Divers working for the Polish oil firm Petrobaltic on Monday discovered the rusting hulk of Nazi Germany's only aircraft carrier, the Graf Zeppelin, sunk in mysterious circumstances by the Soviets after World War II. Its exact location had been a riddle for almost 60 years.
Experts in the Polish Navy, using robots and sonar, confirmed on Thursday that the wreckage really was the Graf Zeppelin. The 260-meter (850-foot) ship had been a showpiece of Hitler's navy, but it never went into battle. Intended to carry 42 planes, the vessel was begun in 1936, launched in 1938, but never finished before German troops had to scuttle it in 1945. It was "a grandiose technical achievement," military historian Ulrich Israel told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "mainly when you consider that the Germans had no examples to work from to build such a carrier."
Hitler started the war before the German navy finished building its prestige ship. His planners gave priority to building U-Boats, and the Graf Zeppelin had to be towed to Gdansk, where it was used for storage. The Germans finally anchored it in a shallow stream feeding the Oder, where troops blew holes in its hull before they fled the invading Red Army. The Soviets renovated the ship, and moved it -- but how it met its final end is still the subject of controversy.
One story says the carrier hit a mine on its way to Russia. Another says the Soviets overloaded it with war booty, causing it to sink in a storm on the Baltic. But Ulrich Israel -- who's written a book about the ship -- claims the still-unfinished Graf Zeppelin was towed from its final harbor in the German town of Swinemünde in August 1947 and destroyed by Soviet bombs and torpedoes. The Russians, evidently with an eye on the American navy, wanted to practice sinking a foreign aircraft carrier.
On Monday, while sounding for oil deposits in the Baltic Sea, Polish workers discovered the wreck about 55 kilometers (34 miles) outside the Polish harbor town of Wladyslawowo, near Gdansk. According to international maritime law the remains belong to the Federal Republic of Germany, but the German Defense Ministry told news agency ddp that jurisdiction is still under discussion. In the meantime, the ship's mysteries are far from fully solved.
"It's difficult to say why the Russians have always been so stubbornly reluctant to talk about the location of the wreck," Lukasz Orlicki, a Polish maritime historian, told the Times of London. "Perhaps it was the usual obsession with secrecy, or perhaps there was some kind of suspect cargo."