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-Sixth Day: Friday, 10th May, 1946
(Part 8 of 12)

[SIR DAVID MAXWELL FYFE continues his cross examination of Karl Donitz]

[Page 292]

Q. I just want to know is it true what is stated in your wireless message that the boat was dispatched to rescue Italian allies, not for the rescue and care of Englishmen and Poles? Is that true?

[Page 293]

A. That is correct, because the vessel had reported to me that it had four boats in tow - and it is on page 40 - with British in them. It was clear, considering the whole situation, that a submarine with vessels in tow, could not remain on the surface without the greatest danger to itself. Hence on page 40 under No. 2, the order and the instruction given:-
"Boats with British and Poles to be cast adrift."
I wanted to get rid of the boats. That was the only reason. And it was only afterwards - page 41 - when a long radio message came from the commander, which in itself was a repetition, but which was interpreted to mean that, after the two air attacks had taken place, his boat had again been endangered by having to stop and pick up men, that he received this wireless message, and after it had gradually dawned on me - during the first four days, or perhaps three days, I had nothing against rescuing the British - that the Italians, who after all were our allies, were getting the worst of it, which indeed proved to be the case.

Q. You have given a long explanation. Now, is that wireless message true, that the boat was dispatched to rescue Italian allies, not for the rescue and care of Englishmen and Poles? Is that true or not true?

A. Of course, this wireless message contained both instructions and it becomes unequivocally clear from these two instructions, as well as from the impression I had that the British, who were rescued, far outnumbered the Italians, who were left to drown.


Q. Now, there is one point I want you to make a little clearer. When you were interrogated about this matter, you said that you were under great pressure at the time, and I think the pressure came to you from Hitler through Captain Fricke. Is that right?

A. No, "only: is not correct. It was "also." The pressure as I have very clearly explained here, was due to worry and anxiety regarding the fate of my submarines because I knew that they were now being greatly jeopardised. We have had evidence of that already from the bombing attacks and secondly, of course, from the Fuehrer's orders which Fricke gave. But I have also stated here that in spite of that order, even if it was not militarily correct to disobey, I continued rescuing. However, the pressure, my worry and anxiety, were mostly caused by the fate of the submarines themselves.

Q. So that at this time you had had the report to the Fuehrer on the 14th of May; you had then had the Laconia incident, and during that incident you had had the pressure from the Fuehrer. Now, was it not because of this -

A. I beg your pardon, but -

Q. Allow me to ask my question.

A. I think there is an error that has crept in here.

Q. Very well, I will correct it. You had had the report to the Fuehrer on the 14th of May. You have told me that. There was then the Laconia -

A. That has nothing to do with the Fuehrer's order in the case of the Laconia. In the case of the Laconia the Fuehrer had given orders, and quite rightly, that no boats should be endangered by the rescue. That is something quite different from the subject of the 14th of May.

Q. I am trying to assemble for the moment what matters you had to deal with. You had had the report to the Fuehrer on the 14th of May, the Laconia incident, and then an order to stop coming through from the Fuehrer.

A. No, in the case of the Laconia incident I never thought at all of the order or of the discussion of the 14th of May with the Fuehrer, and I could not, because that was an entirely different subject. This is quite another matter, here it was purely a matter of rescue. There is no connection whatsoever between the two.

Q. We will see about that. Turn to Page 36 in the British Document Book, or Pages 71 to 75 in the German Document Book -

A. Is that -

[Page 294]

Q. 71 -

A. You mean the prosecution's book?

Q. Yes, the prosecution's book; 36 in the English or 71 to 75 in the German.

A. And in the English?

Q. 36.

A. Thank you very much.

Q. Now, you have told us that what mainly concerned you was the safety of your own boats and of your own personnel.

A. Yes.

Q. Why did you put into the order "The rudimentary demands of warfare call for the destruction of ships and crews?" What was the point of putting these words in, unless you meant to encourage people to destroy enemy ships and crews?

A. I explained that in great detail yesterday. I preached during all these years: you must not rescue when your own safety is in danger. In the case of the Laconia I myself, in my anxiety and worry, wirelessed that to the forces many times. Apart from that, I found again and again that submarine commanders were taking the danger from the air too lightly. I also explained how that is to be explained psychologically. I described yesterday the overwhelming increase of the Air Force, and that consequently in no circumstances would I have again given my people the instruction: if there is danger from the air or since you are being endangered from the air, etc., you must not rescue, or rescuing is contrary to the rudimentary demands of warfare, because I did not want to leave it to my commandants to discuss as to whether there was danger from the air or not. After all my experience of the losses suffered and the ever-present Air Force, which as history has shown was becoming stronger and stronger, I had to give a clear cut order to the commanders: "You cannot go on like that or, whilst we rescue the enemy, we shall be attacked and killed by the enemy." Therefore this reasoning could not come into it. I did not wish to give the commanders another opportunity of deliberating or discussing this vital point. I told you yesterday that I could have added: "if now in view of the danger from the air we are attacked by that self- same enemy while rescuing him, then rescue is contrary to the rudimentary demands of warfare." I did not want to do that, because I did not want any more discussion. We all had the impression that this refrain "Do not rescue if there is danger from the air," was outworn, because this would have meant that the commanders would nevertheless lose their freedom to decide, and have entered into discussion.

Q. But if you had simply said "You are forbidden to rescue," and if you had wanted to give a reason "You are forbidden to rescue because, in view of the Allied air cover, it is a matter of too great danger for the safety of yourself and your boat ever to rescue at all," that would have been quite clear. Why did not you put it that way?

A. No, that is just what I could not do. I have just said that, because some commander in some naval theatre might get the idea that there was no danger from the air and the next moment the plane would appear and he would be struck down. I have already said all that in reply to your suggestion.

Q. Now, you had two experienced staff officers with you at the time that you got this order out - Captains Gote and Hessler, had you not?

A. Yes, that is right.

Q. And both Captains Gote and Captain Hessler advised you strongly against the issue of this order, did they not?

A. As far as I can remember, they said something like this: "The bulk of the submarines" - I have said that here - "the bulk of the U-boats, that is, more than 90 per cent of the U- boats are already fighting the convoys, such an order would not affect them."

That was the question: Shall we issue such a general order at all, and whether the further developments which forced us all the time to issue new orders, such as: "Stay on the surface as little as possible," would not make such an order superfluous. [Page 295] However, since I was responsible for warding off every possible danger to a submarine, I had to give this order, and my staff agreed with me completely as far as this measure was concerned.

Q. Did you not say, when you were interrogated on the 22nd of October and on other occasions, "Gote and Hessler told me, 'Do not send this wireless message. You see, one day there can be a wrong impression about it; there can be misinterpretation of that.'" Did you not say that?

A. Yes, I said that and it is true too that such a remark may have been made. But it was not misinterpreted by the U- boats, nobody thought of that or we would not have issued the order. But we were thinking of the effects on the outside world.

Q. And was not the effect that you wanted to produce that of giving an order which could be interpreted as merely a prohibition of rescue but would encourage the submarine commanders, who felt that way, to annihilate the survivors of the crews?

A. No, that is absolutely wrong, and it is also proved by the documents which I have submitted. Apart from the Mohle case, nobody misunderstood this order; and when we compiled the order we were aware of that fact. That becomes clear from the communications which we had with U-boat commanders and it becomes clear from my searching inquiries, when I asked whether they had in any way thought of that in any phase. The order does not show that at all, neither does the reason which led to it. The fact is that we were rescuing for all we were worth. The question was "to rescue or not to rescue," and nothing else. That is the key to the Laconia case.

Q. You said that "we issued the order." Do you remember saying this in an interrogation on the 6th of October?

"I am completely and personally responsible for it, because Captains Gote and Hessler both expressly stated that they considered the telegram as ambiguous or likely to be misinterpreted."
Do you remember saying that, "I am completely and personally responsible," because both your staff officers had pointed out that it was ambiguous? Did you say that?

A. I do not think so. I cannot think I said that. I am not sure, but I will say the following:

During the interrogation I was told that Captains Gote and Hessler made this order and in reply to that I said, "It is quite immaterial, I am responsible for the order." Moreover, the main point of discussion on that order was whether one ought to issue such an order. That it should ever have entered Captain Gote's or Captain Hessler's mind that such an order could be misunderstood by us - by the U- boats - is completely beside the point. I also emphatically stated that during the interrogation. I clearly stated that this consideration, and the discussion of the question whether the order was to be issued or not, had nothing whatever to do with these two gentlemen. That is quite clear; and that too was contained in the interrogation.

Q. I made it clear that you were not blaming your junior officer who had advised you against this, and you were taking the responsibility on this occasion yourself. That is true, these junior officers advised against it? In your own words, they both expressly stated that they considered the telegram ambiguous and liable to be misinterpreted, that is right, is it not, they did say that?

A. I did not see the discussion after it was put down, and I did not sign it. I can tell you quite clearly - and this is clear from another discussion - that I said that I myself will assume full responsibility. For me that was the essential thing. The only reason why the whole question came up was because the interrogating officer told me these officers had written the order and then, as I recall it, the idea was that on no account should these officers be held responsible for my order. That was the sense of the matter.

[Page 296]

Q. Well, at any rate, you are not changing what you said a few minutes ago, that both Captain Gote and Captain Hessler advised you against issuing this order, are you?

A. According to my recollection, at first both advised against it. I have now heard that both are saying they did not advise against it, but that perhaps I or somebody else might have advised against it. I do not know for certain, I recollect that at first both advised against issuing such an order, because 90 per cent. of our submarines were already engaged on fighting convoys, because we were being forced under the water anyway and it was absolutely impossible to make any more rescues, since we were below the surface, and I said, "No, there will surely still be cases where such a thing can happen and where the commander will be faced with an awkward situation and will have to make a decision and I want to relieve him of this." That was the reason and the meaning of the discussion, nothing else.

Q. We will continue. That is the first part of the order. Now take paragraph 2, "the orders for bringing in Captains and Chief Engineers still apply." Now, defendant, you know perfectly well that, in order to find the captain or chief engineer, the U-boat has got to go around the lifeboats or wreckage and make inquiries, "Where is the captain?" And you know very well that the usual practice of the British merchant navy was to try and hide the captain and prevent them finding out who he was. Is not that the practical position that had to be met, that you had to go around the lifeboats asking for the captain if you wanted to bring him in? Is that not so?

A. Not exactly, no. I stated quite clearly yesterday that, firstly, the risk of taking aboard one man was much less as far as time was concerned, and would not limit the crash diving capacity of the boat, whereas the rescuing of a crew would limit severely the crash diving capacity.

Secondly, that was a military aim ordered by the Naval War Command for which, as is always the case in war, a certain risk would have to be taken; and, thirdly, that the significance of that paragraph appeared to all of us to be unimportant, the results were always poor. This order, if you want to understand it like this and take it out of its context, militates against your contention, namely, that I wanted to destroy these people, because I wanted to take prisoners, but if I intend to kill somebody first, then I certainly can't take him prisoner.

Q. I am putting it to you that the second part of the order is that you are to bring in captains and chief engineers to find out what you can from them. Look at the third paragraph: "Rescue ship crews only if their statements will be of importance for U-boats," that is, of importance for you to learn from them the position of Allied ships, or the measures the Allies are taking against submarines. That is the point against two and three, is it not? You are only to take prisoners if you can find out some useful thing from them?

A. I think it is taken for granted that we tried to get as much information as possible, and since I could not take the whole crew prisoners on a U-boat, I had to confine myself to the most important persons. Therefore I removed these people from further engagement, whereas the others may engage again. Of course, in view of the limited room on a U-boat, I did not take unimportant people but the important ones.

Q. I do not want to take up a lot of time, but I want you to tell me this: Did I understand your explanation of the word "again" in the War Diary to be that you had drawn the attention of certain submarine commanders to your telegrams during the Laconia incident, is that your explanation?

A. No, it did not refer to U-boat Commanders, and I believe the word "again," as my Staff says, referred to those four wireless messages which we have read as meaning this during the last few days, and which were submitted to the Tribunal yesterday.

Q. I put to you a moment ago a question and you said the "again" refers to the messages you sent out during the Laconia incident. I think you agree with that, do you not? Do not be afraid to agree with what I say. When was that?

[Page 297]

A. Yesterday it was explained to me that there were four wireless messages, and I assumed that the person was summarising the whole event, and that was probably his way of putting it. He was a Chief Quartermaster and I do not know what he meant when he used the word "again."

Q. Now you say you had never heard of the Hitler and Oshima conversations which I put to you a few moments ago?

A. No.

Q. Therefore, one may assume, may one not, that Lieutenant Heisig, who gave evidence, had not heard of the Hitler and Oshima conversations either.

Do you think he could not have heard about them?

A. I assume he means it was out of the question.

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