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Although the Graf Zepplin

never was operational
and the superstructure
never finished, if you
squint your eyes, you
can see what a Ju 87C,
hooked-Stuka would
have looked like coming
on board. Note the Me
109T on deck. The project
was scuttled by internal
German military politics
during the war and sunk
by Russian bombs/
torpedoes after the
war. (Illustration by Roy
Grinnell/roygrinnell.com)

GERMANY'S

MYSTERY
CARRIER

The Flattop That Almost Was

BY BARRETT TILLMAN

The numbers tell the story: During World War II the U.S. Navy commissioned
112 aircraft carriers; Britain 72; and Japan 21. Germany produced one, and it
was never completed. However, the prospect of a German aircraft carrier
loose in the North Atlantic is fascinating to contemplate. How effective might
she have proven? How would she have operated her aircraft, and how would
she fit into Germany’s overall naval strategy?

JUNE 2014 15

GERMANY'S MYSTERY CARRIER

Below: The Graf Zeppelin, shown
here under construction in 1939,
was never completed. These two
photographs of Graf Zeppelin
were taken at the Deutsche
Werke shipyards in Kiel on 20
June 1939 before work was
suspended.
Inset: Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich
August Graf von Zeppelin,
better known as Count Zeppelin.
Because of his fame within
Germany the Authorities
decided to name their aircraft
carrier in his honor.

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In early 1939, just months before WW II erupted in Europe, the Kriegsmarine formulated Plan
Z, a construction program expected to be completed in 1948. It included ten battleships, three
battlecruisers, and four carriers.
The lead ship of the Flugzeugträger class was
named Graf Zeppelin, a logical connection to
Germany’s dirigible pioneer. A sister ship to be
named Peter Strasser (after the Great War Zeppelin
commander) was scrapped during construction.
Adolf Hitler pledged his support to the Kriegsmarine, with Graf Zeppelin’s keel being laid by
Deutsche Werke at Kiel in December 1936. She
was launched two years later. Originally planned
for 18,000 tons, her 361-foot length gained another 10,000 tons but she was originally rated
at more than 33 knots. By the end
of 1939, with Germany at war, she
was 85% finished.
All warships have long lead
times, but especially aircraft carriers. Graf Zeppelin’s progress was
complicated by the fact that
Reichsmarshal Hermann Goring

owned nearly everything that flew in Nazi Germany. Therefore, her air group would belong to
the Luftwaffe. Britain operated under the same
policy until almost the last minute, as the Royal
Air Force provided aircrews and planes to the
Royal Navy. Britain’s Fleet Air Arm, organic to
the RN, only gained independence in May 1939.
Realizing that it was starting far behind Britain and the U.S., in 1935 the Kriegsmarine sent
a study group to Japan during the large carrier
Akagi’s modernization. From 1940 onward, the
Imperial Navy kept a large delegation in Germany to offer advice and to report back on Graf
Zeppelin’s progress. We can only wonder what Japan’s accomplished aviators and sailors thought
of their ally’s approach to the esoteric art of carrier aviation. Surely they recognized the practical
limitations of the sled launch and compressed-air
catapults.

Prewar trials

German naval officers had observed British prewar carriers, and benefited somewhat from affiliation with Japan. Arresting gear was essential to
carrier operations, and though lightweight Japanese aircraft didn’t need catapults, Germany recognized the need. Consequently, arresting gear
trials began at the Luftwaffe test facility at Travemunde on the Baltic in 1937.
The Kriegsmarine seemed to thrive on doing
things the hard way. Rather than allowing aircraft to perform “deck run” takeoffs or using conventional catapults, the Germans decided upon
a complex launch cradle. Aircraft were lowered
onto the cradle, retractable wheels folded, and
held in a tail-up configuration. Once fitted to the
cradle on the hangar deck, planes were raised to
the flight deck on one of three elevators, guided
forward along tracks in the deck, and fitted onto
the catapults. Upon launch, the plane was flung
into the air at some 80mph, with the cradle retained on deck for return to the hangar.
Catapult tests began in April 1940, but differed
from the Allies’ hydraulically powered equipment.
Graf Zeppelin had two compressed-air cats with
enough capacity for 18 launches before refilling.
Graf Zeppelin’s original air group was envisioned with 20 Fieseler 167 torpedo planes, 13
Ju 87 Stukas, and 10 Bf 109 fighters. Tragergruppe
186, Graf Zeppelin’s dedicated air unit, conducted preliminary training but wartime experience
and ship construction delays forced a rethinking
of air group composition. The biplane Fieseler
passed into obsolescence, and the Stuka was considered for the role but nothing came of the plan.
In 1939, the air group was set at 30 fighters
and 12 Stukas, reversing the Kriegsmarine’s concept of carrier operations. Rather than offensive
use, Graf Zeppelin was envisioned working with
surface raiders, affording greater reconnaissance
and protection against Allied aircraft. The onceformidable Focke-Wulf 200 was unable to survive

The Arado Ar 197 biplane was
intended as a carrier-borne
fighter. Three prototypes were
completed and they took part
in catapult trials before work
was abandoned due to the
development abroad of carrierborne monoplane fighters,
which rendered the biplane
obsolete. The cradle launch
system shown was to be used
on all aircraft.

Other Navies, Other Carriers

Carriers Commissioned January 1939 -December 1945*

against ship-based fighters, hence the appeal of
seagoing Messerschmitts.
Landing references involved a variety of colored lights. The landing area was marked by
green with red deck-edge lights while a neon red
marked the ramp—the aft portion of the flight
deck. Each arresting wire was illuminated with
yellow lights.

Maritime Messerschmitts and
Seagoing Stukas

In 1939, there was only one choice for Germany’s
carrier-based fighter, and the Bf 109E was navalized as the 109T (for Träger or carrier). The most
obvious difference was folding wings, installed
on the first seven prototypes by Fieseler and evaluated for operability. The folded wingspan was reduced to 13 feet, 4 inches,
but the flaps had to be removed before
folding.
Because the “Emil” landed fairly hot,
a reduced carrier touchdown speed was
required. Therefore, the standard 32 feet,
4 inch wingspan was extended by four
feet with an 8 percent increase in wing
area—from 174 to 188 square feet. The
result was a higher aspect ratio with a reduction in wing loading. However, the
Graf Zeppelin’s elevators would have accepted the 11 meter (36 feet) span so the
wing fold option proved unnecessary.
Other Bf 109 carrier equipment included a stronger landing gear plus
catapult fittings and an arresting hook

Nation

Heavy

Light

Escort

Total

United States

21

9

82

112

Great Britain

6

1

65 +

72

Japan

12

4

5

21

tal

* USN, RN and IJN had different definitions of CV, CVL, CVE.
+ Includes U.S. built
mounted forward of the tailwheel, such as on
Seafires and Sea Hurricanes.
Some 77 109T models were produced—nearly
all T-2s, without the carrier equipment. Fielded in
early 1941, they went to I Gruppe JG 77, which in
January 1942 became I/JG 5, mainly based in Norway. Later use included a Staffel of JG 11, which
opposed early 8th Air Force bombing missions.
For carrier-based scouting and attack missions
the Ju 87B was suitably modified. Because of its
45-foot span, the C version featured folding wings
along Grumman lines, parallel to the fuselage.

EA Ju 87 C-1, W.Nr. 0572, as
prepared for aircraft carrier
operations. This particular
machine, which was allocated
the factory code GD+FC, was
completed in April 1941 and was
sent to the E-Stelle (See) at
Travemünde in October of that
year. Later, in May 1943, it was
transferred to the control of XI.
Fliegerkorps, which specialized
in parachute and air-landing
operations, probably for use as
a glider tug. (Photos courtesy of
EN Archive Collection)

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Germany's Mystery Carrier

Close of the pilot's seat of a Bf
109 T, showing the position at
the rear of the cockpit behind
the pilot's seat where the
inflatable rubber dinghy was
stored in the event of crashing
in the sea.

The Ju 87 V25, W.Nr.087 0530,
coded BK+EF showing a practice
torpedo mounted under the
fuselage. This aircraft was later
transferred to E-Stelle (See)
Travemünde in December 1942
and was the prototype for
the intended Ju 87 D-1/torp.
and the later Ju 87 E variant.
(Photos courtesy of EN Archive
Collection)

The fixed landing gear was jettisonable to
avoid catastrophic results in ditchings. Additionally, a fuel dump was fitted and flotation bags
were installed in the wings and fuselage. Flight
testing began in early 1938, with arresting gear
trials largely completed by the end of 1939. However, production of the “Caesar” model ended in
May 1940, at the time France capitulated.
Though Tr.Gr. 186 never saw combat, many
of its aircrew did. Among the most notable was
Helmut Mahlke who led a Staffel and then a
Gruppe in Stuka Geschwader 1, earning a Knight’s
Cross for sinking three warships and 29 freighters. He ended the war as a lieutenant colonel.

The on-again off-again ship

While carrier aircraft were under development,

Graf Zeppelin continued her patchwork career.
Displacement grew from 19,250 tons in 1935 to
28,090 as built. She had an armored flight deck
with three elevators.
The carrier had an unusually heavy antiaircraft
armament: 16 six-inch, 12 four-inch, and 22
37mm. But during her on-again, off-again construction phase, many of the guns were removed
for use ashore.
The crew, nominally composed of 1,760 men,
never reached full strength because Graf Zeppelin
remained uncompleted so none of her squadrons
reported aboard. Meanwhile, the incomplete
warship was towed to various Baltic ports: from
Kiel to Gotenhafen (Gdynia) in Poland to Stettin.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy prompted the
Kriegsmarine to reconsider a carrier’s usefulness.
In March 1942, British carrier aircraft prevented
the 52,000-ton battleship Tirpitz from intercepting convoys to Murmansk, Russia. Consequently,
Graf Zeppelin’s construction resumed in May.
It was increasingly apparent that the best way
to interdict British carriers was with a German
carrier.
British intelligence learned of the enemy warship’s new status, and took notice. In late August
the RAF launched a mission against the nascent
threat, with nine bombers attacking Gotenhafen
with 5,500-pound antiship bombs. The Avro Lancasters claimed a hit but none were confirmed in
German records.
The surface war continued badly for Germany,
failing to match the success of the U-boat arm.
Therefore, Hitler ordered halt to all major warship construction January 1943. He believed that
the quantity of steel used in surface ships could
be more profitably used in submarines. Consequently, Graf Zeppelin was moved into a dry dock
in Kiel.
In April the meandering carrier was berthed in

Junkers Ju 87 C

Type: Two-seat dive-bomber
Engine: Junkers Jumo 211A,
12-cylinder liquid-cooled engine
rated at 1,200hp for takeoff and
1,100hp at 4,920 ft. (1,500m)
Armament: One 7.9mm MG 15
machine gun on flexible mounting
in the rear cockpit
Maximum Bomb Load: One 1,102
lb. (500 kg) bomb under the
fuselage
Performance: Maximum speed
211mph (340 kph) at sea level,
238mph (383kph) at 13,410 ft.
(4,087m)
Dimensions: Span 43 ft. 3 in.
(13.18m); Length 36 ft. 1 in. (11.1m);
Height 13 ft. 11 in. (4.23 m).

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a remote site near Stettin. She remained there for
the remainder of the war with a minimal caretaker crew. With approach of the Soviets in April
1945, the Kriegsmarine sailors scuttled the ship,
which settled in the shallow water.
Refloated after the war, Graf Zeppelin was sunk
in Soviet weapons tests in 1947. The wreck was
found by Polish researchers in 2006, sitting in
250 feet of water. She remains one of the few
aircraft carriers whose flight deck never felt the
weight of an airplane.

What might have been

Flight operations from Graf Zeppelin would have
been challenging on several counts. Forward visibility was poor in the 109, and the view in a carrier landing would have left much to be desired.
Undoubtedly, Messerschmitt pilots would have
developed a curving approach similar to what
Corsair pilots later employed to keep the deck in
sight.
Some sources state that the 109T’s wing leading-edge slats were deactivated as unnecessary
due to the greater span and low-speed controllability.

Graf Zeppelin had a landing control officer’s
position portside aft, where the U.S. and British
navies placed LSOs or “batsmen.” The officer had
telephone contact with the “air center” in the island where a light display told approaching aviators whether the deck was clear and if sea state
permitted a landing. Presumably, the control officer had radio contact with pilots making landings, but any transmissions might have compromised the carrier’s position to Allied intelligence.
Because the German Navy regarded carriers
as fleet auxiliaries, neither Graf Zeppelin nor any
sisters would have formed independent striking
units as did Japan and the Allies. Therefore, Tr.Gr.
186 would have provided improved scouting to
locate British convoys in the North Atlantic, and
to defend capital ships from air attack.
Though able to cruise with fast battleships,
Graf Zeppelin’s drawback was limited range for
raiding—perhaps as little as 200 miles from base.
The Graf Zeppelin’s offensive loadout evolved
with air group composition. As of 1937, magazine storage accepted 80 torpedoes, nearly 100
tons of 250 kilogram (550 lb.) and 500 kg (1,100
lb.) bombs, and over 40 tons of 1,100-pound
aerial mines. Two years later, the torpedo and
mine capacity remained unchanged but bombs
were reduced to 130 500kg weapons and several
hundred-depth bombs. Deletion of 250kg bombs
intended mainly for the Messerschmitt fighter-

To get the Me 109T down to
carrier-suitable landing speeds,
when it was given folding wings
and an arresting hook, the
wing span was also increased.
(Illustration by Tom Tullis)

Although work on the Graf
Zeppelin had been terminated
in 1939, work on German
carrier aircraft did not stop
and this photograph, taken at
the Erprobungsstelle (See)
Travemünde on August 23, 1940,
shows the aircraft types planned
for carrier operations when they
were assembled for a visit by
the Generalluftzeugmeister,
Ernst Udet. The Bf 109 T in the
foreground was the intended
fighter variant to be operated
from the carriers, the example
in the foreground being a
converted Bf 109 E, W.Nr. 1783,
which was equipped with an
arrester hook and was used in
landing trials. In the background
is the Ju 87 V-10, TK+HD,
which had fixed wings, but was
installed with an arrester hook
and catapult fittings. During
Udet’s visit, this Ju 87 made
a number of demonstration
arrester hook landings.
(Photo courtesy of EN Archive
Collection)

Messerschmitt
Bf 109 T-1

Type: Single-seat aircraft carrierbased fighter
Engine: One Daimler-Benz DB 601A,
12-cylinder liquid-cooled invertedvee engine rated at 1,050hp for take
off and 1,100hp at 12,140 ft. (3,700 m)
Armament: Two 20mm MG FF
cannon with 60rpg in the wings and
two 7.9mm MG 17 machine guns
in the upper fuselage nose with
1000rpg
Performance: Maximum speed at
5,523 lb., 289mph (465kph) at sea
level, 302mph (486kph) at 13,120 ft.
(4,000m).
Dimensions: Span: 38 ft., 4 in.
(11.70m); Length: 28 ft., 9 in. (8.8m);
Height: 10 ft., 9 in. (3.3m).

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Germany's Mystery Carrier

After being launched on
December 8, 1938, the Graf
Zeppelin was far from complete.
Due to other pressures of
war and continued changing
requirements, she was
eventually towed into the
Baltic Sea outside of Stettin
where she remained until being
scuttled in March 1945 to stop
her falling into Russian hands.
(Photo courtesy of EN Archive
Collection)

bombers was noteworthy. Elimination of the
Fieseler torpedo planes freed up storage space for
other ordnance, but how much is unknown.
Probably the ideal Graf Zeppelin task force
would have included the battleships Scarnhorst
and Gneisenau with one or more cruisers and a
destroyer screen. (The heavy cruisers Admiral
Scheer and Lutzow were too slow, and by 1943,
Germany’s light cruisers were largely worn out.)
Furthermore, the Kriegsmarine was perennially
short of escorts after the heavy losses at Norway
in 1940. German destroyers usually lacked range
of their Allied counterparts, and German underway replenishment never achieved anything like
the capability of the U.S. or Royal navies.
Actually, the battleship Tirpitz’s 50,000-ton

What became of Hitler’s only aircraft carrier?
For decades, Graf Zeppelin’s ultimate fate was the subject of mystery and
speculation. At war’s end in 1945, the still incomplete flattop was scuttled in a
backwater near Stettin on the Baltic Sea, just before the Soviets arrived. Eventually
they refloated the vessel and reserved it as a target platform. By 1947, the Cold
War was shaping up, and certainly the Russians wanted to know what it took to
sink a carrier. In August 1947, Graf Zeppelin was subjected to a variety of ordnance
tests, including a new series of bombs thought to be effective against warships.
Three-inch gunfire also was employed, but the ship remained afloat. According
to declassified sources, eventually the Kriegsmarine’s only carrier was sunk by
torpedo boats.
There the story rested for almost 60 years. The exact location was lost, and
few people gave much thought to the carrier’s fate. But in July 2006, a Polish oil
company ship noted a large sonar target on the ocean floor 34 miles offshore.
Subsequently, the Polish Navy dispatched remote-controlled submersibles to
confirm that the wreck 260 feet down was almost certainly Graf Zeppelin.
—Barrett Tillman

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bulk was best suited to heavy weather in the
North Atlantic. If damaged, she could probably
return to port relatively fast — an option denied
Bismarck in May 1941. But she consumed considerable fuel and was retained in Norway in late
1942 for a lengthy overhaul.
No U-boats were likely to have been assigned
to our mythical “Task Force Zeppelin” because
they lacked the surface speed to keep up. However, properly positioned beforehand, they could
provide useful scouting but probably would require roundabout communication with Group
West headquarters in France.
The carrier’s air group composition changed
with aircraft availability and the overall mission.
The latest arrangement, in 1942, postulated 22
Messerschmitts and 18 Stukas. Early that year,
the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe discussed upgrading the carrier aircraft to Bf 109Fs and Ju 87Ds
but they would have required time-consuming
development of new catapults and arresting gear.
Therefore, any hypothetical deployment would
have to retain 109Ts and 87Cs.
Germany’s maritime patrol aircraft included
types as diverse as the huge Focke Wulf 200 Condor, the Junkers Ju 88, the Heinkel 115 floatplane,
and the trimotor Blohm und Voss 138 seaplane.
The latter was especially long-ranged but none
could defend themselves from determined fighter
attack.
Protecting the Arctic convoys was a crucial
goal. Naval historian Michael Walling computed that one U-boat sinking just two 6,000-ton
cargo ships and a 3,000-ton tanker deprived the

Germany's Mystery Carrier
Allies of 42 tanks; 24 armored cars and
50 weapons carriers; 136 artillery pieces;
5,200 tons of ammunition; 2,400 tons
of stores and supplies, and 1,000 tanks
of gasoline. Adding more attrition from
surface raiders and possibly an aircraft
carrier was more than the Allies wished
to contemplate.

“Miniature Midway” in the
North Atlantic

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It’s interesting to speculate on a possible
matchup between Graf Zeppelin and Royal Navy carriers in 1942-1943. Undoubtedly, the British would know the enemy
was at sea, and almost certainly would
have deployed a powerful surface-air
force in response.
One possible venue would be Arctic
convoys, which did not sail during summer after the disastrous Convoy PQ 17
in June-July 1942, costing the Allies 24
of 35 merchant vessels. Additionally, the
long summer months afforded German
subs and aircraft good daylight hunting weather. Conversely, the short days
of winter would badly limit visual flight
operations.
In any case, we can imagine a carrier engagement on one of the two “JW
51” convoys of December 1942-January
1943 or the succeeding JW convoys in
1:56 January-February
PM
1943. All departed Liverpool for the Kola Inlet in northwestern
Russia.
At the end of January, the Royal Navy
and Kriegsmarine were evenly matched
in the Battle of the Barents sea when
two British cruisers and six destroyers repelled the pocket battleship Lutzow and
cruiser Hipper with six escorts.
Injecting Graf Zeppelin into the mix,
the Germans would have gained the invaluable advantage of organic aerial reconnaissance for the task force.
In that period, the British Home
Fleet included HMS Furious, a WW I
battlecruiser converted to a carrier, and
the escort carrier Dasher. Furious nominally embarked three squadrons: nine
each Albacores, Swordfish, and Seafires.
The much smaller Dasher owned 12
Swordfish and six Sea Hurricane IIBs.
Thus, presumably the RN could field
30 Albacore-Swordfish and 15 fighters.
Though both forces possessed similar
numbers of carrier aircraft, the British
had a decided advantage in strike aircraft—even the obsolete “Stringbag”
which proved surprisingly effective
through the war.
(The Royal Navy began deploying

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Grumman Avengers from early 1943.
However, because Avengers could not
carry British torpedoes, the TBF/TBMs
would have been limited to glide bombing and, perhaps more importantly, reconnaissance.)
The German task force would possess
both air-search and fire-control radar,
affording a well-rounded electronics capability. Luftwaffe fighter controllers
aboard several ships could have directed
109s to intercept Allied snoopers or attack aircraft. However, with planes ready
to launch, the carrier would rely heavily upon her consorts for 360-degree flak
coverage. Concussion from Graf Zeppelin’s
AA guns on the starboard forward quarter
could damage parked aircraft, forcing the
task group to station two or more ships
within supporting gunfire range to starboard throughout any attack.
For strike missions the powerful compressed-air catapults could fling a loaded
Stuka off the deck with a 500-kg bomb
on the centerline and four 50 kg weapons under the wings—a total loadout of
1,540 pounds. A gross launch weight of
5,000 kg (11,000 lb.) was permissible at
about 135 km/h or 73 knots, but the 4.3
G acceleration was viewed with concern
for many aircrew.
However, Graf Zeppelin could not have
sustained the sortie rate common to Allied carriers. Aside from the cumbersome
process of loading aircraft on the cradles
and raising them to the flight deck, the
compressed air cats were only good for 18
cycles before replenishing, which could
have taken nearly an hour. The process
called for two test shots followed by 16
“live” launches—a procedure guaranteed
to limit the number of airborne aircraft.
In short, Graf Zeppelin was never going
to be, in current terminology, “an all-up
round.” Germany began aircraft carrier
design and testing far too late to meet
wartime realities, and even the proposed
1948 fleet could not have matched the
Anglo-Americans. Yet it’s intriguing to
speculate on an Atlantic carrier duel—a
miniature North Sea version of Midway
or Philippine Sea. It would have pitted
Seafires or Sea Hurricanes against 109Ts
while Stukas dived from overhead and
Swordfish or Albacores bored in low and
extremely slow.
It’s the stuff of wargamers’ fantasies. 
Thanks for the generous support of Larry
Bond, Cristoph Kluxen, Chris Carlson, and
Patrick Hreachmack. Visit Barrett Tillman
at btillman.com.