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Local History

Who was Von Luckner? Part Three

Last week, Von Luckner captures many WWI allied ships -keeps all prisoners on his own ship. Everyone is looking for his ship, The Seeadler
 |  Ron morgan  | 

There was a major problem for Von Luckner having to feed close to 300 prisoners although his supplies had been supplemented from such cargoes as chickens and pigs from a British cargo vessel.

Consequently, when a French barque was captured, he put his prisoners aboard, but much reduced the rigging, so the Seeadler could escape before being reported.

The Royal Navy were obviously intent on sinking the Seeadler and had cruisers and armed merchant cruisers in the area of operation while the captures continued with the sinking of several American ships as they had since entered the war.

Von Luckner required his ship to be laid up so the hull could be scrapped clean, so headed for a coral atoll in the Society Islands. It was here that disaster struck as the ship drifted and ran aground and was wrecked. Some of the 46 American prisoners later stated that this occurred when they were having a picnic ashore, but Von Luckner states a tsunami struck his vessel. However, the group managed to salvage two of the ship’s lifeboats, firearms and provisions.

Von Luckner, after some time ashore, set on a mission with five crew in one of the 10 metre open boats hoping to sail to Fiji and capture a sailing ship and return to pick up those left behind. After a long trip to the Cook Islands where suspicions were aroused as to the make up and intentions of this group, they departed for Fiji (3700 kms).

Von Luckner was intercepted here by a police party and surrendered to this group not wishing to cause any bloodshed, although he had a cache of arms that could have overpowered the police party. His group evidently was not in military uniform, and he made the decision not to engage the boarding party because of this.

Meanwhile, a French trading ship anchored near the remaining party and the armed shore party captured this vessel putting ashore the crew and departed with all the German crew. This mission ended when the vessel struck unchartered rocks off Easter Island and the crew were interned by the Chilean government for the remainder of the war.

A small American party took the remaining open boat and sailed 1600km to Pago Pago to arrange for the rescue of the remaining 44 sailors on the atoll.

Prisoner and masterful escape in New Zealand

Meanwhile Von Luckner was transferred, after a trial, to Motuihe Island in New Zealand, an internment centre for higher ranked personnel where there was minimal security, although 80 were employed for this purpose.

His group cunningly planned an audacious scheme to capture the commandant‘s

fast motorboat, the Pearl. They created a diversion by setting alight one of the barracks and cut the telephone wires connecting the island to the mainland. With the guards all involved in the fire, the group set off with previously stashed supplies which included a machine gun. Von Luckner was dressed in the commandant’s best dress uniform after one of the crew stole it just prior to leaving. The commandant was evidently dismissed after the escape.

They headed for Red Mercury Island for two days after escaping the large number of vessels searching for the party, and then decided to seize two sailing vessels. One, the Rangi, escaped and alerted authorities, but they boarded the Moa, a coastal scow carrying timber. A course was set to the Kermadecs where the government had a cache of provisions for castaway sailors which was gratefully received on arrival. The group lost the Pearl which they had been towing, but had the crew of the Moa with them. The Iris, an auxiliary ship armed with a cannon, was dispatched in pursuit and intercepted the Moa. Von Luckner and his crew were prisoners again.

Their capture created huge interest in Auckland when the Iris returned with the Moa in tow. They were jailed in Mt Eden for 21 days, then sent to River Island in Lyttelton Harbour. Before being sent back to Motuihe, another escape plan was being worked on, but the Armistice came a week too soon for this to be implemented.

Von Luckner, during his post-war years, wrote a book and sailed on a goodwill world trip being a popular entertaining speaker to numerous groups. His trip to New Zealand from February to May 1938 created incredible interest and controversy being funded from the German government. He claimed to be just a sailor and was not a Nazi member knowing nothing about their politics. Later informants noted in a report that Von Luckner had ordered hundreds of propaganda books be thrown overboard near the Panama Canal. He was accused of treating this trip as private pleasure cruise rather than the primary motives intended and outlined by the governing regime. The case against him was shelved with the start of World

War II

He passed away in 1966 after a particularly eventful and colourful life and the cove at Red Mercury Island has been named to mark the area where he sought refuge prior to boarding the Moa.

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 kilometres 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.