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Local History

Who was Von Luckner 1881 -1966? Part Two

Last issue, the captain of the Russian ship for whom Von Luckner was an unpaid cabin boy refused to allow a rescue attempt to save Von Luckner who had fallen from the mast into the wild seas.
 |  Ron morgan  | 

Captain and Count Von Luckner.

However, the chief mate defied the Russian captain who had threatened him with a harpoon, and instead launched a lifeboat with volunteers.

One of the albatrosses seized Von Luckner’s hand as he held on in desperation, while it pecked him continually with its beak. The albatross beat the air with its wings trying to rise keeping Von Luckner a float also attracting other birds which gave the rescue party a reference point thus saving the boy’s life.

The rescue party in the high seas were upended and pitched into the water while trying to swing over the davits. However, all finally made it with the captain in a rage as he had also lost two sails during the dramas.

After 80 days and sighting land only once, the ship arrived at Fremantle where Von Luckner was relieved to meet some sailors off a German ship and converse in a familiar tongue. They also took him to a hotel where he met the proprietor’s daughter who encouraged him to jump ship after he shared his story with her. The sailors also assisted him in smuggling his sea chest off the ship which departed without a search for Von Luckner as the captain was probably relieved to see the last of him.

During the next seven years, Von Luckner had an amazing array of  occupations, selling War Cry magazines for the Salvation Army, kangaroo hunter, a fisherman, a professional boxer, lighthouse keeper, a barman, construction worker, circus worker, guard in the Mexican Army as well as many other colourful adventures on land and at sea, earning enough to see him through a special period of training at a German navigation school.

A sympathetic tutor, after learning of his history, kept his identity secret (being a Count) and vowed to make him a qualified navigator. He received other assistance while undertaking further training on land and at sea to become Naval Lieutenant, returning to his parents who were most relieved after giving him up for dead, and of course delighted and proud.

He struggled through further study and sea time over ensuring years, ultimately gaining his Captain’s qualification. Having been one of the few who had sailing experience, he was given command of the Seeadler (Sea Eagle), an armed sailing ship which had auxiliary engines with the aim to run the blockade established to protect shipping disguised as a neutral ship. A neutral flag can be flown at sea, but you must hoist your true colours before engaging the enemy.

The Seeadler was extensively modified with concealed storage for armaments and ammunition, two modern 500 hp motors, 480-ton fuel tanks, and provisions for two years. There were also 400 bunks for captured sailors with some areas made more spacious and comfortable for higher rank prisoners. Von Luckner stated, “A sailor is a sailor, no matter what his nationality and if I took any prisoners, I wanted them to feel as though they were my guests.”

Timber was used as a cover on the decks as it also covered the hatches which concealed heavy armaments and the crew undertook extensive training and rehearsals in their disguise as a Norwegian vessel.

The blockade was extensive as well as British mines making the crossing high risk. Von Luckner carried a large amount of sail to make the vessel heel over, drawing less water hoping to slide over the mines which were planted several feet under water.

He encountered one of the worst storms in years and luckily many of the British had their guard ships sheltering but sea conditions were horrendous together with freezing conditions not suited for a sailing ship. After clearing the main blockade, they were intercepted by a British armoured cruiser. They hurriedly prepared for an inspection and soiled the papers with water (from the storm!) and those crew members that did not speak any Norwegian were sent to the lower decks. A crew member was dressed as the captain’s wife and Von Luckner commenced chewing tobacco, both traditions followed by many captains.

A major problem was the smell of diesel as the cargo had sealed the deck, hindering the ventilation of fumes. Von Luckner stuffed a rug in the kerosene stove and turned up the wicks of the oil lamps which gave off a stench that overpowered the diesel fumes. After a long and anxious time, the boarding party left, but concern was mounting that they might check the Lloyd’s shipping register or notice the ships propeller. Luckily, they were able to celebrate Christmas with rum and an ample supply of cigarettes and other goodies.

After two initial captures, Von Luckner offered an incentive to all the crew and the prisoners, of ten quid and a bottle of champagne for spotting a ship. The captains and prisoners assumed that as soon as more crew were captured, they would return to port. Provisions for all were supplemented from those acquisitioned from boarding parties of ships captured.

Von Luckner resorted to various tactics to attract ships, setting an array of flag messages, asking for the time, to setting off a smoke generator. Once, when a ship turned to render assistance to “the burning sailing ship”, a shot killed a British sailor when a steam pipe was ruptured.

This was the only loss of life from the Seeadler’s voyage.

Next issue Part Three:  Ship wrecked, a rowboat to Fiji, captured, an embarrassing escape from Kiwi internment centre.

“A sailor is a sailor, no matter what his nationality and if I took any prisoners, I wanted them to feel as though they were my guests.”