During the course of the sea war to the end of 1941, the aircraft carrier took on ever-greater significance: British carrier-based planes were able to make a heavy attack on the Italian fleet at Tarento in November of 1940, a chance strike by British torpedo bombers decided the battle against the battleship BISMARCK, and the successful attack of carrier-supported Japanese bombers and torpedo planes against the American fleet at Pearl Harbor made this, change in maritime war and its weapons abundantly clear. Thus the lack of their own aircraft carriers was soon seen in Germany as a great disadvantage, and the naval leadership was constantly under pressure to finish the GRAF ZEPPELIN and put it into service. The decisive discussion took place at the Führer’s headquarters on April 16, 1942. Its results can be summed up as follows:
1. The work on the ship’s hull and machinery-at first just half the powerplant-could be done by the summer of 1943.
2. The use of adapted versions of the aircraft types “Me 109” or “Bf 109” and “Ju 87” as originally planned, the only possibilities considered at that time, made certain modifications of the flight system necessary. Above all, high-powered catapults would be necessary, and their development, construction and testing would require up to two years. The possibility of adapting the existing catapults and making them ready for use was also considered, though, and the space of six months seemed sufficient for this. In view of this situation, the winter of 1943-44 appeared to be the earliest possible time at which the carrier could be completed. The development of a special type of aircraft for carrier use seemed, as the Luftwaffe saw it, not to be possible before 1946.
3. The Luftwaffe at first declared that it was ready to prepare ten fighter planes and twenty-two dive bombers (which were also to be used for reconnaissance). The use of torpedo bombers was given up because of Hitler’s attitude that they were not necessary.
Under these conditions, the Naval High Command issued orders on May 13, 1942 for the continued construction and completion of the carrier GRAF ZEPPELIN. Along with the changes in the flight system, there were several other modifications that had become necessary on account of the further development of naval technology since 1938-39. Above all, the structure of the island was no longer sufficient. A heavy mast with a fighter-plane command post in its top and radar equipment had to replace the former staff mast, and the ship’s command and weapons control headquarters had to be housed in a shrapnel-proof housing. In addition, a tall funnel was necessary to keep the fighter command post free of smoke. All of this effected a considerable gain in weight, which-to maintain the ship’s stability-had to be equalized. For that reason, bulges were built on either side, which primarily had the job of equalizing weight. The port bulge was made of normal ST 52 shipbuilding steel, the starboard bulge of thinner material, 18mm thick at most. The bulges had a maximum width of 2.4 meters and were attached over the bilge keels. They were partially used as heating-oil bunkers; this allowed an increase in the ship’s range, which had previously been considered too short. In addition, the bulges offered the advantage of better protection against underwater weapons, because if a torpedo or mine struck, the center of detonation would be moved farther out.
The originally planned 2 cm single anti-aircraft guns were also no longer sufficient. Instead of them, 2 cm quadruple mounts were called for, with larger supplies of ammunition-now 56,000 rounds compared the former 14,000. As for aircraft, 28 “Ju 87” dive-bombers and twelve “BF 109” fighter planes were now planned for, forty planes in all.
Because of the steadily increasing danger of air attacks, the transfer of the ship, under the false name of “Zander”, to Kiel, where the planned work was to be done, was delayed. First the Gotenhafen branch of the Deutsche Werke Kiel AG had to install an armament of three 3.7 cm twin and six 2 cm quadruple guns as well as four anti-aircraft searchlights, so that the ship would be able to defend itself against air attack during the transfer trip. Towed by three tugboats, the GRAF ZEPPELIN left Gotenhafen on November 30, 1942; its escort fleet consisted of three Type 35 minesweepers and six patrol boats. On December 3, 1942 the escort reached the Heikendorf Bay near Kiel, on December 5 it arrived at the Deutsche Werke, where the carrier was immediately docked in a 40,000-ton floating dock and the shipbuilding work (the construction of the bulges) began.
At the same time, work on the machinery commenced, with the goal of making the two inner shafts ready for a speed of 25 to 26 knots. The autumn of 1943 was set as the target for putting the ship in service provisionally; after that, testing was to begin. But all of this never took place. On January 30, 1943 came the “Führer’s Command” to take all large units of the navy out of action or halt their construction-in the words of the Commander of the Navy, Grand Admiral Dr. h.c. Raeder, it was “the cheapest sea victory that England ever won” and the reason for his departure. On February 2, 1943 the order to stop work reached the GRAF ZEPPELIN until March, the only work done was that which would allow pumping by steam pumps in case of a leak.
On April 21 tugs took the carrier in tow, arriving in Stettin two days later. There-with just half a meter of water under its keel-it was moored in the Monne (an arm of the Oder). Only twice more was the GRAF ZEPPELIN the subject of official discussion: in the spring of 1943 the Ministry of Armament asked whether the carrier could be considered as a transporter of rubber from Japan– rubber was a raw material that was very necessary for the German armaments industry but it was in very short supply-and in the summer of 1944 the conversion of the ship into living quarters for officers’ orderlies was considered. Neither of these considerations became reality, because no requirements for them were given.