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Graf Zeppelin Class

Peter Strasser

Line drawing of Graf Zeppelin

Displacement 28,000 tons
Armament Over 40 twin-barrelled
4.1" + smaller AA
Aircraft 48 + spares
Speed 34 knots
VTS Rating   1   2   8 (2)

The real Graf Zeppelin (19,000 tons standard) was launched with much fanfare in 1938, heralding a potential new era of the Kriegsmarine that included a Fleet air component to bring it up to the standards of the world's air-minded navies. Germany's second-in-command, Hermann Göring, was the architect of the world's most powerful and advanced Air Force, but he sadly neglected his Naval Air Arm. The Graf Zeppelin languished with half-hearted effort to build her, and she was never completed. If she had completed on time, perhaps she could have sortied with Bismarck and Prinz Eugen and fended off the crucial air attack that crippled the Bismarck and led to her demise. Though handy to have, the Graf Zeppelin by herself would have added little to the weak navy of the Third Reich. A few more like her, plus some good escort ships, may have made a credible threat to the Royal Navy. The aircraft slated for her were of world standard but mere mediocre conversions of land planes, and too few in number to be very effective. Still, the British had done wonders with the seemingly antiquated aircraft operating from old WW I converted large cruisers like Furious and especially the larger, more modern armored carriers like Illustrious. Realistically, though, the original Graf Zeppelin paled in comparison to the USS Enterprise, another 1938 ship of similar (roughly 19,000) tonnage, in everything but speed. (A drawing of the "real" Graf Zeppelin, studded with light cruiser guns, is used for the story of Pommern.)

In "Grand Fleet" the rough edges of the beginnings of naval aviation for the Kriegsmarine have been smoothed over by the time the Graf Zeppelin class of aircraft carriers is completed. Germany now has a class of large "Fleet" carriers to go with the other gunships that the "Z-Plan" had envisioned. Realizing that her greatest asset is her aircraft and her greatest threat comes from enemy aircraft, the Kriegsmarine equips GZ with dozens of dual-purpose or single-purpose AA guns in open hull casemates and island mountings, and dispenses with the cruiser guns of her hybrid predecessors Graf Fitti, Seydlitz, and Pommern. Her aircraft, combining German technology and Japanese expertise, are the premier naval aircraft in Europe and equal to those of the Pacific powers, though still far fewer in number. The old accellerator trolleys of early days are replaced with powerful hydraulic catapults using an American-type aircraft attachment. Her island is more compact but command-friendly and reasonably aerodynamic. Still, she heads a few degrees to starboard of upwind when landing on aircraft to keep vortexes from developing in the landing pattern. The Peter Strasser is nearly identical, though she will complete a year later.

Peter Strasser had a short career. In the year between her sister's first appearance and her own, the "Happy Time" of easy German naval successes had passed, and the production of Allied warships had far surpassed the ability of the Germans to keep up. Peter Strasser fought the Soviet Navy and her aircraft scored multiple hits on the battlecruiser Tretij Internacional in the Baltic. When the Strasser headed into the North Sea with the main German battlefleet to intercept a Murmansk-bound convoy, the Allied fleet was ready. Good Allied air cover prevented Strasser's aircraft from approaching the convoy, so they had to attack the nearest Allied ship or turn back. The ship below was a strange configuration of carrier deck and large gun turrets, and was reported by the German pilots as the Dutch Molucca. Though similar in appearance to the Dutch ship, this were actually the British Lion class of hybrid battleships with a more powerful armament and better armor, but with slightly fewer aircraft. The encounter ended in defeat for the Germans, and the damaged, nearly planeless, and retreating Strasser could neither outfight nor outrun the British hybrids. In a sinking condition when the Lion caught up to her, the Strasser was sunk by 16" shells at point-blank range.

The Graf Zeppelin, on the other hand, had a long and glorious career in several oceans. While the British worried over the breakout of the Bismarck in Northern waters, Graf Zeppelin and several light cruisers made a carefully-planned, simultaneous dash through the English Channel to the South Atlantic. All her attack aircraft were land-bound in France and only fighter aircraft were aboard, taken from every Naval Fighter Geschwader for the occasion. The land-based Luftwaffe cooperated and helped cover her, too. After she passed the Channel and was safely out in the Atlantic, her extra fighters flew back to France, and her bombers landed back on. GZ's aircraft were able to sink shadowing cruisers and snooping Catalina flying boats to keep the British guessing as to the little squadron's location. While Bismarck triumphantly returned to Brest, GZ was finding and sinking merchant ships off Africa and even refuelling her escorts from a captured tanker. In late December, 1941, GZ made a high-speed night run into the southern Caribbean with the intent of attacking the Panama Canal. Cloaked in a fast-moving tropical storm, she passed between islands and entered the Caribbean undetected. Just before dawn, her planes, equipped with oversized drop tanks to allow a more fuel-consuming, under-the-radar low-level approach, torpedoed the dam holding water back to make a navigable lake, and bombed and sank two ships occupying the Gatun Locks. A brief skirmish with defending fighters claimed a few planes on both sides. This attack set back Canal operations six months as salvage crews tried to repair and raise the sunken ships to clear the Canal. This glorious exploit and the Pearl Harbor attacks electrified the German High Command about the potential of aircraft carriers and speeded up the conversion of the heavy carrier Europa.

In Argentina, a Heinkel shadow-factory with an advanced party of German mechanics and reserve pilots had finished assembling and testing the crated new FMA-100T (Fabrica Militar de Aviones) naval fighters, a development of the Heinkel He-100. Built initially for the Japanese, dozens of FMA-100's were loaded onto the Graf Zeppelin to ferry to the Marshall Islands, and other navalized FMA-100T's joined the carrier's air complement as her highly-modified "experienced" Messerschmitt Bf-109T-3R's were given over to Argentina. With her new fighters, GZ headed 'round the Horn for the Pacific.

Refuelling from an Argentine tanker near the Galapagos Islands, GZ continued on toward Samoa where she encountered the battleship Pennsylvania, the seaplane tender Curtiss, and some light cruisers of the US Navy. She kept her distance as good carriers should, sunk the Curtiss to keep her aircraft from shadowing the Germans, and damaged the BB with air attacks. Nearing the huge Japanese base at Truk, her crew was gladdened by the sight of an Aichi 119 (license-built Heinkel He-119) German reconnaisance aircraft of Kommando Marschall escorting her in. Fleet Admiral Yamaguchi, Grossadmiral Marschall himself, and the Japanese base commander were all piped aboard to welcome the Graf Zeppelin as an addition to the Combined Fleet. They eagerly inspected the vessel, comparing it favorably to the Japanese carrier Katsuragi.

With some aircraft ferried in by Pommern and some flown or shipped over, the Kommando had been training with the Japanese for over a year. Planning for this day, the Germans and Japanese had pooled their resources to make Junkers Jumo in-line engines for Japan. Now a new Jumo-engined D4J1 "See Stuka", code-named "Irene" by the Allies, became the prime dive-bomber for both Japanese and German carriers. Their common torpedo bomber was the Jumo-enhanced "Kate" ("Katrina" in Germany) that was getting obsolescent as the newer, all-Japanese "Grace" bomber finished evaluations. Each country stuck with their favorite fighter aircraft, and pilots raced and tested each other's planes.

In a "warm-up" battle in the South Pacific with the Rengo Kantai (Combined Fleet), the Graf Zeppelin was exposed to the dazzling circus of a multi-carrier task force's attacks and defense. Her aircraft managed to sink an American heavy cruiser and put hits in the Enterprise, but aircraft losses were heavy. When the Japanese made another run to Ceylon and beyond, the Graf Zeppelin accompanied the speedy Japanese fleet and fought in a huge international sea battle. She put the Dutch carrier Molucca out of commission, but took a large bomb hit herself. Although tempted to continue on to return to their homeland, the crew of GZ learned that the war at sea in the Atlantic had turned against the Axis, with the Allies dominant everywhere beyond the immediate shores of northern Europe. Any attempt to return to Germany by herself would be suicidal, especially in light of recent battle damage and pilot attrition. Repairing in Singapore, GZ was assigned to convoy duty in Indonesia while new pilots (mainly Japanese, now) were assigned and trained. As the juggernaut of American seapower rolled over the former German possessions in the Marshall Islands, the Graf Zeppelin responded along with much of the available Japanese carrier fleet. Too late to stop the invasion or to prevent the local airfields from being used by the Americans, the Combined Fleet was decimated by the onslaught of American airpower, and Graf Zeppelin succumbed to successful attacks by US Marine dive bombers despite the furious fighter defense put up by her Argentine Heinkels.

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