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 3 of 9)

[DR. KRANZBUHLER continues his direct examination of Karl Donitz]

[Page 232]

Q. Admiral, you have just described the enemy's supremacy in the air in September, 1942. During these September days you received the report about the sinking of the British transport Laconia. I submit to the Tribunal the war diaries concerning that incident, under Donitz 18, 20, 21, and 22. These are the war diaries of the Commanders of the U-boats which took part in this action, naval lieutenants Hartenstein, Schacht and Wurdemann. They are reproduced in the document book on Page 34 and the following pages. I shall read to you the report which you received. That is on Page 35 of the Document Book, date: 13th September, time: 0125 hours. I read:-
"Wireless message sent on American circuit: Sunk by Hartenstein British ship Laconia."
Then the position is given and the message continues:-
"Unfortunately with 1,500 Italian prisoners of war. Up to now picked up 90 - "
then the details, and the end is "request orders."

I had the document handed to you -

THE PRESIDENT: Where are you now?

DR. KRANZBUHLER: On Page 35, Mr. President, the entry of 13th September, time 0125 hours, the number at the beginning of the line; at the bottom of the page.


Q. (continuing). I had the documents handed to you to refresh your memory. Please tell me, first, what impression or what knowledge you had about this ship Laconia, which had been reported sunk, and about its crew.

A. I knew, from the handbook on armed British ships which we had at our disposal, that the Laconia was armed with fourteen guns. I concluded, therefore, that it would have a British crew of at least about 500 men. When I heard that there were also Italian prisoners on board, it was clear to me that this number would be further increased by the guards of the prisoners.

Q. Please, describe now on the basis of the documents the main events surrounding your order of 17th September, and elaborate first, on the rescue or non-rescue of British or Italians, and secondly, your concern for the safety of the U- boats in question.

A. When I received this report, I radioed to all U-boats in the whole area. I issued the order:-

"Schacht, Group Eisbar, Wurdemann and Wilamowitz, proceed to Hartenstein immediately."
Hartenstein was the commander who had sunk the ship. Later, I had to order several boats to turn back, because their distance from the scene was too great. The boat that was furthest from the area and received orders to participate in the rescue was 700 miles away, and therefore could not arrive before two days.

[Page 233]

Above all I asked Hartenstein, the commander who had sunk the ship, whether the Laconia had sent oat wireless messages, because I hoped that as a result British and American ships would come to the rescue. Hartenstein affirmed that and, besides, he himself sent out the following wireless message in English.

DR. KRANZBUHLER: That is on Page 36, Mr. President, under time figure 0600.

A. (continuing). "If any ship will assist the shipwrecked Laconia crew, I will not attack her, providing I am not being attacked by ship or air force."
Summing up briefly, I gained the impression from the reports of the U-boats that they began the rescue work.

Q. How many U-boats were there?

A. There were three or four submarines. I received reports that the numbers of those taken on board by each U-boat were between one hundred and two hundred. I believe Hartenstein had 156, and another boat 131. I received reports which spoke of the crew being cared for and placed into lifeboats, one report mentioned thirty-five Italians, twenty-five Englishmen and four Poles, another, thirty Italians and twenty-four Englishmen; a third, twenty-six Italians, thirty- nine Englishmen and three Poles. I received reports about the towing of lifeboats. All these reports caused me the greatest concern because I knew exactly that this would not end well.

My concern at that time was expressed in a message to the submarines radioed four times:-

"Detailed boats to take over only so many as to remain fully able to dive."
It is obvious that, if the narrow space of the submarine - our U-boats were half as big as the enemy's - is crowded, with 100 to 200 additional people, the submarine is already in absolute danger, not to speak of its fitness to fight. Furthermore, I sent the message:-
"All boats are to take on only so many people -
THE PRESIDENT: Are these messages in the document?


THE PRESIDENT: Well, where are they? Why did be not refer to the time of them?

DR. KRANZBUHLER: They are all messages contained in the three diaries of the U-boats. The first message is on Page 36, Mr. President, under hour 0720. I will read it.

"Wireless message received" - a message from Admiral Donitz - "Hartenstein remain near place of sinking. Maintain ability to dive. Detailed boats to take over only so many as to remain fully able to dive."
A. (continuing). Then I sent another message:-
"Safety of U-boat is not to be endangered under any circumstances."
DR. KRANZB UHLER: This message is on Page 40, Mr. President, under the date of 17th September, 0140 hours.
A. (continuing). "Take all measures with appropriate ruthlessness, including discontinuance of all rescue activities."
Furthermore, I sent the message:-
"Boats must at all times be clear for crash diving and underwater use."
Q. That is on Page 37, under 0740, para- 3.

A. "Beware of enemy interference by airplanes and submarines."


Q. "All boats, also Hartenstein, take in only so many people that boats are completely ready for use under water."

A. That my concern was justified was clearly evident from the message which Hartenstein sent, and which said that he had been attacked by bombs from an American bomber.

[Page 234]

DR. KRANZBUHLER: This message, Mr. President, is on Page 39, under 1311 hours. It is an emergency message, and under 2304 hours there is the whole text of the message which I should like to read.

THE WITNESS: On this occasion -

DR. KRANZBUHLER: One moment, Admiral. The message reads:-

"Radiogram sent: from Hartenstein" - to Admiral Donitz:-

"Bombed five times by American Liberator in low flight when towing four full boats, in spite of four sq. in. Red Cross flag on bridge and good visibility. Both periscopes at present out of order. Breaking off rescue; all off board; putting out to West. Will repair."

THE WITNESS: Hartenstein, as can be seen from a later report, also had 55 Englishmen and 55 Italians on board his submarine at that time. During the first bombing attack, one of the lifeboats was hit by a bomb and capsized, and according to a report on his return there were considerable losses among those who had been rescued.

During the second attack, one bomb exploded right in the middle of the submarine, and damaged it seriously, Hartenstein reported that it was only the perfection of German shipbuilding technique that prevented the submarine from falling to pieces.

THE PRESIDENT: Where has he gone to now? What page is he on?

DR. KRANZBUHLER: He is speaking about the events which are described on Pages 38 and 39, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: It would help the Tribunal, you know, if you kept some sort of order instead of going on to one page and then back to another - from 40 back to 38, and so on.

DR. KRANZBUHLER: The reason is that we are using two different war diaries, Mr. President.


Q. Admiral, would you tell us now what measures you took after Hartenstein's report that he had been attacked repeatedly in the course of the rescue measures?

A. I deliberated at length whether, after this experience, I should not break off all attempts at rescue, and beyond doubt, from the tactics point of view, that would have been the right thing to do, because the attack showed clearly in what way the U-boats were endangered.

That decision became more grave for me, because I received a call from the Naval Operations Command that the Fuehrer did not wish me to risk any submarines in rescue work or to summon them from distant areas. A very heated conference with my staff ensued, and I can remember closing it with the statement, "I cannot throw these people into the water now. I will carry on."

Of course, it was clear to me that I would have to assume full responsibility for further losses, and from the tactical point of view this continuation of the rescue work was wrong. Of that I received proof from the Submarine U-506 of Wurdemann, who also reported - I believe on the following morning - that he was bombed by an airplane.

DR. KRANZBUHLER: That report, Mr. President, is on Page 42, in the war diary of Wurdemann, on entry of 17th September, at 23-43 hours. He reported:-

"Transfer of survivors to Annamite completed." Then come details.

"Attacked by heavy sea plane at noon. Fully ready for action"

A. (continuing). The third submarine, Schacht's, the U-507, had lent a wireless message that he had so and so many men on board and was towing four lifeboats containing Englishmen and Poles.

[Page 235]

DR. KRANZBCHLER: That is the report on Page 40, the first report.

A. (continuing). Thereupon, of course, I ordered him to cast off these boats, because this tail made it impossible for him to dive.

Q. That is the second message on Page 40.

A. Later, he again sent a long message, describing the supplying of the Italians and Englishmen in the boat.

DR. KRANZBUHLER: That is on Page 41, at 2310 hours. I shall read that message:-

"Transferred 163 Italians to Annamite."
The Annamite was a French cruiser which had been called to assist in the rescue.
"Navigation officer of Laconia and another English officer on board. Seven lifeboats with about 330 Englishmen and Poles, among them 15 women and 16 children, deposited at Qu. FE 9612, women and children kept aboard ship for one night. Supplied all shipwrecked with hot meal and drinks, clothed and bandaged when necessary. Sighted four more boats at sea anchor Qu. FE 9619."
Then there are further details which are not important.

WITNESS (continuing): Because I had ordered him to cast off the lifeboats and we considered this general message as a supplementary, later report, he was admonished by another message; and from that, the prosecution wrongly concluded that I had prohibited the rescue of Englishmen. That I did not prohibit it can be seen from the fact that I did not raise objection to the many reports speaking of the rescue of Englishmen.

Indeed, in the end I had the impression that the Italians did not fare very well in the rescue. That this impression was correct can be seen from the figures of those rescued. Of 811 Englishmen, about 800 were rescued, and of 1,800 Italians, 450.


Q. Admiral, I want once more to clarify the dates of the entire action. The Laconia was torpedoed on 12th September. When was the air attack on the lifeboats?

A. On the 16th.

Q. In the night of the 16th? On the 17th?

A. On the 16th.

Q. On the 16th of September. So the rescue took how many days all together?

A. Four days.

Q. And afterwards was continued until when?

A. Until we turned them over to the French warships which had been notified by US.

Q. Now, what is the connection between this incident of the Laconia which you have just described, and the order which the prosecution charges as an order for destruction?

A. Apart from my great and constant anxiety for the submarines, and the strong feeling that the British and Americans had not helped in spite of their proximity, I learned from this action very definitely that the time had passed when U-boats could carry out operations on the surface without danger. As can be seen from the two bombing attacks, carried out in spite of good weather, in spite of large number of people to be rescued, and clearly visible to the aviators, the danger to the submarines was so great that, as the one responsible for the boats and the lives of the crews, I had to prohibit rescue activities in the face of the ever-present - I cannot express it differently - the ever-present tremendous Anglo-American Air Force. I want to mention just, as an example, that all the submarines which took part in that rescue operation, were lost by bombing attack at their next action or soon afterwards. The situation in which the enemy kills the rescuers, while they expose themselves to great personal danger, is really and

[Page 236]

emphatically contrary to primitive common decency and the elementary laws of warfare.

Q. In the opinion of the prosecution, Admiral, you used that incident to carry out in practice an idea which you had already cherished for a long time, namely, in future to kill the shipwrecked. Please, state your view on this.

A. Actually, I cannot say anything in the face of such an accusation. The whole question concerned rescue or non- rescue; the entire development leading up to that order, speaks clearly against such an accusation. It was a fact that we rescued with devotion and were bombed while doing so - it was also a fact that the U-boat Command and I were faced with a serious decision and we acted in a humane way, which, from a combatant point of view, was wrong. I think, therefore, that no more need be said in rebuttal of this charge.

Q. Admiral, I must put to you now the wording of that order from which the prosecution draws its conclusions. I have read it before; in the second paragraph, it says:-

"Rescue is contrary to the most primitive laws of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews."
What does that sentence mean?

A. That sentence is, of course, in a sense intended to be a justification. Now the prosecution says I could quite simply have ordered that safety did not permit it, that the predominance of the enemy's air force did not permit it - and as we have seen in the case of the Laconia, I did order that four times. But that reasoning had been worn out, it was a much-played record, if I may use the expression, and I was now anxious to state to the commanders of the submarines a reason which would exclude all discretion and all independent decisions of the commanders. For again and again I had the experience that for the reasons mentioned before, the situation, while the sky was still clear, was adjudged too favourably by the U-boats and then the submarine was lost; or that a commander, in the role of rescuer, was eventually no longer master of his own decisions, as the Laconia case showed; therefore, under no circumstances - under no circumstances whatsoever - did I want to repeat the old reason which again would give the U-boat commander the opportunity to say: "Well, at the moment there is no danger from air attack," that is - I did not want to give him a chance to act independently to make his own decision, for instance, to say to himself: "Since the danger of air attack no longer permits - ." That is just what I did not want. I did not want an argument to arise in the mind of one of the many hundred - 200 U-boat commanders. Nor did I want to say: "If somebody with great self-sacrifice rescues the enemy, and in that process is killed by him, then this is a contradiction of the most primitive laws of warfare." I could have said that, too. But I did not want to put it in that way, and therefore I worded the sentence as it now stands.

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