World War II: Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz

Karl Doenitz during World War II
Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz. Public Domain

The son of Emil and Anna Doenitz, Karl Doenitz was born at Berlin on September 16, 1891. Following his education, he enlisted as a sea cadet in the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) April 4, 1910, and was promoted to midshipman a year later. A gifted officer, he completed his exams and was commissioned as an acting second lieutenant on September 23, 1913. Assigned to the light cruiser SMS Breslau, Doenitz saw service in the Mediterranean in the years prior to World War I. The ship's assignment was due to Germany's desire to have a presence in the region following the Balkan Wars.

World War I

With the commencement of hostilities in August 1914, Breslau and the battlecruiser SMS Goeben were ordered to attack Allied shipping. Prevented from doing so by French and British warships, the German vessels, under the command of Rear Admiral Wilhelm Anton Souchon, bombarded the French Algerian ports of Bône and Philippeville before turning for Messina to re-coal. Departing port, the German ships were chased across the Mediterranean by Allied forces.

Entering the Dardanelles on August 10, both ships were transferred to the Ottoman Navy, however their German crews remained aboard. Over the next two years, Doenitz served aboard as the cruiser, now know as Midilli, operated against the Russians in the Black Sea. Promoted to first lieutenant in March 1916, he was placed in command of an airfield at the Dardanelles. Bored in this assignment, he requested a transfer to the submarine service which was granted that October.


Assigned as a watch officer aboard U-39, Doenitz learned his new trade before receiving command of UC-25 in February 1918. That September, Doenitz returned to the Mediterranean as commander of UB-68. A month into his new command, Doenitz's u-boat suffered mechanical issues and was attacked and sunk by British warships near Malta. Escaping, he was rescued and became a prisoner for the war's final months. Taken to Britain, Doenitz was held in a camp near Sheffield. Repatriated in July 1919, he returned to Germany the following year and sought to resume his naval career. Entering the Weimar Republic's navy, he was made a lieutenant on January 21, 1921.

Interwar Years

Shifting to torpedo boats, Doenitz progressed through the ranks and was promoted to lieutenant commander in 1928. Made a commander five years later, Doenitz was placed in command of the cruiser Emden. A training ship for naval cadets, Emden conducted annual world cruises. Following the re-introduction of u-boats to the German fleet, Doenitz was promoted to captain and given command of the 1st U-boat Flotilla in September 1935 which consisted of U-7, U-8, and U-9. Though initially concerned about the capabilities of early British sonar systems, such as ASDIC, Doenitz became a leading advocate for submarine warfare.

New Strategies and Tactics

In 1937, Doenitz began to resist the naval thinking of the time which was based on the fleet theories of American theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan. Rather than employ submarines in support of the battle fleet, he advocated for using them in a purely commerce raiding role. As such, Doenitz lobbied to convert the entire German fleet to submarines as he believed that a campaign dedicated to sinking merchant ships could quickly knock Britain out of any future wars.

Re-introducing the group hunting, "wolf pack" tactics of World War I as well as calling for night, surface attacks on convoys, Doenitz believed that advances in radio and cryptography would make these methods more effective than in the past. He relentlessly trained his crews knowing that u-boats would be Germany's principal naval weapon in any future conflict. His views frequently brought him into conflict with other German naval leaders, such as Admiral Erich Raeder, who believed in the expansion of the Kriegsmarine's surface fleet.

World War II Begins

Promoted to commodore and given command of all German u-boats on January 28, 1939, Doenitz began to prepare for war as tensions with Britain and France increased. With the outbreak of World War II that September, Doenitz possessed only 57 u-boats, only 22 of which were modern Type VIIs. Prevented from fully launching his commerce raiding campaign by Raeder and Hitler, who desired attacks against the Royal Navy, Doenitz was forced to comply. While his submarines scored successes in sinking the carrier HMS Courageous and the battleships HMS Royal Oak and HMS Barham, as well as damaging the battleship HMS Nelson, losses were incurred as naval targets were more heavily defended. These further reduced his already small fleet.

Battle of the Atlantic

Promoted to rear admiral on October 1, his u-boats continued attacks on British naval and merchant targets. Made a vice admiral in September 1940, Doenitz's fleet began to expand with the arrival of larger numbers of Type VIIs. Focusing his efforts against merchant traffic, his u-boats began to damage the British economy. Coordinating u-boats by radio using encoded messages, Doenitz's crews sank increasing amounts of Allied tonnage. With the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, he commenced Operation Drumbeat which targeted Allied shipping off the East Coast.

Beginning with only nine u-boats, the operation scored several successes and exposed the US Navy's unpreparedness for anti-submarine warfare. Through 1942, as more u-boats joined the fleet, Doenitz was able to fully implement his wolf pack tactics by directing groups of submarines against Allied convoys. Inflicting heavy casualties, the attacks caused a crisis for the Allies. As British and American technology improved in 1943, they began to have more success in combating Doenitz's u-boats. As a result, he continued to press for new submarine technology and more advanced u-boat designs.

Grand Admiral

Promoted to grand admiral on January 30, 1943, Doenitz replaced Raeder as command-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine. With limited surface units remaining, he relied on them as a "fleet in being" to distract the Allies while focusing on submarine warfare. During his tenure, German designers produced some of the most advanced submarine designs of the war including the Type XXI. Despite spurts of success, as the war progressed, Doenitz's u-boats were slowly driven from the Atlantic as the Allies utilized sonar and other technology, as well as Ultra radio intercepts, to hunt down and sink them.

Leader of Germany

With the Soviets nearing Berlin, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. In his will he ordered that Doenitz replace him as the leader of Germany with the title of president. A surprise choice, it is thought that Doenitz was selected as Hitler believed that the only the navy had remained loyal to him. Though Joseph Goebbels was designated to be his chancellor, he committed suicide the next day. On May 1, Doenitz selected Count Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk as chancellor and attempted to form a government. Headquartered at Flensburg, near the Danish border, Doenitz's government worked to ensure the loyalty of the army and encouraged German troops to surrender to the Americans and British rather than the Soviets.

Authorizing German forces in northwestern Europe to surrender on May 4, Doenitz instructed Colonel General Alfred Jodl to sign the instrument of unconditional surrender on May 7. Not recognized by the Allies, his government ceased to rule after the surrender and was captured at Flensburg on May 23. Arrested, Doenitz was seen to be a strong supporter of Nazism and Hitler. As a result he was indicted as a major war criminal and was tried at Nuremberg.

Final Years

There Doenitz was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, largely relating to the use of unrestricted submarine warfare and issuing orders to ignore survivors in the water. Found guilty on charges of planning and waging a war of aggression and crimes against the laws of war, he was spared the death sentence as American Admiral Chester W. Nimitz provided an affidavit in support of unrestricted submarine warfare (which had been used against the Japanese in the Pacific) and due to the British use of a similar policy in the Skagerrak.

As a result, Doenitz was sentenced to ten years in prison. Incarcerated at Spandau Prison, he was released on October 1, 1956. Retiring to Aumühle in northern West Germany, he focused on writing his memoirs in entitled Ten Years and Twenty Days. He remained in retirement until his death on December 24, 1980.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).