German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin (World War 2)

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The German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin was the lead ship in a class of two carriers of the same name ordered by the Kriegsmarine of Nazi Germany. She was the only aircraft carrier launched by Germany 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 Baltic and North Seas. The carrier would have had a complement of 42 fighters and dive bombers.

Construction on Graf Zeppelin began on 28 December 1936, when her keel was laid down at the Deutsche Werke shipyard in Kiel. Named in honor of Graf (Count) Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the ship was launched on 8 December 1938, and was 85% complete by the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Graf Zeppelin was not completed and was never operational due to shifting construction priorities necessitated by the war. She remained in the Baltic for the duration of the war; with Germany’s defeat imminent, the ship’s custodian crew scuttled her just outside Stettin in March 1945. The Soviet Union raised the ship in March 1946, and she was ultimately sunk in weapons tests north of Poland 17 months later. The wreck was discovered by a Polish survey ship in July 2006.

On 16 November 1935, the contract for Flugzeugträger A (Aircraft carrier A)—later christened Graf Zeppelin—was awarded to the Deutsche Werke shipyard in Kiel. Construction of the ship was delayed since Deutsche Werke was working at capacity, and the slipway needed for Graf Zeppelin was occupied by the new battleship Gneisenau, which was launched on 8 December 1936.[5] Work started on Graf Zeppelin on 28 December, when her keel was laid down. She was launched on 8 December 1938, the 24th anniversary of the Battle of the Falkland Islands,[6] and she was christened by Helene von Zeppelin, the daughter of the ship’s namesake. At the launching ceremony, Hermann Göring gave a speech.[7] By the end of 1939, she was 85% complete, with a projected completion by the middle of 1940.[8] By September 1939, one carrier-borne wing, Trägergruppe 186, had been formed by the Luftwaffe at Kiel Holtenau, composed of three squadrons equipped with Bf 109s and Ju 87s.[9]

Meanwhile, the German conquest of Norway in April 1940 eroded any chance of completing Graf Zeppelin. Now responsible for defending Norway’s long coastline and numerous port facilities, the Kriegsmarine urgently needed large numbers of coastal guns and anti-aircraft batteries. During a naval conference with Hitler on 28 April 1940, Admiral Erich 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 need another ten months or more (her original fire-control system had been sold to the Soviet Union under an earlier trade agreement).[10] Hitler consented to the stop work order, allowing Raeder to have Graf Zeppelin’s 15 cm guns removed and transferred to Norway. The carrier’s heavy flak armament of twelve 10.5 cm guns had already been diverted elsewhere.[11]

In July 1940, Graf Zeppelin was towed from Kiel to Gotenhafen (Gdynia) and remained there for nearly a year. While there, she was used as a storage depot for Germany’s hardwood supply.[12] Just before Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the carrier was again moved, this time to Stettin, 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. There, she was used as a store ship for timber.[13]

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