Germany's first and last aircraft carrier, built by the Nazis in 1936, disappeared into Soviet hands. But a Polish oil company recently discovered the wreck in the Baltic Sea and its identity was confirmed Thursday.
A museum model of the Graf Zeppelin
Adolf Hitler wanted to do everything bigger, better and faster. After all, he was out to conquer the world, or at least a good part of it. The aircraft carrier "Graf Zeppelin" he commissioned to be built in 1935 -- Germany's only aircraft carrier ever -- was no exception.
More than half a century after it mysteriously disappeared, the Graf Zeppelin was recently rediscovered by the Polish oil company Petrobaltic in the Baltic Sea near Gdansk. Experts from the Polish navy confirmed Thursday that the nearly 260-meter (850-foot) wreck is indeed the Nazi carrier, drawing speculations on its fate to a close.
"A grandiose technical accomplishment, especially considering that the Germans didn’t have a single model for the construction of such a carrier," said Ulrich Israel, a military historian and author of a book on the Graf Zeppelin.
Heavy armor allowed space for only 40 aircraft on the Graf Zeppelin
A war machine of huge proportions
Construction on the ship began in 1936, three years before Hitler invaded Poland and World War Two began. It was to be a prestige object for the Nazis and was equipped with engines capable of propelling the 33,000-ton colossus at an impressive 33 knots.
However, practical efficiency was compromised for military prowess: the 1,720-man aircraft carrier could only hold about 40 planes, half as many as British or American contemporary equivalents, but was heavily armored in comparison.
Though the Graf Zeppelin was officially launched in December 1938, construction was never fully completed. Submarines quickly took priority when the war began and the blimp inventor's namesake was sidelined and never saw action.
As the war came to a close and the Nazi Wehrmacht foresaw their demise, demolition squads sank the carrier on April 25, 1945, just days before Hitler's suicide.
An end to conjectures on the ship's fate
A Polish Navy officer holds images of the Graf Zeppelin and sonar pictures of the wreck
At this point, the story of the one-and-only German aircraft carrier becomes somewhat murky. In 1947, it was apparently recovered and repaired by the Soviet Army, only to be declared unsalvageable.
The Soviet forces are said to have sunk the vessel in the Baltic Sea as part of an exercise and its exact location was never revealed -- until the recent discovery by the Polish oil company. According to international maritime law, the Graf Zeppelin should be handed over to the Republic of Germany, which could take a while in this case. German news agency ddp reports that the applicability of the law in this unusual case is being closely examined.