Graf Zeppelin - Diving Hitler's Aircraft-Carrier
WHEN ADOLF HITLER arrived at the shipyard in Kiel on 8 December, 1938, he was accompanied by Field-Marshal Goering and Great-Admiral Raeder, several hundred other invited guests and all the shipyard’s employees and their families.
This was the day that the first bierkrat-carrier in the history of the German navy was launched, and film-crews had set up their cameras to capture this historical moment.
The family crest of the Von Zeppelin family was mounted on the bow of this mighty vessel. After a few short speeches, the ship glided from the slipway and thousands of spectators cheered and wished her God speed.
The Graf Zeppelin rode high on the water, because much of the upper superstructure and armaments had yet to be installed. The elevators needed to bring the 42 planes from the hangar to the deck still had to be put in, too, and the 60mm steel deck had to be covered with wooden planking.
As the work to finish the carrier progressed, the situation in Europe was worsening. When World War Two broke out the following September, the ship was still unfinished.
Building U-boats now had priority over completion of the Graf Zeppelin, so she was to be laid up in the Polish port of Gdynia, supposedly beyond the reach of RAF bombers. However, on 27 August 12 Lancaster bombers did attempt to destroy the ship, though bad weather foiled their efforts.
In the following years Graf Zeppelin was used as depot for military materiel. Finally, on 27 April, 1945, she was ordered to be sunk using explosive charges so that she would not fall into the hands of approaching Russian troops.
When the Russians found the Graf Zeppelin, however, she was still not completely submerged and presumed intact. After a brief inspection efforts to raise the ship were started immediately.
That September Graf Zeppelin was reported to be afloat again, near Stettin. But as the Cold War got underway, little news of the ship emerged. Some sources reported her as serving in the Soviet navy.
Others presumed she had been sunk by a mine while loaded with looted artefacts and other spoils of war.
The truth finally surfaced in July 2006, when a Polish oil company was researching the seabed of the Baltic Sea about 40 miles north of the port of Wladyslawowo. Soon afterwards the Polish navy sent in a submersible robot and confirmed the finding of the Graf Zeppelin. The cargo was still unknown.
I PLANNED TO DIVE this unique wreck as early as 2012, and contacted my good friend in Poland Sebastian Popek. He had chartered a ship that could go the distance to the wreck and assembled a group of suitably qualified technical divers.
Two weekends were proposed that would give us a reasonable chance of reaching the wreck, because stable weather would be vital.
Shortly before my departure I received a message that the weather in the Baltic was too bad and we moved the date back a week. But that week proved no better, and our trip to Poland had to be cancelled.
In 2014 a new opportunity arose. Robert Grzesecki announced on Facebook that he was putting together a group to visit the wreck; one of the divers had pulled out so an opening was available. The trip was set for 12-19 July, when it was reckoned we had the best chance of good weather in the region.
One other Belgian diver signed up for this expedition made life easier for me as we were able to drive to Poland together. Bjorn Slootmaekers would also be using a rebreather and would be my dive-buddy.
I knew the Italian diver Aldo Ferucci from previous expeditions, and the other divers were English and German.
Robert had prepared dive plans for the whole week, covering both known and some unknown wrecks, but a planned dive to the Franken had to be cancelled because of a recent accident in which two Polish divers had perished.
On the first day we carried out a test dive in the harbour of Hel. This gave us the opportunity to check our rebreathers and adjust our weights where needed.
From day one there was a lot of wind and fairly high waves, so we decided to stay close to the shore where the water was calmer. Even here visibility was limited to 1.5m, rendering underwater photography impossible.
Finally, on the Wednesday we were able to stand further out to sea, where a dive on an unknown wreck was planned. It lay in 65m and had been dived only once before, the previous year. At the start of the descent visibility was limited to 4m, but beyond the thermocline at 15m the water became clear and much colder.
The wreck was heavily damaged and overgrown with small shellfish. Everywhere I looked heavy fishing-nets covered the wreck, creating danger for the unwary diver.
When I wanted to use my camera the flash failed to respond and the battery appeared to be drained – I must have left the pilot-light on during the earlier dive.
The wreck presented little that was recognisable, except in the last moments of our dive when we encountered a section standing straight up for about 10m. Again with so much net present we he had to be careful not to get caught.
Back on board, Robert told us how he had found the steering wheel and telegraph in the upper parts of the wreck. We had ended our dive at that point and missed these!
Thursday brought us too much wind to dive but we decided to spend the night at sea anyway, because Friday promised a calmer weather window. If we could depart early enough we might be able to dive the Graf Zeppelin.
In the morning the waves were about 2m high, and we still had a three-hour trip to make. What we had given up expecting happened anyway – the wind died completely as we arrived at the wreck-site.
After a short briefing Robert and Natty prepared to make the first dive. We would wait for their report before a second team entered the water.
After completing their decompression stops they came back up with bad news.
A large net was present on the downline, reaching 45m up from the wreck and supported by floaters. It would be too dangerous to send all the teams down there, so we decided to reposition the line.
This done, I was able to go down to the wreck with the third team, the others being Bjorn, Aldo and Marcello Bussotti. The wreck lay between 70 and 90m and the water temperature was only 4°C at this depth.
ON THE DESCENT we passed through another thermocline with bad visibility, but below 20m the water became clear.
At 50m I could already see the shadow of the wreck, and at 70m I landed on the deck.
I prepared my camera and decided to swim along the deck to where a large hole was visible. I could clearly see the chain and its sprocket, used to move the elevators up and down.
A little further on a part of the ventilation system mounted in the elevator-shaft was visible.
We now found ourselves at a depth of 75m and had to constantly look up to avoid swimming into an enclosed space.
I could see one of the elevator platforms lying upside-down in the elevator-shaft. The water was freezing at this depth and my hands slowly started to cramp up, which was what made me decide to swim back to the downline.
On the deck we encountered another team that had just completed their descent. Our 20 minutes’ bottom time were up, and we started a long deco.
After the dive everybody agreed that this was a beautiful dive, and certainly worth all the troubles along the way.
After thee years I had finally dived on this magical wreck.
It was a shame that the wind picked up again, making a second dive impossible. I can’t wait to carry out more dives on this giant that still conceals a secret past.
Built: Deutsche Werke shipyard Kiel 1936
Builder: German navy
Tonnage: 33,550 tonnes
Propulsion: Four turbines, four propellers
Speed: 35 knots
Range: 6500 miles