Karl Doenitz (sometimes spelt Donitz) (German: [ˈkaɐ̯l ˈdøːnɪts] (16 September 1891 – 24 December 1980) was a German admiral who played a major role in the naval history of World War II. Dönitz briefly succeeded Adolf Hitler as the head of state of Germany.
He began his career in the Imperial German Navy before World War I. In 1918, while he was in command of UB-68, the submarine was sunk by British forces and Dönitz was taken prisoner. While in a prisoner of war camp, he formulated what he later called Rudeltaktik (“pack tactic”, commonly called “wolfpack”). At the start of World War II, he was the senior submarine officer in the Kriegsmarine. In January 1943, Dönitz achieved the rank of Großadmiral (grand admiral) and replaced Grand Admiral Erich Raeder as Commander-in-Chief of the Navy.
On 30 April 1945, after the death of Adolf Hitler and in accordance with Hitler’s last will and testament, Dönitz was named Hitler’s successor as head of state, with the title of President of Germany and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. On 7 May 1945, he ordered Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations Staff of the OKW, to sign the German instruments of surrender in Reims, France. Dönitz remained as head of the Flensburg Government, as it became known, until it was dissolved by the Allied powers on 23 May. At the Nuremberg trials, he was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment; after his release, he lived quietly in a village near Hamburg until his death in 1980.
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Dönitz was born in Grünau near Berlin, Germany, to Anna Beyer and Emil Dönitz, an engineer, in 1891. Karl had an older brother. In 1910, Dönitz enlisted in the Kaiserliche Marine (“Imperial Navy”).
On 27 September 1913, Dönitz was commissioned as a Leutnant zur See (acting sub-lieutenant). When World War I began, he served on the light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea. In August 1914, the Breslau and the battlecruiser SMS Goeben were sold to the Ottoman navy; the ships were renamed the Midilli and the Yavuz Sultan Selim, respectively. They began operating out of Constantinople, under Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, engaging Russian forces in the Black Sea. On 22 March 1916, Dönitz was promoted to Oberleutnant zur See. When the Midilli put into dock for repairs, he was temporarily assigned as airfield commander at the Dardanelles. From there, he requested a transfer to the submarine forces, which became effective in October 1916. He served as watch officer on U-39, and from February 1918 onward as commander of UC-25. On 5 September 1918, he became commander of UB-68, operating in the Mediterranean. On 4 October, after suffering technical difficulties, this boat was sunk by British forces and Dönitz was taken prisoner on the island of Malta.
The war ended in 1918, but Dönitz remained in a British camp near Sheffield as a prisoner of war until his release in July 1919. He returned to Germany in 1920.
During the interwar period, he continued his naval career in the naval arm of the Weimar Republic’s armed forces. On 10 January 1921, he became a Kapitänleutnant (lieutenant) in the new German navy (Vorläufige Reichsmarine). Dönitz commanded torpedo boats, becoming a Korvettenkapitän (lieutenant-commander) on 1 November 1928.
On 1 September 1933, he became a Fregattenkapitän (commander) and, in 1934, was put in command of the cruiser Emden, the ship on which cadets and midshipmen took a year-long world cruise in preparation for a future officer’s commission. On 1 September 1935, he was promoted to Kapitän zur See (naval captain). He was placed in command of the first U-boat flotilla Weddigen, which included U-7, U-8 and U-9.
During 1935, the Weimar Republic’s navy, the Reichsmarine, was replaced by the Nazi German navy, the Kriegsmarine. Throughout 1935 and 1936, Dönitz had misgivings regarding submarines due to German overestimation of the capabilities of British ASDIC intelligence. In reality, ASDIC could detect only one submarine in 10 during exercises. In the words of Alan Hotham, British Director of Naval Intelligence, ASDIC was a “huge bluff”.
German doctrine at the time, based on the work of American Admiral Alfred Mahan and shared by all major navies, called for submarines to be integrated with surface fleets and employed against enemy warships. By November 1937, Dönitz became convinced that a major campaign against merchant shipping was practicable and began pressing for the conversion of the German fleet almost entirely to U-boats. He advocated a strategy of attacking only merchant ships, targets 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 its ships, which would be just as effective as sinking them. He thought a German fleet of 300 of the newer Type VII U-boats could knock Britain out of the war.
Dönitz revived the World War I idea of grouping several submarines together into a “wolfpack” to overwhelm a merchant convoy’s defensive escorts. Implementation of wolfpacks had been difficult in World War I owing to the limitations of available radios. In the interwar years, Germany had developed ultrahigh frequency transmitters which it was hoped would make their radio communication unjammable, while the Enigma cipher machine was believed to have made communications secure. Dönitz also adopted and claimed credit for Wilhelm Marschall’s 1922 idea of attacking convoys using surface or very-near-the-surface night attacks. This tactic had the added advantage of making a submarine undetectable by sonar.
At the time, many – including Admiral Erich Raeder — felt such talk marked Dönitz as a weakling. Dönitz was alone among senior naval officers, including some former submariners, in believing in a new submarine war on trade. Dönitz and Raeder argued constantly over funding priorities within the Navy, while at the same time competing with Hitler’s friends, such as Hermann Göring, who received greater attention at this time.
Since the surface strength of the Kriegsmarine was much less than that of the British Royal Navy, Raeder believed any war with Britain in the near future would doom it to uselessness, once remarking all the Germans could hope to do was to die valiantly. Raeder based his hopes on war’s being delayed until the Kriegsmarine’s extensive “Z Plan”, which would have expanded Germany’s surface fleet to where it could effectively contend with the Royal Navy, was implemented. The “Z Plan”, however, was not scheduled to be completed until 1945. Dönitz, in contrast, was not constrained by such fatalism, but set about intensely training his crews in the new tactics. The marked inferiority of the German surface fleet left submarine warfare as Germany’s primary naval option once war broke out. On 28 January 1939, Dönitz was promoted to commodore (Kommodore) and Commander of Submarines (Führer der Unterseeboote).
World War II
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany, and World War II began. The Kriegsmarine was caught unprepared for war, having expected that war would break out in 1945, instead of 1939. The Z Plan was tailored for this assumption, calling for a balanced fleet with a greatly increased number of surface capital ships, including several aircraft carriers. At the time the war began, Dönitz’s force included only 57 U-boats, many of them short-range, and only 22 oceangoing Type VIIs. He made do with what he had, while being harassed by Raeder and with Hitler calling on him to dedicate boats to military actions against the British fleet directly. These operations had mixed success; the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous and battleship Royal Oak were sunk, battleships HMS Nelson damaged and Barham sunk at a cost of some U-boats, diminishing the small quantity available even further. Together with surface raiders, merchant shipping lines were also attacked by U-boats
Commander of the Submarine Feet
On 1 October 1939, Dönitz became a Konteradmiral (rear admiral) and “Commander of the Submarines” (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU); on 1 September the following year, he was made a Vizeadmiral (vice admiral).
With the fall of France, Germany acquired U-boat bases at Lorient, Brest, St Nazaire, and La Pallice/La Rochelle. A communication centre was established at the Château de Pignerolle at Saint-Barthélemy-d’Anjou.
By 1941, the delivery of new Type VIIs 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 U-boats, and much better operational planning led to increasing numbers of “kills”. On 11 December 1941, following Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, Dönitz immediately planned for implementation of Operation Drumbeat (Unternehmen Paukenschlag). This targeted shipping along the East Coast of the United States. Carried out the next month with only nine U-boats (all the larger Type IX), it had dramatic and far-reaching results. The U.S. Navy was entirely unprepared for antisubmarine warfare despite having had two years of British experience to draw from, and committed every imaginable mistake. Shipping losses, which had appeared to be coming under control as the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy gradually adapted to the new challenge, skyrocketed.
On at least two occasions, Allied success against U-boat operations led Dönitz to investigate. Among reasons considered were espionage and Allied interception and decoding of German naval communications (the naval version of the Enigma cipher machine). Both investigations into communications security came to the conclusion espionage was more likely, or else the Allied successes had been accidental. Nevertheless, Dönitz ordered his U-boat fleet to use an improved version of the Enigma machine (one with four rotors, which was more secure than the three-rotor version it replaced), the M4, for communications within the fleet, on 1 February 1942. The Kriegsmarine was the only branch to use this improved version; the rest of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) continued to use their then-current three-rotor versions of the Enigma machine. The new system was termed “Triton” (“Shark” to the Allies). For a time, this change in encryption between submarines caused considerable difficulty for Allied codebreakers; it took 10 months before Shark traffic could be read.
By the end of 1942, the production of Type VII U-boats had increased to the point where Dönitz was finally able to conduct mass attacks by groups of submarines, a tactic he called Rudel (group or pack) and became known as “wolfpack” in English. Allied shipping losses shot up tremendously, and serious concern existed 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 increased U-boat construction and entertained the notion that further technological developments would tip the war once more in Germany’s favour, briefing the Führer to that effect. At the end of the war, the German 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. The Schnorchel (snorkel) and Type XXI boats appeared late in the war because of Dönitz’s personal indifference, at times even hostility, to new technology he perceived as disruptive to the production process. His opposition to the larger Type IX was not unique; Admiral Thomas C. Hart, commander of the United States Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines at the outbreak of the Pacific War, opposed fleet boats like the Gato and Balao classes as “too luxurious”.
Dönitz was deeply involved in the daily operations of his boats, often contacting them up to 70 times a day with questions such as their position, fuel supply. and other “minutiae”. This incessant questioning hastened the compromise of his ciphers by giving the Allies more messages to work with. Furthermore, replies from the boats enabled the Allies to use direction finding (HF/DF, called “Huff-Duff”) to locate a U-boat using its radio, track it and attack it (often with aircraft able to sink it with impunity).
Dönitz wore on his uniform the special grade of the U-Boat War Badge with diamonds, his U-Boat War badge from World War I and his World War I Iron Cross 1st Class with World War II clasp.
On 30 January 1943, Dönitz replaced Erich Raeder as Commander-in-Chief of the Navy (Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine) and Großadmiral (grand admiral) of the Naval High Command (Oberkommando der Marine). His deputy, Eberhard Godt, took over the operational command of the U-boat force. Dönitz was able to convince Hitler not to scrap the remaining ships of the surface fleet. Despite hoping to continue to use them as a fleet in being, the Kriegsmarine continued to lose what few capital ships it had. In September, the battleship Tirpitz was put out of action for months by a British midget submarine, and was sunk a year later by RAF bombers at anchor in Norway. In December, he ordered the battleship Scharnhorst (under Konteradmiral Erich Bey) to attack Soviet-bound convoys, after reconsidering her success in the early years of the war with sister ship Gneisenau, but she was sunk in the resulting encounter with superior British forces led by the battleship HMS Duke of York.
President of Germany
In the final days of the war, after Hitler had taken refuge in the Führerbunker beneath the Reich Chancellery garden in Berlin, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was considered the obvious successor to Hitler, followed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Göring, however, infuriated Hitler by radioing him in Berlin asking for permission to assume leadership of the Reich. Himmler also tried to seize power by entering into negotiations with Count Bernadotte. On 28 April 1945, the BBC reported Himmler had offered surrender to the western Allies and that the offer had been declined.
From mid-April 1945, elements of the last Reich government and the Commander of the Navy, Admiral Karl Dönitz, moved into the buildings of the Stadtheide Barracks in Plön. In his last will and testament, dated 29 April 1945, Hitler named Dönitz his successor as Staatsoberhaupt (Head of State), with the titles of Reichspräsident (President) and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The same document named Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels as Head of Government with the title of Reichskanzler (Chancellor). Furthermore, Hitler expelled both Göring and Himmler from the party.
Rather than designate one person to succeed him as Führer, Hitler reverted to the old arrangement in the Weimar Constitution. He believed the leaders of the air force (Luftwaffe) and SS (Schutzstaffel) had betrayed him. Since the Kriegsmarine had been too small to affect the war in a major way, its commander, Dönitz, became the only possible successor as far as Hitler was concerned more or less by default.
On 1 May, the day after Hitler’s own suicide, Goebbels committed suicide. Dönitz thus became the sole representative of the crumbling German Reich. He appointed Finance Minister Count Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk as “Leading Minister” (Krosigk had declined to accept the title of Chancellor), and they attempted to form a government.
On 1 May, Dönitz announced that Hitler had fallen and had appointed him as his successor. On 2 May, the new government of the Reich fled to Flensburg-Mürwik before the approaching British troops. That night, Dönitz made a nationwide radio address in which he announced Hitler’s death and said the war would continue in the east “to save Germany from destruction by the advancing Bolshevik enemy”. However, Dönitz knew Germany’s position was untenable and the Wehrmacht was no longer capable of offering meaningful resistance. During his brief period in office, he devoted most of his effort to ensuring the loyalty of the German armed forces and trying to ensure German troops would surrender to the British or Americans and not the Soviets. He feared vengeful Soviet reprisals, and hoped to strike a deal with the western Allies. In the end, Dönitz’s tactics were moderately successful, enabling about 1.8 million German soldiers to escape Soviet capture.
Dönitz’s headquarters were located in the Naval Academy in Mürwik, a suburb of Flensburg near the Danish border. Accordingly, his administration was referred to as the Flensburg government. The following is Dönitz’s description of his new government:
These considerations (the bare survival of the German people), which all pointed to the need for the creation of some sort of central government, took shape and form when I was joined by Graf Schwerin-Krosigk. In addition to discharging his duties as Foreign Minister and Minister of Finance, he formed the temporary government we needed and presided over the activities of its cabinet. Though restricted in his choice to men in northern Germany, he nonetheless succeeded in forming a workmanlike cabinet of experts. The picture of the military situation as a whole showed clearly that the war was lost. As there was also no possibility of effecting any improvement in Germany’s overall position by political means, the only conclusion to which I, as head of state, could come was that the war must be brought to an end as quickly as possible in order to prevent further bloodshed.
— Karl Dönitz, Ten Years and Twenty Days
Late on 1 May, Himmler attempted to make a place for himself in the Flensburg government. The following is Dönitz’s description of his showdown with Himmler:
At about midnight he arrived, accompanied by six armed SS officers, and was received by my aide-de-camp, Walter Luedde-Neurath. I offered Himmler a chair and sat down at my desk, on which lay, hidden by some papers, a pistol with the safety catch off. I had never done anything of this sort in my life before, but I did not know what the outcome of this meeting might be.
I handed Himmler the telegram containing my appointment. “Please read this,” I said. I watched him closely. As he read, an expression of astonishment, indeed of consternation, spread over his face. All hope seemed to collapse within him. He went very pale. Finally he stood up and bowed. “Allow me,” he said, “to become the second man in your state.” I replied that was out of the question and that there was no way I could make any use of his services.
Thus advised, he left me at about one o’clock in the morning. The showdown had taken place without force, and I felt relieved.
— Karl Dönitz, as quoted in The Decline and Fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
On 4 May, Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg, representing Admiral Dönitz surrendered all German forces in the Netherlands, Denmark, and northwestern Germany under Dönitz’s command to Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery at Lüneburg Heath just southeast of Hamburg, signalling the end of World War II in northwestern Europe.
A day later, Dönitz sent Friedeburg to U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters in Rheims, France, to negotiate a surrender to the Allies. The Chief of Staff of OKW, Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Alfred Jodl, arrived a day later. Dönitz had instructed them to draw out the negotiations for as long as possible so that German troops and refugees could surrender to the Western powers, but when Eisenhower let it be known he would not tolerate their stalling, Dönitz authorised Jodl to sign the instrument of unconditional surrender at 1:30 on the morning of 7 May. Just over an hour later, Jodl signed the documents. The surrender documents included the phrase, “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 23:01 hours Central European Time on 8 May 1945.” At Stalin’s insistence, on 8 May, shortly before midnight, (Generalfeldmarschall) Wilhelm Keitel repeated the signing in Berlin at Marshal Georgiy Zhukov’s headquarters, with General Carl Spaatz of the USAAF present as Eisenhower’s representative. At the time specified, World War II in Europe ended.
On 23 May, the Dönitz government was dissolved when Großadmiral Dönitz was arrested by an RAF Regiment task force under the command of Squadron Leader Mark Hobden. The Großadmiral’s Kriegsmarine flag, which was removed from his headquarters can be seen at the RAF Regiment Heritage Centre at RAF Honington. Generaloberst Jodl, Reichsminister Speer and other members were also handed over to troops of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry at Flensburg. His ceremonial baton, awarded to him by Hitler, can be seen in the regimental museum of the KSLI in Shrewsbury Castle.
Dönitz’s relationship to Nazism
Despite his postwar claims, Dönitz was seen as supportive of Nazism during the war. Several naval officers described him as “closely tied to Hitler and Nazi ideology”. On one occasion, he spoke of Hitler’s humanity. Another event, in which he spoke to Hitler Youth in what was defined as an “inappropriate way”, earned him the nickname of “Hitler Youth Dönitz”. He refused to help Albert Speer stop the scorched earth policy dictated by Hitler, and is also noted to have declared, “In comparison to Hitler we are all pipsqueaks. Anyone who believes he can do better than the Führer is stupid.”
Several antisemitic statements by Dönitz are known. When Sweden closed its international waters to Germany, he blamed this action on their fear and dependence on “international Jewish capital”. In August 1944, he declared, “I would rather eat dirt than see my grandchildren grow up in the filthy, poisonous atmosphere of Jewry.”
On German Heroes’ Day (12 March) of 1944, Dönitz declared that without Adolf Hitler, Germany would be beset by “the poison of Jewry”, and the country destroyed for lack of National Socialism, which, as Dönitz declared, met an uncompromising ideology with defiance. At the Nuremberg trials, Dönitz claimed the statement about the “poison of Jewry” was regarding “the endurance, the power to endure, of the people, as it was composed, could be better preserved than if there were Jewish elements in the nation”. Initially he claimed, “I could imagine that it would be very difficult for the population in the towns to hold out under the strain of heavy bombing attacks if such an influence were allowed to work.”
Author Eric Zillmer argues that, from an ideological standpoint, Dönitz was anti-Marxist and antisemitic. Later, during the Nuremberg trials, Dönitz claimed to know nothing about the extermination of Jews and declared that nobody among “[his] men” thought about violence against Jews.
Dönitz told Leon Goldensohn, an American psychiatrist at Nuremberg, “I never had any idea of the goings-on as far as Jews were concerned. Hitler said each man should take care of his business, and mine was U-boats and the Navy.” Dönitz also told Dr. Goldensohn of his support for Admiral Bernhard Rogge, who had one Jewish grandparent, when the Nazis began to persecute him.
Nuremberg War Crimes Trials
Following the war, Dönitz was held as a prisoner of war by the Allies. He was indicted as a major war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials on three counts:
- Conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
- Planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression.
- Crimes against the laws of war.
Dönitz was found not guilty on count (1) of the indictment, but guilty on counts (2) and (3).
Dönitz was, for nearly seven decades, the only head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal until the conviction of Liberia’s Charles Taylor in April 2012.
During the trial, Gustave Gilbert, an American Army psychologist, was allowed to examine the Nazi leaders who were tried at Nuremberg for war crimes. Among other tests, a German version of the Wechsler-Bellevue IQ test was administered. Dönitz and Hermann Göring scored 138 which made them equally the third-highest among the Nazi leaders tested.
Dönitz disputed the propriety of his trial at Nuremberg, commenting on count (2) “One of the ‘accusations’ that made me guilty during this trial was that I met and planned the course of the war with Hitler; now I ask them in heaven’s name, how could an admiral do otherwise with his country’s head of state in a time of war?” Over 100 senior Allied officers also sent letters to Dönitz conveying their disappointment over the fairness and verdict of his trial.
At the trial, Dönitz was charged with:
- Waging unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping.
- Permitting Hitler’s Commando Order of 18 October 1942 to remain in full force when he became commander-in-chief of the Navy, and to that extent responsibility for that crime (his defence was that the order excluded men captured in naval warfare, and that the order had not been acted upon by any men under his command).
- Knowing that 12,000 involuntary foreign workers were working in the shipyards, and doing nothing to stop it.
Advice in 1945 when Hitler asked Dönitz whether the Geneva Convention should be denounced. Hitler’s motives were twofold. The first was that reprisals could be taken against Western Allied prisoners of war; second, it would deter German forces from surrendering to the Western Allies (as was happening on the Eastern Front where the Geneva Convention was in abeyance). Instead of arguing the conventions should never be denounced, Dönitz suggested it was not expedient to do so, so the court found against him on this issue; but as the Convention was not denounced by Germany, and British prisoners in camps under Dönitz’s jurisdiction were treated strictly according to the Convention, the Court considered these mitigating circumstances.
Among the war-crimes charges, Dönitz was accused of waging unrestricted submarine warfare for issuing War Order No. 154 in 1939, and another similar order after the Laconia incident in 1942, not to rescue survivors from ships attacked by submarine. By issuing these two orders, he was found guilty of causing Germany to be in breach of the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936. However, as evidence of similar conduct by the Allies was presented at his trial, and with the help of his lawyer Otto Kranzbühler, his sentence was not assessed on the grounds of this breach of international law.
On the specific war crimes charge of ordering unrestricted submarine warfare, Dönitz was found “[not] guilty for his conduct of submarine warfare against British armed merchant ships”, because they were often armed and equipped with radios which they used to notify the admiralty of attack, but the judges found, “Dönitz is charged with waging unrestricted submarine warfare contrary to the Naval Protocol of 1936 to which Germany acceded, and which reaffirmed the rules of submarine warfare laid down in the London Naval Agreement of 1930… The order of Dönitz to sink neutral ships without warning when found within these zones was, therefore, in the opinion of the Tribunal, violation of the Protocol… The orders, then, prove Dönitz is guilty of a violation of the Protocol…. The sentence of Dönitz is not assessed on the ground of his breaches of the international law of submarine warfare.”
His sentence on unrestricted submarine warfare was not assessed, because of similar actions by the Allies: in particular, the British Admiralty on 8 May 1940 had ordered all vessels in the Skagerrak sunk on sight; and Admiral Chester Nimitz, wartime commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, stated the U.S. Navy had waged unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific from the day the U.S. entered the war. Thus, although Dönitz was found guilty of waging unrestricted submarine warfare against unarmed neutral shipping by ordering all ships in designated areas in international waters to be sunk without warning, no additional prison time was added to his sentence for this crime.
Dönitz was imprisoned for 10 years in Spandau Prison in what was then West Berlin.
Dönitz was released on 1 October 1956 and retired to the small village of Aumühle in Schleswig-Holstein in northern West Germany. There, he worked on two books. His memoirs, Zehn Jahre, Zwanzig Tage (Memoirs: 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 (10 years) and President of Germany (20 days). In it, Dönitz explains the Nazi regime as a product of its time, but argues he was not a politician and thus not morally responsible for much of the regime’s crimes. He likewise criticizes dictatorship as a fundamentally flawed form of government and blames it for much of the Nazi era’s failings.
In 1973, he appeared in the Thames Television production The World at War, in one of his few television appearances.
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 Martial Life).
Late in his life, Dönitz made every attempt to answer correspondence and autograph postcards for others. Dönitz was unrepentant regarding his role in World War II, as he firmly believed that he had acted at all times out of duty to his nation. He also maintained the belief that to betray military secrets, even when working with the enemy, is a despicable act of treachery; he was firmly convinced that nobody should or would respect an individual who did not share such a conviction. The West German government argued he should receive only the pension pay of a captain because all of his advances in rank after that had been because of Hitler, but he won a court case demanding the pension for his final rank.
Dönitz lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity in Aumühle, occasionally corresponding with collectors of German naval history, and died there of a heart attack on 24 December 1980. As the last German officer with the rank of Großadmiral (Grand Admiral), he was honoured by many former servicemen and foreign naval officers who came to pay their respects at his funeral on 6 January 1981. He was buried in Waldfriedhof Cemetery in Aumühle without military honours, and soldiers were not allowed to wear uniforms to the funeral. However, a number of German naval officers disobeyed this order and were joined by members of the Royal Navy, such as the senior chaplain, the Rev. Dr. John Cameron, in full dress uniform. Also in attendance were over 100 holders of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
Wife and Children
On 27 May 1916, Dönitz married a nurse named Ingeborg Weber (1894–1962), the daughter of a German general Erich Paul Weber (1860–1933). They had three children whom they raised as Protestant Christians: daughter Ursula (1917–1990) and sons Klaus (1920–1944) and Peter (1922–1943).
In 1937, Karl Dönitz’s daughter Ursula married U-boat commander Günther Hessler.
Both of Dönitz’s sons were killed during the Second World War. The younger, Peter, was killed on 19 May 1943, when U-954 was sunk in the North Atlantic with all hands. After this loss, the elder son, Klaus, was allowed to leave combat duty and began studying to be a naval doctor. Klaus was killed on 13 May 1944 while taking part in an action contrary to standing orders prohibiting his involvement in any combat role. He persuaded his friends to let him go on the torpedo boat S-141 for a raid on Selsey on his 24th birthday. The boat was sunk by the French destroyer La Combattante and Klaus died, though six others were rescued.
Summary of Career – Promotions
- 1 April 1910: Seekadett – Officer Cadet.
- 15 April 1911: Fähnrich zur See – Midshipman.
- 27 September 1913: Leutnant zur See – Acting Sub-Lieutenant.
- 22 March 1916: Oberleutnant zur See – Sub-Lieutenant.
- 10 January 1921: Kapitänleutnant – Lieutenant, with rank age dated on 1 January 1921.
- 1 November 1928: Korvettenkapitän – Corvette Captain – Lieutenant Commander.
- 1 October 1933: Fregattenkapitän – Frigate Captain – Commander.
- 1 October 1935: Kapitän zur See – Captain at Sea – Captain.
- 28 January 1939: Kommodore – Commodore.
- 1 October 1939: Konteradmiral – Rear Admiral.
- 1 September 1940: Vizeadmiral – Vice Admiral.
- 14 March 1942: Admiral – Admiral.
- 30 January 1943: Großadmiral – Grand Admiral.
Decorations and Awards
- Iron Cross 1914 2nd class – 7 September 1914 & 1st class – 5 May 1916.
- General Honor Decoration – Allgemeines Ehrenzeichen – 7 June 1913.
- Friedrich Cross, 1st class – Duchy of Anhalt – 17 January 1916.
- Ottoman War Medal – 7 November 1916.
- Order of the Medjidie, 4th class – 13 March 1917.
- Knight of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern with Swords – 10 June 1918.
- Honour Cross of the World War 1914/1918 – 30 January 1935.
- Sudetenland Medal – 20 December 1939.
- Clasp to the Iron Cross 1939 2nd class – 18 September 1939 & 1st class – 20 December 1939.
- Military Order of Savoy Knight – 20 April 1940; Commander’s Cross – 7 November 1941.
- Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves
– Knight’s Cross on 21 April 1940 as Konteradmiral and Befehlshaber der U-Boote (B.d.U.).
– 223rd Oak Leaves on 6 April 1943 as Großadmiral and Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine and Befehlshaber der U-Boote.
- Order of Michael the Brave, 2nd and 3rd class – Romania, 7 April 1943.
- Order of the Rising Sun, First Class – Japan, 11 September 1943.
- Order of Naval Merit in White – Spain, 10 June 1940.