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Donitz and Lockwood: A Comparison of Style Part I

Uncle n. [ME, fr. OF, fr. L avunculus mother’s brother] 1 a: the brother of one’s father or mother b: the husband of one’s aunt 2: one who helps, advises, or encourages. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary.

Both Karl Donitz and Charles Lockwood were affectionately called Uncle Charlie by the submariners under their command during the Second World War. What was meant by those cognomens, and a comparison of the character and command style of these two men is examined in this essay.

Charles Lockwood was a kind and thoughtful professional submariner whose wartime reputation was that of a person who looks out for his troops and gives them everything within his power to enable them to do their jobs. He did not overly much interfere in their execution, an avuncular role that fully justified his being called Uncle Charlie. He could be stem and hard if he had to be, but preferred not to.

Karl Donitz had a similar reputation in the U-bootwaffe. He too was dubbed Onkel Karl, but he was also called der Lowe-the lion for his dogged aggressiveness. Since I don’t read German, it is difficult to discern what his men may have meant by these appellations. What is clear is that Karl Donitz’s personality and style were substantially different from those of Charles Lockwood.

Their careers had many parallels. Near contemporaries-Lockwood was born in 1890 and Donitz in 1891-they both were commissioned in their respective navies in 1912. Both married daughters of flag officers while on foreign duty, and both had two sons and a daughter. When the Second World War broke out for their respective nations, they both were relatively junior captains who had specia1ize.d in submarining since they were junior officers.

Charles Lockwood was a product of mid-America. Born in southwestern Virginia, but raised in Lamar, Missouri, he came from a close family that lived the typical life of the middle class so common in rural America at the tum of the century: essential needs are taken care of, but nothing much left over for frills like going to college. Lockwood later said of his summers of fishing and hunting and hanging around: “Tom Sawyer would have felt at home”. He went to the Naval Academy in 1908 because the education was free, and because he always had a yen for the life at sea.

Karl Donitz was born in Grunau, a suburb of Berlin, and raised in Jena, a prosperous university town on the Saale River in Thuringia. His father was an engineer with the Zeiss optical works and young Karl was raised in a typical prusso-german environment: stiff, formal family relations in an upper-middle-class home. His mother died when he was five and his father when he was 22. He attended private schools and had summer vacations on the Baltic where his experience in sailing led him to join the navy in 1910.

The navies were similar into which the two were commissioned in 1912. Both were arriviste compared to the British Royal Navy. The Kaiserlichtenmarine, under Navy Minister Tirpitz, had expanded from a modest coast defense force in the 1890s into the world’s second most powerful, and was sufficiently worrisome to Britain that a battleship building race ensued. The United States Navy had a more ancient lineage, but after the Civil War had been neglected. only in the mid-1880s did the Navy begin to remake itself. In 1912, the U.S . Navy was a close third behind Great Britain and Germany, and growing fast.

Naval strength in 1912 was measured in battleships and it was in large warships that a ‘naval officer made his mark. Submarines were so new to the world’s navies that they weren’t on a naval officer’s career horizon. Submarines were slow, vulnerable, short-ranged, small, unreliable if not quirky, cramped, noisome, and dangerous. Submariners were raffish, disreputable, unconventional, and besides smelling bad, had poor career potential. Lockwood was posted to a new dreadnought, USS ARKANSAS, and OOnitz to a new cruiser, SMS BRESLAU. When, in 1914 for Lockwood and 1916 for OOnitz, service needs posted them to submarines, neither was an eager volunteer.

In Donitz’s case, however, the submarine had taken on a new aura since the World War had broken out in the summer of 1914. Intrepid skippers like Otto Weddigen had boldly taken their tiny boats into British waters and scored impressive victories. No longer just coast defense toys, submariners had become the heroes of the Imperial Navy. Donitz may not have been happy with his new posting-he had been enjoying a kind of dashing, carefree life in BRESLAU, then in the Turkish naval service-but, he was ambitious enough to realize his navy’s future lay in submarines.

Donitz’s time in WWI submarines lasted about two and a half years, and included combat and adventure. He apprenticed under the legendary Walter Forsunann, making four Mediterranean patrols in which Forstmann sank 32 ships. Later he commanded UC-25, a small minelaying boat, in which he made two Med patrols, planting minefields and torpedoing five ships. These patrols had their adventures; he boldly sneaked into Augusta Bay, Sicily, and sank a coal barge which he mistook for a repair shop. On the way home, he ran aground trying to end-run the Straits of Otranto mine barrage. The sinking outweighed the grounding, and he was awarded the Knights Cross of the House of Hohenzollern. In command of the larger UB-68 in October 1918, Donitz was forced to the surface when attacking a convoy, scuttled his boat, and was taken, prisoner.

After his tour in ARKANSAS, Lockwood requested duty in the Asiatic Fleet, no doubt seeking adventure. His request was granted but when he got there, much to his dismay he found himself in command of the third oldest submarine in the Navy, A-2. His disgust rapidly turned to delight and he spent most of the rest of his career in the submarine service. He had virtually every duty associated with submarines except that of a junior officer. He came aboard his first boat as nominal commanding officer, although he could not take her underway until qualified by his division commander, and commanded six subsequent boats (B-1, G-1, R-25, S-14, V-3, and the ex-German UC-97). Much to his regret, he never saw combat action in a submarine, although he did get shot at more than once as commanding officer of a Yangtze River gunboat on the China Station.

Donitz was out of the U-Boat community from his repatriation in 1919 until he was named commander of Nazi Germany’s nascent U-Boat flotilla in 1935. From that time until he was named Hitler’s successor in April 1945, he commanded Nazi Germany’s U-Boats. Lockwood, in contrast, spent several important tours in submarine jobs during the interwar years, and was never in command of all American submarines. From January 1943 on, Donitz was navy commander-in-chief and commander of the U-bootwaffe. At nearly the same time Lockwood became the most influential American submarine commander as ComSubPac, but he was always subordinate to CincPac Nimitz and COMINCH King.

The different command relationships the two uncles were in had a great deal to do with their different styles, but in a couple of crucial areas, their personalities and temperaments dictated their style in spite of command arrangements. Donitz was obsessed with wolfpack tactics (Rudeltaktik) as the way to defeat convoys. The way his force implemented the Rudeltaktik required his close involvement in tactical decisions. This obsession came to rule his strategy, and even though objective evidence was available that showed this strategy was losing, Donitz clung to it and twisted his logic to serve his obsession.

Lockwood always believed the on-scene commanders to be in the best position to dictate tactics, and seldom interfered, even when Ultra intercepts gave him far better information on enemy movements than Donitz ever dreamed of having. Lockwood, of course, would move his boats around to deal with developing situations that were clearly not known to the on-scene commanders. But when the fog of war descended on ComSubPac headquarters, he would leave his boats alone and trust the COs. Rarely did he second-guess his CO’s decisions in his endorsements of their patrol reports.

Donitz’s problem was that the fog of war never lifted from U-boat headquarters. He depended on U-boat pickets to spot convoys rather than nonexistent air reconnaissance, probably the worst such platforms imaginable for that duty. These boats were bad to be on the surface and were able to elevate their lookouts only about 15 feet above the water, they had no radar, and they had bad weather most of the time. In order to stretch such pickets effectively across all possible convoys, routes required hundreds of U-boats; Donitz never had that many. If a U-boat picket were lucky and spotted a convoy, the Rudeltaktik required the sub to report immediately and then to shadow. Based on the report, Donitz would vector a large number of U-boats to converge on beacon signals from the shadower, and when in place, overwhelm the convoy. It rarely worked that way. At first, he had insufficient numbers of boats at sea to muster an adequate picket line or an overwhelming pack. When he finally, in late 1942, had upwards of 100 boats at sea at one time, the enemy had sufficient airpower, well-trained escorts, radio direction finding, and signals intelligence to frustrate the tactic.

Lockwood was never in a position to dictate grand submarine strategy as Donitz was, and he was never wedded to a particular tactic. He was faced from time to time with failure on the part of his boats to accomplish a mission. Bur rarely did these failures show a pattern like the U-boat failures did. The torpedo failure syndrome was probably the closest American submarines came to experiencing systematic failure, and this baffled shore commanders who were willing to assign blame elsewhere than where the boats said they should.

Lockwood was the exception to this early on. He is revered in the American Submarine Force as the hero of the torpedo scandal because he took the lead in conducting tests to determine that torpedoes were running deeper than set, and he took this action immediately after taking command of SoWesPac submarines. He is also held to be a hero for arranging tests at Pearl and Kahoolawe that pinpointed the jamming contact exploder.

Donitz, too, had his problems with torpedoes, problems that were eerily similar to those of the Americans. His torpedoes ran deeper than set, they had a magnetic exploder that was unreliable, and they had sticking contact firing pins; one problem masked another, their prewar ordnance establishment had not tested the torpedoes adequately, and the same people that tested the torpedoes were also responsible for accepting them. German U-boats were called upon to defend the precarious Nazi position in Norway in 1940 against British naval counterattack, much as American subs were expected to defend the Philippines against Japanese naval assault. In each case the submarines failed dismally, and a great deal of the failure was due to faulty torpedoes. The reactions of the two submarine forces were quite different. The Germans pounced on the torpedo problem; the Americans found excuses for not acting.

This difference was due to some extent to the fact that Donitz’s force had seven months of combat experience behind it, before the Norway campaign. Also, Donitz had been hearing sporadic reports of malfunctioning torpedoes since the war started. When trusted commanders like Gunther Prien complained about torpedoes during the Norwegian campaign, Donitz listened. Within a week Raeder convened a court of inquiry that ultimately led to the court-martial of high-ranking officers of the torpedo directorate.

This points to a fundamental difference between Donitz and Lockwood: Donitz really was not particularly interested in weapon design. He left this to the uniformed engineers in the Kriegsmarine. He once complained in his war diary of the amount of time he had to devote to the torpedo problem, taking him away from the important stuff. Lockwood had learned submarining from the keel up. As a junior officer, he was the only officer on board his boat along with a crew of maybe eight enlisted. He had no choice but to learn everything about that boat-its engines, pumps, torpedoes, batteries, periscopes, everything. When a weapon needed recovering from the bottom, he was the qualified diver to go down and get a line on it.

This involvement in the technical details of his boat was, of course, necessary for early submariners and has remained a hallmark of American submariners to this day. But in the German navy, a different tradition developed. Here the chief engineer was responsible for the mechanical and electrical functioning of the boat. The line officer-which Donitz was-fought the ship. Although the boat’s torpedoes weren’t the chief engineer’s responsibility, the tradition of non-involvement in technical things inhibited an officer like Donitz from learning his torpedoes inside and out.

In contrast, Lockwood relished digging in and moving his equally knowledgeable staff-guys like Momsen, Pieczentkowski, Taylor, and Johnson to solve the torpedo problem in Hawaii, rather than at Newport.

If Donitz was obsessed with the Rudeltaktik, then Lockwood was obsessed with penetrating the mined entrance to the Sea of Japan with “Hells Bells”, the QLA fin sonar developed by the University of California Division of War Research at Point Loma. It didn’t start out as an obsession; in fact, it was a sound operational objective. But delays in development dragged on and on. By the time “Operation Barney” was launched in June 1945, it had become an obsession with Lockwood. How else can one explain a dangerous operation against an enemy that had been obviously beaten?

Lockwood’s interwar experience prepared him for wartime command of the Submarine Force in a way denied to Donitz. Donitz had no duty in submarines from 1918 to 1935. Lockwood, by contrast, was commissioning skipper of V-3, one of America’s interwar attempts to design the ideal fleet submarine, and his later duty as a division and squadron commander, staff officer, and member and later chairman of the Submarine Officers Conference kept him on top of and contributing to the latest American submarine designs, equipment, and tactics. Lockwood, along with Edwards and English, had a great deal of influence on the successful Gato class design.

Donitz, who had much less experience in commanding submarines than Lockwood, and much, much less experience in working with submarine designers, nonetheless held very strong views on submarine design and construction. He felt the Kriegsmarine should concentrate on just two or three submarine designs and build huge quantities of these. The types he settled on were the small, coastal Type II, the mid-sized Type VII, and the long-range cruising Type IX. Of these, he particularly favored the Type VII-not because it was superior-but because it was an ocean-going design that he could obtain large numbers of at a reasonable cost. That the Type VII was ill-suited for most of the tasks assigned to it seems never to have dawned on him (or several generations of western commentators, who continue to praise the Type VII).

The Type VII was a poor surface sailer, had no radar or sonar Gust listening gear), and carried a small number of torpedoes. It was a miserable ship for its crew-cold, damp, and crowded in the North Atlantic; broiling hot in the tropics. Its submerged speed was not exceptional, and although its top surface speed was high, it rarely made top speed because of weather or mechanical breakdown. Its engines were not particularly reliable; dozens of patrols were aborted because of engine trouble. Many more patrols were cut short because all torpedoes were expended or fuel was short.

I doubt that any conventional submarine design-that is, a boat without a snorkel that had to surface to charge batteries and to make any kind of distant or fast transit-would have better withstood the terrible conditions in the North Atlantic than did the Type VII. But that isn’t the point. The Type VII was not suited for the tasks assigned to it: defeating the British and allied merchant marines guarded by the British Navy in the North Atlantic. Its technical shortcomings masked the human failure of the German naval command to recognize them and either correct them, or assign a better-suited weapon system to the battle, or, failing that, abandon the attempt. No person stands more responsible for this human failure than Karl Donitz.

Part II will appear in the October 1999 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.


RADM Rafael C. Benitez, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Ray Paul Jones, USN(Ret.)
Mr. Mickey S. Michaels

Naval Submarine League

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