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Although the Graf Zepplin never was operational and the superstructure never nished, 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/

The Flattop That Almost Was




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 eective might she have proven? How would she have operated her aircraft, and how would she t into Germanys overall naval strategy?

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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 Flugzeugtrger class was named Graf Zeppelin, a logical connection to Germanys 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 Zeppelins 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% nished. All warships have long lead times, but especially aircraft carriers. Graf Zeppelins progress was complicated by the fact that Reichsmarshal Hermann Goring owned nearly everything that ew 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. Britains 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 Akagis modernization. From 1940 onward, the Imperial Navy kept a large delegation in Germany to offer advice and to report back on Graf Zeppelins progress. We can only wonder what Japans accomplished aviators and sailors thought of their allys approach to the esoteric art of carrier aviation. Surely they recognized the practical limitations of the sled launch and compressed-air catapults.

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.

Prewar trials

German naval ofcers had observed British prewar carriers, and beneted somewhat from afliation with Japan. Arresting gear was essential to carrier operations, and though lightweight Japanese aircraft didnt 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 conguration. Once tted to the cradle on the hangar deck, planes were raised to the ight deck on one of three elevators, guided forward along tracks in the deck, and tted onto the catapults. Upon launch, the plane was ung 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 relling. Graf Zeppelins original air group was envisioned with 20 Fieseler 167 torpedo planes, 13 Ju 87 Stukas, and 10 Bf 109 ghters. Tragergruppe 186, Graf Zeppelins 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 ghters and 12 Stukas, reversing the Kriegsmarines 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 ghter. Three prototypes were completed and they took part in catapult trials before work was abandoned due to the development abroad of carrierborne monoplane ghters, which rendered the biplane obsolete. The cradle launch system shown was to be used on all aircraft.

Other Navies, Other Carriers

Nation Heavy Light

Carriers Commissioned January 1939 -December 1945*

Escort Total


United States Great Britain against ship-based ghters, 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 rampthe aft portion of the ight deck. Each arresting wire was illuminated with yellow lights. Japan

21 6 12

9 1 4

82 65 + 5

112 72 21

* USN, RN and IJN had dierent denitions of CV, CVL, CVE. + Includes U.S. built mounted forward of the tailwheel, such as on Seares and Sea Hurricanes. Some 77 109T models were producednearly 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 modied. 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 Travemnde 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)

In 1939, there was only one choice for Germanys carrier-based ghter, and the Bf 109E was navalized as the 109T (for Trger or carrier). The most obvious difference was folding wings, installed on the rst seven prototypes by Fieseler and evaluated for operability. The folded wingspan was reduced to 13 feet, 4 inches, but the aps 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 areafrom 174 to 188 square feet. The result was a higher aspect ratio with a reduction in wing loading. However, the Graf Zeppelins 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 ttings and an arresting hook

Maritime Messerschmitts and Seagoing Stukas

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Graf Zeppelin continued her patchwork career. Displacement grew from 19,250 tons in 1935 to 28,090 as built. She had an armored ight 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 carriers usefulness. In March 1942, British carrier aircraft prevented the 52,000-ton battleship Tirpitz from intercepting convoys to Murmansk, Russia. Consequently, Graf Zeppelins 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 warships 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 conrmed 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 protably used in submarines. Consequently, Graf Zeppelin was moved into a dry dock in Kiel. In April the meandering carrier was berthed in

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 inatable 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) Travemnde 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 xed landing gear was jettisonable to avoid catastrophic results in ditchings. Additionally, a fuel dump was tted and otation 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 Knights Cross for sinking three warships and 29 freighters. He ended the war as a lieutenant colonel.

The on-again o-again ship

While carrier aircraft were under development,

Junkers Ju 87 C

Type: Two-seat dive-bomber Engine: Junkers Jumo 211A, 12-cylinder liquid-cooled engine rated at 1,200hp for takeo and 1,100hp at 4,920 ft. (1,500m) Armament: One 7.9mm MG 15 machine gun on exible 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).


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. Reoated 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 ight 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 109Ts wing leading-edge slats were deactivated as unnecessary due to the greater span and low-speed controllability.

Graf Zeppelin had a landing control ofcers position portside aft, where the U.S. and British navies placed LSOs or batsmen. The ofcer 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 ofcer had radio contact with pilots making landings, but any transmissions might have compromised the carriers position to Allied intelligence. Because the German Navy regarded carriers as eet 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 Zeppelins drawback was limited range for raidingperhaps as little as 200 miles from base. The Graf Zeppelins 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 ghter-

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) Travemnde 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 ghter 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 xed wings, but was installed with an arrester hook and catapult ttings. During Udets 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 ghter Engine: One Daimler-Benz DB 601A, 12-cylinder liquid-cooled invertedvee engine rated at 1,050hp for take o 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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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, Germanys 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 Tirpitzs 50,000-ton

What became of Hitlers only aircraft carrier?

For decades, Graf Zeppelins ultimate fate was the subject of mystery and speculation. At wars end in 1945, the still incomplete attop was scuttled in a backwater near Stettin on the Baltic Sea, just before the Soviets arrived. Eventually they reoated 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 eective against warships. Three-inch gunre also was employed, but the ship remained aoat. According to declassied sources, eventually the Kriegsmarines 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 carriers fate. But in July 2006, a Polish oil company ship noted a large sonar target on the ocean oor 34 miles oshore. Subsequently, the Polish Navy dispatched remote-controlled submersibles to conrm that the wreck 260 feet down was almost certainly Graf Zeppelin. Barrett Tillman

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 carriers 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. Germanys maritime patrol aircraft included types as diverse as the huge Focke Wulf 200 Condor, the Junkers Ju 88, the Heinkel 115 oatplane, and the trimotor Blohm und Voss 138 seaplane. The latter was especially long-ranged but none could defend themselves from determined ghter 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



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. 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 re-control radar, affording a well-rounded electronics capability. Luftwaffe ghter 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 ak coverage. Concussion from Graf Zeppelins AA guns on the starboard forward quarter could damage parked aircraft, forcing the task group to station two or more ships within supporting gunre range to starboard throughout any attack. For strike missions the powerful compressed-air catapults could ing a loaded Stuka off the deck with a 500-kg bomb on the centerline and four 50 kg weapons under the wingsa 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 ight 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 launchesa 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 eet could not have matched the Anglo-Americans. Yet its intriguing to speculate on an Atlantic carrier duela miniature North Sea version of Midway or Philippine Sea. It would have pitted Seares or Sea Hurricanes against 109Ts while Stukas dived from overhead and Swordsh or Albacores bored in low and extremely slow. Its the stuff of wargamers fantasies. Thanks for the generous support of Larry Bond, Cristoph Kluxen, Chris Carlson, and Patrick Hreachmack. Visit Barrett Tillman at

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Its 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 ight 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, Swordsh, and Seares. The much smaller Dasher owned 12 Swordsh and six Sea Hurricane IIBs. Thus, presumably the RN could eld 30 Albacore-Swordsh and 15 ghters. Though both forces possessed similar numbers of carrier aircraft, the British had a decided advantage in strike aircrafteven the obsolete Stringbag which proved surprisingly effective through the war. (The Royal Navy began deploying

Miniature Midway in the North Atlantic

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