Hitler’s Aircraft Carrier

Hitler’s Aircraft Carrier

World War 2

The Ill-Fated Journey of Germany’s Graf Zeppelin : A Comprehensive Analysis


On December 8, 1938, an event of great significance to Germany’s naval ambitions occurred in Kiel! The launch of the nation’s first aircraft carrier, Graf Zeppelin.


The German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin after launching in December 1938.

At a moment when Germany was redefining its naval capabilities, this addition seemed promising. However, due to a complex web of challenges—ranging from material shortages to changing military specifications—Graf Zeppelin would never be completed.

The Early Stages and Stumbling Blocks

Initially, progress seemed encouraging; by the end of 1939, Graf Zeppelin was 85% complete. However, the vessel’s construction was interrupted by a series of events. Germany’s invasion of Norway led to acute shortages of essential materials, and constant changes in military requirements further plagued its completion. Consequently, Graf Zeppelin languished in various ports, ultimately rusting away and serving only as an ad-hoc warehouse and barracks.

Drawing from Outdated Blueprints

In the absence of experience in aircraft carrier design, German engineers relied on publicly available data, including information on the Royal Navy’s Courageous-class carriers and the Japanese carrier Akagi’s early designs.


Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi in April, 1942 during the Indian Ocean Raid as seen from an aircraft that has just taken off from her deck. The aircraft on the flight deck preparing for takeoff are Aichi D3A Type 99 dive bombers.

Unfortunately, these references were outdated by the time they were employed. For instance, Akagi was already slated for massive modernization, leaving the Germans to use obsolete plans.


Akagi on 6 April 1925, prior to her launch at Kure.

Design Flaws: The Devil is in the Details

One consequence of using outdated references was that Graf Zeppelin’s flight deck did not extend to the bow. The ship also maintained a formidable anti-ship armament, a feature at odds with contemporary carrier designs. While U.S. and Japanese carriers of the era could operate between 70 and 80 aircraft, Graf Zeppelin’s limited hangar space could accommodate fewer than 40.

Furthermore, Graf Zeppelin was hindered by its overly complex catapult system, which required a cumbersome procedure for launching planes. This convoluted design would have severely delayed the deployment of aircraft, rendering the vessel less effective in battle.


The German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin photographed on 6 February 1942 at Gotenhafen (today Gdynia, Poland) by a British Royal Air Force aircraft. Royal Air Force – U.S. Navy photo NH 78306 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

Inadequate Aircraft and Organizational Woes

The Germans designed only two aircraft types for carrier operations: the Fieseler Fi 167 torpedo bomber and the Arado Ar 197 fighter. Both models were outdated biplanes, less advanced than their counterparts in other nations’ navies. Additionally, the Luftwaffe would control these aircraft, not naval command, leading to potential operational conflicts.

The Impracticality of a German Aircraft Carrier

From a military strategic and war planning vantage point, Germany did not need an aircraft carrier. Of course, Japan as an island nation required carriers. However, for Germany’s European, Russian & African ambitions, carriers were just superfluous for the German war effort. Despite fantasies related to “Plan Z,” Germany’s naval presence in WWII was meager at best. Sending out an untested, inferior aircraft carrier would have been tantamount to sending it to its demise at the hands of the Royal Navy. Not so unlike poor Bismarck’s ‘dead battleship sailing’ mission. Germany didn’t have the navy to support Bismarck either.

Furthermore, the very concept of a German aircraft carrier was at odds with the nation’s geographical and political realities!

Europe at the height of Axis success. Credit: Goran tek-en

Moreover, Germany, almost land-locked and surrounded by adversaries, had little to gain from a vessel designed for power projection over vast oceanic spaces.

Concluding Thoughts

The tale of Graf Zeppelin serves as a cautionary tale of military overreach and muddled planning. Despite Germany’s ambitious start, the aircraft carrier’s design and practical utility were fraught with flaws that rendered it a historical footnote. From its inception to its inglorious end in the Baltic Sea, Graf Zeppelin exemplifies the perils of inadequate planning, unsuitable designs, and geopolitical impracticality.


Graf Zeppelin in Soviet custody at Świnoujście, April 5, 1947. U.S. Navy – Official U.S. Navy photo NH 78311 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command. 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.

Hitler’s Aircraft Carrier written by Qiang Shen