countries, aircraft carriers cannot protect Germany from their enemies, east or west.

World War 2 in the North Sea Area : Courtesy of Library of Congress

Of all the European countries, what colonies were German that required defense?

Name a German colony that was worth the investment of an aircraft carrier to protect? I can’t think of one.

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Written by John Hartley

Edited by US Navy Captain Tal Manvel & Alexander Fleiss