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Local History

Who was Von Luckner? – PART ONE OF THREE

Count Felix von Luckner was labelled the Sea Devil as well as being known as a gentleman naval officer who had an interesting involvement in the Pacific and in our waters during World War One.
 |  The Informer  |  ,

What is the connection with our area? Von Luckner’s Cove on Red Mercury Island.

He, of course, was on Germany’s side during World War One but his remarkable life before that and his noble character endeared him across rivalries.

Von Luckner was born into an old famous German military family whose father was determined he should follow the family tradition and go into the cavalry.

His parents despaired at the lack of motivation or inclination to learn and hired private tutors and sent him to several private schools all without success. Von Luckner was more interested in adventure and loved reading about the American Indian tribes, knowing all the famous Indian chiefs and dreamt of being able to hunt buffalo.

Finally, he ran away from home and made a personal pledge that he would not return until he was “wearing the emperor’s naval uniform with honour”.

A major problem was unless you had a good education there was no hope of ever becoming an officer,  and to gain access to a ship he required written permission from his father before any captain would engage him.

After his arrival at the Hamburg waterfront, he tried unsuccessfully to be signed on as a 13-year-old on one of the many sailing ships in port. A sympathetic sailor who rowed him to many of the ships befriended him after he admitted he had run away from home. He finally managed to gain a place as an unpaid cabin boy on a Russian sailing ship travelling the 80-day voyage between Hamburg and Australia. The sailor who befriended him arranged all the necessary personal equipment and being past long voyages, gifted him his sea chest which every sailor needs.

Old Peter tearfully farewelled Von Luckner after sculling as far as he could as the ship made its exit from the harbour.

It would be many years before Von Luckner could return to thank him for his concern and kindness.

Problems developed immediately. Language was a big problem as only the captain, who hated Germans, had a basic knowledge of the language.

Von Luckner was assigned the role of overseeing the latrines and cleaning the pig pen for the six large porkers having to go into the very narrow quarters with the pigs. Sewage filled his shoes and his clothes were a mess and with water being a vital commodity, he was forever dirty.

“Everyone kicked me because I smelled like a pig”.

For food he had to go around and eat what the sailors left on their plates.

Von Luckner was afraid of the masts, dreading the thought of going aloft. He desperately climbed every day slowly gaining confidence eager to gain some respect from the other sailors, being envious of their ability to skip nimbly high up in the rigging.

While trying to impress the more experienced sailors when rounding Cape of Good Hope in a storm with a heavy swell running, Von Luckner struck potential fatal consequences.

He was attempting to unfurl the canvas when a gust of wind dislodged him and he dropped 90 feet onto the braces at the moment the ship heaved with a swelling wave causing him to be thrown into the sea. If he had struck the deck he would have been killed.

He came up astern in the wash with the ship travelling at 8 knots. When he surfaced, he saw the ship some distance away so he threw off his heavy oilskin and sea boots and noticed several albatross hovering above which seem to think everything floating is for them to eat.

Meanwhile the captain refused to allow a rescue attempt believing lives of other crew could be lost in the storm.

Who was Felix Von Luckner

He was a child of aristocracy who ran away to sea.

He fought in the biggest naval battle of the First World War.

He captained the last square rigged sailing ship ever to be used in combat.

He sailed three thousand kilometers across the Pacific in a lifeboat.

He single-handedly saved his hometown from destruction during WWII.

And he punched a member of the Gestapo straight in the face.

He was also responsible for what probably ranks as the most embarrassing prison break in New Zealand history.