Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of the German U-Boat forces before assuming command of the Navy as a whole, was the guiding force behind the German submarine campaign of World War II. It was a campaign that almost succeeded in its task of completing a blockade of Britain, and to organize it, Dönitz drew substantially on his own experience as a submarine commander in World War I. Ultimately, the effort failed, as did Germany’s other military efforts. Dönitz came nearer to success, however, than any other strategist in the Third Reich, and he stands as the preeminent submarine planner prior to the nuclear age.
Dönitz was born on Sept. 16, 1891 in Grünau, near Berlin, to Anna and Emil Dönitz. His was not a military family, but between family landholdings and government jobs, it was one of modest means. Karl took service with the Navy in 1910; the outbreak of war four years later afforded him the opportunity to show his potential. He saw action in the Black Sea with the cruiser Breslau, including a 1916 attack on Novorossisk. Shortly thereafter, he was recalled to Germany for additional training: he was being groomed as a submarine commander. His time in Germany also gave the junior grade Lieutenant the opportunity to marry Ingeborg Weber on May 27; the couple would eventually have three children, Ursula, Klaus and Peter.
His training done, he was sent to the Mediterranean in command of a U-Boat, UB-68. By the future admiral’s own account, submarine warfare had heretofore always been a solitary service. Radio technology had not yet developed to the point where it was even possible to coordinate a group of submarines to pursue a common objective; this meant a host of missed opportunities. A single submarine, encountering by chance an enemy convoy, had far more targets than its crew could hope to sink, while a host of other submarines, not far away but out of the path of the convoy, would have nothing. In September of 1918, he attempted to remedy this problem.
In the Austrian port of Pola, Dönitz conferred with the highly-decorated submarine commander Steinbauer, and together they formulated a plan for a groundbreaking attack: they would meet near Malta and jointly attack the next convoy passing through the Mediterranean. Moreover, they would not attack from a below the surface; instead, they would surface and attack by night, taking advantage of the low light conditions of the new moon. They reasoned that the accuracy of their torpedo fire would be much higher if the submarine were directed from the surface, while the low profile of the submarine would facilitate a hasty escape under dark conditions once the attackers were discovered. Had the attack gone as planned, it might have been a great success; instead, it made history for other reasons.
The joint attack never came to pass. Steinbauer had not put to sea in time to meet Dönitz due to mechanical trouble, and Dönitz met the approaching convoy alone. He still attempted to make a surface attack by night, and the first steps of the operation proceeded successfully. He managed to evade the destroyer screen, position himself among the freighters, and sink one of them before coming under attack by another destroyer. He submerged and almost made his escape; when he resurfaced, however, he found a destroyer waiting for him. He submerged once more, and fell victim to a mechanical malfunction. The submarine turned upside down and descended uncontrollably; to save the boat, he emptied all tanks, and the submarine was again propelled to the surface. Now Dönitz found himself fully in the midst of that convoy, but by light of day and with all enemy guns turning toward him. Dönitz and his crew were taken prisoner.
During his internment as a POW, Dönitz made his obligatory efforts to escape, but he also thought long and hard about the nature of submarine warfare. He was convinced that the principle of the plan he had made with Steinbauer was sound, and yearned for an opportunity to execute such a plan properly. Released in 1919, he was presented with the opportunity to remain with the Navy. He asked, in turn, whether Germany would be able to float submarines in the future. Convinced that submarines would return in time, Dönitz elected to remain with the Navy; he would have to wait fifteen years before he could resume work with U-Boats.
In the meantime, he pursued his career with the surface ships that Germany was permitted to retain. He commanded a destroyer, and later a destroyer flotilla, before serving with the commander of all German vessels in the Baltic Sea, Vice Admiral von Löwenfeld. His final assignment was to serve as captain of a light cruiser, the Emden. The Emden entered service in 1925, the first new capital ship that Germany had built since World War I. While it was weakly armed, due to treaty obligations, it was a fast and light vessel, using welded connections instead of riveted ones in order to reduce weight. It served admirably to carry out long-distance training cruises, and Commander Dönitz conducted such a cruise from November 1934 through July 1935.
The month before Dönitz returned, Germany had concluded the Anglo-German Naval Treaty with the British; under its terms, Germany would be permitted to construct submarines, provided that its U-Boat strength would not exceed 45 percent of British submarine numbers. On the day of his return, Dönitz was given a new assignment by Admiral Raeder: he was to oversee the creation of the new submarine service.
In essence, he built it up almost from nothing. Only he and his Engineer, Thedsen, had the benefit of experience from World War I. In anticipation of the conclusion of the treaty with Britain, work had begun on the construction of a few small submarines, known as the Type II class. Six of them were available in October 1935, and they became the Weddingen Flotilla, with Dönitz as the commander. The vessels were not suited for ocean work, but they served as training boats, and the foundations of a proud new service within the German Navy were laid. By January 1, the number of submarines had grown to twelve, and Dönitz was promoted to the post of Führer der Unterseeboote (Submarine Leader). Work also continued to provide him with suitable weaponry; the Type II was recognized as a dead end, but a new, larger and faster boat was in development, and on Aug. 12, the first of the Type VII boats entered service. This was the type of U-Boat that would carry out most of the Battle of the Atlantic.
Dönitz remained committed to his earlier belief in the power of joint action by multiple submarines, and in the value of making surface attacks by night. In the late 1930s, with other technological advances, he worked on the practical considerations of coordinating submarines by radio, and at the same time, devised the tactics that would later be dubbed “Wolf-pack tactics.” Other problems would prove more intractable; Dönitz was always aware of the limited reconnaissance abilities of the submarine, and knew that aerial reconnaissance would be required. Goering, however, was intensely jealous of his control over the Luftwaffe, and any use of air power was to proceed through his organization.
When the war began, Dönitz was anxious to strike a telling blow with his submarines. He sent U-47, under the command of Günther Prien, to infiltrate the British naval base at Scapa Flow and destroy a capital ship. On Oct. 14, Prien accomplished that mission with the sinking of the Royal Oak. It was a major propaganda victory for the Germans, and Dönitz was promoted to Rear Admiral in recognition for it.
The fall of France in 1940 afforded the Germans a series of naval bases opening on the Atlantic, enabling them to field a large number of submarines in the ocean without needing to pass through the North Sea first. This permitted Dönitz to begin the blockade of Britain that would later be known as the Battle of the North Atlantic. As more U-Boats were produced, he was able to put enough boats to sea to carry out the wolf-pack tactics he had devised before the war. Submarines operating across great distances were coordinated by the use of coded radio broadcasts. The submarine crews were viewed as an elite force while they enjoyed great successes against the British; for a while, it seemed possible to starve out Britain. Dönitz actively fostered this elite mentality, often arriving in person to meet the crews upon their departure or arrival in port.
Eventually, the tools of success became the source of decline. When the British decoded the German radio instructions, it became possible to hunt the U-Boats more effectively. Meanwhile, the gradual escalation of American involvement brought increasing assets to the Allied efforts, and German U-Boat production could not maintain parity; furthermore, skilled crews could not be replaced as easily as lost boats. In 1943, the Battle of the North Atlantic ended when Dönitz withdrew his remaining U-Boats from the ocean.
Before this setback, his career had advanced with the successes of his wolf-packs, being promoted in 1940 and again in 1942. At the beginning of 1943, Admiral Raeder fell from favor with Hitler, and Dönitz was placed in his stead, while retaining his position as commander of the submarine forces. It is often stated that this appointment, and his subsequent selection as successor to the Führer after Hitler’s suicide, came as a result of Dönitz’s political dedication as a Nazi. This is not accurate; Dönitz never joined the NSDAP. Dönitz was certainly loyal to Hitler, personally, and he approved of German military reassertion, but he had never been involved in political activities prior to becoming Commander in Chief of the Navy, and he involved himself as little as possible afterwards. Hitler was largely uninterested in naval matters, and with Dönitz committing himself to avoid intrigues with the other branches of the military, Dönitz received a free hand to govern the Navy.
It was, however, too late for any naval commander to turn the course of the war. In 1944, France was reclaimed by the Allies, and the German Navy was again restricted to a narrow range of operations. In 1945, Hitler killed himself, having named Dönitz as his successor. It was clear that Germany had lost the war, but it was not yet clear what the Allies had in mind for a future German government, and Dönitz attempted to create a new government, specifically refusing to allow Himmler and Ribbentrop any position in the new order. Then, on May 22, he was arrested by Allied forces.
Dönitz was tried at Nuremberg. Not involved in the Nazi seizure of power, nor in Crimes against Humanity, he was convicted under the categories of Crimes against Peace and War Crimes, and sentenced to ten years in prison. Freed in 1956, Dönitz lived until 1980, dying on Dec. 24.
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