By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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 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 dive bomber.
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.
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.
Radial-engined version of the Ar.197.
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
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.
A plane of astounding ugliness, the
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
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.