German Carriers, Part One
Like any large bureaucratic organization, the German Kriegsmarine of the 1930’s had factions, and each of those factions had wish lists. Some wanted battleships, some wanted submarines. Some wanted commerce-raiding cruisers, and some wanted aircraft carriers. Plan Z resolved this conflict by simply lumping all the wish lists together into one. Thus the plan came to include aircraft carriers even though many in the fleet never wanted them.
The plan included four fleet carriers, initially intended to be built to the same design. But German shipyards could only lay down two at a time, so the first pair would be built and tested before the second were laid down, to allow lessons learned to be incorporated in the improved design of the second pair.
Construction of the first aircraft carrier began well before the hatching of Plan Z. Graf Zeppelin was laid down at Deutsche Werke in Kiel in late 1936, on the slipway vacated by the new battle cruiser Gneisenau. Her sister, officially known as Flugzeugträger B and unofficially as Peter Strasser, began construction two years later at Germaniawerft, also in Kiel, once the cruiser Prinz Eugen cleared the slipway.
These two vessels appear in our Bismarck game, and we’ve discussed them in a previous Daily Content piece.
Two further sisters, assigned the project names C and D, would be improved versions, built on the same hull. At least that was the initial intention; once the war began it became obvious that full-scale carrier construction would not be possible and the Navy looked at re-casting the design for C and D as a smaller, less expensive ship. In whatever form, they had been promised to the same shipyards that built Graf Zeppelin and Peter Strasser, and so could not have been begun at the earliest until those ships had been launched and commenced fitting out.
Graf Zeppelin herself went through several design changes; her future sisters can’t be said to have had a final design. The version shown in Second World War at Sea: Plan Z is thus an improved version of the Graf Zeppelin of Bismarck (the design to which she would have been completed on her original schedule), addressing that ship’s most obvious flaws.
Most obviously, Graf Zeppelin had a relatively small air group – 42 planes – for her size. The smaller Japanese Shokaku operated 72 aircraft; likewise the American Yorktown carried 96. The American Essex class, almost identical in size to Graf Zeppelin, operated 91. We’ve credited the improved carrier with 60 planes, still less than her foreign counterparts but more in keeping with the investment in a full-sized carrier.
While Graf Zeppelin’s undersized air group would have been recognized as a problem – and indeed should have been obvious during her design stage – some of the other flaws might not have been so easy to spot before the ships entered action. As originally designed, Graf Zeppelin carried a relatively heavy secondary armament with which to engage surface targets – Germany did not produce a true dual-purpose weapon until very late in World War II. The new carrier likewise has a strong, and not very useful, suite of 150mm (5.9-inch) guns but like the earlier design is well-provided with anti-aircraft weapons.
The new carriers also share Graf Zeppelin’s relatively high speed, something pre-war naval architects sought in many nations. In practice the fleets operating carriers – the British, Japanese and Americans – found that very high speeds were not as necessary as they had imagined. To obtain those speeds in the carriers and other heavy warships, German designers went with very complicated and delicate high-pressure-steam power plants that produced a great deal of power when they chose to work properly but proved unable to stand up to the rigors of wartime service.
That would have put the ships (all four of them, had they been completed) out of service for long stretches, and it would have been difficult for the Germans to get all of them operational at once. That’s a problem that doesn’t show up at the scale of Second World War at Sea games, but it would have been a significant challenge in an actual campaign.
To go along with their heavy gunnery armament, the carriers had armor protection against similar gunfire – theoretically, they could shoot it out with enemy cruisers and destroyers, perhaps in a night action. Their belt armor gave little protection against bombs and torpedoes, the threats most aircraft carriers would face during the actual war, and the weight given over to armor could likely have been used to better effect.
Another shortcoming the naval architects could not correct would have been the German fleet’s lack of carrier experience. Graf Zeppelin would have been the Kriegsmarine’s first aircraft carrier, and as such would have had to serve for training pilots, working out carrier operations and doctrine for their use. All of that would have severely limited the effectiveness of the Kriegsmarine’s fleet air arm, even in the late-starting naval war posited in our Long War story arc.
To make things a little more interesting, Plan Z comes with an option that assumes the Germans acted a little more wisely – an enormous stretch of probability, given the core irrationality of their belief system – and completed or at least began some merchant ship conversions into aircraft carriers before commencing construction of Graf Zeppelin. That would allow these less-capable ships to conduct training operations while the fleet carriers prepared for war. It’s a seemingly simple proposition, one carried out by every other carrier-operating fleet, but one the Nazi navy overlooked in its hot pursuit of prestige.
Economically, and by just about every other measure, Hitler’s Germany was a poor shadow of the Kaiser’s Empire. Germany could not afford a massive fleet in any case, let alone while building up strong land and air forces at the same time. Aircraft carriers would be a luxury on top of a luxury, and would need strong support from land-based aircraft to protect them from British attack in and near their bases. That’s difficult to imagine given the fierce service rivalries in Nazi Germany’s feudal structure, as each baron jockeyed for their leader’s favor with little heed for any larger goals.
Still, the planned aircraft carriers make for a very different game in Plan Z than that of the base game, Bismarck. Carrier battles in the North Atlantic!
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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.