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Encyclopedia > Karl Doenitz
 Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz
Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz

Karl Dönitz (September 16, 1891December 24, 1980) was a naval leader in Nazi Germany during World War II. Despite never joining the Nazi Party, Dönitz attained the high rank of Grand Admiral (Großadmiral) and served as Commander in Chief of Submarines (Oberbefehlshaber der Unterseeboote), and later Commander in Chief of the German War Navy (Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine). Under his command, the U-boat fleet fought the Battle of the Atlantic, attempting to starve the United Kingdom of vital supply shipments. He also served as President of Germany (Reichspräsident) for twenty days following Adolf Hitler's suicide.


Early life and career

Dönitz was born in Grünau near Berlin to Emil Dönitz and Anna Beyer (d. March 6, 1895). His father was an engineer. Karl had an older brother named Friedrich Dönitz. In 1910, Dönitz enlisted in the German Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine), becoming a sea-cadet (Seekadett) on April 4. On April 15, 1911, he became a midshipman (Fähnrich zur See), the rank given to those who had served for one year.

Karl Dönitz as an Oberleutnant aboard in World War I
Karl Dönitz as an Oberleutnant aboard U-39 in World War I

On September 27, 1913, Dönitz was commissioned as a second lieutenant (Leutnant). When World War I began, he served on the light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea. In August, 1914, Breslau began operating out of Constantinople (Istanbul), Ottoman Empire, engaging Russian forces in the Black Sea. On March 22, 1916, Dönitz was promoted to first naval lieutenant (Oberleutnant zur See); in October of that year he was transferred to the small submarine UC 68.

On October 4, 1918, Dönitz was captured by the British; he remained a prisoner of war in a British prison camp until his release in July 1919, and returned to Germany in 1920. While back in Germany, Dönitz continued his naval career, and became a captain-second lieutenant (Kapitänleutnant) on January 10, 1921. He commanded torpedo boats by 1928, becoming a lieutenant commander (Korvettenkapitän) on November 1 of that year.

On September 1, 1933, Dönitz became a full commander (Fregattenkapitän), and in 1934 was put in command of the cruiser Emden, the ship where sailors took a year-long world cruise in preparation for a future officer commission. The ship returned to Germany at Wilhelmshaven in July 1935, and on 1 September, Dönitz was again promoted, this time to captain (Kapitän zur See). In this position, Dönitz was in command of the 1st flotilla, Wediggen. This unit had three U-boats: U 7, U 8 and U 9.

Before World War II

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 merchant shipping, targets that were 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 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 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 such as Hermann Göring in the Luftwaffe, 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, Dönitz had recently been promoted to the rank of senior captain (Kommodore) on January 28. The German Navy was unprepared, having anticipated the war to begin in 1942, as decided in previous war plans. At the time, Dönitz's U-boat force included only 50 boats, many of them short-range. He made do with what he had, while being harassed by Raeder and Hitler calling on him to dedicate boats to military actions operating 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.

On September 1, 1939, Dönitz became a rear admiral (Konteradmiral); on September 1 the following year, he was made a vice admiral (Vizeadmiral).

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." On December 11, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States joined the war. Dönitz immediately planned for Operation Drumbeat against the eastern coast shipping, which was carried out the next month with dramatic results.

On at least two occasions, Allied success against U-boat operations led Dönitz to investigate possible reasons. Among those considered were espionage and Allied interception and decoding of German Navy communications (the Naval version of Enigma, etc.). Both investigations into communications security came to the conclusion that espionage was more likely, if Allied success had not been accidental. Nevertheless, Dönitz ordered his U-boat fleet to use an improved version of Enigma (intended to be even more secure) — M4 — for communications within the Fleet, on February 1, 1942. The Navy was the only branch to use the improved version; the rest of the German military continued to use their then current versions of Enigma. The new network was termed Triton (Shark to the Allies). For a time, this change in encryption between submarines caused considerable difficulty for Allied codebreakers; it took ten months before Shark traffic could again be read (see also Ultra and Cryptanalysis of the Enigma).

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." Allied shipping losses shot up tremendously, and there was serious concern for a while about the state of British fuel supplies. By 1943, Dönitz replaced Erich Raeder as the Commander in Chief of the German War Navy (Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine).

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.

Both of Dönitz's sons died during World War II; his youngest son, Peter, was a watch officer on the U-954 and was killed on May 19, 1943, when his boat was sunk in the North Atlantic, killing everyone on board. After this loss, Peter's older brother, Klaus, was allowed to leave combat duty, and began studying to be a naval doctor. Dönitz lost Klaus almost a year after Peter died, on May 13, 1944. Klaus convinced his friends to let him on the fast boat S 141 for a raid on the Selsey off the coast of England on his 24th birthday. The boat was destroyed and Klaus died, even though six others were rescued.

In his final will, Adolf Hitler chose Dönitz as his successor as German Head of State (Staatsoberhaupt), a choice that shows how distrustful Hitler had become of Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler in the final days of the war in Europe. Significantly, Dönitz was not to become Führer, but rather President (Reichspräsident), a post Hitler had abolished years prior. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was to become Head of Government and Chancellor of Germany (Reichskanzler). Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 and Goebbels followed suit a day later.

Dönitz became the sole representative of the crumbling German Reich. On May 7, 1945 he authorized the German Chief-of-Staff General Alfred Jodl to sign the unconditional surrender documents for all German forces to the Allies. The surrender documents included the phrase All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European Time on 8th May 1945. The next day shortly before midnight, Jodl repeated the signing in Berlin at Zhukov's headquarters, and at the time specified The end of World War II in Europe occurred.

Dönitz appointed Ludwig von Krosigk Reichskanzler and they attempted to gather together a government. Dönitz devoted most of his efforts to trying to ensure that German troops surrendered to the Western Allies and not to the Soviets, since the Germans feared vengeful Soviet reprisals. However his government was not recognised by the Allied powers and was dissolved when its members were captured and arrested by British forces on May 23, 1945 at Flensburg.

Trial and later years

Dönitz's memoirs, entitled Ten Years and Twenty Days, were published in 1958.

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 there is a consensus that Dönitz did not participate in the Holocaust.

However, he was charged with "Conspiracy to wage aggressive war" (count one), "Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression" (count two), and "crimes against the laws of war" (count three). 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 charges two and three, for which he was sentenced to 11 and a half years. He served ten 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.

Dönitz was released on October 1, 1956, and he retired to the small village of Aumühle near Hamburg in Schleswig-Holstein. There he worked on two books. His memoirs, Zehn Jahre, Zwanzig Tage ("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-boat commander (ten years) and President of Germany (20 days); hence the title. Dönitz's second book, Mein wechselvolles Leben ("My Ever-Changing Life") is less known, perhaps because it deals with the events of his life before 1934. This book was first published in 1968, and a new edition was released in 1998 with the revised title Mein soldatisches Leben ("My Soldier's Life"). Most editions today combine both Mein wechselvolles Leben and Mein soldatisches Leben into a single book.

Late in his life, Dönitz's reputation was rehabilitated to a large extent. He made every attempt to answer correspondence and autograph postcards for others. After Dönitz died on December 24, 1980, in Aumühle, many former servicemen and foreign naval officers came to pay their respects at his funeral on January 6.



  • Dönitz, Karl. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. 2000. ISBN 0304356867.
  • Guðmundur Helgason. "Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote (BdU) Karl Dönitz. (http://uboat.net/men/doenitz.htm)" at Uboat.net.

Background information

  • Cremer, Peter. U-Boat Commander: A Periscope View of the Battle of the Atlantic. 1984. ISBN 0870219693.
  • Davidson, Eugene. The Trial of the Germans: Account of the Twenty-two Defendants Before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. 1997. ISBN 0826211399.
  • Hadley, Michael L. U-Boats Against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters. McGill-Queen's University Press: 1985. ISBN 0773508015.
  • Macintyre, Donald. U-boat Killer. 1999. ISBN 0304352357.
  • Werner, Herbert A. Iron Coffins: A U-boat Commander's War, 1939–45. 1999. ISBN 0304353302.
  • Prien, Gunther. Fortunes of War: U-boat Commander. 2000. ISBN 0752420259.
Preceded by:
Adolf Hitler
(Führer und Reichskanzler)
Reich President
Allied military occupation 1945-1949
Divided into East and West in 1949
Succeeded by:
West Germany: Karl Arnold
East Germany: Johannes Dieckmann

German Field Marshals (Generalfeldmarschall) of World War II

Werner von Blomberg | Hermann Göring | Walther von Brauchitsch | Albert Kesselring | Wilhelm Keitel | Günther von Kluge | Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb | Fedor von Bock | Wilhelm List | Erwin von Witzleben | Walther von Reichenau | Erhard Milch | Hugo Sperrle | Gerd von Rundstedt | Erwin Rommel | Georg von Küchler | Erich von Manstein | Friedrich Paulus | Ewald von Kleist | Maximilian von Weichs | Ernst Busch | Wolfram von Richthofen | Walther Model | Ferdinand Schörner | Robert Ritter von Greim

Honorary: Eduard von Böhm-Ermolli

German Grand Admirals (Großadmiral) of World War II

Erich Raeder | Karl Dönitz

  Results from FactBites:
Grossadmiral Karl Doenitz (2567 words)
Doenitz explained that his reason for these orders was to insure that the German civilian population might be evacuated and the Army might make an orderly retreat from the East.
Doenitz said that if they were captured by the Navy their execution was a violation of the Commando Order, that the execution was not announced in the Wehrmacht communique, and that he was never informed of the incident.
Doenitz claims that what he meant by "measures" were disciplinary measures against German troops to prevent them from surrendering, and that his words had no reference to measures against the Allies; moreover that this was merely a suggestion, and that in any event no such measures were ever taken, either against Allies or Germans.
Axis History Forum :: View topic - IMT Testimony of Karl Doenitz (16745 words)
Doenitz: Right at the beginning of the war it was our experience that all merchantmen not only took advantage of their radio installations when an attempt was made to stop them, but that they immediately sent messages as soon as they saw any U-boat on the horizon.
Doenitz: I have already stated that between an offensive and defensive use of armament on the part of a ship against a submarine, there is practically no difference at all, that it is a purely theoretical differentiation.
DOENITZ: There is, of course, a great difference in risk between rescue measures for which the submarine has to stop, and men have to go on deck, and a brief surfacing to pick up a captain, because while merely surfacing the submarine remains in a state of alert, whereas otherwise that alertness is completely disrupted.
  More results at FactBites »



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