THE GERMAN SEA DEVIL

Felix von Luckner (nzhistory.govt.nz)

First World War destruction hit New Zealanders on the 18th September 1917 when the Wellington bound Cunard ship Port Kembla struck a mine and blew up just 18 kilometres from Cape Farewell. The German raider, Wolf had laid the mine.

The Wolf was not alone stalking Pacific shipping.

Nine months before the Port Kembla sinking, the sailing ship SMS Seeadler, under the command of the now legendary Count Felix von Luckner, set out on a three year voyage.  His mission was to disrupt the transport of soldiers and food from Australasian ports to the war in Europe. The Seeadler was not the innocent sailing ship she appeared. Flying the Norwegian flag, and carrying a hand picked crew, the innocent looking vessel was a lethal camouflaged raider that sailed into the adventure pages of a boy’s story book. Over a period of 225 days, the Seeadler sank 15 ships. Captain von Luckner carried false papers claiming his ship was the ‘Irma’, a trader bound for Melbourne. On her decks, canvas pig pens concealed two 105mm guns. There were secret doors to the holds and accommodation for prisoners. The ‘Irma’ also carried a large amount of bombs and machine guns.

SMS Seeadler (wikipedia.org)

HIGH SEA MENACE

Even before entering the Pacific, von Luckner had sunk a number of ships and captured two hundred prisoners without the loss of a single life. However, his campaign came to an abrupt end when the Seeadler, caught in a tidal wave, was driven onto a reef at Mopelia Island in the Society group. Undeterred by the unscheduled stranding, von Luckner blew up the wreck of his ship. He converted the surviving small whaler to a launch and set out for the Cook Islands with five of his men to capture a replacement ship.

TRAIL OF DECEIT

On arrival in the Cook Islands, the men passed themselves off as Americans from Honolulu. Further south, they told a local official they were Dutch Americans who had sailed in the small craft for a $4000 wager. The islanders, however, were certain they were Germans, and after one of their officials discovered machine guns onboard, he advised von Luckner and his men to set sail immediately. It’s probable the Cook Islander informed the Fijians of an enemy crew headed their way. When the six Germans arrived in Fiji, Police Inspector Hill of the Fijian police was already aware a crew of ‘Danes’ had arrived at Wakaya Island. Hill chartered a ferry and with his single revolver, headed for an evening rendezvous. The policeman managed to convince the flamboyant German the ferry was armed and arrested von Luckner and his men.

JAILED IN NEW ZEALAND

The Germans were promptly shipped off to imprisonment in New Zealand, arriving in Auckland on the 7th October 1917. Felix von Luckner and his lieutenant joined other Germans in a prisoner-of-war enclosure on Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf. The other four men were despatched to Wellington and imprisoned on Somes Island.

Motuihe Island  (radionz.co.nz)

Felix didn’t like the idea of being a prisoner, so with Indiana Jones style cunning and luck, he organised a team of German prisoners to capture the prison launch Pearl. His daring in this whole operation is a story in itself. His escape is an indictment on the less than efficient running of the prison compound.  At sea, he immediately hoisted a hand painted German naval ensign from the Pearl’s weather beaten mast, and disappeared with twelve men into the darkness of a mid December night. The Pearl weathered a bad gale and authorities believed it had sunk, but oh no! the Germans were 112 kilometres away, sheltering at Red Mercury Island.

RE-CAPTURE

Two days later, von Luckner sighted two small New Zealand ships, the Moa and the Rangi. With his enthusiasm intact, he promptly headed for the closest vessel. Holding hand grenades aloft, the Germans demanded surrender. The six crew members of the Moa were detained on the Pearl before it made chase to capture the Rangi. It wasn’t to be. The captain of the Rangi radioed for help and soon the steamer Iris made chase. A week after escaping, von Luckner was recaptured. The Germans were sentenced to 21 days in Mt. Eden prison. Felix was then sent to Ripa Island near Lyttelton for a six month stint.

With tightened security on Motuihe Island, the foxy German was sent back there for continued imprisonment. As expected, he tried a number of escapes, but the authorities, wiser from experience, kept a constant watch, and all of his ingenious attempts were unsuccessful. He was finally repatriated to Germany in May 1919.

NEW LIFE

In 1938, Count Felix von Luckner returned to New Zealand. He was now a hugely popular lecturer on the international circuit. However, the outbreak of World War Two changed public opinion and he was again treated with suspicion. The man who created so many legends actually spent the Second World War in retirement in Germany.

In 1966, at the age of 85, he died in Sweden leaving behind him a rather unbelievable list of exploits that only seem to happen to larger-than-life screen characters and heroes in boy’s adventure stories.

Because his feats of daring are so audacious, the fearless German’s story has been told in a number of books and TV documentaries and his exploits continue to fascinate and entertain a new generation of (mainly) male readers.

Ceidrik Heward