German Grand Admiral, Supreme Commander of the submarine fleet (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU), Commander-in-Chief of the War Navy (Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine) during World War II, and in 1945 brief successor of Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) as head of state as well as War Minister, Karl Dönitz died on December 24th, 1980 at his home in Aumühle near Hamburg.
Dönitz was born on September 16th, 1891 in Grünau near Berlin, the second son of Emil Dönitz, a Carl Zeiss Jena engineer and Anna Beyer, a housewife.
He was briefly educated in the German capital and later in the Duchy of Saxony-Weimar, when his father was transferred to the optic firm’s headquarters.
Dönitz enrolled in the Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine) in April 1910 and on September 27th, 1913, was commissioned as an acting sub-lieutenant to serve at the outbreak of World War I on the cruiser SMS Breslau, which was shortly afterwards sold to the allied Ottoman Empire.
On March 22nd, 1916, Dönitz was promoted to the highest rank of lieutenant. On his own request, he transferred to the submarine forces on October 1st and attended school at Flensburg-Mürwik at the border with Denmark.
After holding two different positions, on July 2nd, 1918 Dönitz became Commander of UB68. Captured near Malta after his boat was damaged on October 4th, he remained in British captivity near Sheffield for the next nine months.
On May 27th, 1916, Karl Dönitz married Ingeborg Weber (1894–1962), a nurse and the daughter of German General Erich Weber (1860–1933). They had three children, daughter Ursula (1917–1990) and sons Klaus (1920–1944) and Peter (1922–1943), both of which were killed in action as members of the force their father commanded.
Dönitz joined the new, significantly smaller German Navy (Reichsmarine) as torpedo boat inspector on January 10th, 1921. A Lieutenant-commander since November 1st, 1928 and a commander since September 1st, 1933, in 1934 he was put in command of the cruiser Emden, on which cadets and midshipmen absolved a year-long training around the world.
Although Germany was prohibited by the infamous Treaty of Versailles from possessing a submarine fleet, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement (AGNA) signed on June 18th, 1935 suddenly placed Dönitz in command of a tiny U-boat flotilla of just three boats.
Promoted to naval captain on September 1st, 1935, Dönitz opposed the views of Grand Admiral Erich Räder (1876-1960) that surface ships should be given priority in the during a future war, but also doubted U-boat suitability due to their slow speed.
At the same time, he revived Admiral Hermann Bauer’s (1875-1958) old idea of grouping several submarines together, into what was commonly called a “wolfpack”, to overwhelm a merchant convoy’s escorts, which previously had been difficult owing to the limitations of available radios.
When World War II broke out on September 1st, 1939, only 27 boats of a meager fleet of 57 were capable of reaching the Atlantic Ocean from their German bases and many turned out to have technical problems with their torpedoes. It was not until late 1941 that the number of vessels began to increase quickly.
On September 3rd, the steam passenger liner SS Athenia became the first British ship sunk by the Germans, with 117 civilian passengers and crew killed. Probably a tragic mistake, though considered a war crime, Dönitz first covered it up and admitted responsibility only in 1946.
HMS Courageous would be the first British warship to go down by enemy action on September 17th, 1939. Dönitz was promoted to Rear Admiral and BdU on October 1st. On October 14th, 1939, HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed directly in Scapa Flow, a British naval base in Scotland.
After the lost Battle of Britain in summer 1940, warfare at sea gained more relevance. Germany even accepted the incorporation of 26 Italian submarines, which in early 1941 actually surpassed the number of German U-boats.
Dönitz welcomed the deployment and complimented the bravery and daring of their crews, but was critical of their training and submarine designs. He remarked that they lacked the necessary toughness and discipline and consequently were of no great assistance.
In the aftermath of the unsatisfying outcome of the Battle of the Barents Sea on December 31st, 1942, Hitler on January 30th, 1943, the 10th anniversary of his takeover, replaced Räder as Commander-in-Chief and Grand Admiral of the Naval High Command (Oberkommando der Marine) with Dönitz, which earned Hitler his undying loyalty.
The sudden growth of Allied air power and their vast material superiority took a very heavy toll on the German submarines. After the landing in Normandy on June 6th, 1944 and the gradual loss of the French bases, the situation deteriorated even further, with fatalities reaching almost 50%.
Nevertheless, although the cause was lost and U-boat production numbers stalled, Dönitz’s men continued to achieve some success in late 1944 and fought until the bitter end.
Due to their good relationship, Hitler named Dönitz, who had received the Oak Leaves of the Knight’s Cross on April 6th, 1943, as his successor before committing suicide in Berlin on April 30th, 1945.
Dönitz set up his short-lived government in Flensburg-Mürwik, where in 1916 he first got involved with submarines, before being arrested on May 23rd, 1945 by the British.
Indicted as a major war criminal at the Nuremberg trials held between November 20th, 1945 and October 1st, 1946, Dönitz was found guilty of planning a war of aggression as well as war crimes and sentenced to ten years in Berlin’s Spandau prison.
During his prison time and after his release, Dönitz was unrepentant regarding his role in World War II, saying that he had acted at all times out of duty to his nation, and claimed to know nothing about atrocities.
In 1958, he published Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Ten years later, in a second volume titled Mein wechselvolles Leben (My Changeful Life), Dönitz attacked those that had locked him away for a decade.
Though obviously very prone to National Socialist ideology, Dönitz is recognized by military experts as a capable tactician who managed to organize the sinking more than 15 million tons of shipping.
The human cost was extremely high, as around 80% of the 30,000 U-boat crew members never returned home and over a 100 German submarines were destroyed on their maiden voyage.
Although on January 5th, 1981 he didn’t receive a military funeral honors ceremony and active service members of the West German Army, the Bundeswehr, weren’t allowed to wear uniforms, thousands of his former comrades, including a hundred Knight’s Cross holders, took their last farewell of Dönitz.