The German Aircraft Carrier Graf Zeppelin


Jeff Head

General
Staff member
Super Moderator
On the PLAN Carrier Thread we had a good discussion about the only German aircraft carrier ever built, the Graf Zeppelin.

She was launched in 1938, but never completed and finally scuttled by the Germans in 1945, and finally sunk by the Russians in 1947.

While discussing it, Chuck731 reviewed her design as follows:

Chuck731 said:
Compared to contemporary ijn carrier Taiho, it was the same displacement, had 30% more engine power but was 2 knots slower, carried 40% less aircraft than the Taiho yet was less well armored and protected against air attack than the Taiho. It had the same AAA battery as Taiho but situated them much more poorly, in a way that would expose aircraft on deck to serious blast damage.

Japanese carriers 2/3 its size could carry a larger airwing and launch a more powerful airstrike, and had AA batteries matching or exceeding GZ's.

Beside comparing poorly point for point, GZ additionally were burdened with a heavy and useless antiship battery for which it carried only half the needed gun crew. Anachronistically heavily armored against surface gunfire but lightly protected again air attacks. It's elaborate trolley catapult system would almost certainly be unreliable and difficult to service in actual use. It is as if the Germans didn't really believe in the carrier and were trying to adulterate the carrier with as many surface warship features as they could.

All in all, gz is what might expect from a navy without any prior experience or much prior preparation in carrier design that nonetheless thought too highly of its own carrier design qualifications. It was probably the worst carrier design overall to actually have been built during WWII era.
Despite whatever cynicism on Chuck's part, the statements oregardin her design when compared to a Japanese carrier of similar size are true. The Germans had their reasons, but she was not a good design for classic carrier operations in World War II.

Yet the Germans had to start somewhere, and so they build this vessel...but never had the chance to use her.

Here's a short history of the Graf Zeppelin:

Short History of the German Carrier, Graf Zeppelin

The Graf Zeppelin was laid down in December 1938, launched in December 1938, had her intital air group formed in 1939 (of Me-109s and Ju-887s), but then all work stopped in 1940 on Hitler's order. This was before she completed outfitting and before any trials could be conducted.

She was towed to Kiel for a year and used as a material depot there, towed to a small warf in Stettin to protect her from Soviet attack during the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany, and then towed to Gotenhafen.

In May 1942, after seeing the success the English and the Japanese had with carriers, Hitler ordered work started again, with the idea of completing her in 1943 and having her commissioned in early 1944. However, later in 1943, Hitelr became dis-enchanted with the Germany Navy and ordered a halt to work following January in 1943.

Thereafter she was again berthed at the back-water wharf on the Parnitz River near Stettin with a 40-man custodial crew and remained there until scuttled shortly before the Red Army took the area.

After the war, she was considered a Class C vessel (scuttled) and the Russians were supposed to float her and sink her in deep water. Butt they refloated her and used her for a time to return war goods from Germany to Russia. Then, in 1947 she was sunk in what we would call today a SINKEX, or Sink Exercise.

She made way under her own power. The Germans never had an opportunity to so much as learn a lesson from their inital design. Such was the life of Germany's only aircraft carrier, Graf Zeppelin, their Flugzeugträger. Launched in 1938...and then scutteled without ever being used seven years later in 1945.

Pictorial History:



Graf Zepplin at Launch in 1938


Modified Ju-87 Stuke for Graf Zeppelin's Air Wing


Graf Seppelin moored in 1941


Graf Seppelin in dry dock, early 1943 before final stop work


Graf Seppelin in Stettin, before being scuttled


Last known picture of Graf Zeppelin in Russian custody in 1947 at Swinemünde


For anyone interested, I would recommend the book, by Stephen Burke:

Please, Log in or Register to view URLs content!


The Graf Zeppelin had decent specifications had she been developed, but, as stated above, for those specifications, her aior wing size was abysmal. Here are the specs she was designed to operate wioth:

GRAF ZEPPELIN SPECIFICATIONS:

Displacement: 34,090 tons full load
Length: 861 ft 3 in
Beam: 118 ft 9 in
Draft: 27 ft 11 in
Propulsion: 4 geared turbines, 200,000 shaft horsepower
Speed: 33.8 knots
Range: 8,000 km at 19 knots
Complement: 1,720

Armament:
16 × 15 cm SK C/28 guns
12 × 10.5 cm SK C/33 guns
22 × 3.7 cm SK C/30 guns
28 × 2 cm FlaK guns

Armor:
Belt: 3.9 in
Flight deck: 1.8 in
Main deck: 2.4 in

Aircraft carried: 42
- 12 Me-109 fighters
- 30 Ju-87 Dive Bombers

By comparison, the US carriers being designed, built and commissioned in this same time frame were the Yorktown class of which three were built. USS Yorktown, CV-5, USS Enterprise, CV-6, and USS Hornet, CV-8.



USS Enterprise, CV-6, 1939

YORKTOWN CLASS SPECIFICATIONS:

Displacement: 25,900 tons full load
Length: 824 ft 9 in
Beam: 109 ft 6 in
Draft: 26 ft

Propulsion: 9 boilers, 120,000 shp
Speed: 32.5 knots
Range: 12,500 nmi
Complement: 2,217

Armament:
8 × 5 in/38 caliber guns
4 × quad 1.1 in/75 caliber guns (Enterprise upgraded to 40 mm Bofors guns)
24 × .50 Cal machine guns (all of the ships upgraded to 20 mm Oerlikon cannons)

Armor:
Belt: 2.5–4 in
Tower: 4 inches

Aircraft carried: 90
- 34 F6F-3 Hellcat Fighters
- 34 SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers
- 22 TBD-1 Avenger Torpedo bombers

As you can see, the US carrier, despite being a smaller displacement, shorter, less beam...carried over twice the aircraft. Events in World War II for thios particular class, which were not as big or strong as the follow-on Essex class of which so many were prodiced, showed that these carriers were exremely effective and took massive beatings and punishment during combat while deliver better than they received.
 
Last edited:

Franklin

Captain
I read about the Graf Zeppelin, she was suppose to be the lead ship of her class. But the ship was never finished in part because Hitler vacillated. The project start and stopt, start and stopt several times. And in april 1943 finally all work on the Graf Zeppelin came to a end and the ship was used as a storage facility for the German army till the end of the war. But the main reason that she was never finished was that the Germans didn't have the resources to finish the ship after the war started and the focus of the German naval buildup switched to U boats. The German sub forces had considerable more success than the surface fleet. Hitler was so disillusioned about the navies preformance that he wanted to scrap the entire fleet in 1943. Admiral Donitz was able to convince him otherwise. But all ships that was still under construction in 1943 with the exception of U boats was to be stopped including the Graf Zeppelin. After the war the ship fell in Soviet hands and in 1947 she was sunk by the Soviet navy in a exercise on how to sink aircraft carriers as the cold war was beginning and the Soviets saw the importance of the role that carriers played in the USN. Her wreck was found in 2006 off the northern shores of Poland.

Aside from the lack of resources in the ship building sector there was also a lack of resources in the aircraft building sector as well. The German navy wanted a dedicated naval fighter for the Graf Zeppelin, but Herman Goering the head of the air force who was also responsible for aircraft production was only able to offer modified versions of existing aircrafts. The war demand for aircraft and the allied bombings of aircraft factories and supply lines was beginning to take a toll on the aircraft industry of Germany by that time.
 

TerraN_EmpirE

Tyrant King
Did not help matters that the Luftwaffe totally controlled aircraft development and only allocated existing types to the program. The modifications needed made them to heavy for the carrier as designed meaning on top of being only 80%she still would have needed modifications to except naval BF109 and Ju87 both were poor competition compared to there English and American peers.
 

Equation

Lieutenant General
My question is IF the Graf Zeppelin was operational, did the Germans had enough destroyers and escorts at the time to make their carrier strike force effective?
 

Jeff Head

General
Staff member
Super Moderator
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #5
My question is IF the Graf Zeppelin was operational, did the Germans had enough destroyers and escorts at the time to make their carrier strike force effective?
Yes, in the late 1941 or early 1942 time frame, which is when she would have been ready if they had not stopped, I believe they would have had sufficient destroyers and cruisers to sortie with her and try to break her out. And with any kind of decent air cover, and themselves able to launch attacks against the British...they may have succeeded in breaking out.
 

chuck731

Banned Idiot
Yes, in the late 1941 or early 1942 time frame, which is when she would have been ready if they had not stopped, I believe they would have had sufficient destroyers and cruisers to sortie with her and try to break her out. And with any kind of decent air cover, and themselves able to launch attacks against the British...they may have succeeded in breaking out.

I don't think so. By late 1941 and early 1942 the Germans have conceded the surface of the north Atlantic to the British, and were working on the problem of how to pull the few naval surface assets they had within reach of north Atlantic back to the norway and the Baltic without being sunk by the British along the way. Graf zeppelin wouldn't live long if sent out against the British in the north Atlantic.

If Graf zeppelin was going to break out to anywhere, it would probably be to the arctic in company of the tirpitz to attack the Murmansk convoys. In this case, their main opposition would still be the royal navy, but their intended target would really be the Russians.
 

Jeff Head

General
Staff member
Super Moderator
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #7
I don't think so. By late 1941 and early 1942 the Germans have conceded the surface of the north Atlantic to the British, and were working on the problem of how to pull the few naval surface assets they had within reach of north Atlantic back to the norway and the Baltic without being sunk by the British along the way. Graf zeppelin wouldn't live long if sent out against the British in the north Atlantic.

If Graf Zeppelin was going to break out to anywhere, it would probably be to the arctic in company of the tirpitz to attack the Murmansk convoys. In this case, their main opposition would still be the royal navy, but their intended target would really be the Russians.
You contradict yourself just a bit there Chuck. I never said the Atlantic in my post, and yet you say, "I don't think so," and then turn around and say her breakout would probably be to the Arctic.

I do think so, and my thinking was also to the North via the Norwegian Sea.

In that time frame the Kriegsmarine could have formed a very strong group to escort the Graf Zeppelin consisting of the Tripitz and the Scharnhorst battleships, the Prinz Eugen and perhaps a second heavy cruiser, the Nuernberg light cruiser, and a strong screen of their Type 1934A, 1936 and 1936A destroyers, at least six (all of which would have been available in that time frame). With such a force, and staying in range of German Air, as well as the Graf Zeppelin's own Messerschmidt CAP, she very well may have made it.

But it is all speculation in answer to Equation's question. Yes, if her construction had never been halted, a group could have, and probably would have been formed. Once formed, that group could have tried to break out.
 

chuck731

Banned Idiot
Maybe I am making too much of a semantic distinction, I did not regard an attack into the arctic as really constituting a proper "break out", because as of late 1941 and early 1942, the British did not assert continuous sea control over the arctic as they did over the North Atlantic. So there is no continuously enforces cordon or patrol lines for the german to break out through. Rather each British convoy through the arctic was more like a sortie through mutually contested water. The Germans were free to enter the arctic anytime they wanted, unlike the North Atlantic. They would only be challenged if they run into a convoy or it's covering force. So it would be more like a meeting engagement than a breakout.

Another semantic distinction was what I regarded as attack on the British to be an attack aimed primarily at weakening Britain, which would have to happen on either the North Atlantic of the Mediterranean. Attack in the arctic would be an attack aimed to weaken the Soviet Union, even if most the opposing force would still be British.

But I accept your point that the Germans could operate GZ effectively in the arctic if she could conduct air operation successfully in the severe climate and sea state prevalent there.
 
Last edited:

Lezt

Junior Member
I don't think it is fair to compare the GZ with american, british or Japanese carriers directly.

The GZ is supposed to operate in the north seas, and of course being the first carrier is more like an experimental platform than a production run system.

The Germans were faced with a precarious question. she has not enough navy to provide an effective screen; as the Bismark had shown, the three destroyers were detached for a variety of reasons including bad weather and poor endurance. Therefore any German carrier would be expected to be able to handle for herself on the surface.

The other question is, the bad weather in the north sea. most reports of north sea battles from jutland to well... bismark, were the same, harsh weather. We can say that the royal navy has much better seamanship than... the kriegsmarine; RN would launch destroyers when the KM would send them to port. Likewise, Swordfish torpedo planes will launch in severe sea state while I doulbt the KMA would launch.

SO, if we see the Bismark, it was designed with stronger armor to resist horizontal fire than plunging fire; because it was expected that warships can close in due to the foul weather. Therefore, this is what the GZ is designed around as well, hence, we see more armor, heavier surface armaments and a smaller air wing. Also why AA is considerbly weaker, because the bad weather would provide some level of steath to air planes.

Does it work? i don't know,
 

Jeff Head

General
Staff member
Super Moderator
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #10
Maybe I am making too much of a semantic distinction, I did not regard an attack into the arctic as really constituting a proper "break out", because as of late 1941 and early 1942, the British did not assert continuous sea control over the arctic as they did over the North Atlantic. So there is no continuously enforces cordon or patrol lines for the german to break out through. So it wouldbe more like a meeting engagement than a brekout.

Another semantic distinction was what I regarded as attack on the British to be an attack aimed primarily at weakening Britain, which would have to happen on either the North Atlantic of the Mediterranean. Attack in the arctic would be an attack aimed to weaken the Soviet Union, even if most the opposing force would still be British.

But I accept your point that the Germans could operate GZ effectively in the arctic if she could conduct air operation successfully in the severe climate and sea state prevalent there.
Well, I also acccept that after she got into the Norwegian Sea and Arctic Ocean, it would have been meeting engagement style naval warfare, however, as she traversed the North Sea the RN may have not known her ultimate intentions, and would have had to treat it like a breakout into the North Atlantic. If they were aware of the presence of that large force, they would have had to treat it as such. I suspect, had the Kriegsmarine tried it, that there would have been a major engagement somewhere north or sotuh of a line between the Shetland Islands and Norway.

If the GZ had gotten loose into the Arctic, and successfuly operated there, particularly after Operation Barbarosa kicked off, then she would have made an increasing difference to the overall war effort the longer she could have operated there. Ultimately, the allies would have had to respond forcefully to such a large and dangerous group as I described in my last post.

Another consideration is that she could have, with that group, at a time of the German's choosing, attempted to run whatever screen the Allies established along the GIUK Gap, and possibly gotten out to the west of Iceland through the Denmark Strait. But her main purpose would have been effectively served if she could have spent a couple of years menacing and ravaging convoys in the Artic Ocean and Norwegian Sea.
 

Top