Carrier raystery may be solved" declared several newspapers after the Polish Navy located the remains of a large ship on the sea floor this summer.1 Underwater photography did indeed show the relatively intact Graf Zeppelin, the aircraft carrier constructed by Germany prior to World War II. But there is no mystery about the ship.
The Graf Zeppelin was part of the large shipbuilding program undertaken by Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. In her final configuration she was to have a standard displacement of about 24,500 tons and some 33,550 tons full load, with an overall length of 861 feet, making the ship slightly smaller than the U.S. carriers of the Essex (CV-9) class. But the Graf Zeppelin would have had far less capability than an Essex, which could operate more than 100 aircraft. The Graf Zeppelin—to be fitted with two catapults and arresting gear—would operate only 33 aircraft: 10 Bf 109F fighters and about 23 Ju 87D Stuka dive bomber/reconnaissance aircraft. No torpedo planes would be available. Aircraft were modified for carrier operation and the German Air Force, which controlled all military aviation, began a carrier-training program.
Design of Aircraft Carrier "A" had commenced in 1934 under the supervision of Wilhelm Hadeler, a brilliant 1925 graduate of the Technical University in Berlin, who had remained at the university for nine years as assistant to the chair for warship construction. Hadeler and his staff sought information on U.S. and British carriers, and eventually sent a delegation to Japan seeking information on contemporary carrier design. (At one point the German carrier was to mount eight 8-inch guns, in the manner of the USS Lexington [CV-2] and Saratoga [CV-3]. In the event, the final approved armament was 16 5.9inch single-purpose guns and an anti-aircraft armament of 12 4.1-inch guns, 22 37-mm guns, and several 20-mm guns.) The ship would have a conventional, starboard-side island structure. A steam turbine plant was to provide 35 knots.
The keel for Aircraft Carrier "A" was laid down at Kiel on 28 December 1936. Work progressed at a good pace and the ship was launched on 8 December 1938, with Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, head of the Air Force, and numerous high-ranking officers of the Navy and Luftwaffe in attendance. On Hitler's orders the carrier was christened the Graf Zeppelin by Countess Hella von BrandensteinZeppelin, daughter of the famed airship builder.
Meanwhile, another Kiel shipyard was ordered to build a sister ship to the Graf Zeppelin. Progress on Aircraft Carrier "B" was slow and only a few hundred tons of material had been assembled when the Graf Zeppelin was launched. The German "Z" plan for the Navy, endorsed by Hitler in January 1938, called for the construction of four such carriers.
The outbreak of war in September 1939 found the German Navy far short of the "Z" plan's goals, lacking even the fleet's first full-fledged battleships Bismarck and Tirpifz. The Graf Zeppelin was about 85 percent complete. It was anticipated that with normal construction schedules, she could be commissioned by the end of 1940 and ready for service before the end of 1941. After discussions at the highest levels in the German Navy and in the government, construction was halted on all unfinished large warships except for the Bismarck and Tirpitz, two heavy cruisers, and the Graf Zeppelin. Work on Aircraft Carrier "B" was stopped on 19 September 1939, and the accumulated steel plates were scrapped.
With total victory in the West expected in short order, by May 1940 all work on the carrier had stopped. In June 1940, to provide berthing space for other ships at Kiel and to remove her from the danger of British air attacks, the carrier was moved eastward, to the Polish port of Gdynia. The ship's 5.9-inch guns were removed for use as shore batteries in Norway, and her cooking and sanitation equipment was taken out for the submarine school at Pilau. The anti-aircraft guns installed in the carrier were retained.
German interest in aircraft carriers vacillated over the next few years. On at least two occasions the decision was made to complete her while the carrier also served as a warehouse for lumber! Work was begun on converting a heavy cruiser to a carrier and plans were developed for modifying three large passenger liners to carriers. But it was too late.
Early in 1945, as Soviet armies were approaching the Oder River, the local naval commander, acting on orders, exploded depth charges in the Graf Zeppelin's engine and boiler rooms, wrecking the power plant and sinking the carrier in shallow water. As Soviet forces neared the ship in late April 1945 she was hit several times by artillery fire, sustaining minor additional damage.
After the German surrender, the Soviets stopped up the leaks, pumped out the carrier, and moved her to Swinemande (now 'Swinouj'scie) at the mouth of the Oder. The carrier—among other German naval projects—was minutely examined by Soviet engineers and naval officers. In this period the ship was designated as a floating base-PO-101. The Allied tripartite commission allocating former Axis warships would not allow the Soviets to complete the Graf Zeppelin.
Western officials believed that, the examination completed, the Graf Zeppelin was loaded with war booty, including heavy machinery and, reportedly, sections of unfinished U-boats. The general belief was that the heavily laden carrier departed under tow for Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and that she sank in the Baltic from previous damage, coupled with a rough crossing, or she struck a mine.
Rather, the ship was towed to the naval operating area off Swinemunde and anchored for use as a test ship for explosive damage and as a training target for dive-bombers and torpedo craft. The tests began on 16 August 1947. First, aircraft bombs were placed on the flight and hangar decks and in the superstructure, being detonated to determine the explosive effects on the ship. Subsequently the dive-bombers used the ship as a target and torpedo boats attacked her. She was hit by six bombs and two 21-inch torpedoes before sinking.
Thus, the Graf Zeppelin survived the Third Reich only briefly and had an equally inglorious ending. The German Navy had been unable to produce an adequate surface fleet before Hitler plunged the nation into war. It is questionable if the Graf Zeppelin could ever have become operational in view of the Navy's lack of experience with such ships and the Luftwaffe's tight control of the German "naval air arm"—Luftwaffe personnel and aircraft under limited naval operational control. Still, even a single carrier might have given the German Navy and Air Force a better understanding of how carriers operate and how to fight against them.
Although Western intelligence had lost track of the Graf Zeppelin when she was towed out to sea in August 1947, the Soviets wrote openly about her fate in their publications—there was no mystery.
1 The Polish Navy reported locating the wreckage of the Graf Zeppelin in July 2006.
Norman Polmar writes a monthly column for Proceedings. His latest book is Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events-Volume I (1909-1945).