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Karl Dönitz

Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz (16 September 1891 - 24 December 1980) served as the leader (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote) of the German U-boat campaign during World War II. Under his administration, the U-boat fleet fought the Battle of the Atlantic, attempting to starve the United Kingdom of vital supply shipments from the United States and elsewhere. He also briefly served as President of Germany following Adolf Hitler's death.

Prior to the war Dönitz had pressed for the conversion of the German fleet to one that would be made up almost entirely of U-boats. He advocated a strategy of attack only against British merchant shipping, targets that were relatively safe to attack. He pointed out that destroying England's fleet of oil tankers would starve the Royal Navy of supplies needed to run their ships, which would be just as effective as sinking them. He claimed that with a fleet of 300 of the newer Type VII U-boats, Germany would knock Great Britain out of the war. In order to deal with the ever-present escort ships, he proposed grouping several subs together into a "wolf pack", overwhelming the defense.

At the time many felt that such talk marked a weakling, and this was true of Dönitz's commander, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder. The two constantly fought for funding priorities within the Navy, while at the same time fighting with Hitler's friends like Hermann Göring who received much attention. Raeder had a somewhat confusing attitude; notably he apparently did not believe the German fleet of capital ships was of much use, commenting at one time that all they could hope to do was to die valiantly. Dönitz had no such fatalism.

Role in World War II

When the war started in 1939, earlier than most had expected, Dönitz's U-boat force included only 50 boats, many of them shorter-range types. Nevertheless he made do with what he had, constantly harassed by Raeder and Hitler calling on him to dedicate boats to military actions to operate against the British fleet directly. These operations were generally unsuccessful, while the other boats continued to do well against Dönitz's primary targets of merchant shipping.

By 1941 the supply of the Type VII had improved to the point where operations were having a real effect on the British wartime economy. Although production of merchant ships shot up in response, improved torpedoes, better boats and much better operational planning led to increasing numbers of "kills." In December 1941 the US joined the war and Dönitz immediately planned for Operation Drumbeat against the eastern coast shipping, which was carried out the next month with dramatic results.

Suspecting that the allies had broken the German's Enigma communication code, Dönitz ordered his U-boat fleet to use a new encryption standard for communications between the fleet on February 1, 1942. This, even as the rest of the German powers continued to use the original Enigma, convinced of its invunerability. For a time, this change in encryption between submarines caused considerable confusion for allied codebreakers. Ultimately (due to a mistake in transmission of a single message), it was determined that Dönitz's new machine was actually a four-rotor Enigma, and its methodology was cracked.

By the end of 1942 the supply of Type VII boats had improved to the point where Dönitz was finally able to conduct mass attacks, which became known as "das Rudel," the "wolfpack." Shipping losses shot up tremendously, and there was serious concern for a while about the state of British fuel supplies.

During 1943 the war in the Atlantic turned against the Germans, but Dönitz continued to push for more U-boat construction and technological development. At the end of the war the Nazi submarine fleet was by far the most advanced in the world, and late war examples such as the Type XXI U-boat served as models for Soviet and American construction after the war.

Adolf Hitler chose Dönitz as his successor as Führer, a choice that shows how distrustful Hitler had become of Göring and Himmler in the final days of the war in Europe. After Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945, Dönitz became the final leader of Germany as successor to Hitler, ruling through the final surrender on 8 May until his arrest by the British on 23 May at Flensburg. He devoted most of his efforts to trying to ensure that German troops surrendered to the Americans and not to the Soviets, since the Germans feared that the Soviets would torture or kill them in revenge for how they had treated the Soviets.


Following the war, Dönitz went on trial as a war criminal in the Nuremberg Trials. Unlike many of the other defendants, he was not charged with crimes against humanity, and many historians would agree that Dönitz did not participate in the Holocaust. However, he was charged with being involved with waging of aggressive war, conspiracy to wage aggressive war, and crimes against the laws of war. Specifically, he faced charges of waging unrestricted submarine warfare and of issuing an order after the Laconia incident not to rescue survivors from ships attacked by submarine.

As one of the witnesses in his own defense, Dönitz produced an affidavit from Admiral Chester Nimitz who testified that the United States had used unrestricted warfare as a tactic in the Pacific and that American submarines did not rescue survivors in situations where their own safety was in question. Despite this the tribunal found Dönitz guilty of "crimes against peace", for which he was sentenced to, and served, 10 years in Spandau Prison, West Berlin. Of all the defendants at Nuremberg, the verdict against Dönitz was probably the most controversial; Dönitz always maintained that he did nothing that his Allied counterparts did not. Testifying to the controversial nature of the decision, numerous Allied officers sent letters to Dönitz expressing their dismay over the verdict of his trial.

His memoirs, entitled Ten Years and Twenty Days, appeared in Germany in 1958 and in English translation the following year. Late in his life, his reputation was rehabilitated to a large extent. He made every attempt to answer correspondence and autograph postcards for others. When he passed away in 1980, scores of his former servicemen and foreign naval officers came to pay their respects.