German Catapult Ships
Charles Lindbergh’s famous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by airplane in 1927 (not the first such crossing, but by far the best-publicized), brought long-range flight firmly into the Western world’s public consciousness. And everyone could participate through the miracle of airmail. Letters posted on one continent could be delivered to an address on the other in a matter of days rather than weeks!
By 1930 the French firm Aeropostale (no, not that Aeropostale) had established regular mail service across the South Atlantic. Tales of brave pilots flying through the blackest nights and over the stormiest seas gave airmail a romantic aura, making it extremely popular. But Aeropostale collapsed in 1932, when French prosecutors discovered that the private firm’s owners were diverting government subsidies to other struggling companies they controlled. Aeropostale’s assets were rolled into the new Air France, and Lufthansa saw an opportunity.
The German state airline moved to take over the mail business between Europe and South America, and also to compete on the North Atlantic run. Zeppelins and passenger liners mounted small aircraft to speed the mail to its destination at the end of a cross-Atlantic run. And the airline also invested in a unique range-boosting approach: the catapult ship.
Mid-ocean refueling would allow a large seaplane to make the Atlantic crossing with relative ease, but launching from the water greatly reduced the plane’s takeoff weight. Hoisting the plane aboard a catapult-equipped ship would greatly increase the permissible weight, allowing her to carry more fuel and thus extend her range. Lufthansa bought the old freighter Westfalen in 1932 and rebuilt her as a catapult ship. A large, powerful catapult took up most of the deck, along with a crane to hoist seaplanes out of the water.
Westfalen took up her station between Brazil and Bathhurst in British-ruled Gambia in early 1934. Lufthansa then began weekly service between Stuttgart and Rio de Janeiro. The airline desperately desired to work the much more lucrative North Atlantic market, but the United States would not grant a mail-carrying contract. Even so, the service proved successful and Lufthansa bought an converted another freighter, the much newer Schwabenland. Schwabenland joined Westfalen in the South Atlantic, and later served as base ship for the 1938 Nazi expedition to Antarctica.
A Dornier Do.18 seaplane on Schwabenland’s catapult.
Heavy seas still made operations difficult even for Schwabenland (originally completed in 1926), and Lufthansa constructed a pair of purpose-built catapult ships, Friesenland and Ostmark. These were larger ships, providing greater stability for operations on the open sea, and could carry more fuel as well as workshops and other support facilities. They could also if necessary support multiple seaplanes at once.
Ostmark came into service in 1936 and Friesenland a year later; the two ships tested a rapid North Atlantic service but the Americans still would not grant a mail contract. They then replaced the older ships on the South American route. When war broke out the two older ships were in German ports, with Friesenland just finishing an overhaul in Bremerhaven. Ostmark was on station in the South Atlantic, and made her way to the neutral Canary Islands where she remained for a year before slipping through the British blockade to German-occupied France. After successfully making it to Bordeaux, when she moved up the coast to Brest a British submarine torpedoed and sank her.
With the coming of war, all Lufthansa equipment and personnel passed to Air Force control, including the four catapult ships. The two converted freighters served as seaplane mother ships in French and Norwegian ports, and also saw limited duty as troop transports. In 1944 Westfalen ran onto a pair of mines and sank, while a British submarine torpedoed Schwabenland. She was never fully repaired and after the war would be loaded with poison gas canisters and scuttled in the Skagerrak.
A big Ha.139 seaplane is fitted onto Friesenland’s catapult.
Friesenland saw somewhat more service; in September 1940 she moved to the Norwegian coast where her seaplanes helped scout for the breakout of the cruiser Admiral Hipper into the North Atlantic. She then went to Brest in place of the sunken Ostmark, to take part in scouting for German submarines seeking Allied convoys. The idea was that Friesenland would steam out into the Atlantic to launch her planes, helping to extend their range, and they would return to seaplane bases normally. The first plane launched smacked into a freakishly high wave, destroying the plane and killing its crew, and the operation was cancelled. She then served in Norway as a seaplane mothership until Soviet planes torpedoed and damaged her; after minimal repairs she became a floating workshop until the war’s end. Sold and repaired, she became a refrigerator ship hauling Argentine beef until scrapped in 1969.
Friesenland certainly looked the part of a seaplane carrier, with her long and powerful catapult, large crane and extensive workshop area. But she had not been designed to military specifications; the Air Force had given no guidance to Lufthansa so the airline built the ship they needed. As a result, Friesenland was a painfully slow ship, since she would be expected to steam to her station and remain there for weeks on end. She had a great deal of endurance and excellent crew accommodations, but was not suited for war. The Air Force fitted a quartet of 20mm anti-aircraft guns as the extent of her warlike armament; many of her peacetime crew remained aboard.
Even so, her ability to launch large seaplanes like the BV.138 and Dornier Do.18 gave Friesenland potential value as a military asset if her agonizing speed (16 knots) could be overlooked. She was discussed as part of the German plans to invade Iceland (Fall Ikarus), as she would be able to quickly establish long-range reconnaissance capability from the island once she arrived. But those plans came to nothing, and the ship remained in Norway launching seaplanes and repairing them when required.
We’ve included Friesenland in Second World War at Sea: Plan Z so that she can participate in the much more robust version of Fall Ikarus found there. She is terribly slow and therefore terribly vulnerable, but the catapult launch of the big recon seaplanes is a definite advantage for the German player (this extends their range).
Click here to order Second World War at Sea: Plan Z right now.
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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.