Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz is best known as the mastermind of the German submarine effort during World War II. With his experience as a U-Boat captain during World War I, he oversaw the training, organization and deployment of U-Boat crews during the next war. While his efforts failed to change the outcome of the war, it is likely that he brought Germany closer to victory than any other military leader.
When Hitler took power in 1933, the German military was still greatly limited by international agreements. The Navy was permitted only coastal defense boats, and submarines were specifically forbidden. Germany had long been a leader in submarine construction, however, and its specialists found ways to carry on research and development in service with foreign subsidiaries. Moreover, there were plenty of trained submarine officers who had served during the First World War, and they could easily become the nucleus of an effective submarine force if the political will were available.
In 1935, Hitler authorized a renewed U-Boat program. Resources that had been kept abroad, especially in Holland, were returned to Germany, where the first U-Boat units were created. Former submarine commander Karl Dönitz, who had made a name for himself in 1918 with an unconventional night attack, was assigned the task of overseeing their creation. During the next four years, he went from the head of a specialized project to the commander of a substantial branch of the German Navy.
According to his own memoirs (pp. 13-15), he based his leadership on several key principles that continued to guide his thinking through the war. He was a true believer in the power of submarines, and it was important for his men to share that belief; convoys and destroyers had not dealt a decisive blow to the submarine as a weapon. Training was to be intense, even before the war, and as far as possible, it should imitate true wartime conditions. Training emphasized firing from close range, which ensured accuracy and foiled many countermeasures. Drawing upon his personal experience, and operating in the face of conventional wisdom, he also emphasized fire from the surface, rather than an inconspicuous depth, and night attacks were to be a significant part of U-Boat operations. Finally, coordination was a major priority, both to bring multiple submarines to bear against a single convoy, and to rely upon aerial observation for locating targets.
Clearly, Dönitz was a gifted submariner, and he excelled in the advancement of his project. When war began in 1939, Commodore Dönitz was still in command of only a small body numbering 56 submarines. Günther Prien’s attack on the Royal Oak at Scapa Flow, which Dönitz had planned, brought further prestige to the submarine arm and a promotion to its commander; at the same time, it must also be observed that Dönitz was also a true believer in Hitler and his regime, and the political considerations must also have played their role in his ascendancy.
In any event, Dönitz was adept at using his political capital for the betterment of his command. Hitler did not interfere with Navy operations in the way he did with the Army, in large measure because he was indifferent to the subject. Dönitz was free to conduct operations as he chose, and as long as he could point to successes, he enjoyed expansion in the resources made available to him.
Between 1939 and 1943, the number of active U-Boats swelled from 56 to 330. At the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, the tonnage sunk by the Germans was greater than the Allied reconstruction rate. The effectiveness of German attacks was enhanced by the use of “wolfpack” tactics, which brought multiple submarines to bear against the same convoys. These tactics were made possible both by improvements in radio communications between subs and by the larger numbers of subs at sea at any one time. These same factors would also contribute to the decline of U-Boat effectiveness after the German codes were deciphered.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Allies in deciphering the German code was in making use of it without giving away the fact that they had access to all German naval communications. The German effort still seemed strong at the beginning of 1943, and when Hitler brushed Grand Admiral Raeder aside, he appointed Dönitz to take his place. While assuming the role of Commander in Chief of the Navy, Dönitz retained his prior role as Commander in Chief of the submarine arm. It was in the latter capacity that Dönitz excelled; his efforts on behalf of the Navy as a whole were unimpressive.
Relatively unhindered by pressure from above, Dönitz made himself as available as possible to his subordinates in the submarine arm, and often welcomed back submarine crews in person at the end of their voyages. As German fortunes declined, he exerted as much pressure as possible on the resource networks and research teams of the Reich, trying to build subs that were advanced enough, and in enough numbers, to reverse the trend. In this he failed.
By this point, however, everyone in the German High Command was failing, and so it did not mark the end of Dönitz’s career just yet. Rather, Hitler saw him as a loyal subordinate, fully focused on the task at hand, rather than engaging in the political intrigues that obsessed Hitler during the last eight months of his life. And so, already overpromoted since 1943, Dönitz found himself in a position well beyond his capabilities when Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945: the Führer had named Dönitz his successor.
Dönitz’s leadership role was brief and largely ceremonial. The German surrender came eight days later, and Dönitz was taken into Allied custody. He was convicted of two counts of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. It is noteworthy that American Admiral Chester Nimitz testified via deposition the he had employed largely the same submarine tactics against the Japanese that Dönitz had employed against Britain.
Winston Churchill later reported that the U-Boat blockade was the only threat during the war that truly worried him. There was a real danger that this blockade could have starved out the island nation; to a naval tradition as proud and powerful as that of Great Britain, such a situation was unthinkable. In large measure, this blockade was the creation of one man: From the inception of the submarine arm with a handful of boats in 1935 to its height in 1943, the program was guided by Karl Dönitz in nearly all of its particulars.
Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995.
Dönitz, Grand Admiral Karl. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Da Capo, 1997.
Taylor, John M. “Greatest Admiral” in the article “Greatest Military Moments of the Twentieth Century,” Military History Quarterly, Winter 2000.
Williamson, Gordon and Darko Pavlovic. U-Boat Crews 1914-45. Osprey, 1995.
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