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Graf Zeppelin was the only aircraft carrier launched by Germany during World War II and represented part of the Kriegsmarine's attempt to create a well-balanced oceangoing fleet, capable of projecting German naval power far beyond the narrow confines of the Balticmarker and North Seasmarker. Construction was ordered on 16 November, 1935 and her keel was laid down on 28 December, 1936 by Deutsche Werke at Kielmarker. Named in honor of Graf (Count) Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the ship was launched on 8 December, 1938 but never saw completion and never became operational.

Planning and construction

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Construction work in Kiel, 1938
Wilhelm Hadeler had been Assistant to the Professor of Naval Construction at the Technical University of Berlin for nine years when he was appointed to draft preliminary designs for an aircraft carrier in April 1934. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement signed 18 June 1935 allowed Germany to construct aircraft carriers with displacement up to 38,500 tons. In 1935, Adolf Hitler announced that Germany would construct aircraft carriers to strengthen the Kriegsmarine. A Luftwaffe officer, a naval officer and a constructor visited Japan in the autumn of 1935 to obtain flight deck equipment blueprints and inspect the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi. The keel of Graf Zeppelin was laid down the next year. Two years later, Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) Erich Raeder presented an ambitious shipbuilding program called Plan Z, in which four carriers were to be built by 1945. In 1939, he revised the plan, reducing the number to two.

The Kriegsmarine has always maintained a policy of not assigning a name to a ship until it is launched. The first German carrier, laid down as "FlugzeugtrĂ€ger A" ("Aircraft carrier A"), was named Graf Zeppelin when launched in 1938. The second carrier — never launched — bore only the title "FlugzeugtrĂ€ger B", but might, if completed, have been called Peter>Greene/Swanborough

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Graf Zeppelin is launched, 8 December, 1938

A review of Hitler's conferences on the German Navy, the minutes of which were captured after the fall of the Third Reich, reveals his decreasing interest in the carriers. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Commander of the Luftwaffe, was resentful of any incursion on his authority as head of the country's air power, and he frustrated Raeder at every opportunity. Within his own service, Raeder found opposition in Admiral Karl Dönitz, a submariner.

Having no experience building such ships, the Kriegsmarine had difficulty implementing advanced technologies such as steam-driven catapults into the Graf Zeppelin. German designers were able to study Japanese designs, but were constrained by the realities of creating a North Sea carrier vs. a "Blue Water" design. Several cruiser-type guns were envisioned to allow commerce raiding and defense against British cruisers, for example. This is in contrast to American and Japanese designs, which were more oriented toward a task-force defense, using supporting cruisers for surface firepower.



Graf Zeppelin's hull was divided into 19 watertight compartments, the standard division for all capital ships in the Kriegsmarine. Her belt armor varied from over the machinery spaces and aft magazines, to over the forward magazines and tapered down to at the bows. Stern armor was kept at to protect the steering gear. Inboard of the main armor belt was a anti-torpedo bulkhead.

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Graf Zeppelin at Kiel, June 1940, displaying her newly rebuilt bow.

Horizontal armor protection against aerial bombs and plunging shellfire started with the flight deck, which acted as the main strength deck. The armor was generally thick except for those areas around the elevator shafts and funnel uptakes where thickness increased to in order to give the elevators necessary structural strength and the critical uptakes greater splinter protection. Beneath the lower hangar was the main armored deck (or tween deck) where armor thickness varied from over the magazines to over the machinery spaces. Along the peripheries, it formed a 45 degree slope where it joined the lower portion of the waterline belt armor.

Graf Zeppelin's original length-to-beam ratio was 9.26:1, resulting in a slender silhouette. However, in May 1942, the accumulating top-weight of recent design changes required the addition of deep bulges to either side of her hull, decreasing that ratio to 8.33:1 and giving her the widest beam of any carrier designed prior to 1942. The bulges served mainly to improve Graf Zeppelin's stability but they also gave her an added degree of anti-torpedo protection and increased her operating range because selected compartments were used to store approximately 1500 tons more fuel oil.

Graf Zeppelin's straight-stemmed prow was rebuilt in early 1940 with the addition of a more sharply angled "Atlantic prow", intended to improve overall seakeeping. This added to her overall length.


Graf Zeppelin's power plant consisted of 16 La Mont high-pressure boilers, similar to those used in the Admiral Hipper class heavy cruisers. Her four sets of geared turbines, connected to four shafts, were expected to produce and propel the carrier at a top speed of . With a maximum bunkerage capacity of 5000 tons of fuel oil (prior to the addition of bulges in 1942), Graf Zeppelin's calculated radius of action was at , though wartime experience on ships with similar powerplants showed such estimates were highly inaccurate. Actual operational ranges tended to run much lower.

Two Voith-Schneider cycloidal propeller-rudders were installed in the forward bow of the ship along the center-line. These assisted in berthing the ship in harbor and also in negotiating narrow waterways such as the Kiel Canal where, due to the carrier’s high freeboard and difficulty in maneuvering at speeds below , gusting winds might push the ship into the canal sides. In an emergency, the units could be used to steer the ship at speeds under and, if the ship's main engines were rendered inoperable, could propel the vessel at a speed of in calm seas. When not in use, they were retracted back into their vertical shafts and protected by water-tight covers.

Flight Deck & Hangars

Graf Zeppelin's steel flight deck, overlaid with wooden planking, was long by wide at its maximum. The after end had a slight round down and overhung the main superstructure but not the stern; it was supported by steel girders. At the bow, the carrier had an open forecastle and the leading edge of her flight deck was uneven (mainly due to the blunt ends of her catapult tracks), but these did not appear to cause any undue air turbulence. Careful studies using models and wind-tunnel testing confirmed this. However, her long low island structure did generate a vortex over the flight deck when the ship yawed to port. This was considered an acceptable hazard when conducting air operations.

Graf Zeppelin's upper and lower hangars were long and narrow with unarmored sides and ends. Workshops, stores and crew quarters were located outboard of the hangars, a design feature similar to that of British carriers. The upper hangar measured x ; the lower hangar x . The upper hangar had vertical clearance while the lower hangar had less headroom due to the ceiling braces. Total usable hangar space was with stowage for 41 aircraft: 18 Fieseler Fi 167 torpedo-planes in the lower hangar; 13 Junkers Ju 87C dive-bombers and 10 Messerschmitt Bf 109T fighters in the upper hangar.

Graf Zeppelin had three electrically-operated elevators positioned along the flight-deck's center-line: one near the bow, abreast the forward end of the island; one amidships; and one aft. They were octogonal in shape, measuring x , and could transfer aircraft weighing up to 5.5 tons between decks.

Two Deutsche Werke compressed air-driven catapults were installed at the forward end of the flight deck for power-assisted launches. They were long and designed to accelerate a fighter to a speed of approximately and a bomber to .

A dual set of rails led back from the catapults to the forward and amidships elevators. In the hangars, aircraft would have been hoisted by crane onto collapsible launch trollies. The aircraft/trolley combination would then have been lifted to flight deck level on the elevator and trundled forward to the catapult start points. As each plane lifted off, its launch trolley would have been caught in a metal "basket" at the end of the catapult track, lowered to the forecastle on "B" deck and rolled back into the upper hangar for re-use via a secondary set of rails.

The catapults could theoretically launch nine aircraft each at a rate of one every thirty seconds before exhausting their air reservoirs. It would then have taken 50 minutes to recharge the reservoirs. When not in use, the catapult tracks could be covered with sheet metal farings to protect them from harsh weather.

It was intended from the outset that all of Graf Zeppelin’s aircraft would normally launch via catapult. Rolling take-offs would be performed only in an emergency or if the catapults were inoperable due to battle damage or mechanical failure. Whether this practice would have been strictly adhered to or later modified, based on actual air trials and combat experience, is open to question, especially given the limited capacity of the air reservoirs and the long recharging times necessary between launches. One advantage of the system, however, was that it would have allowed Graf Zeppelin to launch and land aircraft simultaneously.

To facilitate the catapult launches, German carrier aircraft were to use a special cold-start fuel mix of oil and 87 Octane gasoline added to a separate small fuel tank in each plane. In this way, aircraft could have been brought up from the hangars and immediately catapulted off without any need for engine warm-up prior to launch. Once airborne, a pilot would have simply waited for his aircraft’s engine to attain normal operating temperature before switching back to the plane’s primary fuel tank.

Four arrester wires were positioned at the after end of the flight deck with two more emergency wires located before and abaft of the amidships elevator. Original drawings show four additional wires before and abaft of the forward lift, possibly intended to allow recovery of aircraft over the bows, but these may have been deleted from the ship's final configuration. To assist with night landings, the arrester wires could be illuminated with neon lights. Two wind barriers were installed afore the midships and forward elevators.

Graf Zeppelin's starboard-side island housed the command and navigating bridges and charthouse. It also served as a platform for three searchlights, four domed stabilized fire-control directors and a large vertical funnel. To compensate for the weight of the island, the carrier's flight deck and hangars were offset to port from her longitudinal axis. Design additions proposed in 1942 included a tall fighter-director tower, air search radar antennas and a curved cap for her funnel, the latter intended to keep smoke and exhaust gases away from the armored fighter-director cabin.


Graf Zeppelin was armed with separate high and low angle guns for AA and anti-ship defense at a time when most other major navies were switching to dual-purpose AA weapons and relying on escort ships to protect their carriers from surface threats. Her primary anti-shipping armament consisted of sixteen guns paired in eight armored casemates. These were mounted, two each, at the four corners of the carrier’s upper hangar deck, positions that raised the possibility the guns would be washed out in heavy seas, especially those in the forward casemates.

Chief Engineer Hadeler had originally planned for only eight such weapons on the carrier, four on each side in single mountings. However, the Naval Armaments Office misinterpreted his proposal to save space by pairing them and instead doubled the number of guns to sixteen, resulting in a need for increased ammunition stowage and more electrically-operated hoists to service them. Later in her construction, some consideration was given to deleting these guns and replacing them with guns mounted on sponsons just below flight deck level. But the structural modifications needed to accommodate such a change were judged too difficult and time-consuming, requiring major changes to the ship’s design, and the matter was shelved.

Primary AA protection came from twelve guns, paired in six turrets positioned three fore and three aft of the carrier’s island. Potential blast damage to planes sited on the flight deck when these guns fired to port was an unavoidable risk and would have limited any flight activity during an engagement.

Graf Zeppelin’s secondary AA defenses consisted of eleven twin SK C/30 guns mounted on sponsons located along the flight deck edges: four on the starboard side, six to port and one mounted on the ship's forecastle. In addition, seven MG C/30 guns were installed on single-mount platforms on either side of the carrier: four to port and three to starboard. These guns were later changed to quadruple mountings.


In 1937, with Graf Zeppelin’s launch scheduled for the end of the following year, the Luftwaffe’s experimental test facility at TravemĂŒnde (Erprobungsstelle See or E-Stelle See) on the Baltic coast began a lengthy program of testing prototype carrier aircraft. This included performing simulated carrier landings and take-offs and training future carrier pilots.

The runway was painted with a contoured outline of Graf Zeppelin’s flight deck and simulated deck landings were then conducted over an arresting cable strung width-wise across the airstrip. The cable was attached to an electromechanical braking device manufactured by DEMAG. Testing began in March 1938 using the Heinkel He 50, Arado Ar 195 and Ar 197. Later, a stronger braking winch was supplied by Atlas-Werke of Bremen and this allowed heavier aircraft, such as the Fieseler Fi 167 and Junkers Ju 87, to be tested. After some initial problems, Luftwaffe pilots performed 1,500 successful braked landings out of 1,800 attempted.

Launches were practiced using a long barge-mounted pneumatic catapult, moored in the Trave River estuary. The Heinkel-designed catapult, built by Deutsche Werke Kiel (DWK), could accelerate aircraft to speeds of depending on wind conditions. Test planes were first hoisted by crane onto collapsible launch carriages in the same manner as intended on Graf Zeppelin.

The catapult test program began in April 1940 and, by early May, thirty-six launches had been conducted, all carefully documented and filmed for later study: seventeen by Arado Ar 197s, fifteen by modified Junkers Ju 87Bs and four using a modified Messerschmitt Bf 109D. Further testing followed and by June Luftwaffe officials were fully satisfied with the catapult system’s performance.


Graf Zeppelin's expected role was that of a sea-going scouting platform and her initial planned air group reflected that emphasis: twenty Fieseler Fi 167 biplanes for scouting and torpedo attack, ten Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, and thirteen Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers. This was later changed to thirty Bf 109 fighters and twelve Ju 87 dive-bombers as carrier doctrine in Japan, Great Britain and the United States shifted away from purely reconnaissance duties towards offensive combat missions.

Messerschmitt Bf 109T

In the fall of 1938, the Technische Amt RLM (Technical Office of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium or State Ministry of Aviation) requested that Messerschmitt’s Augsburg design bureau draw up plans for a carrier-borne version of the Bf 109E fighter, to be designated Bf 109T (the "T" standing for TrĂ€ger or Carrier). The resulting aircraft, nicknamed 'Toni' by its pilots, was powered by a Daimler-Benz DB 601N 1,175 PS engine, giving it a maximum speed of at 20,000 feet. Armament comprised two fuselage-mounted MG 17 machine guns with two additional MG 17s or 20mm MG FF/M cannons in the wings.

Wing area was increased through the addition of two outer panels, extending overall span to , and retractable spoilers were fitted to the upper wing surfaces. This significantly shortened the aircraft’s normal take-off and landing runs, improved low-speed stability and allowed for steeper glide angles.

Four catapult attachment points were added to the fuselage and an arrester hook to the tail. The arrester hooks were later widened to minimize bending of the arresting cables when landing. The hooks also tended to bounce against the fuselage, causing dents. This problem was remedied by incorporating a metal spring into the design and adding a rubber buffer pad to the rear fuselage.

An under-fuselage ETC rack was fitted for carrying a center-line drop-tank. The undercarriage oleo legs were also strengthened to better absorb the higher descent rates and greater stresses associated with carrier landings. Thicker head and armrest padding in the cockpit improved pilot comfort when making catapult launches. No provision was made for wing-folding on the Bf 109T as it was considered unnecessary since the aircraft easily fit within the width of Graf Zeppelin's elevators.

After acceptance by the RLM in early 1939, the project was turned over to Fieseler-Werke for final details and the conversion of 60 Bf 109E airframes into T-1s. This order was progressively increased to 155 machines by September but, with work on Graf Zeppelin's sister carrier, FlugzeugtrÀger B, suspended that same month, planned production reverted to an initial batch of 70 aircraft. By December 1940, the RLM decided to complete only seven carrier-equipped Bf 109 T-1s and to finish the remainder as land-based T-2s since work on Graf Zeppelin had ceased back in April and there appeared little likelihood she would be commissioned any time soon.

Due to delays in production of the Bf 109E series in mid-1940, design alterations to the plane's wing spar and Daimler Benz's slow delivery of the promised DB 601N engines, the first Bf 109 T-1 was not delivered until January 1941. By June, however, all 70 machines were completed. One T-1 was sent to E-Stelle See in TravemĂŒnde for evaluation and six more were reserved for further testing. The remaining 63 T-2s were then ferried to Norway via Denmark and served in I/JG 77 and JGr Trondheim where their short take-off and landing characteristics made them ideally suited to that country’s small windswept airstrips.

At the end of 1941, when interest in completing Graf Zeppelin revived, the surviving Bf 109 T-2s were withdrawn from front-line service in order to again prepare them for possible carrier duty. Seven T-2s were rebuilt to T-1 standards and handed over to the Kriegsmarine on 19 May 1942. By December, a total of 48 Bf 109 T-2s had been converted back into T-1s. 46 of these were stationed at Pillau in East Prussia and reserved for use aboard the carrier. By February 1943, however, all work on Graf Zeppelin had ceased and the aircraft were returned to Luftwaffe service in April.

Fieseler Fi 167

In competition with Arado, Fieseler Werke submitted a design in 1937 at the request of the Technische Amt for a two-seater multi-purpose carrier plane capable of performing bombing, torpedo bombing and reconnaissance duties. Fieseler’s submission, the Fieseler Fi 167 (nicknamed “Dragonfly”) was a lean-looking biplane powered by an inline 1,100 PS Daimler-Benz DB601B engine. This gave it a maximum speed of and a much sleeker appearance than Arado’s radial-engined entry, the Ar 195. Fieseler's plane featured folding wings for carrier stowage, an arrester hook, an enclosed cockpit for a crew of two, a fixed undercarriage (which could be jettisoned in the event of an emergency water landing by electrically triggering two sets of spring-loaded bolts) and full-span automatic leading edge slats along the upper and lower wings, with the lower wings also sporting large trailing edge flaps. These latter features gave the plane unparalleled stability at low speeds.

A Fieseler Fi 167, the fifth of twelve pre-production machines, banks through the clouds on a test flight.

Armament consisted of a maximum bomb load of one bomb or a standard LT F 5b torpedo plus one forward-firing MG 17 machine mounted over the engine cowling and one 7.92 mm MG 15 machine gun on a flexible mount in the rear cockpit to be operated by the observer/navigator. Normal operating range (with bomb load) was but this could be extended to for reconnaissance missions with the addition of a external drop-tank.

Comparative testing at the Luftwaffe's Erprobungsstelle Rechlinmarker test facility quickly demonstrated the Fi 167's superiority to the Ar 195 in all respects, so much so that Fieseler opted to forego constructing a third prototype in order to begin assembly of twelve pre-production machines. Since Graf Zeppelin would not be ready for sea trials until summer 1940, however, work on the pre-production order proceeded at a desultory pace and it was not until spring 1940 that the first example, Fi 167 A-01, began flight testing.

When work on Graf Zeppelin was suspended in May 1940, the twelve completed Fi 167s were organized into Erprobungsstaffel 167 for the purpose of conducting further operational trials. By the time work on the carrier resumed two years later in May 1942, the Fi 167 was no longer considered adequate for its intended role and the Technische Amt decided to replace it with a modified torpedo-carrying version of the Junkers Ju 87D.

Junkers Ju 87C

In 1938 the Technische Amt decided to include a squadron (Staffel) of dive-bombers in Graf Zeppelin’s air group, the obvious choice being the combat-proven Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. Work on converting the Ju 87B into the carrier version Ju 87C began later that year. Pre-production Ju 87Cs had manually folded wings, reducing carrier stowage width to just ; production series aircraft featured an electrically-actuated wing folding mechanism. Overall wingspan was shorter than the Ju 87B. Catapult attachment points were added to the lower fuselage and an arrester hook was installed just forward of the tail wheel. The fuselage and landing gear were also strengthened to better withstand the stresses of carrier landings. The two propeller-driven sirens normally mounted on the Stuka’s fixed undercarriage legs were deleted, which helped reduce drag.

The Ju 87C’s fixed landing gear could be jettisoned via explosive charges in the event it had to ditch over water. This would help minimize the likelihood of the plane flipping over as it touched down. Flotation bags in the body and wings of the plane were installed and sealants applied to seams and openings to delay the aircraft’s sinking should it be forced to make a water landing, thereby giving the crew sufficient time to exit the cockpit and deploy the inflatable rubber dinghy stowed on board for just such emergencies.

Internal fuel stowage was increased with the addition of two auxiliary wing tanks and could be further augmented by attaching two external drop-tanks to the wing undersides. This extended the aircraft’s maximum range to over . In an emergency, all fuel could be dumped in approximately one minute.

Powered by a Junkers Jumo 211D 1,200 PS engine, the Ju 87C had a top speed of . Armament comprised a maximum bomb load of , two fixed forward-firing MG 17 machine guns in the wings and one flexible 7.92 mm MG 15 machine gun mounted in the rear cockpit, manned by the navigator/radio operator.

Ten Ju 87 C-0 pre-production aircraft were built and sent to the testing facilities at Rechlin and TravemĂŒnde where they underwent extensive service trials, including catapult launches and simulated deck landings. But of the 170 Ju 87 C-1 ordered, only a few ever saw completion, suspension of work on Graf Zeppelin in May 1940 resulting in cancelation of the entire order. Existing aircraft and those airframes in process were eventually converted back into Ju 87 B-2s.

Junkers Ju 87E

Work on developing a torpedo-carrying version of the Ju 87D for anti-shipping sorties in the Mediterranean had already commenced in early 1942 when the possibility again arose that Graf Zeppelin might be completed. As the Fieseler Fi 167 was now considered obsolete, the Technische Amt requested that Junkers modify the Ju 87 D-4 into a carrier-borne torpedo-bomber/recon plane to be designated Ju 87 E-1. Production aircraft would have electrically-actuated folding wings and receive the same carrier fittings as applied to the Ju 87C as well as attachment points for a LT F 5b torpedo. Consideration was also given to fitting the aircraft with rocket-assisted take-off gear (RATOG) in order to shorten its take-off run on the carrier.

Testing was conducted in the spring and summer of 1942 at Erprobungsstelle See in TravemĂŒnde and the results were sufficiently satisfactory that the RLM issued an order for 115 machines. But when all further work on Graf Zeppelin was halted for good in February 1943, the entire order was canceled. None of the Ju 87Ds converted to carry a torpedo were ever used operationally.

Messerschmitt Me 155

By May 1942, when work was ordered resumed on Graf Zeppelin, the older Bf 109T carrier-borne fighter was considered obsolete. Consequently, the Technische Amt invited Messerschmitt A.G. to submit new design proposals for a shipboard fighter designated Me 155. Emphasis was placed on using current Bf 109 components for ease of manufacturing and to limit the workload on Messerschmitt's busy design staff. By September 1942 detailed plans were completed.

The Me 155 utilized a standard Bf 109G airframe wedded to a newly-designed wing, capable of folding for carrier stowage. The wing retained the same span as that of the Bf 109G, , however the designers replaced the Bf 109G's narrow outward-retracting main landing gear with a wide-track inward-retracting undercarriage, giving the plane more stable landing characteristics. This was especially desirable in an aircraft expected to negotiate the restricted width of a pitching carrier deck. Catapult attachment points, an arrester hook and flotation gear were also added. Proposed armament consisted of an engine-mounted MG 151 cannon plus two 20 mm MG 151s and two MG 131 machine guns in the wings. Powered by a DB 605A-1 engine rated at 1,475 PS, the aircraft was expected to attain a top speed of with a calculated endurance of 1.16 hours (minus external drop-tank).

When it became apparent Graf Zeppelin would not be commissioned for at least another two years, Messerschmitt was unofficially told to shelve the projected fighter design. No prototype of the carrier-borne version of the plane was ever constructed.


Graf Zeppelin moored at Stettin, summer 1941.
Note the improved "Atlantic prow", the two empty openings for the 15cm gun casemates (just below and forward of the funnel), the telescoping masts and the ends of the twin catapult tracks on the flight deck.

Construction on the Kriegsmarine's two aircraft carriers had been fitful from the start due to a shortage of welders and delays in obtaining materials. Work on FlugzeugtrÀger B was finally halted on 19 September 1939 because, now that Germany was at war with England and France, priority had shifted to U-boat construction. The hull, completed only up to the armored deck, sat rusting on its slipway until 28 February 1940, when Admiral Raeder ordered her broken up and scrapped.

Meantime, Germany’s conquest of Norway in April 1940 further eroded any chance of completing FlugzeugtrĂ€ger A (Graf Zeppelin). Now responsible for defending Norway’s long coastline and numerous port facilities, the Kriegsmarine urgently required large numbers of coastal guns and AA batteries. During a naval conference with Hitler on 29 April 1940, Admiral Raeder proposed halting all work on Graf Zeppelin, arguing that even if she was commissioned by the end of 1940, final installation of her guns would require another ten months or more (her original fire control system had been sold to the Soviet Union under an earlier trade agreement). Hitler consented to the stop work order, allowing Raeder to have Graf Zeppelin’s 15cm guns removed and transferred to Norway. The carrier’s heavy flak armament of twelve 10.5cm guns had already been diverted elsewhere.

On 12 July 1940, Graf Zeppelin was towed from Kiel to Gotenhafen (Gdynia) and remained there for nearly a year. Just prior to Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the carrier was again moved, this time to Stettinmarker, in order to safeguard her from Soviet air attacks. By November, the German army had pushed deep enough into Russian territory to remove any further threat of air attack and Graf Zeppelin was returned to Gotenhafen where she briefly served as a floating warehouse for the Navy's hardwood supply.

By the time Admiral Raeder met with Hitler for a detailed discussion of naval strategy in April 1942, the usefulness of aircraft carriers in modern naval warfare had been amply demonstrated. British carriers had crippled the Italian fleet at Tarantomarker in November 1940, critically damaged the German battleship Bismarckmarker in May 1941 and prevented battleship Tirpitzmarker from attacking two convoys bound for Russia in March 1942. In addition, a Japanese carrier raid on Pearl Harbormarker had devastated the American battlefleet in December 1941. Raeder, anxious to secure air protection for the Kriegsmarine's heavier surface units, informed Hitler that Graf Zeppelin could be finished in about a year, with another six months required for sea trials and flight training. On 13 May 1942, with Hitler's authorization, the German Naval Supreme Command ordered work resumed on the carrier.

But daunting technical problems remained. Raeder wanted newer planes, specifically designed for carrier use. Reichsmarshall Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, replied that the already overburdened German aircraft industry could not possibly complete the design, testing and mass production of such aircraft before 1946. Instead, he proposed converting existing aircraft (again the Junkers Ju 87 and Messerschmitt Bf 109) as a temporary solution until newer types could be developed. Training of carrier pilots at TravemĂŒnde would also resume.

The converted carrier aircraft were heavier versions of their land-based predecessors and this required a host of changes to Graf Zeppelin's original design: the existing catapults needed modernization; stronger winches were necessary for the arresting gear; the flight deck, elevators and hangar floors also required reinforcement. Changes in naval technology dictated other alterations as well: installation of air search radar sets and antennas; upgraded radio equipment; an armored fighter director cabin mounted on the main mast (which in turn meant a heavier sturdier mast to accommodate the cabin's added weight); extra armoring for the bridge and fire control center; a new curved funnel cap to shield the fighter director cabin from smoke; replacing the single-mount 20mm AA guns with quadruple Flakvierling 38 guns (with a corresponding increase in ammunition supply) to improve overall AA defense; and additional bulges on either side of the hull to preserve the ship's stability under all this added weight.

The German naval staff hoped all these changes could be accomplished by April 1943, with the carrier's first sea trials taking place in August that same year. Towards that end, Chief Engineer Hadeler was reassigned to oversee Graf Zeppelin's completion. Hadeler planned on getting the two inner shafts and their respective propulsion systems operational first, giving the ship an initial speed of 25-26 knots, fast enough for sea trials to commence and for conducting air training exercises. By the winter of 1943/1944 she was expected to be combat-ready.

On the night of 27-28 August 1942, Graf Zeppelin underwent the only Allied air attack ever specifically targeting her for destruction. Nine RAF Lancaster bombers from 106 and 97 Squadrons carrying single 5,500lb bombs made several runs over the port at Gotenhafen. One pilot was unable to see the carrier due to haze and instead dropped his bomb on the estimated position of the German battleship Gneisenau. Another believed he scored a direct hit on Graf Zeppelin but there is no known record of the ship suffering any damage from a bomb strike that night.

On 5 December 1942, Graf Zeppelin was towed back to Kiel and placed in a floating drydock. It seemed she might well see completion after all. By late January 1943, however, Hitler had become so disenchanted with the Kriegsmarine, especially with what he perceived as the poor performance of its surface fleet, that he ordered all of its larger ships taken out of service and scrapped. To Admiral Raeder, who had often clashed with Hitler on naval policy, this was a stunning setback. In a long memorandum to Hitler he called the new order "the cheapest sea victory England ever won". Raeder was shortly relieved of command and replaced with former Commander of Submarines Karl Dönitz. Though Admiral Dönitz eventually persuaded Hitler to void most of the order, work on all new surface ships and even those nearing completion was halted, including Graf Zeppelin. As of 2 February 1943, construction on the carrier ended for good.

In April 1943 Graf Zeppelin was towed eastward, first to Gotenhafen, then to the roadstead at SwinemĂŒndemarker and finally berthed at a wharf in the Parnitz River, two miles from Stettinmarker. There she languished for the next two years with only a 40-man custodial crew in attendance. When Red Army forces neared the city in April 1945, the ship's Kingston valves were opened, flooding her lower spaces and settling her firmly into the mud in shallow water. A ten-man engineering squad then rigged the vessel's interior with demolition and depth charges in order to hole the hull and destroy vital machinery. At 6pm on 25 April 1945, just as the Russians entered Stettin, commander Wolfgang KĂ€hler radioed the squad to detonate the explosives. Smoke billowing from the carrier's funnel confirmed the charges had gone off, rendering the ship useless to her new owners for many months to come.

Fate after the war

Stern view of a Graf Zeppelin model
Bow view of model
The carrier's history and fate after Germany's surrender was unclear for decades after the war. According to the terms of the Allied Tripartite Commission, a "Category C" ship (damaged or scuttled) should have been destroyed or sunk in deep water by August 15, 1946. Instead, the Sovietsmarker decided to repair the damaged ship and it was refloated in March 1946. The last known photo of the carrier shows it leaving ƚwinoujƛciemarker (before 1945 SwinemĂŒnde) on April 7, 1947 (see picture). The photo appears to show the carrier deck loaded with various containers, boxes and construction elements, hence the supposition that it was probably used to carry confiscated factory equipment from Poland and Germany to the Soviet Union.

For many years, no other information about the ship's fate was available. There was some speculation that it was very unlikely that the hull made it to Leningradmarker, as it was argued that the arrival of such a large and unusual vessel would have been noticed by Western intelligence services. This seemed to imply that the hull was lost at sea during transfer between ƚwinoujƛcie and Leningrad. One account concluded that it struck a mine north of RĂŒgenmarker on August 15, 1947, but RĂŒgen, west of SwinemĂŒnde, is not on the sailing route to Leningrad. Further north in the Gulf of Finlandmarker, a heavily-mined area difficult for Western observers to monitor, seemed more likely.

After the opening of the Soviet archives, new light was shed on the mystery. Though some believed that the carrier had been towed to Leningrad after the war, in his book "Without wings, the story of Hitler's aircraft carrier" Burke disputed this. What is known is that the carrier was briefly designated as "PO-101" (Floating Base Number 101) until, on August 16, 1947, it was used as a practice target for Soviet ships and aircraft. Allegedly the Soviets installed aerial bombs on the flight deck, in hangars and even inside the funnels (to simulate a load of combat munitions), and then dropped bombs from aircraft and fired shells and torpedoes at it. This assault would both comply with the Tripartite mandate (albeit late) and provide the Soviets with experience in sinking an aircraft carrier. By this point, the Cold War was underway, and the Soviets were well aware of the large numbers and central importance of aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy, which in the event of an actual war between the Soviet Union and the United States would be targets of high strategic importance. After being hit by 24 bombs and projectiles, the ship did not sink and had to be finished off by two torpedoes. The exact position of the wreck was unknown for decades.

Discovery in 2006

On July 12, 2006 RV St. Barbara, a ship belonging to the Polish oil company Petrobaltic found a 265 m long wreck close to the port of Ɓebamarker (a BBC report says 55 km north of WƂadysƂawowomarker) which they thought was most likely Graf Zeppelin. On July 26, 2006 the crew of the Polish Navy's survey ship ORP Arctowski commenced penetration of the wreckage to confirm its identity, and the following day the Polish Navy confirmed that the wreckage was indeed that of Graf Zeppelin. She rests at more than 87 meters (264 feet) below the surface.


  1. Reynolds, p.42
  2. Reynolds, p.43
  3. Reynolds, p.44
  4. Breyer, p.33
  5. Whitley, p.157
  6. Brown, p. 9
  7. Whitley, p.31
  8. Breyer, p.33
  9. Whitley, p.159
  10. Brown, p.10
  11. Breyer, p.52
  12. Whitley, p.155
  13. Breyer, p.54
  14. Marshall, p.23
  15. Marshall, p.38
  16. Breyer, p.18
  17. Breyer, p.43
  18. Breyer, p.44
  19. Breyer, p.48
  20. Reynolds, p.46
  21. Israel, p.66
  22. Breyer, p.66
  23. Breyer, p.67
  24. Israel, p.65
  25. Marshall, p.16
  26. Whitley, p.162
  27. Green, p.550
  28. Marshall, p.16
  29. Marshall, p.17
  30. Marshall, p.24
  31. Breyer, p.69
  32. Green, p.169
  33. Breyer, p.64
  34. Green, p.170
  35. Breyer, p.72
  36. Israel, p.79
  37. Breyer, p.73
  38. Green, p.88
  39. Breyer, p.14
  40. Whitley, p.30
  41. Breyer, p.15
  42. Reynolds, p.47
  43. Barker, p.283
  44. Marshall, p.21
  45. Breyer, p.32
  46. Whitley, p.32
  47. Reynolds, p.48
  48. Hitler’s last treasure belongs to Russia - Pravda.Ru


  • ISBN 1425122167
  • ISBN 0-8317-3939-8.

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