Devil in the de­tail

It’s 100 years since Count Felix von Luck­ner, the Gen­tle­man Pi­rate, was in­terned on an is­land off Auck­land dur­ing WWI – be­fore es­cap­ing. But his Boy’s Own ad­ven­tures aren’t all they seem.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Red­mer Yska

It’s 100 years since Count Felix von Luck­ner, the Gen­tle­man Pi­rate, was cap­tured and in­terned on an is­land off Auck­land dur­ing WWI – be­fore es­cap­ing. But his Boy’s Own ad­ven­tures aren’t all they might seem.

He was the jovial Ger­man, a blue-eyed giant of an aris­to­crat, who in 1917 gave a hu­man face to the hated en­emy af­ter he was cap­tured in the Pa­cific and in­terned on an off­shore Auck­land is­land. The next thing Ki­wis knew was that Count Felix von Luck­ner and his fel­low cap­tives had scarpered in their jailer’s launch. They’d hoisted a Ger­man flag made from a bed sheet, slash­ing phone lines to de­lay pur­suit. The re­cap­ture took 10 long, em­bar­rass­ing days.

It was yet an­other chap­ter in the leg­end of von Luck­ner, the Sea Devil, the pipe-smok­ing Gen­tle­man Pi­rate, whose over­cooked ac­counts of ad­ven­tur­ing in the South Pa­cific in­spired many of his fel­low coun­try­men af­ter the Kaiser’s hu­mil­i­at­ing sur­ren­der.

His cool au­dac­ity – call it bla­tant cheek – also made him a lo­cal folk hero, as naval searchers pro­nounced him “a good sport”. And on his re­turn to New Zealand in 1938, many Ki­wis greeted the swag­ger­ing count as a ­con­quer­ing celebrity, with his books turn­ing into best­selling English edi­tions.

A trove of let­ters un­cov­ered by the ­Lis­tener show the ex­tent to which the Sea Devil also charmed our pow­er­ful wartime De­fence Min­is­ter, Sir James Allen – se­cur­ing juicy ben­e­fits and forc­ing a com­mis­sion of in­quiry into the treat­ment of fel­low Ger­man pris­on­ers of war.

Von Luck­ner knew he was too fa­mous to ig­nore. Wartime Prime Min­is­ter Bill Massey char­ac­terised von Luck­ner’s dar­ing es­cape as “the most re­gret­table thing that has oc­curred since the war has be­gun”. One news­pa­per even called it “the most dan­ger­ous, by far, in our his­tory”.


A cen­tury af­ter these events, it is dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate the man from the leg­end. Born in 1881 to a dis­tin­guished Ger­man mil­i­tary fam­ily, von Luck­ner ran away to sea at 13, jump­ing ship in Aus­tralia. He’d ex­pected “Ne­groes with bows and ar­rows”.

Count von Luck­ner: The Sea Devil, his trans­lated me­moirs, charts a wild sev­enyear-long OE, with jobs in­clud­ing kan­ga­roo hunter, light­house keeper, cir­cus worker, pro­fes­sional boxer, fish­er­man, guard in the Mex­i­can Army, rail­way worker, ma­gi­cian and bar­tender.

On his re­turn home in 1901, he buck­led down, join­ing the Im­pe­rial Ger­man Navy in 1910. Af­ter serv­ing in the Bat­tle of Jut­land, he won com­mand of a cap­tured sail­ing ship trans­formed into a diesel-pow­ered mer­chant raider, known as the Seeadler or Sea Ea­gle.

Sea Devil tells how the ves­sel pre­tended to be Nor­we­gian, with its can­non, used to cap­ture and sink Al­lied ships, hid­den from sight. The raider thus slipped through naval block­ades. The count writes, ­ir­re­sistibly, that his crew donned women’s cloth­ing to pose as the cap­tain’s wife and fool watch­ful Bri­tish naval of­fi­cers, but this is now seen as an ex­am­ple of von ­Luck­ner ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

But there’s no doubt the Seeadler sank 14 Al­lied mer­chant ships in the first half of 1917, first in the At­lantic, then in the South Pa­cific. It is also true that af­ter run­ning aground on a French Poly­ne­sian reef, von Luck­ner and five crew sailed 3000km to Fiji in an open boat. It is here New Zealand en­ters the story. The count’s cap­ture in ­Septem­ber by Fi­jian po­lice be­came a sen­sa­tion lo­cally, es­pe­cially as it was first, in­ac­cu­rately, re­ported that miss­ing Kiwi steamer Wairuna was among the Seeadler’s vic­tims.

If true, it would have fur­ther in­flamed the wartime mood of anti-alien hys­te­ria in New Zealand, with many Ger­man shops boy­cotted and ran­sacked, Lutheran churches fire­bombed and a Nel­son town forced to change its name from Sa­rau to Up­per Moutere. In the Manawatu, a per­se­cuted Ger­man was found stran­gled with strips of a Union Jack.

From 1914, Ger­man civil­ians sus­pected of be­ing se­cu­rity risks were sent to the na­tional in­tern­ment fa­cil­ity on Somes Is­land in the mid­dle of Welling­ton Har­bour – now Matiu/ Somes Is­land. The en­listed men from the Seeadler, in­clud­ing von Luck­ner’s ser­vant, joined 300 in­ternees on the chilly lo­ca­tion.

Pris­on­ers of the so-called “of­fi­cer class” ex­pected – and got – bet­ter treat­ment. When von Luck­ner and Lieu­tenant Karl Kircheiss, his se­cond-in-com­mand, reached Auck­land on Oc­to­ber 7, 1917, the pair were dis­patched to the idyl­lic white sands of Mo­tu­ihe Is­land in the Hau­raki Gulf.

Mo­tu­ihe was a civil­ian com­mu­nity chiefly made up of for­mer of­fi­cials from Ger­man Samoa (seized by New Zealand in the open­ing days of the war), in­clud­ing the for­mer gov­er­nor. In­mates en­joyed free­dom of move­ment, as long as they were back in their quar­ters by 6pm.


These “first-class” pris­on­ers had given their solemn word not to es­cape. A cen­tury on, it is dif­fi­cult to grasp the role of per­sonal

Many Ger­man shops were ran­sacked, a Nel­son town was forced to change its name and a Ger­man was found stran­gled with strips of a Union Jack.

codes of hon­our across elite strata of so­ci­ety. Camp com­man­dant Lieu­tenant Colonel Charles Turner, for one, seemed happy to run Mo­tu­ihe along these gen­tle­manly lines.

In re­turn, in­mates were al­lowed to swim, fish, play games and go for long walks. They even en­joyed es­corted shop­ping ex­cur­sions by launch to Queen St, as the Amer­i­can Con­sul-Gen­eral re­ported, “to buy ar­ti­cles that could not be sup­plied at the lo­cal can­teen”.

But Turner went too far when he placed trusted in­ternees in charge of the up­keep of his speedy mo­tor launch, the Pearl, which was later used in the es­cape. It emerged the only safe­guard was for the spark plugs from the mo­tor to be brought to him at the end of each day.

The count, mean­while, swore an oath to Turner not to es­cape. In turn, the ­com­man­dant fa­mously agreed to let the Ger­man lead the or­gan­i­sa­tion of an up­com­ing ­Christ­mas con­cert, which pro­vided per­fect cover for an es­cape.

“[Turner] waxed quite en­thu­si­as­tic about it,” von Luck­ner re­called in Sea Devil. “Not only would it give the pris­on­ers some­thing to do, but it would also pro­vide amuse­ment for the jail­ers. In a lit­tle while, the prison camp was hum­ming with prepa­ra­tions for the grand spec­ta­cle I was go­ing to stage.”

His mem­oir dwells on the covert ­prepa­ra­tions: the im­i­ta­tion pis­tols, the sail sown as if it were a stage cur­tain, the map copied from a school at­las, a sex­tant made from the tank of a primus stove, the brass hinges of a rud­der, pieces of a ra­zor blade and a cop­per penny.

The sex­tant – now in Te Papa – was put to good use when the count and 10 oth­ers roared off in the Pearl 10 days be­fore Christ­mas 1917, head­ing for in­ter­na­tional wa­ters. They’d sev­ered phone wires, de­lay­ing pur­suit by cru­cial hours.

A flotilla of de­fence, har­bour board and po­lice steam­ers were soon in pur­suit. The fugi­tives lay low in the Mer­cury Is­lands, ready to req­ui­si­tion a larger ocean-go­ing ves­sel. And when the coastal scow Moa came by, the Ger­mans pounced, threat­en­ing the crew with hand gre­nades and de­mand­ing their sur­ren­der.

The­o­ries still abound about von Luck­ner’s in­ten­tions: in some ac­counts, he planned to sail to far­away South Amer­ica; oth­ers in­sist the plan was to meet up with the pass­ing Ger­man cruiser Wolf. Ei­ther way, the Ger­mans man­aged to cover an amaz­ing 1100km through rough seas, end­ing up in the Ker­madec Is­lands to the north-east.


And it was on these re­mote is­lands that the steamer Iris, quite by chance, found the Moa hid­ing in a bay on De­cem­ber 21, a Ger­man en­sign flut­ter­ing. Af­ter a shot was fired across the Moa’s bow, von Luck­ner and his crew sur­ren­dered, once again pris­on­ers of war.

As the au­thor­i­ties reeled, Turner, the ­trust­ing com­man­dant, was sacked in ad­vance of his hu­mil­i­at­ing court mar­tial. Sea Devil sneers at his naivety: in fact, the “dar­ing es­cape” from con­fine­ment at the heart of the von Luck­ner leg­end was about as easy as fall­ing off a log.

As De­fence Min­is­ter, Sir James Allen now en­ters our story. He had had the un­en­vi­able job of an­nounc­ing the es­cape. The New Zealand Her­ald summed up the shocked re­sponse: “No lo­cal news which has been pub­lished in Auck­land or in New Zealand since the war com­menced has aroused such an in­dig­nant storm of protest as the es­cape of the Ger­mans from Mo­tu­ihe.”

Al­ways cyn­i­cal, NZ Truth added, “Es­caped Hun Pris­on­ers/Leave in a Launch which is Nice and Handy.” The weekly de­scribed the sub­se­quent duck-shov­ing across the do­mes­tic mil­i­tary Es­tab­lish­ment as “The Mo­tu­ihe ‘Miz­zle’/The Art of Blam­ing the Other Fel­low”.

Of­ten seen as our war leader due to ­Massey’s lengthy over­seas mis­sions, Allen had al­ready met von Luck­ner, hav­ing made a spe­cial visit to Mo­tu­ihe. He’d agreed to let the count have his manser­vant sent up from Somes Is­land, a de­ci­sion that would bring se­ri­ous con­se­quences.

In Allen, von Luck­ner ap­peared to smell a soft touch. A sheaf of let­ters in his spi­dery hand­writ­ing re­veals the ex­tent to which he stalked the busy min­is­ter, be­fore and af­ter his es­cape. The mail con­tin­ued un­abated over his year-and-a-half-long in­car­cer­a­tion.

Money, im­por­tant be­hind bars, re­mained a pri­or­ity. In one early let­ter, the count de­manded the re­turn of $90,000 in gold and ban­knotes seized by Fi­jian po­lice. Army staff ini­tially scoffed: “I sus­pect this is loot from the cap­tured ves­sels and I smile at the as­sur­ance of this pris­oner of war de­scrib­ing this as his own per­sonal funds.”

The bu­reau­cracy sat up, though, when Allen dashed a fol­low-up tele­gram to the chief of gen­eral staff, back­ing von Luck­ner’s case and seek­ing ad­di­tional daily pay­ments for him. From this point, army top brass knew this POW needed to be treated very care­fully.


Af­ter his re­cap­ture, von Luck­ner was de­tained on Ri­papa Is­land in Lyt­tel­ton Har­bour. Sea Devil boasts of cosy card games with the camp com­man­der and plans to es­cape in a tar bar­rel. The op­po­site ap­pears to have been true. As the win­ter of 1918 ap­proached, the count wrote a flurry of let­ters to Allen, beg­ging him for warm un­der­cloth­ing, stat­ing that the cold had forced him to sew news­pa­pers be­tween the flimsy bed cov­ers. “Sir James! … This is scarcely imag­in­able for ed­u­cated men.”

The plea from the “lonely prison” paid off. Kindly Sir James not only pro­cured the woollen sin­glets but also qui­etly en­gi­neered a re­turn to Mo­tu­ihe, where the pris­oner wouldn’t need them. Sen­si­tive to con­tro­versy, he as­sured Europe-based Massey in a pri­vate let­ter that the shift oc­curred with­out “ad­verse com­ments” in the press.

The min­is­ter’s act of gen­eros­ity – ap­prov­ing the re­turn of his manser­vant – trig­gered

The De­fence Min­is­ter agreed to let the count have his manser­vant sent up from Somes Is­land, a de­ci­sion that would bring se­ri­ous con­se­quences.

a fresh round of trou­bles. Sea­man Her­man Erd­man told von Luck­ner that guards had sav­agely as­saulted a fel­low Seeadler crew­man af­ter he’d re­fused to dis­close the ves­sel’s where­abouts. Von Luck­ner wrote a let­ter de­mand­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of ill treat­ment of pris­on­ers on Somes Is­land, a re­quest later widened into a royal com­mis­sion of in­quiry (see side­bar next page). In a typ­i­cal flour­ish, he sealed it with a 20-mark gold piece to en­sure it went right to the up­per ech­e­lons of Govern­ment.

Once back on Mo­tu­ihe, the count ­con­tin­ued to bom­bard Allen with re­quests, rang­ing from fur­ni­ture to a $50,000 ­“repa­tri­a­tion” pay­ment. The files show the min­is­ter ap­pears to have popped over sev­eral times for a chat. The spe­cial treat­ment ­con­tin­ued. Weeks be­fore the Novem­ber 11, 1918, Armistice, Allen agreed the count should be pre­scribed free sup­plies of whisky (“a ­med­i­cal ne­ces­sity”).

Von Luck­ner’s fi­nal let­ter to his kindly pro­tec­tor in early 1919, how­ever, had a grumpy tone. The ab­sence of a re­ply in the file in­di­cates Allen was too busy to meet this lat­est de­mand for a new uni­form. “My khaki suit now con­sists al­most en­tirely of patches. Some day I hope it may be seen in the New Zealand sec­tion of one of our eth­no­log­i­cal mu­se­ums among the relics of past pe­ri­ods.”

And in a fi­nal un­gra­cious dig at Sir James, the count added “not a ves­tige of chivalry has ever been dis­closed to me since I had the mis­for­tune to fall into the hands of the New Zealand Govern­ment”.

Sea Devil con­cludes with the fi­nal months be­fore von Luck­ner was repa­tri­ated to Ger­many. Af­ter the Armistice, he ap­pears to have been able to freely re­ceive vis­i­tors, hav­ing been moved to Nar­row Neck mil­i­tary camp near Devon­port.


Which brings us to one of the book’s most widely ridiculed claims: a visit from a party of Maori (“hand­some abo­rig­ines who once ruled in New Zealand”). On the eve of ­de­par­ture, von Luck­ner claims he was given “the high­est hon­our that the Maoris can be­stow upon any­one”.

The count wrote a flurry of let­ters, beg­ging Allen for warm un­der­cloth­ing. “Sir James! … This is scarcely imag­in­able for ed­u­cated men.”

Out for the count: Count

Felix von Luck­ner (stand­ing, se­cond from left) at a lunch with Sir Wil­liam Hall (third from left), a lead­ing fig­ure in Bri­tish naval in­tel­li­gence dur­ing World War I, at Lyn­d­hurst, Hamp­shire, in 1935. Count­ess von Luck­ner is seated, far right. In­set left, the Sea Devil him­self in uni­form.

Von Luck­ner served in the 1916 Bat­tle of Jut­land, con­sid­ered to be the only ma­jor World

War I naval en­gage­ment.

1. Von Luck­ner won com­mand of a cap­tured US sail­ing ship, re­named the Seeadler, or

Sea Ea­gle. 2. Painting of New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter Bill Massey. 3. De­fence Min­is­ter

Sir James Allen. 4. Ger­man-speak­ing judge Fred­er­ick Chap­man. 5. Princess Te Puea. 6. Von Luck­ner (right) with Bri­gadier-Gen­eral CGN Miles in Dun­troon, Can­berra, in 1938.

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