— Diving Hitler’s Aircraft Carrier
Having dived over 400 wrecks, Vic Verlinden is an avid, pioneering wreck diver, award-winning underwater photographer and dive guide from Belgium.
His work has been published in dive magazines and technical diving publications in the United States, Russia, France, Germany, Belgium, United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
He is the organizer of tekDive-Europe technical dive show. See: tekdive-europe.com.
Type: Aircraft carrier
Build: Deutsche Werke Shipyard, Kiel 1936
Builder: German Navy
Tonnage: 33,550 tonnes
Propulsion: 4 turbines; 4 propellers
Speed: 35 knots
Range: 6,500 miles
There have been a few times during my life as a diver that I have had the opportunity to dive an extraordinary wreck. The Graf Zeppelin is one such wreck. It is more than a shipwreck, it is also one of the great mysteries of World War II. Most people do not know that the Germans built an aircraft carrier. Here is her story.
When the dictator of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, arrived at the shipyard in Kiel on 8 December 1938, he was accompanied by Field Marshal Hermann Göring and Grand Admiral Eric Raeder. Several hundred other invited guests as well as all the employees of the shipyard and their families also attended this auspicious day. For, on this day, the very first aircraft carrier in the history of the German navy was launched. Various film crews set up their cameras just before the launch, so they could capture this historic moment on film.
The family crest of the Von Zeppelin family was mounted on the bow of this mighty ship. After a few short speeches were made, the ship glided from the slipway while thousands of spectators cheered, wishing the ship godspeed.
The Graf Zeppelin rode high on the water, as a lot of the upper superstructure and armaments had yet to be installed. In addition, the elevators, which were needed to bring the 42 planes from the hangar to the deck, were yet to be installed. The 60mm steel deck was also yet to be covered with wooden planking.
While the work progressed to complete the aircraft carrier, the situation in Europe became worse. However, upon the start of World War II in September 1939, the ship was still not yet finished.
Because the building of U-boats had priority over the completion of the Graf Zeppelin, the ship was laid up in the port of Gdynia, Poland. Here, it was out of reach of the bombers of the British Royal Air Force. However, on August 27, the British air force did attempt an attack, sending 12 Lancaster bombers to destroy the ship. Due to bad weather, the attempt failed.
In the following years, the ship was used as a depot for military materials. Finally, on 27 April 1945, the vessel was to be sunk with the use of explosive charges to prevent the ship from falling into the hands of the approaching Russian troops.
A second life
When the Russians found the Graf Zeppelin, the vessel was not completely submerged and was presumed intact. After a brief inspection, the damage became apparent and repairs to raise the ship were started immediately. In September 1945, it was reported the ship was floating again near Stettin. However, due to the Cold War, little news about the ship came out. Some sources reported she was serving in the Soviet navy. Others presumed she had been sunk by a mine whilst loaded with looted artifacts 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. A short while later, the Polish navy investigated with a submersible robot and confirmed the discovery of the Graf Zeppelin. It is still not known what the cargo of the ship was.
Organizing a diving expedition
I planned to dive this unique wreck as early as 2012. I contacted my good friend Sebastian Popek from Poland. He chartered a ship, which could cover the distance to the wreck, and he also gathered a group of technical divers who could make such a dive. Two weekends were proposed, so we would have a reasonable chance of sailing to the wreck. It was necessary to have stable weather to do the technical dives. Shortly before my departure, I received a message that the weather in the Baltic was not good, and we would try again the following week. However, when the following week came, the weather was still too bad for diving, and our trip to Poland was cancelled.
In 2014, a new opportunity to dive the wreck presented itself. My colleague, Robert Grzesecki, left me a message on Facebook about bringing together a group to go to the wreck. As one of the divers had to cancel, a spot had opened which I could take. The date of the trip was set for July 12th to 19th. During this period, we had the best chance of good weather in this region.
A journey of obstacles
One of other Belgian divers who joined this expedition made it easier for me to get to the departure point by offering me a lift to Poland, and so we drove there together. Bjorn Slootmaekers, who would also be diving on a rebreather, would be my buddy for the dives to the Graf Zeppelin. The Italian diver, Aldo Ferucci, with whom I had done several expeditions, would also join our team. The other participants were English and German divers.
Team leader, Robert Grzesecki, prepared dive plans for the whole week. The plan was to dive some known and some unknown wrecks. However, the planned dive to the wreck of the Franken was cancelled due to a recent accident in which two Polish divers had perished.
On the first day of the expedition, we made a test dive in the harbor of Hel. During this dive, we had the opportunity to check our rebreathers one final time and adjust the amount of dive weights we used.
From the next day on, however, there was a lot of wind and fairly high waves. Therefore, we decided to stay close to the shore, as this provided calmer waters. However, the visibility was limited to 1.5 meters, rendering underwater photography impossible.
Finally, on Wednesday, we were able to moor the dive boat farther out to sea, at an unknown wreck site which we had planned to dive. The wreck lay at a depth of 65m and was only dived upon once last year. When I started the descent, the visibility was limited to 4m; beyond the thermocline at 15m, the water became clear and much colder. The wreck itself was heavily damaged and overgrown with small shellfish. Everywhere I looked, I saw heavy fishing nets, which covered the wreck, creating dangerous obstacles for the unwary diver.
Unfortunately, when I wanted to use my camera, the flash would not respond, and the battery appeared to be empty. Most likely, I had left the pilot light on during the last dive.
At first sight, the wreck did not reveal many recognizable parts. It was only in the last moments of our dive that we encountered a piece of the wreck standing straight up, about 10m in height. Here, there were also lots of nets present, and we had to be very careful not to get caught in them. After completing our ascent, we were picked up by the dive boat via a lift onto the boat. Robert told us that he found the steering wheel and telegraph on the higher parts of the wreck. Unfortunately, we had ended our dive at that point and missed these finds.
Finally, the Graf Zeppelin!
Thursday brought too much wind to dive, but we decided to spend the night at sea anyway, as Friday promised to bring a window of calm weather. If we departed early enough for the wreck site, we would indeed be able to dive the Graf Zeppelin.
In the morning, the waves were about two meters high, but we still had to sail for three hours to the location of the wreck. However, the wind died completely upon our arrival at the wreck’s location.
After a short briefing, expedition leaders Robert and Natty prepared themselves to make the first dive. The agreement was to wait for their report before a second team would enter the water.
When they completed their decompression stops, they came back with bad news: A large fishing net was caught on the down line. It stretched 45m up from the wreck, supported by floaters. It would be too dangerous to send all the expedition teams down at this location, so we decided to reposition the down line at a different spot on the wreck.
When the repositioning was completed, I would be able to go down to the wreck with the third team. This team included Bjorn Slootmaekers, Aldo Ferucci, Marcello Bussotti and myself.
The wreck lay at a depth between 70 and 90m. The water temperature was only 4°C at this depth. During the descent, we passed through another thermocline with bad visibility, but once below 20m, the water became clear. At a depth of 50m, I could already see the shadow of the wreck, and at 70m, I landed on the deck.
First, I prepared my camera and decided to swim along the deck where a large hole was visible. I could clearly see the chain and its sprocket that was 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 so as not to swim into an enclosed space. I could now 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 led me to decide to swim back to the down line.
On the deck, we encountered another team that just completed their descent. For us, the 20 minutes of bottom time was up, and we had to start a long period of decompression time.
After the dive, everybody agreed that this was a beautiful dive and certainly worth all the troubles. After thee years of waiting, I had finally made a dive on this magical wreck. It was a shame that the wind picked up again, making a second dive impossible, but I can’t wait to make more dives on this giant with a secret past. ■