Karl Dönitz (sometimes spelt Doenitz) was born in Grünau near Berlin on 16 September 1891.
In 1940 he enlisted in the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy) and on 27 September 1913 he was commissioned as a Leutnantzur See (acting sub-
At the outset of World War I he served on the light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea. Dönitz was promoted to Oberleutnantzur See on 22 March 1913 and was temporarily assigned as airfield commander of the Dardanelles.
From there, he requested a transfer to the submarine forces, which became effective in October 1916. He served as watch officer on U-
It was while he was in a prison camp ear Sheffield that he formulated what he called Rudeltaktik (“pack tactic”, commonly called “wolfpack”).
He was only released from the British prisoner of war camp in July 1919, nearly eight months after the war had ended. He returned to Germany in 1920 and continued his naval career.
On 10 January 1921, he became a Kapitänleutnant (lieutenant) in the new German navy (Vorläufige Reichsmarine). Dönitz commanded torpedo boats, becoming a Korvettenkapitän (lieutenant-
On 1 September 1933, he became a Fregattenkapitän (commander) and, in 1934, was put in command of the cruiser Emden, the ship on which cadets and midshipmen took a year-
On 1 September 1935, he was promoted to Kapitänzur See (naval captain). He was placed in command of the first U-
During 1935, the Weimar Republic’s navy, the Reichsmarine, was replaced by the Nazi German navy, the Kriegsmarine.
By November 1937, Dönitz became convinced that a major campaign against merchant shipping was practicable and began pressing for the conversion of the German fleet almost entirely to U-
He advocated a strategy of attacking only merchant ships, targets relatively safe to attack. He pointed out that destroying Britain’s fleet of oil tankers would starve the Royal Navy of supplies needed to run its ships, which would be just as effective as sinking them. He thought a German fleet of 300 of the newer Type VII U-
Dönitz revived the World War I idea of grouping several submarines together into a “wolfpack” to overwhelm a merchant convoy’s defensive escorts. Implementation of wolfpacks had been difficult in World War I owing to the limitations of available radios. In the interwar years, Germany had developed ultrahigh frequency transmitters which it was hoped would make their radio communication unjammable, while the Enigma cipher machine was believed to have made communications secure.
Dönitz also adopted and claimed credit for Wilhelm Marschall’s 1922 idea of attacking convoys using surface or very-
At the time the surface strength of the Kriegsmarine was much less than that of the British Royal Navy. Commander-
Dönitz, in contrast, was not constrained by such fatalism, but set about intensely training his crews in the new tactics. He trained his crews under the most realistic conditions -
The marked inferiority of the German surface fleet left submarine warfare as Germany’s only naval option once war broke out.
On 28 January 1939, Dönitz was promoted to Kommodore (Commodore) Führer der Unterseeboote (Commander of submarines).
On 1 October 1939, Dönitz became a Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral) and “Commander of the Submarines” (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU); on 1 September the following year, he was made a Vizeadmiral (vice admiral).
Although Dönitz was known as a brilliant naval tactician, his main contribution would eventually be as a leader.
Under him the U-
Dönitz minimized red tape in order to present awards as soon as a boat docked, or even while the boat was still at sea.
With the fall of France he moved his headquarters to Kernevel near Lorient to be closer to his men. He made certain the crews had high pay and the best rations. He even had a special express train place at his disposal to ferry U-
He also facilitated communications to boost morale. BdU would often send messages to U-
Dönitz’ affection for his men was returned in full measure by the U-
On 30 January 1943, Dönitz replaced Erich Raeder as Commander-
In the final days of the war Hitler had taken refuge in the Fuhrerbunker beneath the Reich Chancellery garden in Berlin. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was considered the obvious successor to Hitler, followed by Reichsführer-
WELCOME BACK: When U-
Both, however, managed to infuriate Hitler. Göring had radioed Hitler in Berlin asking for permission to assume leadership of the Reich. Then Himmler had tried to seize power by entering into negotiations with Count Bernadotte. On 28 April 1945, the BBC reported Himmler had offered surrender to the western Allies and that the offer had been declined. Hitler expelled both Göring and Himmler from the Nazi Party.
In his last will and testament, dated 29 April 1945, Hitler named Dönitz his successor as Staatsoberhaupt (Head of State), with the titles of Reichspräsident (President) and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The same document named Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels as Head of Government with the title of Reichskanzler (Chancellor).
On 1 May, the day after Hitler’s own suicide, Goebbels committed suicide. Dönitz thus became the sole representative of the crumbling German Reich. He appointed Finance Minister Count Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk as “Leading Minister” and they attempted to form a government. On 1 May, Dönitz announced that Hitler had fallen and had appointed him as his successor.
On 2 May, the new government of the Reich fled to Flensburg-
On 4 May, Admiral Hans-
A day later, Dönitz sent Friedeburg to U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters in Rheims, France, to negotiate a surrender to the Allies. The Chief of Staff of OKW, Generaloberst (Colonel-
On a personal level the war had cost Dönitz both of his sons. The younger, Peter, was killed on 19 May 1943, when U-
Following the war, Dönitz was held as a prisoner of war by the Allies. He was indicted as a major war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials on three counts: (1) conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; (2) planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression; and (3) crimes against the laws of war. Dönitz was found not guilty on count (1) of the indictment, but guilty on counts two and three.
Dönitz was, for nearly seven decades, the only head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal until the conviction of Liberia’s Charles Taylor in April 2012.
Dönitz was imprisoned for 10 years in Spandau Prison in what was then West Berlin. Dönitz was released on 1 October 1956, and retired to the small village of Aumühle in Schleswig-
There, he worked on two books. His memoirs, Zehn Jahre, Zwanzig Tage (Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days), appeared in Germany in 1958 and became available in an English translation the following year.
This book recounted Dönitz’s experiences as U-
Despite his postwar claims, Dönitz was seen as supportive of Nazism during the war. Several naval officers described him as “closely tied to Hitler and Nazi ideology.” He refused to help Albert Speer stop the scorched earth policy dictated by Hitler, and is also noted to have declared, “In comparison to Hitler we are all pipsqueaks. Anyone who believes he can do better than the Führer is stupid.”
Dönitz lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity in Aumühle, occasionally corresponding with collectors of German naval history, and died there of a heart attack on 24 December 1980. As the last German officer with the rank of Großadmiral (grand admiral), he was honoured by many former servicemen and foreign naval officers who came to pay their respects at his funeral on 6 January 1981. He was buried in Waldfriedhof Cemetery in Aumühle without military honours, and soldiers were not allowed to wear uniforms to the funeral.
However, a number of German naval officers disobeyed this order and were joined by members of the Royal Navy, such as the senior chaplain the Rev Dr John Cameron, in full dress uniform. Also in attendance were over 100 holders of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.