Found: one (1) Nazi aircraft carrier, slightly waterworn

Here’s an item I noted and filed away this summer: back in July, a Polish oil company stumbled across the sunken wreck of the Graf Zeppelin, an aircraft carrier built (but never fully completed) by Germany shortly before the Second World War. (And here’s some additional speculation about its ultimate fate.) Although it never saw combat action and was scuttled in the final stretch of the war, it had the distinction of being the only carrier in Germany’s fleet. As usual, Wikipedia’s got the gritty details.

It’s a pretty monumental artifact of the war, and not surprisingly the Russians have been quick to lay claim to it. It’s also good fodder for those always-entertaining “what-if” questions: what if Germany had focused more heavily on its naval forces, supplementing its famous submarine fleet with a carrier task force or two? (Of course, as any Axis and Allies player knows, that’s just not practical–the money is much better spent building tanks with which to invade Russia, and even if Germany managed to launch a carrier, those pesky British would just immediately fly over and sink it.)

The short but glorious reign of the schnellbomber

Over the holiday weekend, we had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of the USAF near Dayton, Ohio. It’s a phenomenal museum, and well worth the visit should you find yourself in the area.

Due to time constraints, we were only able to fully explore the World War II section of the museum, which includes among other things the B-29 that dropped the second atomic bomb. The aircraft that interested me the most, however, was a restored Junkers Ju 88–an aircraft I’d not before seen in person. (A subsequent internet search revealed that there are just a handful of restored Ju 88s today–the first one pictured on that list is the one we saw at the Museum.)

The Ju 88 represents a curious and short-lived period of military aviation history. Between the two World Wars, military thinkers around the world (Billy Mitchell being perhaps the most famous) spent a lot of time trying to figure out how airplanes, which had shown promise but had not proved decisive in World War I, could best be used in future conflicts.

The Ju 88 was an effort to meet the German ideal for combat aircraft: the schnellbomber, a fast, agile plane that combined the speed and manuverability of a fighter with the heavy armament and payload of a bomber. It was a fast medium bomber that could, in theory, hit enemy ground targets while holding its own against enemy fighters. The Ju 88 was but one of several aircraft built to meet this vision–other German aircraft in this vein included the infamous Stuka dive bomber, the unusual Me 110 “Zerstorer,” the Do-17 “Flying Pencil,” and the He-111. These bombers are unique, perhaps a bit ugly even, in appearance–but they seem to me to possess a sort of curious elegance.

All of these fighter/bomber hybrids saw action in the early months of World War II. They enjoyed great success in the Spanish Civil War, and performed reasonably well during the Blitzkrieg. The Battle of Britain, however, was where they were really put to the test–they would be facing a prepared foe armed with capable aircraft. By the end of that hard-fought campaign, it was clear that the schnellbomber concept didn’t work as well in reality as it did in theory. Their speed was not enough to protect them from the top-of-the-line British fighters of the day (which were themselves getting faster and more powerful as time went on); the Ju 88 and its brethren actually required a fighter escort if they hoped to survive above England. Nor were their bombing capabilities sufficient for the task; their relatively limited payloads (compared to the Allied heavy bombers that would soon be clouding the skies over Germany) made them rather mediocre strategic bombers.

Like its fellow medium bombers, the Ju 88 was a solid aircraft but too much of a jack-of-all-trades to hold its own in the face of rapidly-advancing fighter and bomber technology. After a short period of dominance before and immediately after the start of the war, most of the schnellbomber-type planes were quickly outclassed. Most German planes of this type ended up being reassigned to secondary roles (reconnaissance, night-fighter duty, etc.), where they performed competently but unremarkably until Germany’s surrender. But they were important precursors to the more specialized fighters and bombers that, by the war’s end, would completely redefine the practice of war.