The Nazi Aircraft Carrier “Graff Zeppelin”

The German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, planned as a centerpiece of Nazi propaganda, was never finished, and sat in harbor for the entire war.

The Graff Zeppelin

The Versailles Treaty that ended the First World War banned Germany from having any effective Navy. But in 1933 the Nazis took power and almost immediately began a program to build up the Kriegsmarine again, in preparation for the European war that Hitler was already planning. In 1935, the UK was still reeling from the effects of the Great War and had no desire to do it all over again. So, in an attempt to control Hitler’s naval expansion and guarantee the supremacy of the Royal Navy, England signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which allowed Germany to re-establish a naval fleet as long as it remained at just 35% of the total tonnage possessed by Britain. Hitler, of course, had no intention at all of abiding by the treaty’s limitations, and in the spring of 1939 he renounced it completely.

Like other nations, Germany had experimented with seaplane carriers during the First World War, and by 1918 was making plans to convert the hull of a partially-finished passenger ship, the Ausonia, into a flattop carrier. But the project was never completed, and Germany never really put any emphasis on carrier development. Partially, this was because the German Navy, always outgunned and outclassed by the British, had always taken a defensive role and never really had a need for offensive naval air power.

By 1935, however, every major navy in the world had purpose-built aircraft carriers, and so the Nazis decided that they had to have them too—if for nothing more than their propaganda value. The Anglo-German Agreement limited Germany to 40,000 tons worth of carrier. So in 1936, the Nazis designed two carriers of 20,000 tons each. They would carry a complement of 40 aircraft each, to include Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters, Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers, and Fieseler Fi-167 torpedo bombers. As the design continued to be worked on, and Germany decided to break the agreement, the size of the planned carriers grew, as armored decks, anti-torpedo armor, and more guns were added. The Fieseler torpedo bombers were dropped and a navalized version of the Stuka, capable of carrying a torpedo, was proposed instead. To protect themselves from surface ships and also to be able to act as a commerce raider against Allied merchant shipping, the carriers would have sixteen 8-inch guns in eight turrets. They ended up at 35,000 tons each.

The keel for the first, named Graf Zeppelin, was laid down in December 1936. She was launched two years later, in December 1938—and that was about as far as she got. By the time the war started in September 1939, Graf Zeppelin was about 85% complete, but was never finished. Throughout the war, she sat in harbor as a hollow shell. Her planned sister ship never even got that far—although work was begun on her hull, she was cancelled soon after. “Carrier B” never even got an official name (though documents indicate she would have been named Peter Strasser, after a German airship designer).

Several factors contributed to the decision to abandon the Graf Zeppelin. The planned naval versions of the Stuka never really worked well, and by 1940 the Stuka itself was becoming archaic and inferior. Much of the carrier’s equipment was already outdated and would require a major upgrade. There was also a political conflict between the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe over whose planes would serve on the ship.

The carrier’s military value was also questioned. The Royal Navy had quickly sunk several important German ships, including Graf Spee and Bismarck, and the rest were bottled up in harbor: none had been particularly useful as commerce raiders. The only real success the German Kriegsmarine had during the war was with its U-boat fleet, and by 1943 Hitler had decided to drop all plans for more large surface ships and to focus almost exclusively on constructing submarines. When this effort failed too, the Nazis made desperate plans to not only finish the Graf Zeppelin, but to add two more carriers. But by this time German industry was under constant bombardment by Allied air raids, and was incapable of accomplishing this.

So, the Graf Zeppelin was towed around from port to port, but never finished. At one point she was used for storage; at another time she was a floating barracks for German Navy personnel. By 1945 she was docked at the mouth of the Parnitz River, near the German town of Stettin. As Soviet troops approached in April, Graf Zeppelin was deliberately sunk by the Nazis to prevent her from being captured.

In March 1946, the Russians, who now occupied this sector of Germany, managed to raise the sunken carrier and repair her enough to keep her afloat. In August 1947, the hulk of the Graf Zeppelin was used as a target ship for Russian guns and torpedoes. She sank in deep water on August 25. Her blasted sunken wreck was found by a Polish oil exploration ship in July 2006.

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