Grand Admiral Doenitz, the mind behind the submarine war against the Allies and who had been made Commander of the German Navy in 1943, was made leader of the German nation after the death of Adolf Hitler. On the instructions of the new fuhrer General Jodl, Chief-of-Staff of the German High Command, attended the HQ of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, on the morning of May 7, 1945 and signed the documents of an unconditional surrender. This marked the end of the war in Europe. It was fascinating, therefore, to read press reports of the time about two men from Lyme Regis who figured prominently in the historic career of the last of the Nazi leaders.
Under the heading ‘Lyme Commodore Sank His U-Boat – Last War Incident Recalled’, one report ran:- ‘Grand Admiral Doenitz was captured in the last war by a Lyme Regis Lieutenant Commander, now Commodore Humphrey Best, CBE, DSO, RN. He was senior officer of a convoy sailing to Tunisia on October 4, 1918. Here is the story as told by Commodore Best: “We were very much on the alert. One of the ships in the convoy had been torpedoed during the night. The weather was clear and the sea calm. At 6 o’clock one of the escort vessels ahead of the convoy reported a submarine on the surface. I was commanding HMS Snapdragon, a 1,200 ton sloop, which was bringing up the rear. I ordered the convoy to alter course away from the direction of the submarine. In the meantime the submarine, which we afterwards discovered to be the UB68, a medium sized vessel of about 500 tons, made a crash dive. In doing so she must have thrown her hydroplanes out of adjustment, for soon afterwards she broke surface astern of the convoy.
“She was hit repeatedly by the Snapdragon’s guns as well as by shells from the other ships and it was not long before we saw her men scrambling out of the conning tower and plunging into the sea. The U-Boat was obviously too badly damaged to survive, so after she sank we dropped depth charges to make certain. About 30 of her officers and men were picked up including her commanding officer, Oberleutnant Karl Doenitz. We were not favourably impressed with the Oberleutnant’s behaviour. He was surly and bad tempered; in fact he acted like a typical Prussian. He would not admit that he knew English.
“He was soaked to the skin, so I lent him a spare suit of my uniform. I landed him and the other prisoners at Malta a few hours later, and then the clothes were returned to me with a short note in English. Maybe it had been written for him. It read:- ‘Malta, 7.10.18, Valet Ëta Barracks.- Sir, I got these things from the captain of HMS Snapdragon. May I ask you to send them back to him with many thanks from me. I have the honour to be yours respectfully, Doenitz, Oberleutnant.’
“As far as we can gather the U-Boat had been operating under Doenitz’s command from an Adriatic base for some months. She had almost completed a patrol and was to return to her base when we sank her.” Commander Best was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for the sinking. He fought at Jutland, Served with the Grand Fleet and in 1917 returned to convoy work in the Mediterranean. Retiring in 1923 he settled in Lyme Regis, but returned to active service at the start of the Second World War. In December 1943, Doenitz told Hitler he was going to attack Allied naval convoys destined for the Arctic ports of Russia with the Battleships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst. Tirpitz had to be withdrawn from the attack due to damage inflicted by Royal Navy miniature submarines. Scharnhorst was the focus of national pride with its handsome clipper bow and its top speed of 33 knots. As she left her Norwegian port for the attack an alert was radioed by the Norwegian resistance. Further confirmation was gathered from Bletchley Park which had cracked the enigma code and had been listening into German radio traffic. As the battleship steamed towards the convoy 13 allied warships gathered to intercept her, including the battleship Duke of York, and cruisers Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield. But it was the cruiser Jamaica who fired the last three of the 11 torpedoes to find their mark and it was in this action in which another Lyme naval officer figured. Under the heading, ‘Last Minutes of the Scharnhorst – Lyme Regis Officer’s Final Blow’, the press article ran:- ‘Lieut. Commander P. Chavasse, DSC, RN, whose home is in Lyme Regis, had the honour of delivering the final blow to the battleship Scharnhorst. He was torpedo officer of the cruiser Jamaica.
“We were astern of the Duke of York and were trying to dodge the Scharnhorst’s shells, and didn’t like it much. Then the C. in C. signalled Jamaica to close the enemy and finish her off. We altered course towards her bows and closed at high speed. By star shell we saw the black mass of the Scharnhorst and we let fly with our torpedoes. The target was blacked out with smoke at the critical moment so we did another swing and fired three more from our starboard tubes.
“The enemy seemed to resent this and blazed away with secondary armament and close-range weapons, but most of the stuff went over our heads. There were two heavy explosions, specially the second one. When the smoke cleared we saw the Scharnhorst lying on her side. She looked like a whale that had just come up for air, except that she was ablaze from stem to stern.
“I was doing a running commentary on the ship’s loudspeakers on the course of the action. I said ‘This is Boxing-day, 1943, bulletin No 49 – Scharnhorst sunk,’ A mighty cheer went up from every part of the ship.
“Some of the Scharnhorst’s stuff dropped so close about us that a great column of water rose high into the air and crashed onto the bridge, nearly drowning us, but we sustained no damage.”
Despite the flavour of victory which the Royal Navy must have savoured from the result of the Battle of the North Cape, as this naval engagement was to be called, it is sobering to think that out of a ship’s complement of 1,968 aboard the Scharnhorst, only 6 German sailors survived. Admiral Doenitz was indicted as a major war criminal at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. Found guilty he was imprisoned in Spandau Prison, Berlin, for ten years. He died of a heart attack in December 1980.