A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort”
Things happened rather quickly near the end of World War II, with the death of President Roosevelt on April 12, 1945 followed two weeks later by the deaths of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. German Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz succeeded Hitler and addressed the German nation on May 1, saying that Hitler had died a hero’s death (he committed suicide) and pledged that he would “save Germany from destruction by the advancing Bolshevik enemy.”
Dönitz held the position of president for just under a month before he was arrested and tried for war crimes. The writing was on the wall for Dönitz from the start of his reign and he knew Germany had no chance of winning, so regardless of his radio address, he ordered his military leaders to surrender. A representative of his traveled to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s office in France and on the morning of May 7, signed an order for “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 23:01 hours Central European Time on 8 May 1945.”
The U-858 is shown docked at Fort Miles with a crew of US sailors
and flying the stars and stripes. US Navy Archives
It’s worth noting that prior to succeeding Hitler, Dönitz was the Commander of Germany’s U-boat fleet. During the Nuremberg Trials, it was his leadership of the U-boat fleet that was used against him, not any of his actions as German president.
Two days after Germany’s unconditional surrender, U-858 was spotted by sailors from the USS Sutton and ordered to a rendezvous point 40 miles southeast of Cape May, very close to where the USS S-5 had sunk 25 years earlier. The German sub arrived at the location on May 14 and surrendered to the US Navy.
A majority of the crew members were moved to an American ship and US sailors boarded the sub to bring it back to Fort Miles in Lewes, DE. The navy decided against bringing it directly to the Cape May base out of fears that the harbor was not deep enough for the vessel.
As the U-boat was sailed to Delaware it passed right by Cape May, giving locals and visitors an opportunity to see one of the German subs that held the city in a powerful grasp of fear during the war. It was escorted by US Navy vessels, cutters from the US Coast Guard, with commercial fishing boats and other private crafts anchored along the way.
Karl Dönitz was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment
and was released in October of 1956. Museum of World War II
U-858 never attacked Cape May or any other city and it never sunk any American ship. While it’s true that the submarine had no torpedoes on board at the time of its surrender, all German U-boats had previously been given an order to scuttle, or throw overboard all weapons. Reports of the crew landing on the Cape prior to its surrender were also proven false and there was no merit to the claim that packaging from Koke’s Bakery (now La Patisserie) were found on the sub.
Nonetheless, people from Cape May flocked to the beach to see the sub as it passed by, remembering the many steps that they had taken to avoid an attack by or landing from German ships. Loud sirens piercing the night, blackout shades in their windows, the extinguishing of the Cape May lighthouse and local wardens who patrolled the streets were all fresh in their memory. People in Cape May were genuinely afraid.
The sub was dismantled by the navy and her crew were arrested as prisoners of war and kept in a camp on Fort DuPont where they did farm work until they were sent back to Germany. The submarine was retained at Fort Miles until 1947, when it was towed to a point off the coast of New England, hit with torpedoes and sunk.