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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Memoirs of Karl Döenitz

The front cover of the latest edition of this classic Third Reich source.

For students of Germany´s WWII submarine warfare and the very last days of the Greater German Reich (the official name until 23 May 1945) there is one source that must be considered a real must read, The Memoirs of Karl Döenitz.

Many forget that the last head of state of the Großdeutsches Reich, i.e. Greater German Reich, was not Adolf Hitler but Grand Admiral Karl Döenitz (more commonly spelt Dönitz). In 1936 he had been made the supreme submariner, in German Führer der U-Boote. In 1943 he was made supreme commander of the whole German Navy, the Kriegsmarine. After Hitler´s suicide it was Dönitz who headed the remnants of the Third Reich until it ceased to exist on 23 May 1945. Thus it should be clear that there are several reasons why his memoirs have again appeared, in a new paperback version. What is my take then? Well, there is a whole lot here that is still of military relevance, in spite of all technological advances. This is because Dönitz was a very gifted officer and strategist. Had he earlier on been given more power it seems probable that he would at the very least have prolonged the war by some months (or even more) with his submarine "wolf packs". Thus it was fortunate for the Allies that he reached the naval top only in 1943.

The Dönitz memoirs are naturally filled with U-boats and naval strategy and, coming from Dönitz himself, this of course makes fascinating and also very important reading for all naval strategy and U-boat buffs. But, those major ingredients aside, what does Dönitz write about WWII in a more general sense? His mindset becomes pretty clear. Let me quote from page 52: "Whether any war is a war of aggression or not is a purely political question. The policy of any and every country will be to seek to prove that its adversary was the aggressor or that it had itself been menaced and had been compelled to act in self-defense."

Let me also quote a sentence that I find very telling from the following page: "At the outbreak of hostilities, then, I had no idea in my head other than to do my duty." In other words, the political side of these memoirs offers no surprises - it is yet another "my duty" memoir by a former member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party - which he joined on 1 February 1944.

The Dönitz memoirs can at times be a bit demanding reading, but the chapter about the invasion of Norway has an optimal length and explains the major technological significance of this campaign for the Kriegsmarine, the so called "torpedo crisis".

The impact of one British midget submarine, the X6, and its attack on 22 September 1943 in an Arctic fjord (Kåfjord) is pretty clear from these memoirs. The explosion under the German battleship Tirpitz´s stern, caused by a mine from the X6, meant not only big problems for the Kriegsmarine, but a "grave strategic handicap", according to Dönitz. In other words, no small praise for the commander of X6, Commander Donald Cameron VC. Actually, the X6 was not alone in managing to plant a mine, as the X7 also did so, but the point still is that Dönitz credited one midget sub to have caused a "grave strategic handicap".

American readers might want to go straight to the chapter "Operations in American Waters". Had Dönitz received the "timely warning" of the German declaration of war against the United States that he had requested from Hitler, the US would probably have suffered "a real blow".

Speaking about the Großdeutsches Reich, what was to have come after it according to national socialist visions? The answer is the Großgermanisches Reich, for short. The full name being the Großgermanisches Reich der Deutschen Nation meaning the Greater Germanic Reich of the German Nation. But what Dönitz inherited from Hitler was something very, very different.

As a Swede it is interesting to read about how Dönitz viewed the "Schellenberg plan" to surrender German-occupied Norway to Sweden.

The epilogue does not lack self-criticism but is also the one part of the book that should have been considerably longer.

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