Felix Graf (Count) von Luckner had earned the epithet Der Seeteufel (the Sea-Devil) through his exploits as captain of the German raider SMS Seeadler (Sea Eagle) in 1916–17. After his capture in Fiji, he and five of his crew arrived in Auckland en route to a prisoner-of-war camp on Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Von Luckner has been described as ‘one of the most colourful figures in 20th century New Zealand history’.
The Seeadler was a merchant ship that had been converted into a raider for the purpose of disrupting Allied merchant shipping. Between January and July 1917 the Seeadler sank 14 Allied ships – 11 in the Atlantic and three in the Pacific.
Von Luckner prided himself on the effectiveness of his operations – the Seeadler was responsible for the destruction of 64,000 tons of shipping – and also on the fact that only one person died in all of these raids. The crews of vessels attacked were always removed from harm’s way before their ships were destroyed. By March 1917 there were several hundred prisoners to look after, which created logistical problems for the Seeadler. That month a captured French ship, the Cambronne, was used to transfer the prisoners to safety in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In April, for the sake of ‘health and morale’, the Seeadler took shelter at Maupelia (Maupihaa), an uninhabited coral atoll in the Society Islands some 450 km from Tahiti. The ship anchored outside the lagoon but drifted onto the reef, stranding the crew and their 46 prisoners.
Von Luckner and five of his men decided to sail to Fiji via the Cook Islands in an open boat they had salvaged from the Seeadler. They planned to capture a ship and return. Things went according to plan until they reached the Fijian island of Wakaya in September. Not everyone accepted their story of being shipwrecked Norwegians and a party of Fijian police arrested von Luckner and his men. They were transferred to New Zealand, arriving in Auckland on 7 October. Von Luckner was sent to nearby Motuihe Island. His subsequent escape on 13 December boosted his status as something of a folk hero in New Zealand.
Image: Count Von Luckner (Wikipedia)