Felix von Luckner, The Sea Devil

I first heard of Count Felix von Luckner on a new year’s trip to Motutapu Island.

A visit to the library finally revealed the full story of his amazing life, and unique place in New Zealand history.

Von Luckner was a German, an international war hero, a humanitarian, a pirate, and leader of an elaborate Alcatraz-styled escape from New Zealand’s Prisoner of War camp on Motuihe Island.

He makes John McClane, Macgyver, Batman and Jack Bauer look like follies.

Felix Von Luckner’s remarkable story begins in Germany in 1894, when at the age of 13 he joined a Russian sailing ship, and spent the next seven years traveling the world, as a seaman, wrestler, kangaroo hunter, prizefighter, and even a member of the Salvation army.

Seven years later he returned home and joined the German navy.

The Seeadler, the converted US cargo ship von Luckener used to sink 14 allied vesslesSoon thereafter World War I began, and the young Felix realized the best way he could help the motherland would be by deceiving British sea vessels into allowing him to get close enough to sink them.

He commandeered a captured American cargo carrier which had been converted into a heavily armed auxiliary fighter ship.

For nearly a year he sailed the boat throughout the Atlantic taking down 14 allied ships along the way, but never took a single life.

He was a thorn to the allies, earning the name The Sea Devil. Despite their best efforts, von Luckner and his crew always managed to evade capture through clever navigation and a bit of good luck.

Eventually, Felix decided to seek new targets in the Pacific. But as he rounded Cape Horn, his luck turned. His sail boat was cast ashore during a tidal wave, and the crew were stranded on the uninhabited and isolated Mopelia Island.

However, this did not stop von Luckner. Armed with only a leaking 5.5m life raft taking in 40 buckets of water a day, he and five crew laded the boat with ammunition and set sail for Fiji some 1600km away. Their plan was to take over a schooner which was in the area, head back to Mopelia Island for the rest of the crew, and then continue their fight for Germany.

Three days later the tiny life-raft reached one of the Cook Islands, Aitu, where von Luckner convinced the British settlers that they were Dutch adventurers. The British brought the story and welcomed them, before sending them on their way with new supplies.

This facade continued on several more islands as von Luckner sailed about searching for the elusive the schooner. However, suspicions started to spread that this strange crew was actually German, and alerts were sent to Fiji.

As he arrived in Wakaya Island in Fiji in September 1917, authorities wPrison block on Motuihe Islandere on full alert, and it was there that he was finally captured and sent to New Zealand to be incarcerated on the Prisoner of War camp on Motuihe Island.

Von Luckner of course had no intentions of being kept captive on a tiny New Zealand island when there was a war to be fought.

So, in what could have been a plot from Hogan’s Heroes, he staged an escape. He convinced the guards that the German prisoners wanted to put on a Christmas play. They fabricated fake guns, and a German battle ensign made from flour sacks for the ‘play’. Then von Luckner stole the army officer’s uniform for disguise, they cut the island phone line, and made off with the sole boat on the island, heading for the Coromandel.

Felix von Luckener (centre) with some of the other detainees on Motuihe Power boat, von Luckner used to escape from Motuhie Island to the Coromandel German battle ensign made from flour sacks as part of the Christmas ‘play’

There, he and his crew lay low for three days until the search died down, before they set out to sea again.

In the Hauraki they encountered two log carriers, the Moa and Rangi. Both were hauling rimu from Great Barrier Island back to Auckland, and von Luckner’s plan was to seize both, sink one and escape in the other.

The seized log carrierWith just a small powerboat they attempted to ambush the Rangi, but the ship was too fast and managed to evade capture. Von Luckner had to make do with the slower of the two boats. He and his crew ambushed the Moa, raised their ensign, and set sail for the Kermadec Islands to replenish their supplies.

Upon arrival in Auckland, the Rangi alerted authorities of the drama in the high seas of the Hauraki, and the government quickly dispatched a military vessel to catch up with the wayward Luckner. The log carrier was no match for the government ship. The NZ authorities caught up with the escapees in a matter of days. Von Luckner and his crew were recaptured, and along with the ambushed crew, returned back to Auckland.

Once again Von Luckner was incarcerated on Motuihe.

Undeterred, he hatched an even more elaborate escape plot, which involved staging a fake escape to distract the guards, digging out a cave hide-out on the side of the island, before making off with a self-built life-raft. The plan was to take place on 18th November 1918, but it never happened.

On 11th November armistice was declared. WWI had ended.

Von Luckner was released and sent back to Germany, where he received hero’s welcome.

After WWI he continued sailing about the world on goodwill missions. He had received fame as a war hero renowned for his minimal casualties.

When WWII broke out, Hitler tried to use him for his own propaganda. However, Von Luckner had no intentions of furthering The Furher’s crusade. And, after he helped a Jewish women escape to the US, Hitler issued his death warrant.

Von Luckner then fled to Scandinavia where he married a Swedish lass and with whom he spent the rest of his days traveling the world,  greeted by cheering crowds wherever he went.

Felix von Luckner died in Sweden, in 1966 at the age of 84.

He gives new meaning to leading a full and exciting life.

And this summer, my mission will be to take a boat to Motuihe, and further investigate his unique contribution to New Zealand history.

References and photos:

  • The Von Luckner Incident, Paul Titchener, Auckland City Library
  • The Sea Devil Came Calling, Howard Henry, Auckland City Library
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4 Responses to Felix von Luckner, The Sea Devil

  1. Simon says:

    If you want another good war story look up U862, the German submarine that traveled around NZ in WW2.

  2. Fred Schoenberger says:

    Great article about Count Luckner. As a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, I did research about the Count as part of a paper on German surface raiders in WWI. My father actually met Felix in NY in 1951, and I have an autographed picture made out to me. Let’s keep in touch and compare notes. Fred Schoenberger, Ocean View, DE, USA

  3. Bradford Marple says:

    My grandfather Charles Doty worked for his brother in law at Export Lumber Co. in Charlestown Ma. They sold one of their clipper ships The Pass of Balmaha to a New York Comp. Which intern Shipped goods to a port in Europe, where I don’t know. The Germans captures the ship and the rest is History. After the war my Grandfather somehow made contact with Von Luckner and asked him to speak at His club in Boston. They became friends and the we have an autograph picture of the Seadler.
    in the family.

  4. Graham Heinz says:

    When I was about 6 years old,1946, I collected stamps and our next door neibour gave me two sets of stamps one was an evelope and letter which was sent on the last Tin Can Mail from Tonga. The other was a first day of issue set of stamps from the 1936
    Olympic Games, in Berlin. Signed by Felix Count Luckner,

    I had always assumed that he had been an official at the games and it became one of my childhood treasures. To protech it I cellotaped the folds on the page taking care not to harm the stamps, a mistake but it does not diminish the value to me.

    When I grew up I had the it framed and it sits on my desk to this day. Von Luckner also wrote his motto above his signature “Never say Die”. I have adopted this as my own motto and I look at it frequently when I need to pull my finger out. The true value is not the stamps, nor the signature but the Motto he gave me for life.

    Recently I looked at the date below his signature, 8 April 1938, and I realised that he his signing was two years after the Games and not related to them. Google has led me to here and a renewed interest in this remarable man.

    Thank you Felix

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