Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Dönitz, Karl (1891–1980)

Title: Karl Dönitz with U-boat officers
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German navy admiral who commanded the U-boats and later the full Kriegsmarine and then succeeded Adolf Hitler as head of the Third Reich. Born in Gruenau-bei-Berlin on 16 September 1891, Karl Dönitz joined the German navy in 1910. During World War I, he served on the cruiser Breslau, but he transferred to U-boats in 1916, commanding several submarines in the Mediterranean. In October 1918, his U-68 attacked an Allied convoy, sinking one of the ships. His submarine was forced to the surface when it developed mechanical problems, and Dönitz was taken prisoner.

Dönitz continued in the navy after World War I. He held a variety of shore and sea assignments including command of a torpedo-boat flotilla, during which he experimented with tactics he would later develop into the Rudeltaktik (wolf pack) concept. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler named Dönitz commander of the fledgling German submarine force in 1935. Kapitän zue See und Kommodore (captain and commodore) Dönitz sought to build additional submarines to expand the fleet to 300 boats, a number he believed would be decisive in winning the next war. Dönitz's passionate advocacy of submarines led to friction between him and the commander of the navy, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, who preferred to allocate scarce naval resources to a long-range program of conventional large surface ships. Their differences became moot when World War II began before either type was fully ready for decisive employment.

Promoted to Konteradmiral (U.S. equiv. rear admiral) in October 1939, Dönitz struggled to overcome the problems of insufficient numbers of U-boats and ineffective torpedoes, difficulties that nearly wrecked his operations. To combat Allied convoys, Dönitz implemented wolf pack tactics: centralized control over groups of U-boats that struck Allied convoys at night in surface attacks. In January 1943, Hitler, frustrated by the performance of his surface navy, removed Raeder and replaced him with Dönitz as head of the navy. Dönitz endeavored to continue the U-boat war, but during "Black May" in 1943, his U-boats were essentially defeated through Allied antisubmarine countermeasures including aircraft, convoys, searchlights, radar, sonar, and the ability to read Germany's encoded radio messages.

Unlike virtually all other senior German military officers, Dönitz managed to retain Hitler's confidence and favor. Dönitz's final military success was the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Germans from the Baltic states by sea. As the Allied armies entered Germany on 15 April 1945, Hitler appointed Dönitz as commander of all forces in northern Germany. On 30 April, the day that Hitler committed suicide, Dönitz was informed that Hitler had appointed him to serve as president of the Reich and supreme commander of the armed forces. Dönitz then led the crumbling Third Reich, hoping to delay Soviet advances to allow millions of German troops and civilians to flee westward to British and U.S. lines to avoid falling into Soviet hands. Dönitz surrendered Germany unconditionally to Allied representatives on 7 May 1945.

The British arrested Dönitz on 23 May. Tried by the International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg, Dönitz was found guilty of crimes against peace and violation of the rules of war and was sentenced to 10 years in Spandau Prison. He was released in 1956 and later wrote several books about his career and about submarine warfare. Unrepentant about his role in the war, Dönitz died in Aumuhle, Federal Republic of Germany, on 24 December 1980.

Steven J. Rauch


Further Reading
Doenitz, Karl. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Trans. R. H. Stevens in collaboration with David Woodward. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990.; Edwards, Bernard. Dönitz and the Wolf Packs. London: Cassell, 1999.; Padfield, Peter. Dönitz, the Last Führer: Portrait of a Nazi War Leader. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.
 

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