Felix von Luckner, born in 1881, was the child of an aristocratic military German family, who ran away from home at the age of thirteen and began what was to be a very colourful life spent both at sea and on land. In World War 1 von Luckner captained the SMS Seeadler, the last square rigged sailing ship ever to be used in combat. From this ship, elaborately disguised as a cargo transporter, von Luckner and his crew evaded the British Admiralty and sent fourteen ships to the sea floor, all with the loss of only one life. Captured crew would be taken on board the Seeadler and (given the circumstances) be treated with a strange level of hospitality including charm and champagne! The Seeadler was wrecked on a reef near Maaupelia in French Polynesia. Von Luckner's account is an example of his colourful storytelling; involving a mirage and tidal wave, when the actual cause of the wreck may have been far more pedestrian. However, with a small group of crew, he did then sail a ten metre long lifeboat two thousand miles across the Pacific – all the way attempting to pass themselves off as Dutch American adventurers.
Consequences eventually caught up with them when they were arrested in Fiji and sent to Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand as prisoners of war. Von Luckner's intriguing life history does not stop there – with a group of nine other internees, he escaped from the camp, hijacked a passing ship, the Moa, and sailed to Raoul Island. A pursuing naval auxiliary ship caught up with him and he spent the remainder of the war in various internment camps in New Zealand, including Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour.
Post war, von Luckner set out on a goodwill mission and was feted in many places, not only for his record of seamanship and minimal loss of life, but also for his entertaining speaking skills and personal charisma. He had great physical strength and was purported to be able to bend coins and tear a New York City telephone directory in half with his bare hands. During World War II von Luckner was in a somewhat compromised position; a Freemason, he was not favoured by Hitler, who nevertheless tried to use him for propaganda purposes. In 1943 he saved the life of a Jewish woman who escaped to the United States. In some circles he was feted as a war hero, in others, he was branded as a Nazi propagandist, which he denied.
Von Luckner is pictured with his second wife, with whom he saw out the second half of his life in Malmo, Sweden, until his death in 1966. We know that Baden Norris, founder of the Lyttelton Historical Museum Society, met Von Luckner on this trip to New Zealand in 1938; Baden, a young boy at the time, was impressed by von Luckner’s character and war record (and von Luckner’s ability to talk around the pipe in his mouth!)
If you want to read more on this complex character, there are many books on the subject, including the original “The Sea Devil” by Lowell Thomas, William Heinmann Ltd, published March 1928. There is also an excellent Radio New Zealand pod cast.