The Grand Admiral Part I

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With his succession as Commander-in-Chief on January 30th 1943, Karl Dönitz was appointed Grossadmiral. this was the high-water mark of his life. He was 51, at the height of his powers; in Ingeborg he had a gracious hostess for the social duties that came with high office, and which despite himself he enjoyed. He could be proud of his two sons, both lieutenants in the élite U-boat arm; Peter just coming up to his 21st birthday was second watchkeeping officer in U 954 working up for its first war cruise; the elder, Klaus, prevented from front service perhaps by injuries to his head in a motorcycle accident in 1939, was on the staff of the 5th U-flotilla at Kiel; his son-in-law, the ace Günther Hessler, was first staff officer under his U-boat department chief, Godt.

Above all and filling his thoughts was the prospect of winning the war—virtually on his own! With the Reich now on the defensive everywhere, the U-boat arm, which he had decided to keep under his own direct control, was the sole means to victory. Success had seemed so close in November; over the last two months it had danced away tantalizingly; few convoys had been found, due chiefly to bad weather and the enemy using new routes and somehow sailing around the U-boat groups, although just how they had discovered his dispositions was not clear. Now at last he had the power to remedy this, he intended increasing the monthly production totals, cutting down the exasperating delays in the dockyards and so filling the North Atlantic that the enemy would be unable to avoid his patrol lines.

His mood and the ruthless practicality of his thinking showed in his first directive issued to the staffs within days of taking office; it could scarcely have provided a greater contrast to Raeder’s methods:

1) It is a question of winning the war. Considerations of how the Navy should appear after the war have no value.

2) The sea war is the U-boat war.

3) All has to be subordinated to this main goal …

He knew it was a race against time, but he believed recent experience showed that tactical surprise could still be achieved in the mid-ocean ‘air gap’—narrow as this had become—and a concentration of boats could still overwhelm the surface escort and achieve decisive success.

It is easy to criticize this as a gross underestimation of the enemy’s capacity, both in the air and in merchant shipbuilding, an even more serious misjudgement of their likely reaction if threatened with defeat in the Atlantic: they were bound then to concentrate all their dispersed resources on closing the ‘air gap’ to make the whole North Atlantic convoy route as impossible for U-boat operations as they had already made the western Mediterranean—as indeed he had prophesied the previous summer.

Nevertheless he was optimistic by temperament and there was really little alternative to the U-boat campaign; the surface fleet had been rendered virtually impotent by allied naval and air superiority; in the east the German armies were on the defensive, and within a day of his taking over as Supreme Commander, Paulus’ forces at Stalingrad surrendered to the Russians; in North Africa Rommel was being starved of supplies by sea, air and submarine assault on the transports, and neither the Italian surface fleet nor the Axis U-boats were able to prevent a huge Anglo-American build-up against him. In the air the Luftwaffe could not cope with the weight of the allied raids on the Reich, let alone hope to deliver a decisive blow of its own. The only offensive force left to Germany was the U-boat arm, and it was natural that it should be used in a desperate throw to break out of the circle of defeat.

Whether Hitler believed it could do so may be doubted. Probably he knew already with the rational side of his mind that the Third Reich was doomed; he had based his strategy in both west and east on lightning campaigns to smash his enemies before their rearmament programmes could tip the balance against him. Now, not only had the Blitzkrieg in the east failed, but the huge economic and industrial power of the United States had risen against him. There are signs that he was already preparing himself and the Party in the ideology of defeat; on February 7th, for instance, the day before the first conference Dönitz attended as naval C-in-C, he told a gathering of gauleiters that if the German people failed it would be because they did not deserve to win—in the elemental struggle for survival between races, the Germans would have proved the weaker and the responsibility would not be his, nor the Party’s! This was to become a familiar motif in the last months of the Reich. It was at night that this rational and logical side took over; to shut it out he talked to his aides or weary female secretaries far into the morning hours, but when at last he went to bed it prevented him from sleeping; he was forced to take sedatives. By day he could escape his doubts by attention to the small detail of the campaigns at his situation reports, and allow the irrational side of his nature to seize on any straws of hope presented.

It was here that Dönitz played such an important role; his optimism, his determination that the U-boats could and would succeed, his positive response to all difficulties, were exactly what the jaded Führer needed to feed his wilful self-deceptions. Moreover, Dönitz’s great strengths as a leader, noted over the years by his superiors, his ‘iron will-power, goal-oriented certainty and unwearying toughness … calm, circumspection and power of resolution …’ his ‘inner enthusiasm for his profession …’ and ‘absolute reliability …’ impressed Hitler and won his immediate confidence. Hitler also recognized, with his sure instinct, that this taut-lipped professional would follow him, body and soul, with unquestioning devotion to the end.

Dönitz, for his part, tasting a fulfilment which because of his inner insecurity could never be complete without a fixed object to adhere to, saw in the person of the Führer, aged since Stalingrad with bent back and trembling hand and his formerly electric blue eyes rather dulled and protuberant, all that he had been taught and needed fervently to believe in; here was the man of iron will whose political and military genius had rescued Germany from internal chaos, Bolshevism and the hate-inspired dictats of the western powers. So, while he held to his own judgement in naval affairs, he never questioned Hitler’s overall strategy or views—indeed he made them his own—and while exasperated often enough by the lack of co-ordination at the top of the three services he blamed this on personalities, particularly the gross sybarite, Göring, rather than the Führer system or the Führer himself.

It was from both their points of view an ideal relationship; Hitler needed assurance that—despite recent events—he was the man of German destiny—Dönitz needed to give him that utter faith and loyalty. And since Hitler distrusted all his generals as a class and Göring was a caricature of self-indulgence, it is natural that he seized on Dönitz as confident and adviser, and in view of Dönitz’s ambitious and thrusting temperament inevitable that he responded ardently.

Can Dönitz have been so blind as to have no doubts? Could a man capable of such sensitive appreciation of the quiet culture of the Balinese or the contentment of the Javanese villagers, so appreciative of the fact that the native women did not scold their children and would have found hitting them inconceivable, never reflect that his own Volk were in hell and never ask himself whether it was not the ruling circle he had joined who had brought and were keeping them there? It could not have been ignorance. ‘The tyranny, the terror,’ Helmuth von Moltke had written the previous year, ‘the loss of values of all kinds is greater than I could have believed possible a short time ago.’ He had estimated that a hundred Germans a day were being executed after civil trial or court martial and hundreds more being shot in concentration camps without pretence of a trial. The greater part of the population had been uprooted by conscription or forced labour and ‘spread all over the continent, untying all bonds of nature and thereby loosing the beast in man’. Could Dönitz have accepted the very obvious effects of all this and the reports of the barbarities on the Russian front and the bestial treatment of, particularly, the Jews in the occupied countries as simply exigencies of a war necessary to save the Fatherland from Bolshevism? Certainly this is the impression he seeks to convey by total silence in all his writings. This very silence, however, is proof enough that he deliberately shut out all doubt: the question then arises, was it simply ambition or deep inner insecurity and the consequent need to cling to the image of what he thought he ought to be and ought to serve—as he had been indoctrinated all his life—that enabled or forced him to blinker himself so thoroughly? And was it the suppression of other more sensitive feelings that drove him to excess?

A simpler answer to questions about his moral blindness might be the corrupting effects of power and status. He moved into an imposing house built about the turn of the century—now the Institute for Experimental Therapy, University of Berlin—set back in spacious grounds in the suburb of Dahlem, Berlin, where many other Nazi bosses had their grand residences. It is interesting that this had been the parish of his one-time fellow-cadet in the class of 1910, subsequently fellow U-boat Commander, Martin Niemöller. Niemöller had taken Holy Orders after the war, and although an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler at the beginning, his later opposition had led to his incarceration in a concentration camp; in 1943 he was still inside. His successors are clear that neither Dönitz nor Ingeborg were churchgoers during their time in Dahlem.

In addition to his splendid home, which was guarded by an SS company, Dönitz had all the other gleaming trappings of Nazi power, a large Mercedes staff car—escorted by SS guards when he travelled—a smaller car for Berlin, a private aeroplane and a train named Auerhahn with a restaurant coach and a sleeping coach with a conference chamber. And like the other top men he had his collections—the Persian carpets he loved, the heroic engravings, the sea pictures he had been acquiring in France. He also collected silver, antiques and objets, and had been presented by his flotillas in France with a priceless Gobelin tapestry which had adorned the wall of a château; the house in Dahlem was furnished with exquisite taste. How much all these came from his service pay, how much from the handouts with which Hitler was wont to retain the loyalty of his chief servants, or from the general corruption that welded the seams of the Nazi machine is quite unknown. He received a grant of 300,000 marks from Hitler on his promotion to Grand Admiral, but this was standard for equivalent ranks in all the services. Probably the question is not important; undoubtedly Dönitz’s loyalty sprang from deeper wells than money or possessions; all who knew him describe him as upright and not out for personal gain—as one of his adjutants put it, ‘the complete opposite of Reichsmarschall Göring’.

He truly believed and acted on his first directive to his staff, which ran:

Our life belongs to the State. Our honour lies in our duty-fulfilment and readiness for action. No one of us has the right to private life. The question for us is winning the war. We have to pursue this goal with fanatical devotion and the most ruthless determination to win.

His own devotion and habits of work remained uncorroded by his new status. He continued to retire early to bed and to rise early. His adjutant, Korvettenkapitän Hansen-Nootbar, who joined him that spring from torpedo boats so that he could inform him of the attitudes and needs of the surface fleet, describes him as the ‘consummate “morning-man” ’; he recalls being roused by telephone at between five and six in the morning and hearing Dönitz’s voice.

‘Hänschen, are you still asleep!’

‘Jawohl, Herr Grossadmiral…’

‘That’s no good. I want you …’

Dönitz used to tell him he had his best thoughts in the early morning.

He lost no time in getting rid of the senior officers identified with Raeder’s policies, dismissing some like Carls and shifting others to front commands or to backwaters like education. ‘The great seal cull’, as it came to be known, caused bitterness among those axed, but it was undoubtedly necessary and brought an infusion of younger blood and practicality to areas where failure and fantasy had ruled.

Some of his choices were not so happy, in particular perhaps his appointment of Wilhlem Meisel as chief of the naval staff. Meisel was a conscientious worker—who was not in the German Navy!—but lacked the imagination or personality to be much more than a transmitting organ for Dönitz’s ideas. This suited Dönitz perfectly, but it was the worst possible relationship for naval decision-making. What Dönitz needed was a strong curb, an analytical and sceptical right hand with the toughness to oppose his own blood-reasoning. Whether he would have tolerated such a man for long is, of course, doubtful. The fact that he chose a man like Meisel for the key post at High Command is significant; probably this too stemmed from his insecurity; or it may be, as his adjutant, Hansen-Nootbar, believes, he lacked understanding of other men.

Since the sea war was now to be the U-boat war, he combined the office of BdU with his own post as C-in-C of the Navy, and had U-boat headquarters moved from Paris to Berlin, where the Hotel am Steinplatz in Charlottenberg was furnished for the purpose. He retained Godt as his effective chief of operations with the title of Admiral commanding U-boats and FdU; Hessler remained Godt’s number one.

The Kriegsmarine was a vast concern by this stage of the war; it had the defence of scores of harbours and thousands of miles of coastline from occupied Scandinavia and the Baltic right around northern Europe and Biscay to the south of France, the Aegean and the Black Sea to look after; it was responsible for the protection of the shipments of iron ore and other vital metals down the Norwegian coast and across the Baltic, troop transport and supplies to the eastern armies, the security of blockade runners from Japan and Spain with equally vital commodities for the war effort; in the Mediterranean the Navy was working in co-operation with the Italian Navy in the struggle to keep open the supply lines to the Afrika Korps, now squeezed into a corner of Tunisia, and was fully engaged in the attack on allied supply lines. It was a hugely complex military, military-political and economic mosaic quite different from the simple certainties of the Atlantic ‘tonnage war’. He learnt this quickly, but in the beginning his concern was the battle in the Atlantic, his first overriding priority to boost U-boat production. He also intended to increase production of the only other potent weapon of offence, the Schnell (fast motor torpedo)boats which attacked shipping in the English Channel. The task was rendered particularly difficult since Hitler’s reaction to the disaster at Stalingrad was to cut the Navy’s already insufficient steel quota further to make more available for tank production, which he accorded the highest priority. A great part of Dönitz’s energies, therefore—according to Hansen-Nootbar at least 90 per cent of his working time—was spent with the technical and construction departments.

At first he seems to have agreed with Hitler’s directive to scrap the big ships; already the surface fleet was being combed for more officers and men for the ever-increasing force of U-boats and his first plans included the phased de-commissioning of the major units to release yet more men and dockyard workers, whose shortage also contributed to the bottlenecks in construction. However, he soon came to appreciate Raeder’s objections to this course which were persisted in by the naval staff: it would amount to an effortless victory for the allies, not only handing them a great psychological and propaganda success, but allowing them to release far greater forces, at present held back to cover the threat posed by the Tirpitz and the other big ships, for offensive operations against the German coasts and supply shipping, or to protect Atlantic convoys. Moreover the release of steel and manpower would be a mere drop in the ocean. Chiefly, though, it was the classic argument of the fleet ‘in being’ to tie up the enemy’s forces which had been accepted by virtually every inferior fleet throughout the modern history of navies.

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