|History of the Graf Zeppelin|
|After WWI, Germany began a large naval re-armament program; and by 1934 the navy had commissioned its first study for a large aircraft carrier. The Kriegsmarine, Germany’s navy, had no experience with aircraft carriers and relied heavily on designs from other nations. Based on the British Courageous class of carriers, Germany’s new carrier design displaced 23,000 tons and a speed of 35 knots. This design study paved the way for what would be Germany’s first and last aircraft carrier.
On December 28, 1936 the keel of Germany’s first carrier was laid at the Deutsche Werke Kiel AG shipyard. Construction progressed normally until December 8, 1938, the day she was launched. The first carrier of the newly reborn Kriegsmarine was christened Graf Zeppelin after the famous Count Zeppelin of airship fame.
A second carrier designated Flugzeugtrager “B” was laid down at the Fridrich Krupp Germania Shipyard in Kiel. Construction on this ship began on February 11, 1935. The work on this ship proceeded with caution and very slowly in order to incorporate experience and knowledge gained from the construction of Graf Zeppelin. Flugzeugtrager “B” had a launch date of July 1, 1940 and was to be completed in late 1941. This ship, likely to be named Peter Strasser, was never completed. By the time war began Flugzeugtrager “B” had only been completed up to the platform deck and construction was halted on September 19, 1939.
Construction on Graf Zeppelin proceeded through 1939 and was scheduled to be completed in December of 1940. When WWII broke out across Europe, Graf Zeppelin was 85% complete. With the engines and boilers already installed, she could move under her own power. The 15cm guns had been installed by this time as well. As the war progressed through 1940 work on Graf Zeppelin continued as scheduled but was soon delayed by lack of materials. The increase in production of U-boats had taken up much of the steel earmarked for Graf Zeppelin’s construction. Aircraft carriers had always ranked last in construction priority and now it began to show. On April 29, 1940 Admiral Erich Raeder, commander of the Kriegsmarine, halted work on the carrier program.
At any rate the carrier program was in a bad state. The 15cm guns had been transferred to Norway for costal defense, and the anti-aircraft guns had been shipped out as well. On July 6, 1940 Graf Zeppelin was towed to Gotenhafen (Gdynya). This move was intended to keep Graf Zeppelin safe from air attack. While there she suffered the indignity of serving as a warehouse for the Kriegsmarine hardwood supplies. Graf Zeppelin was again moved to Stettin on June 21, 1941 to reduce the risk of Soviet air raids. When these did not materialize, Graf Zeppelin was moved back to Gotenhafen.
In early 1942 Germany found herself at a great disadvantage by not possessing a commissioned aircraft carrier. Thus, under great pressure from the German government, orders were given on May 13, 1942 for continued construction of Graf Zeppelin. Several design changes were to be made during this phase of construction. This included a better catapult system, shrapnel proof command housing, and heavy mast with a fighter command post and a taller funnel to keep exhaust gasses from the fighter command post. Sponsons were also added to the sides of the ship. These were used to equalize the weight of the new additions to the design. They were 2.4 meters at the widest point and attached over the bilge keels. The port sponson was constructed from ST 52 shipbuilding steel while the starboard was made of much thinner 1.8cm steel. Used as fuel bunkers, the sponsons greatly increased the range of the ship while adding a level of underwater protection from mines and torpedoes. Large 2cm quad mounts were planned for the ships anti-aircraft mount. These weapons would have 56,000 rounds in their storerooms. Also, 12, Me109 fighters and 28 Ju 88 dive-bombers were designated for the air wing.
Graf Zeppelin was given the code name “Zander” and transferred to Kiel on December 3, 1942. This was done because of the increased risk of air attack by Soviet forces. On December 5, 1942 Graf Zeppelin reached Deutsche Werke in Kiel. As soon as she arrived Graf Zeppelin was docked in a 40,000 ton floating dry-dock and the sponson construction began. While this was taking place, work on the ship’s internal machinery was to take place. On January 30, 1943 Hitler ordered all construction of large warships halted. Work on Graf Zeppelin stopped on February 2, 1943 for the final time. She was undocked and towed to Stettin once again. She was moored in the Mönne, an arm of the Oder River, with only a meter of water under her keel.
The beginning of the end came as Soviet forces neared Stettin. The shut-off levers to the pumps were removed and Graf Zeppelin settled on the bottom of the river. Soon after, a ten-man special team was ordered to destroy the ship using explosives places near the ships power plant. At 6pm on April 25, 1945 Captain Wolfgang Kähler gave the order to trigger the bombs. Thick black smoke poured form Graf Zeppelin’s funnel signaling to Kähler that the charges had gone off. Destruction of the power plant while the ship was resting on the bottom of the Mönne was intended to keep the Soviets from repairing the ship and putting it into use. After the war, Soviet engineers were able to make Graf Zeppelin watertight and floated her off the bottom of the river. In March of 1946, Graf Zeppelin was loaded with looted German goods and began the tow to Swinemünde.
Near Swinemünde, Graf Zeppelin was expended as a target ship by the Soviet navy on August 16, 1947. Dive-bombers pounded the ship with bombs and charges placed inside the ship were detonated causing massive damage. Torpedo boat OE-503 and the destroyer Slavniy fired two torpedoes in the flaming hull finishing her off. Graf Zeppelin succumbed to her wounds and sank 25 minutes later.