Graf Zeppelin (Flugzeugträger A, Aircraft Carrier A) was the only aircraft carrier launched by Germany during World War II. It 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.
A diving team from Poland, including experienced scuba divers Dimitris “Dima” Stavrakakis and acclaimed underwater photographer Tomasz “Tomek” Stachura share with pierrekosmidis.blogspot.com their experience and stunning underwater photos of a unique WW2 Wreck, the only German aircraft carrier that was never meant to see active duty.
“The diving expedition was well prepared and planned, since we were the first scuba divers to visit the shipwreck, with special permission from the authorities.
“We had two doctors and a hyberbaric chamber on board, because of the demanding nature of those dives at depths ranging from 75 to 95 metres.
“Our dive plan was very detailed and we had the best equipment suitable for this kind of technical diving, including underwater scooters, in order to explore as much as possible, because of the sheer size of Graf Zeppelin.
“When we descended to the wreck we were left in awe; the Graf is so huge, you can’t really see it in one dive and you can only take turns to discover parts of it, first the bow, then the stern, the flight deck, the hangars, the inside of the wreck.
“We were divided in separate diving teams and we dived every morning and afternoon, sharing the images and information with the rest of the diving team.
“The visibility was good, considering the depth and the conditions in the Baltic Sea and we weren’t sure what we would find down there.
“There were many theories for decades around her fate; we didn’t really know what we would find down there.
“Diving at a depth of 90 metres is demanding and when we got there we were just amazed by the sheer size of the wreck.”
Continuing, Stavrakakis added:
“There were lots of theories regarding Graf Zeppelin’s loss, as she was taken by the Soviets and because of the cold war, no one was really sure what happened for decades. We had the opportunity to solve a mystery and find out details lost at the bottom of the sea.
“Some people believed that the Graf was deliberately scuttled by the Soviets, full of chemical substances and war equipment left over from the War, others believed that the Soviets loaded the aircraft carrier with nazis and sunk it, while some claimed that the Graf was sunk during secret weapons testing.
“It surely is one of the most amazing dives I’ve ever done so far and I can say that we found nothing that could corroborate the claims about chemical warfare or other armaments or Nazis in the wreck.
“Diving at the Graf is like being in many football fields put together. The flight deck, with the wooden beams still intact bear the marks of shelling (see photo below) and the hangars are so big they reminded me of the huge cathedrals. It felt like centuries when we were inside the Graf.”
Construction was ordered on November 16th 1935 and her keel was laid down on December 28th 1936 by Deutsche Werke at Kiel. Named in honor of Graf (Count) Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the ship was launched on December 8th 1938 but was not completed and was never operational.
On July 12, 2006 RV St. Barbara, a ship belonging to the Polish oil company Petrobaltic found a 265 m long wreck which they thought was most likely Graf Zeppelin.
On July 26th, 2006, the crew of the Polish Navy’s survey ship ORP Arctowski commenced inspection of the wreckage to confirm its identity, and the following day the Polish Navy confirmed that the wreckage was indeed that of Graf Zeppelin. She rests at more than 87 meters (264 feet) below the surface.
Graf Zeppelin’s role was that of a sea-going scouting platform and her initial planned air group reflected that emphasis: twenty Fieseler Fi 167 biplanes for scouting and torpedo attack, ten Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, and thirteen Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers.
This was later changed to thirty Bf 109 fighters and twelve Ju 87 dive-bombers as carrier doctrine in Japan, Great Britain and the United States shifted away from purely reconnaissance duties towards offensive combat missions.
Fate after the war
In April 1943 Graf Zeppelin was towed eastward, first to Gotenhafen, then to the roadstead at Swinemünde and finally berthed at a wharf in the Parnitz River, two miles from Stettin.
There she languished for the next two years with only a 40-man custodial crew in attendance. When Red Army forces neared the city in April 1945, the ship’s Kingston valves were opened, flooding her lower spaces and settling her firmly into the mud in shallow water.
At 6pm on April 25th 1945, just as the Russians entered Stettin, commander Wolfgang Kähler radioed the squad to detonate the explosives. Smoke billowing from the carrier’s funnel confirmed the charges had gone off, rendering the ship useless to her new owners for many months to come.
The Soviets decided to repair the damaged ship and it was refloated in March 1946 and enlisted in the Baltic Fleet as aircraft carrier Zeppelin. The last known photo of the carrier is dated April 7th, 1947.
For many years, no other information about the ship’s fate was available. After the opening of the Soviet archives, new light was shed on the mystery. What is known is that the carrier was as “PB-101” (Floating Base Number 101) in February 3, 1947, until, on August 16, 1947, it was used as a practice target for Soviet ships and aircraft.
Allegedly the Soviets installed aerial bombs on the flight deck, in hangars and even inside the funnels (to simulate a load of combat munitions), and then dropped bombs from aircraft and fired shells and torpedoes at it.
By this point, the Cold War was underway, and the Soviets were well aware of the large numbers and central importance of aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy, which in the event of an actual war between the Soviet Union and the United States would be targets of high strategic importance.
After being hit by 24 bombs and projectiles, the ship did not sink and had to be finished off by two torpedoes. The exact position of the wreck was unknown for decades.