Born in Berlin in 1891, Karl Donitz was 27-years-old when he obtained his first command of a U-boat (or ‘Unterseeboote’) in 1918. Some months later, a technical fault plunged the U-boat into trouble off the island of Malta and he was captured by the Royal Navy. Repatriated in 1919, he spent the next sixteen years riding torpedo boats in the Weimar Republic’s Reichsmarine. In 1934, the year Bill Harrington entered Eton, this gifted Berliner took command of the cruiser Emden, Hitler’s answer to the Hood, where 160 of Germany’s brightest and boldest naval cadets were trained during a year-long cruise around the world.
In 1935, Doenitz was appointed to oversee the expansion of the German U-boat fleet. Over the next decade he became the ‘Father of the U-boat’, developing successful tactics such as hunting in wolf-packs. During the war, he personally lead the charge in many of the pivotal Northern Atlantic actions, especially the convoy battles.
In January 1943, Doenitz became commander in chief of the German Navy with the rank of Grand Admiral. He concentrated on building up a powerful submarine fleet, dedicated to sinking merchant ships, which he believed would knock Britain out of the war.
Like Rommel, he was esteemed for maintaining close contact with both his commanders and their crews. The Allies also respected him; German U-boats may have fought hard, but they fought fair. He even graced the cover of Time magazine twice, in 1942 and 1943. However, Hitler could not provide him with the resources he required and Doenitz soon found himself on the back-foot in both the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
The poisoned chalice came his way when Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945. In his last political testament, he appointed Doenitz as his successor to the offices of President and Supreme Commander.
Doenitz’s loyalty was unquestionable. He had ordered his sailors to fight to the last, on the ground, in the defence of Berlin.[i] Indeed, as the avenging Soviet Red army advanced upon his Führerbunker in Berlin, Hitler may have had in mind the German navy code of honour that ruled out surrender.
The following day, as the Soviet victory flag was raised over the Reichstag in Berlin, Donitz received a radio message from Martin Borrman informing him of Hitler’s death and of his own surprise appointment. He duly assumed office, establishing his headquarters at the Muerwick naval academy in Flensburg.[ii] Others – possibly Speer – say his headquarters was in the Captain’s rooms on the Patria. From his office, he directed the German army, communicating orders with limited success through Radio Flensburg. He began by proclaiming that ‘the Furher has fallen, fighting to his last breath against Bolshevism, at the head of the heroic defenders of the Reich capital’. He appealed for a continuation of the war on the Eastern Front, in order to move as many soldiers and civilians away from the merciless Russians. In those last brutal days, as many as 100,000 Germans may have taken poison or shot or hanged themselves to escape from the advancing Red Army. Many were women, convinced that the alternative was to be gang-raped by Russian soldiers, a horror that was reputedly taking place on an epidemic scale.
On May 4th, Doenitz authorized German forces in north-western Europe to surrender, urging them to seek out Americans and British troops rather than the avenging Soviets. Doenitz still harboured ambitions that his so-called ‘Flensburg Government’ could somehow be a palatable option for the Allies. As such, when he formed his cabinet on May 5th, he deliberately refused two senior Nazi figures a position in the government, namely Heinrich Himmler (expelled by Hitler as a traitor) and Alfred Rosenberg. He also instructed General Alfred Jodl to sign the instrument of unconditional surrender at Reims on May 7. Daily cabinet meeting were held in the Cabinet room, a former classroom in the academy, where the ‘Ministers’ sat upon painted chairs and tables gathered from around the school.
As the Allies advanced on Flensburg, the Nazi leaders began to freak out, getting drunk, ordering poison capsules and trying to work out how to get to South America. Some showed great courage, knowing arrest and possible execution was imminent. The British troops encircled Flensburg so that there was just a tiny enclave under German control. Large numbers of British and American newspapermen flocked to the town. Donitz was still travelling around in one of Hitler’s big Mercedez limousines which had somehow made its way up there. He still harboured ambitions that his ‘Flensburg Government’ could somehow be a palatable option for the Allies. On May 7th, he instructed General Alfred Jodl to sign the instrument of unconditional surrender at Reims. But his aspirations to preside over a post-war Germany were futile. Eisenhower refused to recognise the Flensburg Government and, on May 22, the American General issued orders for the arrest of Doenitz and his entourage.
Doenitz was instructed to make his way to a liner in Flenburg harbour the following morning where he would receive his orders.
The British destroyers Zealous and Zodiac anchored menacingly in the harbour at Flensburg while the British 159th Infantry brigade, supported by tanks and armoured cars, moved in.[iii] By 15 May, Flensburg was in Allied control and Doenitz’s government buildings were surrounded. And still the Admiral held out for the possibility of formal talks with Eisenhower.
On the evening of May 22, Doenitz received his instructions. The following morning he was to make his way to a liner called the Patria where he would receive his orders.[iv] He duly advised his staff to ‘Pack your bags’.
Operation Blackout, the formal conclusion of the Flensburg Government, commenced the following morning.[v] The Royal Hussars, with Harrington and Rathdonnell to the fore, received the code word to advance on the German headquarters, bayonets at the ready.[vi] Some three hundred officers, as well as hundreds of secretaries, civilians and soldiers, were rounded up and made to stand in a line down the corridors, face to the wall, hands on head. Intelligence officers went from room to room, gathering documents, wireless sets and personal belongings. Many prisoners were stripped and, in some cases, subjected to personal investigations of a most uncomfortable nature. No shots were fired. The British took the Reich war flag down from the naval school.
The late, charismatic Limerick huntsman Bill Harrington (11th Earl of Harrington) claims he arrested Doenitz. If this was true, he would probably have found the Grand Admiral in his chambers at Flensburg castle but it seems to be an unlikely tale. In another room of the 15th century castle, a fellow officer found Dr. Albert Speer, the Nazi Minister of Industry and Production. [vii]
At 10 o’clock, Doenitz, General Jodl (Chief of Staff) and Admiral von Friedeburg (head of the German Navy) were brought on board the Patria. In the ship’s bar, General Lowell W. Rooks quickly and curtly informed Doenitz that Eisenhower had decided, ‘in concert with the Soviet High Command, that today the acting German government and the German High Command, with several of its members, shall be taken into custody as prisoners of war’.[viii] Asked by Rooks for any comment, Doenitz replied, ‘Any words would be superfluous’. [ix]
Now classified as war criminals, the members of the Doenitz government were marched back to their quarters at machine-gun point, hands behind their heads. Briefly presented at a press conference, they were subsequently stripped, looted and placed in a prisoner of war cage. The remainder of the day was not without incident. Von Friedeburg gave his British captors the slip and swallowed a poisoned capsule. Heinrich Himmler, former head of the SS and probably the most hated man in Europe, likewise managed to commit suicide at nearby Lüneburg that afternoon. He is buried in an unmarked grave on Luneberg Heath.
Doenitz was subsequently found guilty of war crimes at Nuremburg and served 11 years and 6 months in prison. As Lord Harrington put it, he ‘wasn’t the worst of them’. After his release in 1956, he settled in a small village near Hamburg where he wrote two books and a history of the U-boat. He passed away on Christmas Eve 1980.
[i] Hitler, it appears, wanted to be remembered as the only person ever to hold the office of Furhrer. Doenitz was not to inherit the title of Führer, a role which would have entitled him to also act as Chancellor. The office of Reich Chancellor was reserved for Joseph Goebbels who held the office for a day before he too committed suicide. Goebbels issued only two orders between his appointment as the last Chancellor of a united Germany, and his suicide. One was to seek a conditional surrender from Russia. The other was to dismiss Rochus Misch from his communications post. When Doenitz learned that Goebbels had committed suicide, he quickly chose Count Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk to be his foremost advisor.
[ii] The month of May held unhappy memories for Donitz; he had lost his two sons to enemy action in May 1943 and May 1944. The Third Reich territories still consisted of all of Denmark and Norway, as well as pieces of Holland, France, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Russia, Czechoslovakia and Crete.
[iii] Captain John Lewes, RN, coordinated naval operations with Rear- Admiral LEH Maund.
[iv] The Patria, the largest liner of the Hamburg-America Line, had been luxury headquarters of the submarine base at Flensburg prior to its seizure by the Allies some days earlier.
[v] ‘At 10:00am, Operation Blackout began when Flensburg was ‘attacked’ by 1 Cheshire, supported by A Squadron, and by 1 Hereford, supported by B Squadron, from the east and south-west respectively. C Squadron remained in reserve with the RHQ. ‘No risks were taken and there was support from the Royal Navy, two squadrons of the RAF, and some Royal Marines. Not a shot was fired and in a few hours the operation was over. A and B Squadron had blocked various roads and had seized some barracks near the Patria, the SCHAEF Mission ship, which had been the largest liner of the Hamburg-America Line and which had been throughout the war the luxury headquarters of the submarine base at Flensburg. There were several thousand German troops in the town and the surrounding area, but none gave trouble. All the important Nazis were captured, including Doenitz and Jodl. Only von Friedeburg escaped, by taking poison. Such was the end of the Doenitz ‘Government’, which had been allowed to officiate for the last fortnight. It was all very dull and we did very little, although many exciting accounts appeared in the Press – the only occasion on which the Regiment was mentioned by name. Before going back to Kappeln, we took our talks for a tour through the streets of Flensburg as a demonstration’. (Courage, p. 241)
[vi] They were joined by battalions of the Cheshires and Herefords. These troops were part of the 11th Armoured Division and seem to have worked in conjunction with 61 FSS (Filed Security Service).
[vii] Also captured were Colonel General Jodl, General Major Dethleffsen, Admiral Wagner, two Reichsministers and six State Secretaries. ‘The Section’s official report to GSI (b) at HQ VIII Corps described their difficulties in gathering in the bodies and their documents, as Press Teams and Shaef observers were wrongly allowed to accompany the arrest task force. These onlookers “lifted” souvenirs such as watches and wallets, which in the case of Category I arrests may well have contained highly important evidence.’ (http://www.fpp.co.uk/Himmler/death/Britton_report.html)
[viii] Also present were Brigadier E.J. Foord, Truskov, and Maund. According to Maund, Dönitz remained dignified but Jodl and Friedburg ‘showed signs of nervousness and disquiet’.
[ix] In his own (unpublished) account, Brigadier General John Bryan Churcher (1905-1997) tells how General Rock and he personally (with other Staff Officers of his brigade) invited the remnant government led by Donitz to a meeting in Flensburg (where the Germans thought they were about to discuss joint administration) and then “seized” Donitz, Speer etc. – to their considerable surprise – and placed them under arrest. Churcher commanded the 1st Battalion Hereford Regiment (which included the 4th KSLI) at Flensburg. Doenitz’s baton was given to Churcher during the surrender process. The Baton remained in his possession until 1964 when he gave it to his Regimental Museum at Shropshire Castle in Shrewsbury where it has been on show ever since. It has U- Boat motifs to reflect his status as commander of the U-Boat fleet before becoming commander of the entire fleet. The baton does unscrew; there is nothing in its centre. (Peter Duckers, Curator, Shropshire Regimental Museum).
With thanks to Mick Purcell, Brendan McNally and Elizabeth Perez.