Donitz and the U-Boot Arm


Rear-Admiral Karl Donitz and his staff discuss operations. Throughout the war Donitz maintained a very tight control of U-boat operations, using radio to alter the disposition of his boats at sea. He never realised that successful British code-breaking operations made this control his Achilles’ heel.


U-664 met its end later on 9 August 1943 when attacked by three more aircraft from the escort carrier Card.

Once Dönitz became head of the navy in 1943, its Nazification accelerated rapidly. “Over and over again Doenitz made ringing addresses to the German sailors and to the nation, praising everything about Hitler—his peerless leadership, his infallibility.” In December 1943 the newly appointed commander in chief told the navy leadership “how deeply he believed in the ideological education of the German soldier, the holy zeal and fanaticism with which the country must fight.” Several months later he addressed his immediate subordinates again on this point, emphasizing that “the whole officer corps must be so indoctrinated that it feels itself co-responsible with the National Socialist state in its entirety.” The officer was the exponent and symbol of the Nazi state. “The idle chatter that the officer is non-political is nonsense.”

Not surprisingly, Raeder and Dönitz did not get along well. Years later, at Nuremberg, Dönitz spoke to an American psychiatrist of the time when Raeder “was the big chief and I was just the little man in the navy.” To the fanatic youngsters of the U-boat arm, their commander was “unser Doenitz,” the “lion” of the service who could do no wrong. Why did the accursed Raeder have to pine for huge, expensive battleships when everyone knew that Germany could defeat Britain at sea by U-boats alone? “The little man in the submarine service summed things up in his own way when he said bitterly: ‘Our Commander-in- Chief (Admiral Raeder) doesn’t want any U-boats, and for why? Because we can’t put a band on the upper deck and receive ’im with trumpets and drums!’”

By 1937–1938 the German navy was again weighing the question of a North Sea–North Atlantic war versus concentration on the Baltic. Raeder had initially argued for the development of a modest fleet to confront France. After 1936, however, as Hitler accelerated rearmament, increased diplomatic pressure on the other European powers, and intervened in the Spanish civil war, Raeder realized that conflict with Britain was unavoidable. How would the potential Soviet colossus respond?

Raeder formed two naval group headquarters, East and West, which battled each other continually. Eventually, the “western” headquarters responsible for the North Sea and North Atlantic won out, and France, then finally Britain, was duly labeled as Germany’s chief antagonist. But the “eastern” headquarters made several powerful arguments for a naval concentration in the Baltic before being overwhelmed. Swedish iron ore from Arctic mines had become essential to the burgeoning German war machine. In peacetime winters it could be transported down the Norwegian coast, whose waters were sufficiently warmed by the North Atlantic Current and whose screen of offshore islands provided sufficient protection against attacks by the Royal Navy. But in wartime Norwegian waters would presumably be closed, and a Baltic passage would have to be established. Better to keep the fleet in the Baltic against a sudden British thrust than to dash it to pieces fighting the enemy in the North Sea. And if Soviet Russia should menace Germany’s eastern frontiers, then surely the navy would once again play a major role supporting army groups on the Baltic shore as it had done in 1917. Such spirited debates over strategic and tactical planning reflected the growing pains of an uncertain young service suddenly bursting with a large number of young, energetic people and in need of bold ideas that would appeal to them. The fact that Raeder and Dönitz held sharply differing views of the course German naval expansion should take served to open up rather than stifle communication between senior officers and an impatient younger generation.

Raeder proved a better man than the impatient Dönitz. He had picked Dönitz to lead the U-boat arm, and thereafter he steadfastly supported his often fractious subordinate. Moreover, Raeder was far more conscious of the submarine potential than the restless and dismissive youngsters in the U-boats realized. He sought, as he later said, a balanced fleet whose “component ship types should be both complementary and interdependent.” Germany must have both submarines and battleships if it were ever to wrest control of the North Sea, if not the world ocean, from the Royal Navy. Raeder remembered that the German ships at Jutland had been far tougher than their British opposites, that the fighting qualities of Franz von Hipper’s battle cruisers and Reinhard Scheer’s battleships had been superior to those of John Jellicoe and David Beatty. He also knew of, and apparently believed, British claims that the new underwater sound device called asdic could detect U-boats over a wide area on the edge of a convoy and that the escorts could then defeat them. Raeder was nonetheless more than ready for another go at Britain both on and beneath the ocean surface if only Hitler would give the German navy time to rejuvenate, to become at least a Hochseeflotte in miniature.

Certainly, he proved more willing to risk his ships than had his predecessors. At the time of the Austrian crisis in 1938, for example, he sent his still minuscule navy, headed by the brand-new Gneisenau, into the North Sea to challenge Admiral Sir Charles Forbes’s fifty ships led by Nelson. According to a contemporary account, Berlin had first informed the British that German warships would go no farther north than a line approximately between Flamborough Head and the Danish coast. Quite soon, however, an “alarmed” British Admiralty was told by its German opposite that the Gneisenau task force would be moving closer to Scapa Flow “but without saying exactly where.” The Royal Navy feared a “frontier incident” at sea that could lead to war—an incident resulting possibly from “secret tactics, smoke screens, or code-signal mixups.” As a consequence, battle cruiser Repulse, battleship Royal Oak, and the Fourth Destroyer Flotilla remained at Portsmouth to guard the English Channel. The mighty Hood remained at Gibraltar either to close the western Mediterranean should Mussolini send his navy out to join that of the führer or to race up to home waters should that become necessary.

Dönitz proved as bold a leader of the undersea fleet as his superior was of the heavy surface forces. By the spring of 1939, light surface elements of the German navy accompanied by about twenty U-boats cruised to Lisbon, Cueta, and far into the western Mediterranean, reflecting not only the German Admiralty’s unprecedented boldness in deploying the fleet but also its growing interest in the strategically critical Mediterranean region. During maneuvers off Cape St. Vincent, the U-boats maneuvered into attack formation and assaulted a force of German ships composed of supply vessels and fleet destroyers. This was Dönitz’s long-held theory of the “wolf pack”—a collection of U-boats assaulting enemy convoys en masse—transformed into deadly reality. The results of this mock attack “justified Doenitz’s belief in his own theory of tactics and training. After the severest analysis he was satisfied that the ‘[wolf ]pack’ tactics had accomplished and in wartime would accomplish all that was expected of them.”


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