German Carrier Aircraft

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2017

When the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 opened the way for the Kriegsmarine to build its first aircraft carrier (discussed in an earlier installment), this also presented the Germans with the questions of what would fly from its deck. Control of her air wing represented a major struggle between the Navy and the Air Ministry, one the Navy could not hope to win given Hermann Goering’s standing among the Nazi barons. The Air Force would provide the squadrons, and the Navy would operate the ships. The procedure was followed for ship-borne seaplanes carried on battleships and cruisers; how it would have impacted the far more complicated operations of a carrier air group is hard to determine. In a tense situation, would a Luftwaffe CAG refuse the orders of a Kriegsmarine captain?

The Ar.81 dive bomber.

The original aircraft selected for the carriers were the Arado Ar.197 fighter, the Fieseler Fi.167 torpedo-bomber and the Ar.81 dive bomber. All were biplanes. With a capacity of only 40 aircraft, Graf Zeppelin’s needs would not support development of completely new aircraft, unlike the practice in Japan, Britain and the United States. Carrier planes would have to be variants of those developed for the Air Force.

The Ar.81 lost the 1936 competition for a modern dive-bomber to the Ju-87; though the Arado plane was fastest entry and showed many good qualities, the Luftwaffe’s head of procurement, Ernst Udet, was determined on a monoplane dive-bomber. It was also a very ugly airplane, which probably hurt its chances in the Air Force competition. The dive bomber was seen as a symbol of Air Force modernity, and the twin-tailed (later reduced to one) biplane offered by Arado would not make a very good propaganda poster.

Arado had good connections with the Navy, and as in modern times once the firm was denied by one service, it pushed its product on the other. The Arado plane had better take-off and landing performance than the Ju87, and the carrier’s designers felt it might serve better at sea than the Junkers aircraft.

Radial-engined version of the Ar.197.

The Arado fighter entry, the Ar.197, was a development of the firm’s Ar.68 fighter. Like other biplane fighters of the 1930s it had good manueverability and heavy armament, and its speed was only slightly less than the early versions of the Bf.109. Like the Ar.81 it had good short-field performance which was considered vital for a carrier plane, but some felt the biplane underpowered and overweight for its airframe. The radial-engined Ar.68 had seen testing in Spain, helping its reputation, and to boost its power a second carrier prototype was built with the same inline Daimler-Benz DB600 engine as the Bf.109 monoplane. This plane performed better, but did not result in a production order.

As a torpedo plane, the Fieseler Fi.167 was chosen over Arado’s Ar.195. Derived from the famous “Storch” liaison plane, it had excellent short-field performance but appears to have been selected in part to keep Arado from gleaning all the carrier-plane contracts. Unlike the other types, the Fieseler plane would actually be built, and at one point offered to the Italian Navy for their carrier, Aquila. The two dozen planes constructed were used for counter-insurgency work during the war.

A plane of astounding ugliness, the Fi.167.

Fieseler also received a contract in 1939 to modify Messerschmitt’s Bf.109-E1 fighter for carrier duty. This was a modern, fast plane seen as one of the world’s best combat aircraft; its very short range, however, would have made it a very dicey strike aircraft and it probably would have been unsuitable for any mission other than Combat Air Patrol.

The wing had to be replaced with a larger, folding wing, the undercarriage strengthened and attachment points added for catapult launch. Folding the wings proved to a very complicated operation, but the first ten converted fighters were ready for testing that winter. An order for 60 new planes followed, but in April 1940, Graf Zeppelin’s construction halted and the Bf.109-T series were ordered completed without naval gear.

At the same time Fieseler began work on the monoplane carrier fighter, Junkers received orders to convert the Ju87B-1 for carrier duty. The resulting Ju87C had a stronger (and jettisonable) undercarriage, folding wings, arrester gear, and catapult spools. The new variant was also fitted to carry a single torpedo in place of its bomb load, and did not have the distinctive “Jericho trumpet” siren. The handful of pre-production planes were diverted to normal use during the Polish campaign of 1939, and those on the production line completed as normal Ju-87B2 models.

Graf Zeppelin is usually listed as carrying an air group of Me-109T fighters and Ju-87C dive bombers, the mix foreseen after the carrier’s construction delays took effect. Had the ship been made ready on her original schedule and given the biplane air group, how prompt would the Air Ministry have been to replace the outmoded planes with modern types? Nazi rivalries being what they were, there’s no guarantee Graf Zeppelin would have gone to sea with first-rate aircraft. And so in the game, we’ve provided full air groups for both the 1938 projected all-biplane deck park and the 1941 aircraft mix.

Send the German biplanes into action! Order Bismarck right now. Yes, right now!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.