Regarded as one of the most colourful figures of the 20th century, Count Graf Felix von Luckner had a close connection with New Zealand.
At 13, von Luckner, from a noble German family, ran away from home and signed up as a cabin boy on a Russian sailing ship bound for Australia.
He had a bewildering array of occupations in Australia: seller of the Salvation Army’s War Cry, assistant lighthouse keeper, kangaroo hunter, circus worker, professional boxer, fisherman, and seaman. Possessed of enormous strength, von Luckner could tear up large telephone directories with his bare hands.
Shipping out to the Americas, von Luckner was a guard in the Mexican army for President Díaz, a railway construction worker, barman, and tavern keeper. He served time in a Chilean jail, accused of stealing pigs, suffered broken legs twice, and was thrown out of hospital in Jamaica for lack of funds.
Von Luckner was also an accomplished magician – Kaiser Wilhelm was fascinated by his tricks and frequently invited him to entertain important dignitaries.
At 20, von Luckner attained his mate’s certificate at a German navigation training school, and volunteered to serve in the Imperial Navy for a year, to earn a commission. He had vowed not to return to his family unless he was in uniform – and they were overjoyed to see him, having given him up for lost.
Von Luckner was called up to serve in the Navy in 1912, and then when the First World War broke out, he saw action at the Battle of Heligoland Bight, and the Battle of Jutland.
In 1916, von Luckner was given the captaincy of a German raider, the Seeadler, a converted three-masted sailing vessel, and over the next six months, sank 14 Allied ships, while cunningly evading capture. He was proud of his reputation for destroying enemy chattels, and also for keeping the crews of the vessels he destroyed safe – only one person died in all of these raids.
While sheltering at a coral atoll in the Society Islands in mid-1917, Seeadler drifted onto the reef and was wrecked, stranding the crew and their 46 prisoners. Von Luckner and several of his men managed to sail to Fiji in an open boat salvaged from the Seeadler.
Their luck didn’t hold, though, and they were arrested by Fijian police and transferred to the prisoner-of-war camp on Motuihe Island near Auckland.
His daring escape from the island a few months later only served to boost his folk-hero status. He tricked the camp commander and made off in his boat, Pearl, with some other prisoners. They reached the Coromandel Peninsula, where they commandeered a scow, the Moa. With the help of a handmade sextant and a map copied from a school atlas, they sailed for the Kermadec Islands. A pursuing auxiliary ship, Iris, guessed his probable destination and caught up with him. Von Luckner spent the remainder of the war in various POW camps in New Zealand before being repatriated to Germany in 1919. In 1921 the book about his adventures became a bestseller.
Possessed of enormous strength, von Luckner could tear up large telephone directories with his bare hands.
He decided to put his fame as a war hero renowned for causing minimal casualties to use, and sailed to the US in 1926 on a two-year goodwill mission. He was a sensation. In 1937, he and his wife sailed around the world, and were welcomed enthusiastically when they arrived in New Zealand.
Hitler tried to use von Luckner for Nazi propaganda purposes during the Second World War, but von Luckner wouldn’t cooperate, and was implicated in a scandal. He retired from public life to the town of Halle. He helped a Jewish woman escape to the US in 1943, and negotiated the safe surrender of Halle with the Americans at the end of the war, but did not return to the town, since the Nazis had condemned him to death.
After the Second World War, Luckner moved to Sweden, where he lived with his Swedish second wife, until his death in Malmö at the age of 84 in 1966.
Article reproduced with permission from NZME. Educational Media