The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)
Nuremberg, war crimes, crimes against humanity

The Trial of German Major War Criminals

Sitting at Nuremberg, Germany
2nd May to 13th May, 1946

One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Day: Thursday, 9th May, 1946
(Part 4 of 9)

[Page 236]

THE PRESIDENT: You haven't referred us back to the order, but are you referring to Page 36 of the prosecution's trial brief, or rather British Document Book?

DR. KRANZBUHLER: Yes, Mr. President, Page 36 of the British Document Book.

THE PRESIDENT: There are two orders there, are there not?

DR. KRANZBUHLER: No. It is one order with four numbered parts.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, there are two paragraphs, aren't there? There is paragraph 1 and there is paragraph 2 of 17th September, 1942.

DR. KRANZBUHLER: I think you mean the excerpt from the War Diary of the Commander, U-boats, which is also on Page 36 in the document book.

THE PRESIDENT: Hadn't you better read the phrase that you are referring to?

[Page 237]

DR. KRANZBUHLER Yes. I am speaking now of the second sentence, dated 17th September, under figure 1, on Page 36 of the prosecution's document book.


DR. KRANZBUHLER: The second sentence reads "Rescue is contrary to the most primitive laws of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews." That is the sentence on which Admiral Donitz commented just now.

THE PRESIDENT: On Page 36, the first order is one to "All Commanding Officers," and paragraph 1 of it begins: "No attempt of any kind must be made at rescuing members of ships." Is that the paragraph you are referring to?

DR. KRANZBUHLER: Yes, to the second sentence, Mr. President, "Rescue is contrary to the most primitive laws of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews."

THE PRESIDENT: What about the next paragraph, 17th September, 1942, paragraph 2?

DR. KRANZBUHLER: I am just about to put that to him. That is an entry in the war diary on which I would like to question him now.


Q. Admiral, I now put to you an entry in your war diary of 17th September there we find:-

"All commanders are again advised that attempts to rescue crews of ships sunk, are contrary to the most primitive laws of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and their crews. Orders about picking up of captains and chief engineers remain in force."
THE PRESIDENT: It is differently translated in our document book. You said: "After destruction of enemy ships ..." In our translation it is "... annihilating enemy ships and their crews."

DR. KRANZBUHLER: I think it should be "for," Mr. President.

THE WITNESS: This entry in the war diary refers to the four regular wireless messages which I sent during the Laconia incident, and which were also acknowledged.


Q. One moment, Admiral. Please, explain to the Tribunal first how such entries in the war diary were made. Who kept the war diary? Did you yourself keep it or who did that?

A [Karl Donitz]. If I am not to conceal anything here, I have to say that the keeping of the war diary was a difficult matter for me, because there were no reliable officers available for this task. That entry, as I suspected, and as has been confirmed to me here, was made by a former chief navigator, who tried to condense my orders during the entire case into an entry of this sort. Of course, I was responsible for each entry; but this entry had in reality no actual consequences; my wireless order was the essential thing.

Q. Admiral, the decisive point here, in my opinion, is whether that entry is a record of your actual reflections or whether it is only an excerpt from the wireless order, an extract which had been noted down by a subordinate according to his best knowledge and ability.

A. The latter is correct. My own lengthy deliberations were concerned with the order of the Naval Operations Command, the order of the Fuehrer, and my own serious decision, whether or not I should discontinue that method of warfare but they are not included in the war diary.

[Page 238]

Q. Admiral, will you explain what is meant in the war diary by the entry:
"All commanders are advised again," and so on.
A. I do not know exactly what that means. My staff, which is here, has told me that it referred to the four wireless messages which I had sent; because before the Laconia case, no statement on this subject had been made. "Again," therefore, means that this was the fifth wireless message.

Q. Thus the order of 17th September, 1942, was, for you, the end of the Laconia incident?

A. Yes.

Q. To whom was it directed?

A. As far as I can remember, it was directed only to submarines in the open sea. For the various operation areas - North Atlantic, Middle Atlantic, South Atlantic - we had different wireless channels. The other submarines, since they were in contact with convoys, and since rescue measures were, therefore, out of the question for them, could simply shelve the order. But I now find that the order was sent out to all submarines; that is, through all the channels; it was a technical matter of communication, which, of course, was harmless.

Q. You have said that the fundamental consideration underlying the entire order was the overwhelming danger of air attack. If that is correct, how could you in the same order maintain the directive for the rescue of captains and engineer officers?

A. There is, of course, a great difference in risk between rescue measures for which the submarine has to stop and men have to go on deck, and a brief surfacing to pick up a captain, because, while merely surfacing, the submarine remains in a state of alert, whereas otherwise that alertness is completely disrupted.

However, one thing is clear. There was a military purpose in the seizure of these captains and engineer officers, for which I had received orders from the Naval Operations Command. As a matter of principle, and generally, I would say that in the pursuit of a military aim, that is to say, not rescue work, but the capture of important enemies, one must and can run a certain risk. Besides, that addition was not significant in my view, because I knew that in practice, it had very meagre results, I might say, no results at all.

I remember quite clearly having asked myself: "Why do we still pick them up?" It was not our intention, however, to drop an order of that importance, but the essential points are, first the risk, which is much greater when the state of alert is not maintained, and secondly, the pursuit of an important military aim.

Q. What do you mean by the last sentence in the order: "Be harsh"?

A. I had preached to my U-boat commanders for five-and-a- half years, that they should be severe with themselves. And when giving this order, I again felt that I had to emphasize to my commanders in a very drastic way my whole concern and my grave responsibility for the submarines, and, thus the necessity of prohibiting rescue activities, in view of the overwhelming power of the enemy air force. Because it is very definite that on one side there is the harshness of war, the necessity of saving one's own submarine; and, on the other, the traditional sentiment of the seaman.

Q. You heard the witness, Lieutenant Commander Mohle state in this Court that he misunderstood the order in the sense that survivors should be killed, and in several cases he instructed submarine commanders in that sense.

A. Mohle is -

Q. One moment, Admiral. I want to put a question first.

As commanding officer, do you not have to assume responsibility for a mis-understanding of your order?

A. Of course, I am responsible for all orders, for their form and their contents. Mohle, however, is the only person who had doubts about the meaning of that order. I regret that Mohle did not find occasion to clarify these doubts immediately, either through me, to whom everybody had access at all times, or through

[Page 239]

the numerous staff officers, who, as members of my staff were either also partly responsible, or participated in the drafting of these orders, or as another alternative, through his immediate superior in Kiel.

I am convinced that the few U-boat commanders, to whom he communicated his doubts, remained quite unaffected by them. If there were any consequences, of course I would assume responsibility for them.

Q. You are acquainted with the case of Naval Lieutenant Eck, who, after the sinking of the Greek steamer Peleus, in the spring of 1944, actually fired on life-boats. What is your view of this incident?

A. As Lieutenant Eck stated at the end of his examination under oath, he knew nothing of Mohle's interpretation or Mohle's doubts, nor of the completely reversed message, of my decision in the case of U-386. That was the incident which Mohle mentioned when the submarine found pneumatic rafts carrying airmen, and I voiced my disapproval because he had not taken them on board; a written criticism of his actions was also forwarded to him. On the other hand, some authority pointed out that he had not destroyed these survivors. Eck knew nothing about the interpretation or the doubts of the Mohle order, nor of this affair. He acted on his own decision, and his aim was not to kill survivors, but to remove the wreckage; because he was certain that otherwise this wreckage would on the following day give a clue to Anglo-American planes, and that they would spot and destroy him. His purpose, therefore, was entirely different from the one stated in the Mohle interpretation.

Q. Eck said during his examination, that he had counted on your approval of his actions. Did you ever hear anything at all about the Eck case during the war?

A. No. It was during my interrogation here when I heard about it, for Eck was taken prisoner during that very action.

Q. Do you approve of what he did, now that you know of it?

A. I do not, because, as I said before in this connection, one must not deviate from military ethics under any circumstances.

However, I want to say that Captain Eck was faced with a very grave decision. He had to bear the responsibility for his boat and his crew, and that responsibility is a very serious one in time of war.

Therefore, if for the reason that he believed his submarine would otherwise be discovered and destroyed - and that reason was not unfounded, because, in the same operational area, and during the same time, four submarines, I think, had been bombed - if he came to his decision for that reason, then a German court martial would undoubtedly have taken it into consideration.

I believe that after the war, one views events differently, and does not fully realize the responsibility which an unfortunate commander had to bear.

Q. Apart from the Eck case, did you, during or after the war, hear of any other instance in which a U-boat commander fired on shipwrecked people or life rafts?

A. Not a single one.

Q. You know, do you not, the documents of the prosecution, which describe the sinking of the ships Noreen Mary and Antonico? Do you or do you not recognize the soundness of these documents as evidence according to your experience in these matters?

A. No. I believe that they cannot stand the test of an impartial examination. We have a large number of similar reports about the other side, and we were always of the opinion, and also stated that opinion in writing to the Fuehrer and the OKW, that one must view these cases with a good deal of scepticism, because a shipwrecked person can easily believe that he is being fired on whereas the shots may not be aimed at him at all, but at the ship.

The fact that the prosecution gives just these two examples proves to me that my conviction is correct, that apart from the Eck case no further instances of this kind occurred during those long years in the ranks of the great German U- boat force.

[Page 240]

Q. You mentioned previously the discussion with the Fuehrer in May, 1942, during which the problem whether it was permissible to kill survivors was examined, or at least touched upon by the Fuehrer. Was that question re-examined at any time by the chief of the submarine command or the Naval Operations Command?

A. When I had become Supreme Commander of the Navy -

Q. That was in 1943?

A. It was in the summer of 1943, I think, that I received a letter from the Foreign Office in which I was informed that about 87 per cent of the crews of merchant ships which had been sunk were getting back home; I was told that was a disadvantage, and was asked whether it was not possible to do something about it.

Thereupon I had a letter sent to the Foreign Office in which I wrote that I had already been forced to prohibit rescue because it endangered the submarines, but that any further measures were out of the question.

Q. There is an entry in the War Diary of the Naval Operations Command which deals with this case. I submit this entry as Donitz 42, on Pages 92 to 94, in Volume 2 of the document book.

I shall read as introduction the first and second sentences of Page 92. The entry is dated 4 April, 1943.

"The German Foreign Office pointed out a statement of the British Transport Minister according to which, following sinkings of Merchant vessels, an average of 87 per cent of the crews were saved. On the subject of this statement the Naval Operations Command made a comprehensive reply to the Foreign Office."
Then there is the reply on the next pages; and I should like to call to your attention a part of it first, under (1), about the number of convoy ships sunk. What is the importance of that in this connection?

A. That so many people certainly got back home.

Q. Furthermore, under (2), it is mentioned that the seamen do not need a long period of training, with the exception of officers, and that an order for the picking up of captains and chief engineers already existed. What is the meaning of that?

A. It is intended to emphasize that a matter like that is being judged in the wrong light.

Q. One moment. By "a matter like that," you mean the usefulness, from a military point of view, of killing the shipwrecked?

A. I mean that crews are always available to the enemy, or unskilled men can very quickly be trained.

Q. Under (4) you point to the great danger of reprisals against your own submarine crews. Did such reprisals against German U-boat crews occur at any time in the course of the war?

A. I do not know. I did not hear anything about reprisals in that respect. I only received reliable reports that when U- boats were bombed and destroyed from the air, the men swimming in the water were shot at. But whether these were individual acts or reprisals, or carried out on orders, I do not know. I assume they were individual acts.

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