Warship Wednesday (on a Thursday) January 26, 2017: The Reich’s diesel-powered floating airport

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday (on a Thursday) January 26, 2017: The Reich’s diesel-powered floating airport

ms-schwabenlandHere we see the one-off Deutsche Luft Hansa catapult ship MS Schwabenland. This sea monster would carve a unique place for herself in maritime history.

Built for the DDG Hansa line to help replace cargo liners sunk during the Great War, she carried the name Schwarzenfels and was a 7,894-ton freighter designed for economical service between Bremen and India.

Capable of carrying 10 second-class passengers in addition to her cargo, her 2 six-cylinder four-stroke diesel engines could chug along at 12-knots for over 10,000 nm. The first of her class, she was accepted into commercial service 16 July 1925 after completion at Deutsche Werke AG, Kiel.

Her design was considered successful, with sister ships Neuenfels, Weissenfels, Braunfels, Rotenfels and Altenfels commissioned by 1927.

However, the burgeoning German airline Deutsche Luft Hansa (now just known as Lufthansa) purchased Schwarzenfels (renamed Swabia) from DDG Hansa on 28 February 1934 and, along with the 1905-circa cargo ship Westphalia (5,098-tons), were converted at AG Weser in Bremen for use as catapult ships for seaplanes for the Lufthansa-Postdienst service in South America.

Under the plan, the freighter would be converted to accept a steam-powered Heinkel K-7 catapult (which raised her tonnage to 8,188) capable of launching a 10-ton Dornier J Katapultwal (Catapult Whale) seaplane aloft.

One of these...seen in Bathurst, Gambia

One of these…seen in Bathurst, Gambia

The two catapult ships would serve mid-ocean and refuel the giant seaplanes along their route from Bathurst, Gambia (West Africa) to Stuttgart, Germany via Natal, Brazil. This service, launched in late 1934 allowed mail to get from South America to Germany in as little as three days– the world’s first regular intercontinental airline service.

The immense Whales would taxi up to the waiting catapult ship, be hoisted aboard, refueled, their crew changed, and then launched back on their way.

However, the scheme was short-lived, with just six Katapultwals in service and other, all-plane routes, later put into service by 1938 which proved faster.


But, Swabia had been relieved on station long before that by the newly built seaplane tender Ostmark.

Leaving for the Azores ready to service the new Ha 139 seaplanes aboard, Swabia, now renamed Schwabenland, initiated a North Atlantic Postal Service in September 1936.

Blohm & Voss Ha 139 on board of the Schwabenland

Blohm & Voss Ha 139 on board of the Schwabenland

With Schwabenland “catching” Ha 139s from Portugal, and launching them to Nova Scotia or New York, where another Lufthansa catapult ship, Friesland, would receive and turn back around, the German airline service completed some 50 cross-Atlantic flights over an 18-month period with the 139s, as well as sending a truly leviathan four-engine Dornier Do 26 on a flight from Europe to Africa.

A giant Blohm & Voss Ha 139, a huge all-metal inverted gull wing floatplane with four 447kW Junkers Jumo 205G diesel engines. Deutsche LuftHansa archive via Diesel Punks http://www.dieselpunks.org/profiles/blogs/s-a-m-11-diesel-mail

A giant Blohm & Voss Ha 139, a huge all-metal inverted gull wing floatplane with four 447kW Junkers Jumo 205G diesel engines. Just three of these were made. Photo via Diesel Punks, which has a great write up on these. 

Blohm und Voss Ha 139 D-AMIE Nordmeer is launched by the Schwabenland’s catapult in 1937

Blohm und Voss Ha 139 D-AMIE Nordmeer is launched by the Schwabenland’s catapult in 1937. For reference, the span of these giant seaplanes is 96 feet, just eight shorter than a PBY Catalina. They could carry 500 kg of mail some 5,000 km

MS Schwabenland about to launch a Ha 139 from it's catapult, 1937. Life archives

MS Schwabenland about to launch a Ha 139 from it’s catapult, 1937. Life archives

In the fall of 1938, Schwabenland was pulled off her regular duties and sent very far south, the North Atlantic postal service ended.


She became part of the Third German Antarctic Expedition (Deutsche Antarkitische Expedition, 1938-39) with two Dornier Do18s, D-AGAT Boreas and D-ALOX Passat, along with 82 scientists and aircrew carried aboard to include the visiting American polar explorer Richard E. Byrd.

German Lufthansa Dornier Do 18E flying boat (D-ABYM "Aeolus") on the catapult of MS Schwabenland

German Lufthansa Dornier Do 18E flying boat (D-ABYM “Aeolus”) on the catapult of MS Schwabenland. The standard German seaplane of early WWII, they could fly 1700nm and carry a pair of light machine guns and bombs. Some 170 were built but only about half that many served in WWII


D-AGAT leaving the cat

Under the command of Kapitän Alfred Ritscher, Schwabenland left Hamburg 17 December 1938 and was off the coast of Antarctica by February 1939. Conducting interactions with the German whaling fleet, the two Wals scouted the pack ice and far inland on 15 lengthy flights, taking thousands of kilometers of film as they overflew the frozen continent.

The Germans laid claim to a portion of the great barren waste (between 20°E and 10°W in Queen Maud Land), naming it Neuschwabenland— after the ship. The more than 16,000 photos obtained took decades to process.


With a war looming, Schwabenland quickly returned home and by October 1939 had been taken up into Luftwaffe service as a plane tender for use with a host of three-engined Blohm & Voss BV 138 Seedrache (Sea Dragon) seaplanes, and given an AAA battery of 8x 20mm singles. Soon, she was operating off France.

By September 1942, she was in Norwegian waters with her BV138s along with her old Lufthansa catapult ship buddy, Westfalen.

She spent most of the war operating Blohm & Voss BV 138 Seedrache (Sea Dragon) seaplanes, such as this one

She spent most of the war operating Blohm & Voss BV 138 Seedrache (Sea Dragon) seaplanes, such as this one. In production after 1940, these planes could carry several small bombs or depth charges to a range of 2600nm, and were among the smallest Schwabenland ever carried.

She sailed towards Eastern Greenland on a rescue mission where she supported one of the two remaining Dornier Do 26 flying boats on two flights (7 and 17 June 1943) to evacuate the 14 meteorologists and radiomen of weather station Holzauge before the USCG could track them down.

Only six Do26 - Transocean Flying Boats were made, and Schwabenland was very connected with them. None of these giant planes survived the war, indeed four had been destroyed before the 1943 weather station rescue

Only six Do 26 – Transocean Flying Boats were made, and Schwabenland was very connected with them. None of these giant planes survived the war, indeed four had been destroyed before the 1943 weather station rescue

The met group had been found by a Danish sled dog patrol and the gig was up. Had it not been for the epic and unsung mission, the Holzaugers would have cooled their heels in a POW camp in Arizona for the rest of the war.

On 24 March 1944, Schwabenland was torpedoed by the British T-class submarine HMS Terrapin (P-323) off Egersund, Norway but was able to limp to pier side. Towed to Bergen, she was further wrecked by an RAF raid there in October. After that, she was suitable only as a floating storage dump.

At the end of the war, the British captured Schwabenland in Oslo fjord and, filling her with over 1,400-tons of poison gas, sank her in the deepwater of the Skagerrak (58 ° 10 ’22 “N, 10 ° 45 ’24” E) on New Year’s Eve 1946.

But of course, the mystery of the Germans in Antarctica far outlived the ship, with all sorts of conspiracy theories advanced for generations about secret Nazi bases among the ice– including that Byrd’s postwar Operation High Jump was an effort to go back and root out said Nazis.

For the debunk on this, here is a 21-page paper with lots more info on our humble catapult ship.


Via Shipbucket

Via Shipbucket with a pair of Seadragons on deck. Note her 20mm AAA guns

Displacement: 7,894, 16,200 tons fl,
Length: 482.3 feet
Beam: 60.37 feet
Draft: 33 feet at fl
Engines: 2 x 6-cyl. 4SCSA DWK diesel engines, dual shaft, 1011  n.h.p., 2 screws
Endurance: 10,000nm with 1600 tons diesel oil
Speed: 11 knots fl, 12 designed
Complement: 45-65
Passengers: 10-82
Aircraft: up to 2 seaplanes on deck after 1934, 10-ton later 14-ton catapult
Armament: 8 x 1 – 20/65 C/38 after 1939

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has it place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I’m a member, so should you be!

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About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as Guns.com, University of Guns, Outdoor Hub, Tac-44, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms Talk.com, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at Amazon.com as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the U.S. federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

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