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A Prisoner Of Birth-The Trial and Conviction of the Last Fuhrer

Aniket Singh Charan

On the 1st of May 1945 Admiral Karl Donitz of the Kreigsmarine (The German Navy) became the last Fuhrer of the Third Reich. This came roughly a day after the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. On the 8th of May Donitz ordered the German armed forces to end all active operations and surrender, thereby bringing the Second World War to an end. Donitz remained the Reichsprasident (President) for another fifteen days before he was arrested by a Royal Air Force Regiment Task Force and was soon to be tried as a War Criminal at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.

The Trial of Admiral Donitz was, according to The Times, the “Keenest legal battle of the Nuremberg Trials”. The Allies were eager to make an example of Donitz for not only heading the Reich in its last days but also for doggedly pursuing a naval war that cost the allies roughly 3,500 Merchant ships, 175 warships and 72,000 merchant and naval men. This “Battle of the Atlantic” was won at a heavy cost and Admiral Donitz was the man responsible for the pain inflicted. At the start of World War II, Donitz was the commander of the German Naval Submarine Fleet. His experience as a U-Boat commander in World War I served him in good stead and he was able to evolve the notorious Wolf Pack Tactics that wrecked havoc all along the Atlantic Ocean virtually bringing the mighty British Empire to its knees. His blockade of the British Empire through submarine warfare earned him the respect and admiration of Hitler himself and in 1943 he took over from Grand Admiral Raeder as the Commander-in-chief of the German Navy.

At Nuremberg, Donitz was charged on 3 counts (1) conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; (2) planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression; and (3) crimes against the laws of war. He was acquitted on the first count but found guilty on counts (2) and (3). One of his famous comments on count (2) being, “One of the ‘accusations’ that made me guilty during this trial was that I met and planned the course of the war with Hitler; now I ask them in heaven’s name, how could an admiral do otherwise with his country’s head of state in a time of war?” Over 100 senior Allied officers also sent letters to Donitz conveying their disappointment over the fairness and verdict of his trial.

In this Article I will attempt to explore the charge of War Crimes levied against Admiral Donitz in context to 2 incidents. Both of these incidents were used by the prosecution to paint Donitz as a cold blooded murderer and both these incidents backfired and led to the Allies facing severe criticism.

The first incident that I speak of is an order issued by Admiral Donitz in late 1942 which reads.

1 Efforts to save survivors of sunken ships, such as the fishing swimming men out of the water and putting them on board lifeboats, the righting of overturned lifeboats, or the handing over of food and water, must stop. Rescue contradicts the most basic demands of the war: the destruction of hostile ships and their crews

2 The orders concerning the bringing-in of skippers and chief engineers stay in effect.

3 Survivors are to be saved only if their statements are important for the boat.

4 Stay firm. Remember that the enemy has no regard for women and children when bombing German cities!”

The Second such incident that I speak of took place in late March, 1944 and involved the German U Boat U-852 captained by Heinz-Wilhelm Eck. The incident is popularly known as the “Peleus Killing”. Eck was on his first mission as the Captain of a U Boat and was eager for his first kill. During the course of his patrol he sighted the Greek ship Peleus which was en route from Freetown to Buenos Aires. Her crew was mostly Greek but also consisted of eight British Nationals. Eck found the catch too tempting to let go and fired his torpedoes instantly sinking the ship. The story, however, does not end there. Over the course of the next 5 hours Eck cruised through the debris hurling grenades on life boats and shooting at anything suspicious. Only 4 people were to survive this massacre, one of whom later succumbed to his injuries. Eck’s luck too, seemed to have run out on May 2, 1944 when his U Boat was sunk and his crew made prisoner. 4 other men from Eck’s crew were tried and sentenced to imprisonment with Eck being given the death sentence. During the course of the trial it was found that Eck was unforthcoming with his answers. He justified his actions by saying that he was trying to remove any visual evidence of debris and that he was trying to save his boat from Aerial attacks. This seemed absurd to the British authorities as, in his cross examination, it became evident that he did not fear for the safety of his boat and cruised at a mere 5 knots, as compared to the 19 his boat was capable of, through the debris field killing everyone he saw. Furthermore, Eck refused to abandon the site or make a run for it immediately as was Standard Operating Procedure to evade an aerial attack. This led the Allies to first draw a link to the infamous Laconian Order.

When Donitz came up for trial, the allies made this the centrepiece of their Prosecution case. They wanted to corner Donitz with these incidents and wanted to use the evidence given by Korvettenkapitan Karl Heinz Moehle to further strengthen the foundations of their case. Moehle was the Captain of the 5th Submarine flotilla based at Kiel. He claimed that the laconian order was interpreted by him to mean the killing of any shipwrecked sailors. It was reported that 87% of all shipwrecked sailors made it back to their home ports and set out to sea again. At this rate Germany could never hope to win the Atlantic War nor could it hope to blockade Britain successfully. It was therefore imperative that America and Britain be starved by creating a lack of professionals to man ships. This meant that the Captain or master of the Merchant Ship along with the Chief Engineer were to be made prisoner and brought back to German POW camps. This tactic was unsuccessful at best and only 12-13 captains were captured and brought back. The Prosecution now felt armed to take on Donitz on the basis of this evidence and indict him on the charge of war crimes.

According to Halsbury’s Laws of England, “A crime must be looked at from 3 perspectives i.e. the events leading to it, the crime itself and the conduct of the accused after its commission”. While the prosecution felt confident that Donitz could be indicted on the count of War crimes solely on the basis of the Laconian Order, the defence had other plans. They chose to draw the court’s attention to why the orders were issued in the first place and the shame and guilt attached to them. Hence began the Story of the Laconian incident and how the pot seemed to have very conveniently called the kettle black.

On the night of September 12, 1942 the U Boat U-156 was patrolling off the coast of West Africa somewhere between the Ascension Islands and Liberia. The submarine’s captain Korvettenkapitän Hartenstein, saw a lone British Ship cruising and torpedoed it. The ship was the RMS Laconia and it was supposedly carrying captured Italian marines. As the Submarine surfaced to capture the Laconia’s senior officers, they saw roughly two thousand people in the water screaming for help. The Captain immediately undertook Rescue operations by flying the Red Cross Flag and radioed Submarine Command informing them of the measures undertaken. Donitz immediately dispatched 7 other U Boats from a nearby sector to aid in the rescue mission. He instructed the Captain to save as many lives as possible and then informed Berlin of the ongoing Rescue. Hitler was furious that U Boats were being used to rescue enemies of Germany and instructed Admiral Raeder (then commander-in-chief) to abandon the mission. Raeder instructed Donitz that the U Boats were to abandon the operations and head to Cape Town as per their original mission. Meanwhile, he organised for 2 other U Boats to intercept these U Boats take as many survivors as possible and head to the Laconia’s location to continue with the rescue mission. U-156 was instructed by Donitz to take as many passengers as possible. The U boat Captain took as many as 200 survivors onboard (which included women and children) and is said to have another 200 in life boats that were being towed by his submarine. The U-156 then broadcast a message for everyone to hear,

“If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked Laconia crew, I will not attack providing I am not being attacked by ship or air forces. I picked up 193 men. 4, 53 South, 11, 26 West. ― German submarine”

He sent this message with the intention that the Allies too will come to their aid and rescue the survivors of the Laconia. The U- 156 remained on the scene and was soon joined by 2 other U Boats and the Italian submarine Cappellini. The 4 submarines took on as many survivors as possible and proceeded for the West African coast, where, Admiral Raeder had mobilised ships to accommodate the Shipwrecked and relieve the submarines. Unfortunately, the submarines got separated in the night and were unable to locate each other. Meanwhile the British intercepted the message sent by U-156 and in the morning the U-156 was spotted by a B-24 Bomber of the United States Air Force. The U-156 signalled for assistance to the bomber in both Morse code and English. It also made clear the fact that there were women and children onboard. The Bomber relayed the said message to his base and received a curt reply that the sub was to be sunk. The B-24 immediately commenced its attack and made four runs on the submarine eventually sinking it. All this while the submarine had flown the Red Cross flag and made no attempt to evade the attacker. This was a war crime.

The next morning the Italian submarine commander found himself rescuing the crew of U-156. The other German submarines the U-506 and U-507 too came under attack. U-507 and U-506 received confirmation from headquarters of the attack on U-156 and were asked for the number of survivors rescued. Commander Schacht of U-507 replied that he had 491, of which fifteen were women and sixteen were children. Commander Wurdemann of U-506 confirmed 151, including nine women and children. The next message from headquarters ordered them to cast adrift all the British and Polish survivors, mark their positions and instruct them to remain exactly where they were and proceed with all haste to the rescue rendezvous. The respective commanders chose not to cast any survivors adrift. The American Bombers meanwhile kept looking for the other U Boats.

The U 506 soon came under attack and was forced to crash dive. Both, the U-506 and U-507 soon met up with the ships Admiral Raeder had dispatched. They handed over all the survivors to the Vichy French ship Gloire. The Italian submarine Cappellini was unable to find the French ships so awaited further instructions. The German Command sent ships to the Cappellini’s location and managed to recue another lifeboat from the British Cargo ship Trevilley which was sunk a while back. Of Laconia’s original complement of 2,732, only 1,113 survived. Of the 1,619 who died, 1,420 were Italian POWs.

The above details surfaced during the trial of Admiral Donitz. The Laconian Order was issued after the said incident to preserve the German Submarines from vicious allied air attacks. The order was meant as an instrument of self preservation rather than aggression. It was made keeping bitter experience in mind. As the defence narrated the story of Laconia the prosecution’s case shattered, after all there was very little left to prosecute. Moehle’s testimony too came under question as he remained the only commander to have misunderstood the Laconian Order. It later surfaced that Moehle was using the age old defence of “I was acting under orders” when he knew his case was doomed. The defence also said that Eck too had the option of citing the Laconian order as a defence but chose not to do so even after being repeatedly advised.

Donitz could still not be allowed to go scot free. They blamed him for violating the 1936 London Protocol by using U Boats to wage unrestricted warfare, something which Admiral Chester Nimitz of the United States Navy too had done. The defence gathered enough evidence to show that the United States Navy too on many occasions chose not to rescue shipwrecked sailors. According to Telford Taylor, “If Donitz deserved to hand, so did many Admirals on the allied side.” He was nevertheless, still convicted of waging unrestricted warfare in violation of the London Protocol. He was then made responsible for a commando order issued by Hitler in October 1942 (incidentally before Donitz became chief). He defended by saying that he had no knowledge of the same and it was beyond his jurisdiction anyway. The prosecution had retorted that the order remained in force while he was Chief and to that extent he must be made responsible. He was also convicted on the charge of making 12,000 Jewish prisoners work in Naval Shipyards. Donitz tried to defend the charge by claiming that the responsibility for the same was never his and the labour department was the authority in power. His pleadings were disregarded and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The court failed to believe that the head of such a powerful organisation had no role to play in the horrors inflicted by the Third Reich. They failed to look at Donitz as a soldier of Germany and chose to view him as an instrument of the Reich and a shining example of National Socialism. In a meeting between Hitler and the Japanese Ambassador the issue of shipwrecked sailors and how their survival was detrimental to the war effort came up. Hitler was adamant that survivors were to be shot after a ship was sunk and looked to Donitz for effective solutions. Donitz is said to have ignored the said orders and suggested better torpedoes as an alternative mechanism. In his own way preserving the conscience of the Kreigsmarine and being the soldier that not just Germany but the world would later admire.

Admiral Donitz died on the 24th of December 1980. His funeral was attended by many former servicemen and foreign naval officers. He was buried without any military honours and the officers attending his funeral were ordered not to wear their service uniforms. These orders were blatantly disobeyed. Also in attendance were over a hundred Knights Cross of the Iron Cross awardees. All, in full ceremonial regalia, gathered to pay their respects to the last Fuhrer of Germany.

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