Felix Graf von Luckner was a German nobleman, navy officer, author and noted sailor who earned the epithet Der Seeteufel (the Sea-Devil) -- and his crew that of Die Piraten des Kaisers (the Emperor's Pirates) -- for his exploits in command of the sailing commerce raider SMS Seeadler (Sea Eagle) in 1916-1917.
It was his habit of successfully waging war without any casualties that made him a hero and a legend on both sides.
He was the great-grandson of Nicolas Luckner, Marshal of France and commander-in-chief of the French Army of the Rhine, who had been elevated to count in the 18th century by the King of Denmark.
He was married twice, firstly to Petra (née Schultz) from Hamburg with whom he had a daughter, Inge-Maria, born in 1913. In Malmö, Sweden on September 24, 1924 he married Ingeborg (née Engeström).
At the age of thirteen, Luckner ran away from home to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He signed up, under the assumed name of "Phylax Lüdecke", as an unpaid cabin boy on the Russian sailing ship Niobe travelling between Hamburg (Germany) and Australia. His story might have ended there, because the Russian captain, fearing that the lives of other crew members would be endangered, refused to allow a lifeboat to be launched in order to pick up Luckner when he fell overboard in the middle of the ocean. The chief mate defied the captain, and launched a lifeboat with the help of volunteers.
Arriving at Fremantle, Western Australia, he jumped ship and for seven years followed a bewildering array of occupations: seller of the Salvation Army's War Cry, assistant lighthouse keeper at the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse in Augusta W.A. (a job he abandoned when discovered with his hotel keeper's daughter by her father), kangaroo hunter, circus worker, professional boxer due to his exceptional strength, fisherman, seaman, a guard in the Mexican army for President Díaz, railway construction worker, barman, and tavern keeper. He served a short time in a Chilean jail accused of stealing pigs, suffered broken legs twice, and was thrown out of hospital in Jamaica for lack of money.
At the age of twenty he entered a German navigation training school, where he passed the examinations for his mate's commission. By 1908 he had joined the Hamburg-Südamerikanisch Line steamer Petropolis, intending to serve for nine months before volunteering to serve in the Imperial Navy for a year, to obtain a naval commission. He had vowed not to return to his family except in uniform and was eventually welcomed back by his family, who had given him up for lost. He was finally called up by the Navy in February 1912 and served on the gunboat SMS Panther.
World War I\
In the early part of the war, Felix von Luckner saw action at the Battle of Heligoland Bight, and during the Battle of Jutland he commanded a gun turret aboard the battleship Kronprinz Wilhelm.
At the beginning of the First World War, Germany converted a considerable number of merchant ships into merchant raiders by equipping them with guns and sending them in search of Allied merchant shipping. Most of the armed raiders were not particularly successful, but they did tie up considerable Allied forces in hunting them. By early 1915, most of the armed raiders had either been hunted down and sunk or had run out of fuel and been interned in neutral ports.
Hoping to revive commerce raiding, the Imperial Navy equipped the impounded three-masted sailing ship Pass of Balmaha (1571 tons) with two 105 mm guns hidden behind hinged gunwales, several machine guns, and two carefully hidden 500 HP auxiliary engines. She was commissioned as the auxiliary cruiser Seeadler (Sea Eagle). As virtually the only officer in the German Navy with extensive experience of large sailing ships, Luckner was appointed her commander.
Seeadler left port on 21 December 1916 and managed to slip through the British blockade disguised as a Norwegian ship. Many of the crew of 6 officers and 57 men were selected for the ability to speak Norwegian, including Luckner, in case they were intercepted by the British. By Christmas Day, she was southwest of Greenland, when she encountered the British armed merchant cruiser Avenger. Avenger put an inspection party aboard, but failed to detect the German deception.
On 9 January 1917, Seeadler came upon a single-funneled steamer. She raised a signal requesting a time signal (not an uncommon thing for a sailing ship long out of contact with land to do), and too late for evasive action, raised the German ensign. Three shots were needed to persuade the 3,268 ton Gladys Royle, carrying coal from Cardiff to Buenos Aires, to stop. Her crew was taken off unharmed, and she was scuttled.
On 10 January 1917, Seeadler encountered another steamship, which refused to identify itself. The German ensign was raised and a shot fired across the bow of the Lundy Island, carrying sugar from Madagascar. The steamer still refused to stop, and four shots were fired directly at her. The steamer hove to and lowered its boats, but its captain ignored an order to come to Seeadler. A German boarding party was sent over and discovered that the crew had abandoned ship when the first shots were fired, leaving the captain alone. Later, Captain Bannister told Luckner that he had previously been captured by a German raider, and had given his parole which he had broken; thus he was not anxious to be a prisoner of war again. Luckner continued his voyage southwards, and by 21 January, he was in mid-Atlantic between Brazil and West Africa when he found the 2,199 ton French three-masted barque Charles Gounod, loaded with corn. Charles Gounod was quickly dispatched, but her log book recorded information about other ships she had met and their intended route.
On 24 January, the small 364-ton Canadian schooner Perce was met and sunk by machine gun fire, after taking off her crew (and her captain's new bride). The 3,071 ton French four-master Antonin, loaded with Chilean saltpetre, was overhauled on 3 February and soon scuttled. On 9 February, the 1,811 ton Italian Buenos Ayres, also carrying saltpetre, was sunk. On 19 February, a four-masted barque was spotted, which immediately piled on sail in an effort to get away; however, Seeadlers engines allowed her to overhaul the 2,431 ton British Pinmore, carrying a cargo of grain. By coincidence, von Luckner had sailed in Pinmore in his civilian sailing days, back in 1902. Von Luckner took Pinmore into Rio de Janeiro in order to get more supplies, before eventually scuttling her.
The next ship to be stopped was the Danish barque Viking, but as there was nothing unusual about its cargo the neutral ship was allowed to proceed unmolested.
On the morning of 26 February, the 1,953 ton British barque British Yeoman, carrying a welcome cargo including chickens and pigs, was stopped and sunk, and the same evening the French four-master Le Rochfoucauld fell victim to the Seeadler. The boarding party discovered Le Rochfoucauld had only recently been stopped by a British cruiser which was looking for Seeadler.
On the evening of 5 March, Seeadler discovered a four-masted barque in the moonlight and signalled "Stop immediately! German Cruiser". Bizarrely, the captain of the 2,206 ton French ship Dupleix rowed across to Seeadler, convinced another French captain was playing a practical joke on him. He was soon disabused of the idea when his ship was scuttled. Seeadlers next victim on 10 March was asked for the time, but ignored the signal. Von Luckner ordered a smoke generator to be lit, and the 3,609 ton Horngarth turned back to render assistance to the 'burning' sailing ship. A single shot put the British ship's radio out of commission, and this resulted in the only loss of life in the Seeadler 's voyage. A British sailor, Douglas Page, was killed by a steam pipe ruptured by the shot. Horngarth was soon scuttled by Seeadlers now experienced crew.
By this time, von Luckner had the problem of feeding and keeping safe nearly 300 prisoners, in addition to his own crew. Consequently, when on 20 March, the French four-masted barque Cambronne was captured, von Luckner arranged for the ship's topgallant mast and additional spars and sails to be removed, before putting his prisoners aboard Cambronne under the command of Captain Mullen of Pinmore. The much-reduced rigging on Cambronne ensured Seeadler would be able to escape before her location could be reported to the hunting ships.
The Royal Navy was well aware of Seeadler's general location and set a trap consisting of the armed merchant cruiser Otranto and the armored cruisers Lancaster and Orbita(?) at Cape Horn. However, a severe storm blew Seeadler considerably further south, before she entered the Pacific Ocean on 18 April and sailed north along the Chilean coast. By early June, Seeadler was east of Christmas Island and learned the United States had entered the war. Seeadler turned her attention to American shipping, sinking the 529 ton A B Johnson of San Francisco on 14 June, the 673 ton R C Slade the next day, and the schooner Manila on 8 July. By this time, Seeadler needed to be laid up so that her hull could be scraped clean. She put into the small island of Mopelia, also known as Maupihaa, a coral atoll some 10 km (6 mi) in diameter in the Society Islands, some 450 km (280 mi) from Tahiti.
The wreck of Seeadler
Seeadler was too large to enter the sheltered lagoon of Mopelia, and consequently had to anchor outside the reef. On 24 August, disaster struck. According to von Luckner, the ship was struck by a tsunami which wrecked Seeadler on the reef. However, some American prisoners alleged the ship drifted aground while the prisoners and most of the crew were having a picnic on the island.
The crew and their 46 prisoners were now stranded on Mopelia, but they managed to salvage provisions, firearms, and two of the ships' boats.
Hide and seek
Von Luckner decided to sail with five of his men in one of the 10 metre long open boats, rigged as a sloop and named Kronprinzessin Cecilie. Ever the optimist, he intended to sail to Fiji via the Cook Islands, capture a sailing ship, return to Mopelia for his crew and prisoners, and resume raiding.
Three days after leaving Mopelia, they reached Atiu Island in the Cook Islands group, where they pretended to be Dutch-American seamen crossing the Pacific for a bet. The New Zealand Resident, the administrator of the island, gave them enough supplies to reach another island in the group, Aitutaki, where they posed as Norwegians. The New Zealand Resident in Aitutaki was suspicious, but had no means of detaining the group, and von Luckner quickly took his party to the island of Rarotonga. Approaching Rarotonga in the dark, Luckner saw a dark ship which he thought was an auxiliary cruiser, but in fact was a beached ship, von Luckner pressed on to the Fijian Wakaya Island, arriving after a voyage of 3,700 km in an open boat. Most people on Wakaya accepted their story of being shipwrecked Norwegians, but one sceptic called a party of police from the old Fijian capital of Levuka. On 21 September, the police bluffed the non-existent gun on the inter-island ferry Amra would blow Luckner out of the water. Not wishing to cause bloodshed, and not realizing police were unarmed, von Luckner and his party surrendered and were confined in a prisoner-of-war camp on Motuihe Island, off Auckland, New Zealand.
Meanwhile, back on Mopelia, a small French trading ship Lutece anchored outside the reef. Leutnant Kling of Seeadler, having heard of his captain's capture on the radio, sailed out to Lutece and captured it at gunpoint. The French crew was put ashore with the other prisoners, and all the Germans embarked on the ship, now renamed Fortuna, and set course for South America. The master of A B Johnson, Captain Smith, then took the remaining open boat from Mopelia with three other American seamen, and sailed 1,600 km to Pago Pago, arriving on 4 October, where they were finally able to inform the authorities of the activities of Seeadler and arrange for the rescue of the other 44 sailors still stranded on Mopelia.
Fortuna, meanwhile, came to grief when she struck uncharted rocks off Easter Island. The crew scrambled ashore, where they were interned by the Chileans for the remainder of the war.
Von Luckner still refused to accept that the war was over for him. The commander of the POW camp at Motuihe had a fast motor boat, Pearl, at his disposal, and on 13 December 1917, von Luckner faked setting up a play for Christmas with his men and used his provisions for the play to plan his escape. Von Luckner and a number of other prisoners seized Pearl and made for the Coromandel Peninsula. Using a machine gun, he then seized the 90 ton scow Moa and, with the help of a handmade sextant and a map copied from a school atlas, they sailed for the Kermadec Islands, which was a New Zealand provision island, with larger ships anchored there. A pursuing auxiliary ship, Iris, had guessed his probable destination and caught up with him on 21 December. A year after his mission began, the war finally ended for Felix von Luckner. He spent the remainder of the war in various POW camps in New Zealand before being repatriated to Germany in 1919.
On 12 May 1921, Luckner became a Freemason of the Lodge Zur goldenen Kugel (Große Landesloge von Deutschland) in Hamburg. He wrote a book of his adventures which became a best-seller in Germany, and Lowell Thomas' book about him spread Luckner's fame widely.
In 1926 he raised funds to buy a sailing ship which he called Vaterland and set out on a goodwill mission around the world leaving Bremen on September 19 and arriving in New York on October 22, 1926. An entertaining speaker, he was widely admired for his seamanship and for having fought his war with minimal loss of life. This opened him many doors in the United States where he spoke on hundreds of occasions across the country, both in German and, later, increasingly English. He won the support of many notables, diplomats, politicians and even the American Legion. Henry Ford presented him with a motor car and the city of San Francisco made him an honorary citizen. President Coolidge wanted to meet him but Luckner declined at the request of his government. Feeling that his "goodwill mission", as he called it in his travelogue Seeteufel erobert Amerika ("Sea-devil conquers America"), could neither have greater success elsewhere nor could be financially sustained by the income as speaker however popular and successful he returned to Germany where he arrived on April 19, 1928.
He was a frequent visitor to the Heydrich home in Halle where he inspired a young Reinhard Heydrich, with stories of his adventures on Seeadler, to join the inter-war Reichsmarine. In 1937 and 1938, he and his wife undertook a round-the-world voyage in his yacht Seeteufel, being welcomed in New Zealand and Australia, though some viewed him as an apologist for the Nazi regime.
During the Second World War, Hitler tried to use him for propaganda purposes, though, as a Mason, he was not in one of the Nazi's favoured groups of people. Luckner refused to renounce his membership of the Masons or the various honorary citizenships granted in the US, and consequently he suffered by having his bank account frozen. In 1943, he saved the life of a Jewish woman, Rose Janson, whom he provided with a passport he found on a bombsite, and who subsequently managed to escape to the US via a neutral country. At the end of the war, the mayor of Halle, where he was living, asked him to negotiate the town's surrender to the approaching American forces, which he did, though he did not return to the town after hearing that the Nazis had condemned him to death.
Luckner was extremely strong and was noted for his ability to bend coins between his thumb, index and middle finger of his right hand and to tear up telephone directories (the thickest being that of New York) with his bare hands. On the occasion of his visit to Australia in 1938, the Sydney Labour Daily published a cartoon showing Kaiser Wilhelm tearing up the Belgian Neutrality Pact, Adolf Hitler tearing up another agreement, and Luckner tearing up a directory, with the caption "They All Have The Habit".
After the Second World War, Luckner moved to Sweden, where he lived in Malmö with his Swedish second wife Ingeborg Engeström, until his death in Malmö at the age of 84 in 1966. He is buried in Main Cemetery Ohlsdorf, Hamburg.