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Karl Doenitz & the Last Days of the Third Reich

Barry Turner
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Boyce has contributed a Foreword. He seems to see Doenitz as just another submariner like himself. I think the gyro of his moral compass must have toppled. How he can use the word ‘humanitarian’ in the Doenitz context I fail to see. Doenitz was slavishly loyal to, and an ardent servant of his Fuhrer and devoted his considerable professional skill and leadership ability to furthering Germany’s aggressive war, just as he had done in the Kaiser’s cause. He cannot, from his senior position, have been unaware of Germany’s litany of atrocities - indeed who did he think, other than slave labour, built those unbelievably massive concrete U-boat pens for him in St Nazaire and so forth - leprechauns? Why should we give him credit for caring about the Wilhelm Gutzloff? Doenitz’s dedicated subordinates would have sunk such a ship out of hand had it been an Allied one, as witness the sinkings of the Athenia on 3rd September 1939; almost exactly a year later, the City of Benares with her child evacuees; and, embarrassingly for the Germans as she was full of Italian PoWs, the Laconia in 1942. Indeed I think Lord Boyce’s introduction will sit ill with the bereaved families of the tens of thousands of merchant seamen, of many, many nations who lost their lives to the unrestricted submarine warfare that Doenitz prosecuted for the Kaiser and of which he was the architect and leader for Hitler. Why he and indeed the equally guilty Speer, as vile Nazi supporters as ever stained the surface of the Earth, were not deservedly hanged after the war is beyond my comprehension. This book quotes Doenitz, as late as VE Day, penning a memo extolling National Socialist virtues. Lord Boyce, however, proves to be in good company with his predecessor Sir John Cunningham and the 1945 Admiralty who totally refused to see the bigger picture regarding Doenitz.

Now to the meat of the book. This is not a full biography - that was done by Peter Padfield in 1984 - and, after a brief biographical introduction it focuses in detail on Doenitz following his appointment as Hitler’s successor and Nine-Days Fuhrer, including how he came to be given the job. The resumé of the fighting at the end of the war is succinct and clear, ranging from the Command perspective to the experience of individuals. The war along the Baltic littoral is particularly well covered and described. Doenitz’ remaining, hitherto long idle, heavy ships put in some impressive bombardments to try to stop the Soviet steamroller surges westward. For the Red Army it was payback time for the inexcusably abominable conduct of the Germans in their advance in 1941-42. Doenitz mobilised everything that could float (‘Op HANNIBAL’) to save Germans from well-deserved retribution and this was a considerable success, in spite of occasional good hits by Soviet submarines on some of the vessels involved. Thousands ended up in Denmark where they were, unsurprisingly, unwelcome. Why we, post-VE Day should be thought to have had any duty of care to them is inexplicable. Inland the net closed in on Hitler and the bear’s paw clamped down in the East.

The to-ing and fro-ing of the surrender negotiations and the tensions and national sensitivities involved are well analysed and presented. We see Doenitz and other Nazis clinging to the illusion that they can cut some sort of a deal with Eisenhower; they are only disabused of this by their arrest. Meanwhile the Wehrmacht on its western front disintegrated and Doenitz had no control over any of that. The narrative moves on to Nuremberg and the proceedings there against Doenitz are described in some detail.

The book is compiled from referenced secondary sources and IWM and other documents and is supported by a good bibliography. The references are uncluttered by asides. There is a good selection of photographs although that of Luneburg Heath has been flipped left for right. The Baltic apart, sometimes I felt the need for more maps. As a nitpick, it would have been helpful for the chapters to have had names with these repeated in the page headings.

This is a first class treatment of an important subject and a welcome addition to any naval history library.
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