The wartime heroics of Count Felix von Luckner aren't quite what they seem

by Redmer Yska / 02 September, 2017
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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. Photo/Getty Images

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.

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”.

The Sea Devil himself in uniform. Photo/Alamy

Man from legend

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 seven-year-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.

Painting of NZ Prime Minister Bill Massey. Photo/Alamy

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.

Von Luckner won command of a captured US sailing ship, renamed the Seeadler, or Sea Eagle. Photo/Alamy

Solemn word not to escape

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

Defence Minister Sir James Allen. Photo/ATL

Hiding in a bay

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.

Von Luckner (right) with Brigadier-General CGN Miles in Duntroon, Canberra, in 1938. Photo/Alamy

Pleas from "lonely prison"

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 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.

Princess Te Puea. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Most widely ridiculed claims

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”.

He identifies his visitor as a “Maori chieftain’s wife from the tribe of the Waikato”.

“[She] began to dance around me with great rapidity and wild abandon. The name of this dance was the Haka-Haka … and at the conclusion of it, she presented me with a greenstone found only in New Zealand.”

Although grotesquely exaggerated, it is possible these words do contain a kernel of truth. They may have been a reference to Te Puea Herangi, granddaughter of the second Maori king.

She’d emerged as a leader among Tainui people during WWI, involving herself in a bitter struggle with the Government over the issue of conscription. More than 100 Waikato Maori were imprisoned, their opposition to war service dating back to the 19th-century land confiscations.

Michael King’s biography of Te Puea records the men were released from Narrow Neck camp near Devonport in May 1919, when Motuihe inmates were based there in advance of repatriation.

Although their 1919 meeting was not recorded, Te Puea certainly greeted the count as a long-lost friend when he returned in 1938. The pair were photographed beneath a swastika at Auckland’s German Club. She later received him at the Ngaruawahia marae. King records that the count left behind a photograph inscribed: “To my dear friend Princess Te Puea in admiration from a sailor.”

Midway through 1919, von Luckner and his fellow internees travelled to Wellington by train for repatriation to Germany. As he climbed the gangplank, a lone woman handed him a bunch of flowers. The Sea Devil had struck a chord with Kiwis – and they’d turn out in droves for him when he returned 20 years later.

“Baron von Munchausen the Second”

Our postal censors, the German-speaking military types forced to patiently translate his thick sheaf of letters to Sir James Allen, probably deserve the last word. They’d scoff at the way the count portrayed the country in overblown tales that first appeared (with illustrations) in magazines, then in popular books such as Sea Devil.

“This picture and the accompanying description is typical of the character of our former POW, who might be called Baron von Munchausen the Second. His self-esteem, as has been noted in the past from his letters, is very considerably above the normal and his sense of truth primitive.”

German-speaking judge Frederick Chapman. Photo/ATL

‘Bitterness and animosity’

The Germans interned on windswept Somes Island during World War I enjoyed few of the sun-dappled freedoms of the Hauraki Gulf. Close to 300 “enemy aliens” were cooped up in draughty wooden barracks, dubbed kuhstalls or cowsheds.

Morale was bad, not helped by the disciplinarian regime imposed by commander Major Dugald Matheson, a retired schoolteacher with no military experience. Many guards were convicted criminals and alcoholics, leading a local detective to comment “a worse gang could not have been leagued together”.

And when Count von Luckner got wind of mistreatment of German internees, including beatings, abuse and humiliation of his crewmen, he wrote a letter that ended up sparking a royal commission of inquiry.

Von Luckner’s letter, with many words underlined, demanded an official investigation: “I have come to the conclusion that about 250 of the interned civil prisoners have been for years helpless and exposed to the tyranny and cruelty of a commandant without conscience.”

Justice Frederick Chapman, the only available German-speaking judge, sat down to work in March 1918. Over 22 days of hearings on the island, he heard from 119 witnesses. His report concluded that most of the claims of mistreatment were “exaggerated”, noting, however, that in his entire career he’d never encountered such “bitterness and animosity”.

With memories of von Luckner’s escape still fresh, the judge contrasted the approaches of the respective commanders of Somes and Motuihe islands. He took a swipe at the count, whose actions, he believed, adversely affected all German internees behind bars.

“The good-natured indulgence of the Camp Commander [on Motuihe] and his abstention from all interference with the prisoners of war was contrasted with the way in which Major Matheson conducted his camp … it is certain that such an escape could not have occurred under the disciplinary system followed by Matheson, and equally certain that the attempt brought, for a time at least, considerable extra stringency upon the prisoners interned on Somes Island.”

This article was first published in the August 26, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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