Karl Dönitz - Commander of the Wolfpack Documentary
The man known to history as Karl Dönitz was born on the 16th of September 1891 in Grunau, which was a town near Berlin at the time, but which is now a suburb of the German capital. Karl’s father was Emil Dönitz, an engineer, a profession which ensured that the Dönitz family were comfortably middle class in the Berlin of the late nineteenth century. His mother was Anna Dönitz, née Bayer, who also had a second older son with Emil. Karl Dönitz’s early life and childhood were markedly uneventful.
He was born into a middle-class family and he enjoyed the fruits of this circumstance at a time when Europe was swimming in new money created by the Industrial Revolution and the First Age of Globalization. He attended elementary and secondary school in Berlin and thereafter enlisted in the German navy in 1910 when he was just eighteen years of age. It was a significant time to be joining Germany’s naval forces.
Typically, Germany had been a major land power whose armies had been the most well-respected in Europe since the eighteenth century. But in the 1890s and 1900s Germany had set out on a course to challenge Britain as the pre-eminent power in Europe. This required a navy and so the 1900s had witnessed a growing arms race between Britain and Germany as both sought to build large numbers of major new battleships such as the Dreadnought class. As a result, when Dönitz joined the navy in 1910 there was no shortage of opportunities to rise fast within the ranks for anyone with the ambition and skill to do so. And that is exactly what Dönitz did. After completing his initial training he was quickly commissioned as a sub-lieutenant, the first of many ranks he would obtain all the way to the top of Germany’s naval forces over the next three decades.
Further opportunities for promotion came faster than he could have expected. Less than a year after he completed his naval training and was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant, war broke out across Europe. The tensions which had been brewing between Britain and Germany were just one cause of this.
Others included imperial rivalry between the great European powers in Africa and Asia, as well as regional disputes in different parts of Europe, notably the Balkans where the Empire of Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire were vying to replace the Ottoman Empire as the dominant power. A regional crisis here in June and July 1914 was the spark which eventually triggered the war. By early August an alliance known as the Entente and comprising Britain, France and Russia, was at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans. Eventually it would involve other global powers such as Japan and the United States, making this the first truly global world war. When the conflict erupted Dönitz was quickly sent to serve on the SMS Breslau, a light cruiser deployed to the Mediterranean Sea.
Here he was involved in efforts to prevent British naval forces breaking through the Bosporus and besieging Istanbul from the sea, an ambition which was largely thwarted when Britain engaged in the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of 1915. In the spring of 1916 Dönitz requested a transfer to the newly established submarine school within the German navy, which was located at Flensburg-Murwik in north-western Germany near the Danish border. Ironically, it was here almost thirty years later that he would briefly lead Germany as its chancellor from. In 1916 he quickly completed a year of submarine training at a time when the naval campaign in the North Atlantic was becoming ever more intense, as Germany sought to damage the merchant navy which kept Britain supplied from abroad and to disrupt arrivals of troops from the wider British Commonwealth to Britain and France. It was also while he was training at the submarine school in Flensburg that Dönitz began courting Ingeborg Weber, the daughter of Erich Weber, a senior German naval commander who had been given a major role in the German naval mission to the Ottoman Empire. By 1915 Erich was appointed as a General Major and so Weber’s aid helped Dönitz to rise more quickly within the German navy.
Dönitz and Ingeborg married in May 1916. Their first child, a girl named Ursula, was born in 1917. The new submarine school which Dönitz entered during the war was a novel development. The first primitive submarines had been developed hundreds of years before, with various models and theoretical drawings appearing in several countries across Europe in the sixteenth century. Others which relied on human power to move them were subsequently developed, but it was not until 1878 when the Irish inventor, John Philip Holland, demonstrated the Holland I prototype that a submersible ship powered by a combustion engine was first demonstrated.
By the end of the 1890s many countries including the United States, Britain and France were working on producing submarines for use in their military navies and by the time that the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904 it was possible for several major powers to deploy submarines as part of their naval campaigns. Yet these remained limited in their scale, with the ships often being unable to submerge themselves to a considerable depth, travelling at very low speeds and having to spend most of their time above the surface of the water. For instance, the U-19 class of German submarines, which were first commissioned in 1910, were only able to travel at an average rate of 20 kilometres per hour and at an average depth of 50 metres when submerged. Moreover, these ships were small, with a crew of just over thirty men and a limited number of torpedo tubes, which ensured that their crews had to return regularly to port to rearm. Given their limited utility, the major powers only had a limited number of submarines when the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914.
However, this situation quickly changed as the science of submarine warfare, as with aviation warfare, evolved rapidly during the war. Dönitz would be central to the submarine revolution in the German navy. After finishing at the submarine school Dönitz was appointed as the watch officer on U-39 in 1917. His role here was to oversee the ship’s navigation in order to detect enemy shipping, whether of the merchant navy or one of the Entente’s warships.
This was extremely important as submarines generally travelled on the surface of the oceans and seas until the middle of the twentieth century and had to dive quickly if they encountered enemy shipping to avoid detection. His role was successful. U-39 was the second most significant submarine dispatched by the Germans during the war, sinking dozens of ships alone in 1917. For instance, in the last week of July 1917 alone the submarine sank five ships displacing over 15,000 tonnes. Dönitz’s role in this was recognised and in February 1918 he was promoted to the position of commander of UC-25, a minelaying submarine, followed by being appointed as commander of UB-68.
He was ordered to the Mediterranean where the Germans were aiming to aid their allies of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire against attacks by the British Royal Navy and the Italian royal fleet. This command was substantially successful, with nine British, Italian and French ships sunk between April and October of 1918. But on the 4th of October Dönitz’s submarine ran into technical difficulties and he was forced to scuttle the ship in the waters between Sicily and Libya.
One man was killed while Dönitz and his thirty-plus crew were captured by the British. They were sent to Britain where they were detained at Redmires camp near Sheffield as Prisoners of War. Dönitz and his crew members would not have long to wait to obtain their freedom. Even by the time they were captured by the British in early October 1918 the wider war was coming to an end.
The entry of the United States into the conflict on the side of Britain and France in 1917 brought unparalleled resources into play for the Entente powers on the Western Front. Meanwhile, Germany and the Austria-Hungarian Empire began to crumble internally as war ravaged economies led to deprivation and then internal revolt against their rulers. In the six weeks after Dönitz was captured by the British each of the Central Powers surrendered to the Entente. However, the cessation of hostilities did not lead to the immediate release of Prisoners of war such as Dönitz. While an armistice was agreed between the Entente powers and Germany on the 11th of November 1918, months of peace negotiations followed before terms were concluded, the Treaty of Versailles, a wholly punitive set of impositions being placed on Germany which would in time contribute to a new conflict across Europe. Thus, it was well into 1919 before Dönitz was released and it was early in 1920 before he made his way back to Germany.
When he returned to his homeland Dönitz faced an uncertain future. One of the major stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles was that Germany had to massively reduce the size of its armed forces. No more than 100,000 men were to be allowed in the military, while the country was also forced to scrap its air-force entirely. The situation with the navy was not as absolute, but the Reichsmarine was still limited to a small number of surface ships, while submarines were completely prohibited.
As such it was not clear initially if Dönitz would be decommissioned and have to find some alternative form of employment under the new Weimar Republic which ruled the country. Yet his abilities as a naval commander ensured that he was one of the lucky few who kept his position. Moreover, he continued to earn promotion during these years, being appointed as a lieutenant in 1921 and as lieutenant-commander in 1928. His field of specialisation was also recognised and by the time he was made a full commander in the early 1930s he was understood to be one of the leading torpedo-boat specialists anywhere in Europe, despite the prohibition on Germany possessing a submarine fleet. He and Ingeborg continued to raise their young family as well, with two further children, Klaus and Peter, joining their older sister, Ursula, in the early 1920s. While Dönitz was rising through the admittedly limited ranks of the German navy during the period of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, the country’s politics were fluctuating.
The end of the First World War had brought years of chaos to many parts of Europe as the old orders which had ruled the continent for centuries collapsed. More people died between 1918 and 1923 across the continent than lost their lives during the war. Germany was hard hit and the late 1910s and early 1920s saw extreme right-wing nationalist groups vying with left-wing socialists to seize power in cities like Berlin and Munich. Paramilitary outfits proliferated in tandem across the country. Eventually things did calm down and between 1923 and 1929 the country actually entered a period of remarkable economic growth and a cultural flourishing.
But with the Wall Street Crash in the autumn of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression which followed for years thereafter the country plummeted into economic, political and social crisis. As a consequence the old political extremism of the post-war years re-emerged and groups like the Communists and Nazis began to gain an unprecedented number of votes in national and local elections. Eventually in January 1933 the leader of the Nazis, Adolf Hitler, was able to exploit the political chaos sufficiently to have himself made Chancellor of Germany. Within weeks the Weimar Republic was snuffed out as the Nazis turned Germany into a one-party dictatorship.
Any passing examination of Nazi ideology, as exemplified in the writings of Hitler or other senior ministers like the Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, should have made it clear that they always intended for there to be a new pan-European war, one in which Germany would exact revenge on its neighbours and transform Europe into a German Empire, the Third Reich. To that end Hitler and his associates began systematically dismantling the Treaty of Versailles in the mid-1930s. One of the most significant aspects of this was rearming the country. In early 1935 the Nazis effectively declared to Europe that they viewed the terms of German demilitarization to be null and void.
Hundreds of thousands of new troops were to be recruited into the army, a new air-force was to be created, and the Weimar Reichsmarine was to be transformed into a new Kriegsmarine, one which would quickly eclipse its Weimar forerunner. To this end the Nazis began the construction of dozens of new ships from 1935 onwards, while the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, signed between the governments in London and Berlin that summer, allowed for Germany to begin building a small submarine fleet. Dönitz’s expertise in this area was immediately recognised and he was appointed in command of the new U-Boat flotilla. Just a few weeks later he was appointed as a Naval Captain, one of the senior ranks within the new Kriegsmarine.
Dönitz’s rising position within the German navy brought him into direct conflict with his immediate superior, Admiral Erich Raeder, the commander-in-chief of the German navy since 1928. Despite being a commander inherited from the Weimar era, Raeder found favour with Hitler and was retained in his position. But he did not have total control over naval policy. Raeder generally believed that the Kriegsmarine should be developed in such a way as to expand the surface fleet to the maximum extent possible. This would have meant that resources would be pumped into building more battleships, frigates and other warships. He did so in the stark realisation that the German navy was massively under-resourced by comparison with the British Royal Navy.
This view brought Raeder into direct conflict with Dönitz. Dönitz’s view was that the Kriegsmarine could never hope in the short-to-medium term to catch up with the Royal Navy in terms of the strength of its surface fleet. Instead he urged Hitler and the Nazis to focus on building a large fleet of U-Boats which could strike at Britain and its Allies’ merchant shipping and surface fleet when war broke out.
He did so in the realisation that a single U-Boat, which was much cheaper to build than a battleship, could successfully sink dozens of ships, whereas a full battleship was really only as powerful as another battleship in open combat. As the years rolled by the two figures became more antagonistic towards one another as Dönitz became increasingly committed to the idea of prioritising the U-Boat fleet over the surface fleet. That Dönitz was able to rise to such a significant position within the new Kriegsmarine and to challenge Raeder’s supremacy within it, was doubtlessly owing to Dönitz’s own ideological views. Although he did not officially join the Nazi Party until 1944, Dönitz’s own political outlook was clearly aligned with those of Hitler and the other senior Nazis. Much of this focused on his Anti-Semitism, a central pillar of Nazi ideology. For instance, in the ten years between the creation of the Kriegsmarine and the end of the Second World War, Dönitz is on record as having articulated views of a Jewish plot to destroy Germany and Nazism on many occasions.
Much of this was perhaps owing to his fervent belief in Hitler as the leader who would save Germany and restore it to a position of pre-eminence within Europe. He was not alone in this and though it may strike us as strange today, there was no shortage of individuals both in the political sphere and within the German armed forces who became fervent followers of Hitler in an almost cult-like manner. While Dönitz’s rivalry with Raeder was brewing through the 1930s the Nazis were preparing for war. With remilitarisation sufficiently advanced by early 1938 Germany’s foreign policy became extremely aggressive. Austria was annexed in March of that year by placing diplomatic pressure on the government in Vienna to accomplish the Anschluss and create a ‘Greater Germany’. The following September Britain and France allowed the Nazis to annex the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia in return for a promise that Berlin would not make any further territorial demands on its neighbours.
This promise was broken within half a year as German tanks and infantry streamed into Czechoslovakia and occupied the rest of the country almost overnight. In response the governments in London and Paris declared that any further act of aggression would result in war between Germany, Britain and France. And so it was. When Germany invaded Poland on the 1st of September 1939, the two allied nations of Western Europe declared war two days later. The Second World War had commenced.
Within weeks of the beginning of the conflict, as German tanks were rolling into Warsaw and Krakow in Poland, Dönitz was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral and Commander of the Submarines. He was given a major amount of operational freedom in this role, effectively operating his own submarine fiefdom without interference from Raeder who continued as the overall head of the Kriegsmarine. Dönitz began to gain the upper-hand on Raeder quickly, in part because the Z Plan, an operational plan which had been devised in January 1939 to build scores of battleships and other surface boats, was way behind schedule when the war commenced, and in part because Dönitz was able to prove the effectiveness of submarine warfare in the first months of the war.
By the end of 1939 his U-Boats had sank 221 British, French and allied boats, all for the loss of just nine U-Boats. This made clear to Hitler and anyone else observing naval affairs that Dönitz’s submarine divisions offered a far higher return for the investment which was needed to build and man them than would traditional battleships and a surface fleet. These early engagements also attested to Dönitz’s lack of compunctions when sinking civilian ships. The first ship sank by his U-Boats on the 3rd of September 1939 was the SS Athenia, a civilian liner which sank with the loss of 117 crew and passengers after being torpedoed by U-30 to the northwest of Ireland in the North Atlantic. Dönitz’s submarines would continue to attack civilian and merchant shipping throughout the war in actions which can be interpreted as war crimes.
Dönitz was central to one of the first notable naval engagements of the Second World War. It was realised by both the Germans and the British that the waters along Norway’s massive coastline westwards to Britain and Iceland would be critical in controlling the shipping routes into Northern Europe during the conflict. As such the British had concentrated a large force of the Royal Navy off Scapa Flow near the Orkney Islands off Scotland as the war began.
In response Dönitz drew up a plan to be known as Special Operation P through which German submarines would be used to attack the Royal Navy at Scapa Flow and give Germany greater control of the North Atlantic shipping routes in the early stages of the war. The plan only resulted in a minor victory, when the German U-Boat U-47 sank the British Revenge-class battleship, the Royal Oak, off Scapa Flow on the 14th of October 1939, yet while the strategic significance of Special Operation P was minor, the sinking of the Royal Oak was widely advertised and used for propaganda purposes by the Nazi regime in Germany in the early stages of the war. Otherwise the early stages of the war in the autumn and winter of 1939 were relatively quiet from a naval perspective by comparison with what would follow in the years ahead. 1940 was a very significant year in the war from the perspective of the German navy and the commanders of it such as Dönitz.
When the war first broke out the Kriegsmarine and with it the U-Boat commands were restricted to a small number of ports in a geographically restricted body of water along the northern coast of Germany. This included Hamburg, the main entrepot for German shipping and naval route-ways into the North Sea, and further to the east a number of significant ports in the Baltic Sea such as the port of Kiel. The German navy’s confinement to these ports was debilitating in the early stages of the war and so one of Hitler’s first actions in the spring of 1940, even before an attack was launched against France and Britain, was to invade Denmark and Norway, two neutral nations which were largely defenceless against such a show of force. Thus, by the end of April 1940 the Nazis had secured control over a vast array of new North Atlantic ports such as Bergen and Trondheim in Norway. The swift conquest of the Low Countries and France in the early summer ensured that commanders such as Dönitz would henceforth be able to deploy submarines and surface-fleet ships to ports stretching from the Bay of Biscay in western France all the way north to Norwegian ports within the Arctic Circle.
This would prove strategically significant for the next several years of the war in the North Atlantic. Exactly how important Germany’s control over these ports was would become clear within weeks of acquiring them. With France defeated, the primary German target was now to quickly defeat Britain, leaving the Soviet Union in the east as the Nazis’ only major military threat in Europe. As such, in the autumn of 1940 a concerted campaign was undertaken to bring Britain to its knees by bombing major cities such as London and strangling the island nation’s supply chains by attacking not just the British Royal Navy, but also its merchant fleet. Dönitz’s U-Boats would prove central to what became known as the Battle of Britain.
Over the next several years the British and German navies would carry out an enormous naval campaign in a vast array of water stretching from Norway westwards to the waters of Newfoundland in eastern Canada and south to the Azores and the coast of North Africa. In the course of this Dönitz’s U-Boats became central to efforts to destroy Britain’s supply lines and force Winston Churchill’s government in London to seek peace terms. Before exploring how the Battle of Britain played out in greater detail, we might ask a simple question: what exactly was a U-Boat during the Second World War, how did they function and why were they so central to the war effort? A U-Boat is a contracted term for Unterseeboot or Under-Sea Boat. It effectively is a broad catch-all term for Germany’s submarines and there were different classes of U-Boat being manufactured and used throughout the war. Some such as the Type V, a type of miniature submarine, were experimental and never entered mass production. By far the most widely used by Dönitz and the Kriegsmarine during the Second World War was the Type VII U-Boat.
These were crewed by between 44 and 52 crew members and had five torpedo tubes and 14 torpedoes and mines on board. What this effectively meant was that a Type VII U-Boat, if it fired off its torpedoes accurately could potentially sink upwards of a dozen vessels before having to return to port in Germany, France or Norway to rearm. Additionally, while the Type VII primarily sailed on the surface of the water, when it encountered enemy shipping it could dive to a depth of over 230 metres, meaning that it was much more difficult for enemy ships to hit it with mines and other anti-submarine weapons during an engagement.
As a result, 703 Type VII U-Boats were built by Germany during the Second World War and it was these which Dönitz effectively oversaw the deployment of all over the Atlantic during the conflict. Dönitz was central to developing the strategy through which these U-Boats were being employed during the Second World War. This was the concept of the ‘wolfpacks’, whereby groups of submarines travelled together like a pack of wolves waiting to pounce on their prey. This was not an entirely new invention. Hermann Bauer, the commander of the German U-Boats which had been employed during the First World War, had proposed establishing patrol lines along which German submarines would prowl in groups across the North Atlantic with the aim of attacking British shipping and that of other Entente powers at that time.
Sporadic efforts were made to employ this tactic in 1917 and 1918, but it was premature given the state of submarine development at that time. Now, in 1940 Dönitz resurrected the idea. Operating from his newly established headquarters in occupied France he began overseeing the patrol lines of scores of U-Boats throughout the North Atlantic, creating patterns for them to act in accord to attack British merchant shipping and ships as effectively as possible. When one member of the wolfpack spotted a convoy, they would signal the other members of their wolfpack to get them to join them before commencing a co-ordinated attack on the convoy.
This was done using encrypted messages sent using radio messaging systems like the Enigma code which blocked British interceptions of German messages. If a wolfpack worked as planned a group of half a dozen or so U-Boats would pounce in a co-ordinated manner on a convoy, destroying multiple ships with their torpedoes before the enemy even had a chance to respond. Dönitz’s tactics in this regard would prove enormously successful in the early stages of the Battle of Britain.
The Battle of Britain and the Battle of the North Atlantic, which Dönitz played a critical part in on the German side, might best be understood as two different conflicts which overlapped for a period of time. The Battle of Britain was effectively fought between the German conquest of France in June 1940 down to the early summer of 1941. Through it the Germans aimed to force Britain into accepting peace terms through sustained bombing and efforts to blockade Britain by attacking its shipping routes. It was abandoned after a year without success as Hitler decided to turn his attentions eastwards and invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. The Battle of the North Atlantic was more sustained, effectively being the umbrella term for the naval war in the North Atlantic between Germany and Britain in particular. It was at its most intense during the Battle of Britain, but continued right through until the end of the war in 1945.
Dönitz was unquestionably the most significant figure in leading the Battle of the North Atlantic on the German side. His view was very clear from the beginning of the war. If enough U-Boats were provided and the Kriegsmarine was given enough resources in general it could choke Britain off from its supply lines and defeat them without any land invasion.
Central to the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the North Atlantic was the intelligence battle. Both sides had developed methods of sending coded messages to their own ships and bases early in the war in an effort to prevent the other side from learning the location of their ships and convoys. Early on in the battle the Germans had the upper hand in this respect, in large part owing to the Enigma code, a cipher which was complex enough that the British could not decipher messages being sent between U-Boats and other German vessels even when they intercepted them. It was this which allowed the German wolfpacks to alert other ships to the location of merchant convoys and also prevented the British from learning where German submarines were concentrating.
Dönitz had been aware of the utility of the Enigma code for many years and was a firm advocate of its use in the early stages of the war. In the first stages of the Battle of Britain this allowed German U-Boats to sink a massive amount of shipping in the North Atlantic by comparison with their own losses. As a result the period between July 1940 and April 1941 became known as ‘The First Happy Time’ by German U-Boat captains.
In the first four months of this period alone nearly 300 Allied ships comprising one and a half million tonnes of shipping were sunk at the loss of very few U-Boats. But it could not last forever and when the British managed to capture an intact Enigma machine from a German ship in early May 1941 and quickly deciphered how it was being used it altered the course of the Battle of the North Atlantic as counterintelligence measures were stepped up and the British were able to begin identifying the locations of German submarines in waters between Norway and Newfoundland. Throughout this most intense period of the Battle of the North Atlantic Dönitz based himself out of France, occasionally returning to Germany to consult with Hitler and the other generals and admirals. He continuously pushed for greater resources and more U-Boats. These arrived in some fashion, though not in a way which is typically appreciated in historical accounts of the war.
Yet Britain was also acquiring additional aid in tandem in the form of the Royal Canadian Navy and unofficial aid from the United States. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Dönitz’s campaign was meeting with significant success and might have been ultimately successful had he been given the resources he needed. In total by the time the Battle of the North Atlantic would come to an end the Allies would lose over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships. By way of contrast, 783 U-Boats were lost and less than 100 surface vessels. Thus, in the main the Germans won the Battle of the North Atlantic from a statistical point of view, yet they ultimately lost it as resources were pumped into the land invasion of Russia from mid-1941 onwards. Dönitz had understood the strategic game better than others, declaring at one point, quote, “The enemy’s shipping constitutes one single, great entity.
It is therefore immaterial where a ship is sunk. Once it has been destroyed it has to be replaced by a new ship; and that’s that.” Had this maxim been followed ruthlessly the war might have ended differently. The final months of 1941 were not just significant in terms of the German shift eastwards towards invading Russia, but also because of the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Empire of Japan, Germany’s Pacific ally.
In the long run this would prove ruinous for the Nazis as US economic and military power was brought to bear against Germany, but in the short term it led to a period which for the Kriegsmarine was known as Operation Drumbeat or ‘The Second Happy Time’. This ran for much of 1942 after US entry into the war and was known as such by U-Boat sailors as it was a period in which they encountered significant success in sinking enemy shipping across the Atlantic. This was because American shipping was largely unprotected for months and unable to counter the U-Boat wolfpacks, which had no problem finding targets once American ships became fair game to sink. During the course of a nine month period German U-Boats sank scores of Allied ships across the Atlantic as far east as the Gulf of Mexico, while less than twenty German U-Boats were sank. However, as with the initial stages of the Battle of Britain, eventually American intelligence gathering of convoy protection methods evolved and by the autumn of 1942 ‘The Second Happy Time’ was coming to an end.
The extension of the war globally also opened up new theatres of operation for the Kriegsmarine. One which involved many of Dönitz’s U-Boats was the Battle of the Mediterranean. The conflict had begun here in May 1940 following Italy’s entry into the war on Germany’s side and the joint Italo-German efforts to conquer the Balkans and North Africa.
As it did, efforts to stop Britain from resupplying its bases in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean became a key concern, one which escalated after American entry into the war as the US and Britain made securing North Africa a key priority. By 1941 several German U-Boats were being sent to the Mediterranean on active duty there, though this ran contrary to Dönitz’s own wishes. He repeatedly stressed to Hitler that the government should be focusing its naval energies on the Atlantic and trying to strike at Allied shipping there. And he was right in this. Eventually the Battle of the Mediterranean proved extremely costly for the Kriegsmarine, resulting in the loss of over sixty-five submarines and most of their crews.
Furthermore, it ended in failure with the Allies eventually driving the Germans and Italians out of North Africa and launching an amphibious landing on Sicily in the summer of 1943. Despite the setbacks in the Mediterranean, by late 1942 Dönitz’s star had risen to a new high in the eyes of Hitler and the other senior Nazi ministers. His U-Boats had been critical to the Battle of Britain and if the Western Allies were going to be held off for long enough to allow Germany to win on the Eastern Front, it was imperative that the successes Dönitz had met with were continued. Moreover, the head of the Kriegsmarine, Erich Raeder, was held directly responsible for the German navy’s defeat at the Battle of the Barents Sea off north-western Russia on the 31st of December 1942, during which a squadron of German Destroyer-class ships were soundly defeated by a British flotilla of ships escorting a resupply convoy to the Soviet Union.
Raeder was dismissed from his position a month later and Dönitz was appointed as his successor on the 30th of January 1943. As the new Grand Admiral of the Kriegsmarine Dönitz nevertheless made it clear that his focus would be on the U-Boat arm of the navy. Accordingly, he immediately ordered the construction of scores more U-Boats, with the idea being that 40 new submarines and torpedo-boats would be brought into action every month. However, by this time the German war economy was beginning to run into serious supply problems and Dönitz’s plans as the new commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine were always hamstrung by a critical lack of steel to manufacture new ships. Dönitz had also become commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine at a time when Germany was entering into a period of what was termed ‘Total War’ by the Nazi regime.
The war effort had turned dramatically against Germany in 1942 and early 1943 as the Western Allies emerged victorious in North Africa and the Soviets turned the tide of the war in Russia following the siege of Stalingrad. As this occurred a new deployment of every resource available to Germany was undertaken. New measures were put in place to begin escalating U-Boat construction and to conscript mariners from outside the age group of those between 18 and 40 which had made up the bulk of the German armed forces up to that point. On one hand this made extra resources available to the Kriegsmarine, but it was eclipsed by the increased capacity of the Royal Navy and the US Navy in the Atlantic by this point. The Battle of the Atlantic continued in a sporadic fashion, but by the summer and autumn of 1943 dozens of U-Boats were being sunk every month and Dönitz had no option but to effectively withdraw his ships from the North Atlantic. Henceforth the submarine fleet was increasingly used against specific, well-defined targets, while there was a realisation that the effort to cut off supply lines in and out of Britain would have to be abandoned.
Although it was never declared the Battle of the North Atlantic was effectively over by the end of Dönitz’s first year as head of the Kriegsmarine. The most significant period in this changing situation was May 1943, a period which from Dönitz’s and the Kriegsmarine’s perspective became known as ‘Black May’. Allied shipping had been hit heavily in the spring months and the Western Allies became committed to increasing their resources in the Battle of the North Atlantic at this time in order to ensure the swift arrival of goods to Britain and North Africa in advance of the opening of a Southern Front in Italy. Thus, extra resources were committed against Dönitz’s Kriegsmarine.
These proved immediately effective. Ironically this was also the period when Dönitz’s hand was strongest, with 240 U-Boats in active service at the end of the spring of 1943. But as convoys of Allied goods were suddenly supplemented by greater numbers of patrol ships and frigates the number of U-Boats which were being identified and attacked in May 1943 increased substantially. Within days there was a simultaneous increase in the number of U-Boat losses and a dramatic decrease in the number of Allied ships.
By the 24th of May over 40 U-Boats had been lost in the space of four weeks, an average of one every 16 hours. At that rate of attrition Dönitz realised that he would effectively be stripped of his submarine fleet entirely by the end of the year if he did not change course. Consequently he ordered the suspension of U-Boat attacks on Atlantic convoys and called many back to German ports to regroup and form a new strategy. There was worse yet to come. Following the victories of Black May the Allies pumped additional resources into forming what were known as hunter-killer groups, groups of fast anti-submarine ships which escorted their convoys and which had additional air support, with the specific purpose of tracking down and destroying Germany’s U-Boats.
Within weeks the effectiveness of these were clear as Dönitz, who had been able to operate his U-Boats as far south as the South Atlantic off the coasts of Brazil and Argentina, was forced to withdraw all ships closer to Europe. By the late summer of 1943 he was effectively fighting a holding action, sending out his submarines on limited missions in the waters of the North Atlantic, rarely venturing any further south than the Azores and typically concentrating around the waters west of Ireland and Iceland. Boats which ventured too close to Britain faced attack from above as the Type VII U-Boats being primarily employed still spent much of their time on the surface and the Western Allies had clear aerial superiority in Western Europe and over the North Atlantic by this time. These hunter-killer groups effectively brought the era of the German ‘wolfpacks’ to an end. An example of this was seen in October 1943 when a pack of some fourteen U-Boats attacked Convoy ONS 20/ON 206 as it made its way to Britain.
The convoy consisted of 114 supply ships in total with three separate escorts totalling 7 warships and 11 smaller military ships. In previous times the ‘wolfpacks’ might have considered attacking a convoy like this to be like shooting ducks, such was the number of supply ships, but owing to the more advanced tactics of the hunter-killer escorts and the air support the Allies enjoyed, it certainly did not work out this way. Instead six of the German U-Boats were sunk, while they made almost no inroads on the convoy, sinking just one Allied ship. As a result of this strategic shift Dönitz abandoned the use of the ‘wolfpacks’ altogether by the end of 1943.
Henceforth, the limited number of U-Boats which he had at his disposal were sent out individually to try to target single specific ships deemed to be of strategic importance. The latter years of the war also brought a significant amount of personal tragedy for Dönitz. It was deemed the obligation of every Nazi and German to contribute to the war effort, regardless of their station or rank, and so Dönitz’s two sons, Klaus and Peter, both joined the Kriegsmarine.
Peter, the younger of the pair, was killed in combat in 1943 when he was just barely into his twenties. He was serving on board U-954, a type VIIC submarine, when it attempted to attack Convoy SC 130 in the North Atlantic as it tried to break through to the port of Liverpool on the 19th of May 1943. The U-Boat was detected by the convoy’s British escorts and was attacked using a hedgehog assault, a form of anti-submarine weapon which all British frigates and sloops carried by this time in the Battle of the North Atlantic. U-954 was sunk by one of these and sank with all its crew, Peter Dönitz included. Thereafter Dönitz’s other son, Klaus, was removed from active duty in line with a directive from Hitler himself that senior officers who lost a child in combat should have their surviving child removed from service. And so, Klaus began training as a doctor back in Germany but on the occasion of his 24th birthday on the 13th of May 1944, he convinced some naval friends to allow him to unofficially accompany them on a raid to Selsey near the coast of Chichester in England on board an E-Boat, the Kriegsmarine’s particularly quick and agile raiding surface vessels.
It was a fateful decision, as the small vessel encountered the French destroyer, La Combattante, and was sunk in the North Atlantic. Thus, just before the one year anniversary of Peter’s death, Klaus too died in the North Atlantic. As much as Dönitz must have suffered upon learning of the death of his sons, these were but two casualties of a war which had become unimaginably brutal as it went on.
Much of this was not associated with direct military engagements. Rather millions of people died in Eastern and Central Europe from 1939 onwards owing to the racial policies of the Nazis, ones which sought the genocide of the Jewish people, the Romani people and other groups across the region, while Poles, Czechs and others were viewed as slave labour that could be worked to death to keep Germany’s war factories running. Millions perished in concentration camps and factories as a result of this Nazi ideology. There is a debate on how complicit Dönitz was in any of this. Later he would, perhaps with some justification, claim that he was not responsible for what was occurring in places like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka and his focus was on the North Atlantic and the northern coastline of Europe. Yet there is also little doubting that Dönitz was aware of what was occurring and there is evidence to support his direct knowledge of the Holocaust.
Moreover, his U-Boats’ blockade of the North Atlantic involved attacks on civilian vessels throughout the war and efforts to starve Britain’s people into submission. Finally, as the war progressed and the use of slave labour in Germany’s factories became more pronounced, there is no doubting that the Kriegsmarine’s boats and ammunitions were being produced as a result of slave labour. Thus, while Dönitz might not have been directly involved in the worst of the Nazis’ racial crimes in Central and Eastern Europe, there is no doubt that he was considerably involved in its many crimes in other ways. By the time the Holocaust was entering its most brutal phase in 1944, the Western Allies were preparing to open a third front in Europe by launching an amphibious invasion of France. Given the role shipping would play in this, Dönitz’s Kriegsmarine and the U-Boats were central to efforts to interfere with supply lines. Dönitz benefited during this time from a number of remarkable technological innovations which Germany achieved in the final years of the war.
A seldom mentioned one was the development of the Type XXI submarines, a large diesel-electric submarine which unlike its predecessors was designed to operate almost entirely underwater. The room inside the submarine was also larger and could complement over fifty crew, while it was faster than many other submarines of the time and armed with a larger number of torpedoes that could be loaded faster. Following the development of these in 1943, Hitler commanded the manufacture of over a thousand, however, only just over a hundred entered construction, and only two ever saw active service.
Nevertheless, the innovations involved were substantial and the Type XXI, which Dönitz had been a great promoter of, influenced submarine design for many nations in the post-war period. Yet while resources were being pumped into it, Dönitz had to face the reality of the situation in Europe. In the summer of 1944 the Western Allies invaded France from England and within months most of the major ports of Western Europe were in US and British hands. Henceforth, the Kriegsmarine was limited to operating out of ports in northern Germany and Norway and its role in the war effort became much more limited as Hitler focused resources on combating the land invasion of Germany.
By the spring of 1945 the war was nearing its final stages in Europe. The Western Allies had advanced from France and the Low Countries into western Germany. More critically, the Soviets invaded eastern Germany early that year and by March were encircling Berlin. The final siege commenced in April. Hitler had no intention of being taken alive and with the final hope that the Soviets and the Western Allies would fall out with each other seeming ever fainter he decided to commit suicide in the Reich Chancellery bunker in central Berlin on the 30th of April 1945. For many years it had been the intention that the head of the German air-force, Hermann Goering, would succeed him as chancellor of Germany should Hitler die prematurely.
However, Goering had fallen out of favour with Hitler in the final stages of the war and so the Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, now briefly became the head of the Third Reich. Yet he too decided suicide was a better option than falling into the hands of the Soviets and so he killed himself on the 1st of May, a day after Hitler had done so. Curiously, it was now revealed that Hitler had put in place measures for Dönitz to succeed Goebbels in this eventuality. Many would have assumed that a more senior Nazi ideologue like Goering or the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, would have been next in line.
It was not so and in line with Hitler’s last will and testament, which he finalised on the 29th of April, Dönitz became President of Germany and as a consequence the leader of what remained of the Third Reich. Dönitz established his short-lived government at the town of Flensburg-Mürwik, in the far north of Germany in the Schleswig-Holstein region along the Danish border, where he trained in submarine school nearly thirty years earlier. Many senior Nazis had fled here as the Russians encircled Berlin, a decision owing to the region being out of harm’s way in terms of the fighting and more importantly the likelihood that they would be apprehended by the Western Allies rather than the Soviets in northern Germany. Dönitz himself was here by mid-April having abandoned Berlin for the security of Schlewig-Holstein as the siege of the capital began. At Flensburg Dönitz attempted to negotiate with the US and Britain alone, hoping for more conciliatory terms in line with the Nazi view that a falling out between the Western Allies and the Soviets was iminent. To this end he made his first public radio address just hours after Goebbels’s suicide to announce that his primary goal was to, quote, “save Germany from destruction by the advancing Bolshevik enemy.
For this aim alone the military struggle continues. As far and as long as this aim is impeded by the British and Americans, we shall be forced to carry on our defensive fight against them as well.” Yet this view was wholly unsustainable.
Within days it was clear that Germany would need to surrender and could not continue to offer anything but the most paltry of defence in the shape of guerrilla warfare in regions like Bavaria. Consequently, on the 7th of May he bowed to reality and organised for the surrender of all German armed forces to the Allies. This directive came into effect the following day, the 8th of May 1945, henceforth known as VE Day or Victory in Europe Day. Just over two weeks later, on the 23rd of May, Dönitz and many of the other senior members of the Flensburg government were arrested in northern Germany by the Western Allies. Dönitz was somewhat surprised in the aftermath of his arrest to learn that he would stand trial along with the other senior members of the Nazi regime in the international war crimes tribunals which were being organised at the city of Nuremburg by the Western Allies.
As primarily a military commander his view was that he had been taking orders rather than devising policy. The Allies did not agree with this perspective and so he would stand trial along with figures like Goering, the Governor of the General Government of Poland where much of the Holocaust had taken place, Hans Frank, and the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Dönitz fell into a different category from these senior ministers and was, like Wilhelm Keitel, the overall commander of the German military, and Gustav Krupp, one of the leading industrialists who had supplied the German army, viewed as being responsible for running the war on behalf of Hitler and his closest associates or supplying the German war machine. Thus, when the International Military Tribunal began its first trial on the 20th of November 1945 at Nuremburg Dönitz was amongst the senior Nazi figures charged. The charges against Dönitz were considerable. One of the foremost was his oversight of the programme of unrestricted submarine warfare, which had ensured that the Kriegsmarine attacked civilian shipping and even the ships of neutral nations.
It was conclusively proved that Dönitz had issued orders to this effect to his U-Boat commanders late in 1939, within weeks of the outbreak of the war, and he had never rescinded such orders, even after becoming Grand Admiral of the Kriegsmarine. He had also issued directives for German naval commanders not to rescue survivors from ships which had been attacked and sunk, another breach of the general rules of war at the time. However, in the end some of these charges were removed from the list of charges against Dönitz, a decision made on the basis that the Western Allies had engaged in a certain amount of unrestricted submarine warfare themselves during the conflict. Moreover, because Dönitz was not directly involved in the Nazis’ genocidal policies in Central and Eastern Europe, he was only found guilty on the lesser crimes of planning and inciting a war of aggression and committing crimes contrary to the established rules of war. As a result, unlike others like Goering, von Ribbentrop and Frank, he escaped the death penalty and was instead sentenced to ten years imprisonment at Spandau Prison. He would remain there until his release on the 1st of October 1956, remaining unrepentant about his actions during the war throughout this period.
Dönitz was one of several senior members of the Nazi regime who was released from Spandau Prison in the course of the 1950s and 1960s. They returned to a world which was much changed, in which Germany had become divided between a West Germany allied with the United States, Britain and other western nations, and an East Germany which was run by a communist regime and which was in many ways simply a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Dönitz went to live in West Germany in the small town of Aumuhle near the Danish border. Like several other senior Nazis, he attempted in his retirement to restore his reputation by composing two memoirs of his wartime activity. The first of these, entitled Ten Years and Twenty Days, was published in 1958, the title making reference to the ten years he spent as head of the German U-Boat programme and the twenty days he spent as President of the Third Reich in May 1945.
A second memoir, entitled My Ever-Changing Life and published in 1968, offered a more personal reflection on his life prior to the rise of the Nazis to power in the mid-1930s. In both, Dönitz presented himself as a simple military commander who was caught up in the ideological tensions of the interwar period. As such they attempted to rehabilitate his reputation, however he remained unrepentant throughout his later years for his role in the war, claiming, like many other German military commanders, that he was simply serving his country rather than the Nazis. He held this view down to his death from a heart attack on the 24th of December 1980 at 89 years of age.
As the oldest living former admiral of the German navy at that time he was afforded a funeral complete with full military honours. It was a strange afterlife and death for perhaps one of the most enigmatic of the senior Nazi regime members. Karl Dönitz occupies a strange position within the history of the German Third Reich and the Second World War. He is not a very well-known figure on the whole, certainly less so than others like Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler.
However, unlike Goering and Himmler, Dönitz was one of just three individuals who ruled Germany under the Nazis, the others being Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. We might ask why Dönitz was chosen to succeed as head of state after Hitler and Goebbels killed themselves within less than 48 hours in central Berlin in the dying days of the war. And the evidence would clearly seem to suggest that Dönitz was chosen in this way because his political and racial views adhered very closely to those of Hitler and the other central figures within the regime. Even though Dönitz tried to suggest, like a great many other senior Nazis after the war, that he was just a military commander following orders and serving his nation, Karl Dönitz was a committed Nazi. Moreover, while he was not involved directly in the most heinous of the Nazi regime’s crimes in the concentration camps of Central and Eastern Europe during the war, his actions in overseeing the campaign to attempt to force Britain into surrendering by starving its population of resources, constituted a certain form of war crime in and of itself, as did the Kriegsmarine’s unlimited submarine warfare and use of slave labour to build its boats in the latter years of the war. In the end perhaps his only saving grace was that he brought the war to a speedy end when he succeeded Goebbels on 1 May 1945 and in doing so prevented further loss of life in Europe.
What do you think of Karl Dönitz? Was he treated too leniently at Nuremburg given his centrality to the Nazi regime in the last years of the war and the war crimes he was guilty of? Please let us know in the comment section, and in the meantime, thank you very much for watching.