German Carriers, Part Three
Nazi Germany never completed an aircraft carrier, but in previous installments we’ve looked at those they planned, including fleet carriers built as such from the keel up and others converted from gigantic ocean liners. The most practical, and probably the most needed, of the proposed conversions was also the one with the lowest priority.
The liners Gneisenau and Potsdam were requisitioned at the outbreak of war for use as transports, and in May 1942 planning began to convert them into the escort carriers Jade and Elbe. At 18 knots they would not be fast enough to accompany the fleet, and they would not have operated large air groups (two dozen planes apiece). Germany had little need for escort carriers, with her convoy routes in the Baltic Sea and along the Norwegian coast lying well within the range of land-based aircraft and seaplanes (when the Luftwaffe could be convinced to fly naval-related missions).
Germany did, however, need a training carrier – preferably, two of them. Without such a flight deck, the Germans would have to train pilots in carrier landings using their fleet carriers. In the toxic environment of German inter-service politics, that would have caused even greater conflict between Navy and Air Force, since pilots would have remained part of the Luftwaffe, not the Navy. It would have created a conflict between the need to train rest of the carrier’s crew during peacetime, and to work with pilots. And during wartime, operational availability – never very good for German warships thanks to their over-complicated machinery – would have been dramatically reduced as the training mission came into conflict with combat deployments.
So converting these smaller liners first would have made very good sense. But very little related to the Nazis’ feudal state made good sense and it at times looks even more insane and illogical in hindsight. The liners could not be converted in 1936 (when the first fleet carrier, Graf Zeppelin, was laid down) because they had other important roles to play in the Nazis’ twisted charade.
Gneisenau and Potsdam, like Bremen and Europa, were owned by the North German Lloyd (Norddeutscher Lloyd, or NDL) line; those four ships were the only large NDL liners to make it home to Germany when war broke out in 1939. And it’s not coincidental that these would be the four liners chosen for carrier conversion.
Building the huge Bremen and Europa at the height of the Great Depression crushed the NDL. In 1932 the line laid off 5,000 workers, and was placed in a government-directed trust. The NDL was forced to transfer routes and ships to other lines. When the Nazis took over they increased the government’s stake, taking a majority ownership position, and appointed Rudolph Firle, an ardent Nazi, to run the company.
Firle, a Great War naval hero (he commanded the torpedo boat that sank the British battleship Goliath in the Dardanelles, as seen in Great War at Sea: Mediterranean), enjoyed a great deal of influence within the party. Government funds flowed into the NDL, and in 1935 the line laid down three modern new long-range liners for the East Asia run: Gneisenau, Potsdam and their sister, Scharnhorst. By 1939 the NDL had 70 ships and was back up to 12,000 employees, with the five large liners forming the line’s crown jewels.
The NDL's liner Gneisenau.
The war ended the NDL’s recovery, and in 1940 Firle retired to become a consultant to the Ministry of Transport. Deprived of its influential baron, the NDL’s stock plummeted both literally and figuratively. By late 1941 the Nazis had decided to sell their stake in the line to cigarette manufacturer Phillip Reemstma, a strong party supporter who had used his standing to garner a 60-percent market share despite the Nazis’ official stance against tobacco. By the time the sale took place in the spring of 1942, all five of the “crown jewel” liners had been sold for conversion to aircraft carriers: four of them to the German Kriegsmarine, and the fifth to the Imperial Japanese Navy. Reemstma may have had the Party’s favor, but that didn’t stop the Nazis from stripping the NDL’s assets before selling the company. There were more suitable ships available for conversion, but none so ripe for plucking.
The decision to convert liners into aircraft carriers is almost always described in the literature as a response to military events, chiefly the successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. While that’s certainly true, the impulse to remove the big liners from the NDL before its sale also played a role. And so the naval architect began to draw plans to convert Gneisenau and Potsdam into Jade and Elbe.
Jade and Elbe would have displaced about 23,000 tons as carriers, compared to 18,000 as liners. As with the Europa design, that led to some serious stability issues, and the architects at first planned to correct that with bulges and concrete armor, later substituting an armored belt fixed to the ship’s sides similar to the stiffening given the cruiser Karlsruhe in 1938 following hurricane damage.
The new carriers would retain their liner power plants, giving them a top speed of 18 knots after all of the additional weight (as liners, they made 21 knots). Their anti-aircraft armament consisted of a dozen 105mm (4.1-inch) guns in six twin mounts, and 34 light guns. They would carry 24 aircraft, split evenly between Me109T fighters and Ju87C dive bombers.
Work actually began on Potsdam/Elbe in December 1942, with the removal of fittings from her staterooms and cabins. That stopped in February of the following year, the only work ever done on any of the carrier conversions. She spent the rest of the war as a barracks ship, while her sister served as a troop transport until mined in the western Baltic Sea in May 1943.
The Japanese, with a wealth of experience, had far less trouble rebuilding Scharnhorst as the escort carrier Shinyo – raising the question how just how seriously the Kriegsmarine took its carrier program. They corrected the stability problem with bulges, and had the ship ready for service 15 months after commencing work. Shinyo carried 27 planes (plus a half-dozen disassembled spares) so in this case the projected German air group seems about right.
In the German Navy’s quest for aircraft carriers, the issue of where carrier-qualified pilots would be obtained – or even the need for carrier qualification – seems to have fallen into the gaping chasms of the Nazi bureaucracy. Ships were the Navy’s problem. Airplanes and pilots were the Air Force’s problem. The Air Force built a simulated version of Graf Zeppelin’s carrier deck, complete with arrestor gear, at Travemünde near Lübeck and trained some pilots there, but this carrier did not move. The Navy allotted six months of Graf Zeppelin’s working-up period for pilot training, but this stopgap would not have provided any replacement pilots.
Thus the two escort carriers would have been vital to creating a German carrier arm, but in their liner guise they were also vital to the rebirth of NDL as a viable state-owned enterprise. With Rudolph Firle and his Party connections at its head, NDL was not going to lose its brand-new liners to some fantastical scheme to build aircraft carriers. Fortunately, as was often the case, the Nazis were foiled by their Nazism.
In Second World War at Sea: Plan Z we’ve taken two of Firle’s beloved long-range liners and converted them into the escort carriers Elbe and Jade, giving the Germans vital carrier experience before war erupts and a couple of slow, small carriers for some scenarios. It’s kind of a stretch, but so is the whole notion of a completed Plan Z.
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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.