For Lieutenant Colonel Charles Harcourt Turner, 5th Wellington Regiment, the evening of Thursday December 13, 1917, had begun as pleasantly as any other. In the face of a freshening breeze he had stepped aboard his launch and set off from Queen’s Wharf in downtown Auckland for the internment camp on Motuihe Island of which he was—nominallyin charge. With him on the 16-kilometre journey were his orderly, Frank Wainwright, and two German prisoners of war, Albert Paulsen, who served as a deckhand, and a man named Freund, on board as engineer.
It had been Wainwright’s job to chaperon Paulsen and Freund while his commandant had attended to some pressing business in the city, though it was anyone’s guess how passersby would have reacted had they known the identity of the trio in their midst.
“Just as well people didn’t know,” Wainwright’s mate Bill Wiggins, another Motuihe guard, was later to say. “If you told them that prisoners of war were up in Queen Street doing their shopping, that would be the end of it, wouldn’t it?”
For Charles Turner, however, Paulsen and Freund were useful. In a way, he had them and the other German prisoners on Motuihe to thank for the Pearl, which had been placed at his disposal. They were also to thank for his rapid promotion to lieutenant colonel (and, though no one could have foreseen it then, in something under six weeks for his own court martial). All this “thanks” fell to one man in particular: a powerfully built seadog of a man. A pipe-smoking captain in the Kaiser’s Imperial German Navy with an unquenchable thirst for adventure and a reputation for daring and resourcefulness. A man whose name—whose nickname—was to become a household word in New Zealand: Count Felix von Luckner, the “Sea Devil of the Southern Seas.”
Just months earlier, having left a trail of sunk and captured ships the length of the Atlantic Ocean, von Luckner had rounded Cape Horn in his disguised windjammer, the Seeadler, and burst into the Pacific. There he had been arrested, along with several of his crew, and conveyed south to New Zealand.
Shortly after arriving in the country the Count had been transferred to Motuihe Island, along with his second-in-command Lieutenant Carl Kircheiss, while another four of the Seeadler’s crew were transported to Somes Island in Wellington Harbour.
Until his arrival, Motuihe Internment Camp had held only German nationals living in New Zealand at the outbreak of the war and others captured when the New Zealand Army occupied German-held Samoa and other islands in the Pacific. Among the detainees were the former governor of German Samoa and 20 or so merchant navy cadets of the North German Lloyd line who had earlier made an intrepid escape from Pago Pago in a stolen boat, only to be captured in Apia.
Bill Wiggins remembered Motuihe as a “happy little camp.” The Germans had their own cookhouse and would offer coffee and freshly baked cake to the sentry each morning. The prisoners were allowed visitors from the mainland, and were readily granted permission to stroll around the island. On one of its tranquil beaches they fashioned a retreat out of manuka, and when the weather grew hot they would often go there and recline in chairs contemplating the dazzling waters of the Hauraki Gulf.
The prisoners spent time tending the camp vegetable gardens and looking after poultry, and to supplement their modest rations they caught snapper and gathered oysters, mushrooms and apricots.
One of the privileges they enjoyed was that their quarters, some few hundred metres from where the soldiers were stationed, were off-limits to almost all military personnel except Turner himself.
“It was a very quiet, staid camp,” recalled Wiggins. “The war never seemed to enter that kind of place.”
At least, not until Felix von Luckner’s shadow touched it.
With the appearance of the Count—a jewel in the crown for any camp commandant—Turner got a promotion, a telephone line to the mainland and a fast motor boat for patrol work and as a back-up in case the telephone failed. The guard was increased from 60 men to 80, a report was to be telephoned through to the mainland without fail every hour, and for a time everyone in uniform wore a determined look.
Vigilance was the watchword. Some weeks before von Luckner’s arrival, informants had volunteered disturbing information about plans to liberate prisoners using a chartered scow, and the Bohemian community at Puhoi on the mainland 40 km to the north had come under suspicion. Mysterious lights had been seen flashing from the vicinity of the internment camp on Motuihe’s north western clifftops—where certain prisoners had, for the sake of their health, been permitted to live—but despite thorough searches of that forested headland, nothing had been uncovered.
Offshore patrols around the island were increased, and a landing made on nearby Rangitoto Island, where answering points of light had been detected. Despite every effort, however, the military had drawn a blank, and once the nocturnal signalling ceased, the night patrols had been wound down.
Lieutenant Colonel Turner and his shopping Germans reached the Motuihe wharf without incident on that December evening at 6 P.M. Turner paused to remind Paulsen and Freund to bring the spark plugs to him once they had moored the launch, then stepped ashore with his orderly. Partway up the rise to the camp the Lieutenant Colonel turned once to see the vessel being made fast to its mooring. Some way further on he unexpectedly encountered von Luckner, who was advancing in an unusually stiff-legged way. A bout of rheumatism, the Count explained as he limped past.
There had been a fair amount of coming and going around the island in recent days. Von Luckner had obtained Turner’s permission to stage a Christmas play, and the prisoners’ barracks had been the scene of energetic and lavish preparations for the show. Turner was pleased the prisoners were taking an interest in providing their own entertainment. It spoke of motivation and good morale. It reflected well on him.
Suddenly, Turner’s orderly rushed in to his house and agitatedly reported that a fire had broken out in one of the barracks. Turner sprang into action, furiously blowing his whistle to raise the alarm. A fire on such a small island was a serious matter. Running to the blaze, Turner noticed von Luckner in the thick of the action, fighting the flames with a passion and directing his men to do likewise. Then, in the smoke and confusion, Turner lost sight of him.
As told by von Luckner’s biographer Lowell Thomas, the Count and 10 of his men slipped away under cover of darkness, stole the motor boat and headed for the open sea.
It was an escape bid worthy of the audacious Sea Devil, and one which has assumed the status of legend. And it is, in all likelihood, completely untrue.
Thomas, it seems, was not the sort of writer to let facts get in the way of a ripping yarn. The circumstances of the Motuihe break-out and other events in the Count’s crowded and heroic life were magnified and distorted by Thomas in the hagiography he published 11 years later, titled count Luckner: The Sea Devil.
But then, what else would you expect or demand from the man who created another figure of legendary proportions when he wrote With Lawrence in Arabia?
The reports of Turner and other Motuihe eyewitnesses paint a less dramatic, but no less remarkable, picture of the events of December 13. According to these sources, after dinner, at around 7.20 P.M., the telephone rang at Turner’s house. The Pearl’s dinghy was adrift in the channel beyond the barracks and slowly sinking, and the launch, with Paulsen and Freund on board, was away after it. Turner went down to the wharf, expecting at any moment to see the launch return. When after half an hour there was still no sign of it, he ordered a check of all prisoners.
In addition to the two men on the launch, another known to be out with the transport cart at the wharf and a fourth away pumping fresh water, seven other prisoners—including von Luckner—were unaccounted for. The Count himself, it turned out, had dined early and was absent at the evening meal.
It soon became clear that all 11 had got off the island. Von Luckner and his second-in-command had been on Motuihe only a matter of weeks.
Turner surmised that the seven—among them a plantation owner from Samoa had crept through bush to the south-east of the island, from where they had been picked up by the Pearl. Others felt it likely the prisoners had made their way down the cliff from the compound. It was later revealed that von Luckner had hidden in a boatshed near the wharf before clambering aboard.
Turner at once tried to telephone news of the escape to Auckland, but found the line dead. His nightmare was worsening. As it was by now dark, he had a large bonfire lit and flamed with kerosene to attract attention. About 10 o’clock, several rockets went up in Auckland, possibly in answer to the fire, but two boats seen coming down the harbour shortly afterwards passed by without stopping.
Just before midnight, the sabotaged telephone line was repaired, and at last Lieutenant Colonel Turner could unburden himself. He rang Major Price, acting commander of the Auckland district, and the efficient major immediately ordered a pursuit by sea.
Meanwhile, aboard the overloaded and labouring Pearl, von Luckner and his cramped crew were butting into a gale somewhere off Cape Colville. The Sea Devil, with a sure sense of theatre, had clad himself in the uniform of a New Zealand army officer, taken from Turner’s quarters, along with the commandant’s own dress sword. It was this sword, concealed down his trouser leg, which had given the Count such a pronounced limp earlier in the evening.
Turner was, for now at least, spared the knowledge of just how thoroughly he and the island’s guards had been duped by their captives. All too soon, however, the facts of the case would surface to embarrass the military. Life in Motuihe Internment Camp, it turned out, was a comedy of deception.
Even before the arrival of von Luckner and Kircheiss, the enterprising cadets had stolen and hidden tools from the prison workshop and had retrieved fuses and guncotton from a derelict floating mine to make bombs—one fearless cadet sleeping night after night on a mattress stuffed with the explosives.
The party had even acquired charts showing the location of minefields in the Hauraki Gulf by bribing guards. These charts were later supplemented by maps of the Pacific taken from the camp library.
With the appearance of the two naval officers the vague impulse to escape coalesced into a definite plan. With what one report described as “Hun foxiness” von Luckner and Kircheiss orchestrated their bid for freedom. A sextant was laboriously crafted from an old launch steering wheel cut in half, and bombs were fabricated from a cache of explosives left over from roadworks on the island.
Von Luckner even managed to have one of his Seeadler crew transferred to Motuihe from Somes Island on the pretence of needing a batman. The real reason was that, apart from being a highly trained gunner and signaller, the leading seaman looked English and spoke the language flawlessly.
To disguise his preparations, the Count had contrived to stage a Christmas play Thomas got that right, at least. Once permission had been given, von Luckner’s men got busy making the necessary “props,” including several German naval ensigns and a realistic Lewis machine gun, fashioned from wood and jam tins. When one of the guards drew his superior’s attention to what looked like the making of sails, he was told all was in order. They were curtains for the Count’s dramatic production. Which, in a way, they were.
At about this time the commandant’s sword was stolen from underneath its waterproof cover in the orderly room and replaced by a length of pipe with a meat tin handle. Chickens from the camp run were surreptitiously killed and canned to supplement the hoard of provisions. Even stale beer had a use: as flux for soldering.
Whatever was not procurable on the island was got through a surprisingly simple ruse. Whenever the prisoners needed something legitimate from Auckland, they filled out a requisition form, leaving a space at the bottom. Once the commandant had signed it they added copper wire, fine canvas, solder or whatever else was needed.
The commandant’s launch, the fulcrum of the escape plan, had for weeks plied the waters of Auckland harbour with all manner of munitions and spare engine parts concealed in its bulkheads.
In their bid for freedom, the prisoners were heartened to see an offhandedness creep into the behaviour of their jailers. The guards had abandoned the use of their rifles and instead affected small canes. “If a prisoner objected to following orders,” von Luckner was later to claim, “the guard would threaten to blow his whistle.”
After ten expectant days the opportunity for escape came and von Luckner seized it. Now, as he and his men nursed their leaking launch through the storm, at their backs confusion reigned. Every available vessel, including many civilian craft animated with the Dunkirk spirit, had put to sea to scour the Gulf. In the heavy seas a steamer ran ashore. Other boats collided. At least one was fired at from another launch. On land, searchlights put on a show of piercing the night. But when rumours spread that the Pearl had capsized and sunk with all hands, the fatigued search crews thankfully turned their prows for home.
It was in just such a storm one year earlier almost to the day that von Luckner had punched through the British North Sea blockade to hunt and destroy Allied merchant ships bringing food and raw materials to Europe from Australasian ports which were beyond the range of German submarines.
The Count, who had brought attention to himself as a quick-minded officer on a German battleship in the battle of Jutland, where he had been wounded, was singled out for this unusual and demanding task. As Germany had no overseas coaling stations, he was given command of the 83-metre-long Seeadler, a captured American three-masted sailing ship formerly named the Pass of Balmaha.
In Germany, the steelhulled Seeadler, the last square-rigged ship ever to be commissioned as a warship, had been fitted out for commerce raiding with two 105 mm guns, one hidden on deck under a false canvas pigpen. Two concealed diesel engines had been installed, along with a hidden radio transmitter and secret accommodation for hundreds of prisoners.
The ship’s main saloon was equipped with a diabolical trap for any enemy boarding party: an ingenious hydraulic floor designed by the Count himself to plunge suspicious visitors into the arms of gun-wielding sailors four metres below.
The Seeadler, which carried a deck cargo of timber, flew the Norwegian flag and was manned by a handpicked and well-armed crew-64 in all—masquerading as Norwegian sailors. Portraits of Norwegian and British royalty hung in the cabins, and the crew learned to forget its disciplined naval habits. Von Luckner grew a beard and gave orders in the foreign tongue.
Born into an illustrious titled and military family, he was just the man for the job. His great-grandfather, a mercenary, was made a Marshal of France for services rendered. Von Luckner even claimed that the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, had been dedicated to his ancestor. Fame is not always durable, however, and he died under the guillotine during the French Revolution.
The Count’s father was a military man, and had been fighting for King and country since 1848. With the outbreak of war in 1914, he volunteered to take up arms again—at the age of 90.
As a child, von Luckner had once been sat on the knee of Queen Victoria while the potentate fed him sweets and tried to discover what toys he liked best. He and several other children had been part of an unusual experiment to discover which of the products of the world-renowned German toy manufacturers should be sent across the Channel for the delight of British youngsters.
When he was a little older he spent truant hours hidden in the courtyard of the Dresden Natural History Museum shooting at the stuffed wild animals which, in fine weather, were brought outside for an airing. He was discovered only when one of the pellets from his airgun smashed the glass eye of an imposing lion.
In 1894, at the age of 13, von Luckner ran away from home, or rather from school, “having already been to more schools than classes,” and under a false name shipped before the mast on a Russian sailing vessel, the Niobe. He later explained that he got the scars on his hands and forearms after falling from the Niobe in a raging sea. Seizing an albatross which had swooped to attack him, he used it to stay afloat until being picked up, but in the process had his arms lacerated by the bird’s beak.
For the next seven years, von Luckner lived a Boys’ Own adventure as seaman, prizefighter. kangaroo hunter, beachcomber, conjurer’s assistant, circus strongman, lighthouse keeper and world traveller. He became a gardener’s boy with the Vanderbilt family in the United States, and, for a time, even laboured for the Salvation Army, selling The War Cry in the harbourside pubs of Fremantle.
In America, he made a pilgrimage to meet his boyhood hero Buffalo Bill, walking 2100 km of railroad track only to discover that Cody was at the time touring Germany. He was later told that, while there, this model self‑made man had been a guest in the house of one of his uncles.
At the age of 20, he joined the German Navy and embarked on the career that would lead him to a prison island on the other side of the world, a captive of the New Zealand Government.
On its outward voyage, the Seeadler seemed a charmed ship. The vigilant British were duped time and again by the meticulously orchestrated Scandinavian charade. On one occasion, when an armed party from a blockading cruiser boarded the windjammer, a “fair-complexioned” youth from the Seeadler!s- crew, disguised as von Luckner’s wife and feigning toothache, diverted the inquisitive enemy from a close scrutiny of the saloon and its hydraulic floor.
Von Luckner, chewing tobacco and spitting in the manner of a Norwegian captain, accompanied the search crew to strains of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” which drifted up from a gramophone in the mess room. After what seemed an eternity, the boarding party returned to the cruiser and the Seeadler was sent on its way.
In the months of raiding on the high seas that followed, von Luckner sank “with guile and artifice” 86,000 tonnes of shipping, mostly off the coast of South America, and captured more than 260 enemy crew. A romantic at heart, he flew the Jolly Roger alongside the German ensign when attacking another ship, and took care to treat his captives well. It was to be his often-repeated boast that despite sending 17 ships to the bottom, no lives, not even that of a ship’s cat, were lost at his hands.
However, the Pacific Ocean was not kind to the Seeadler The good fortune which had accompanied it across the Atlantic abandoned the vessel shortly after it rounded Cape Horn. In June and July von Luckner captured or sank three schooners near the Equator, but his crew were weary after seven months and 50,000 kilometres at sea, and the ship was in need of repair. The Count decided to make for the uninhabited island of Mopelia in the Society Islands, 450 km from Tahiti. In Mopelia, a raised island on a palm-studded reef surrounding a 10 km-long lagoon, the “Norwegians” found a type of Valhalla.
“The coral shore was snow white, and, with the sun’s rays reflecting from it, it looked like a sparkling jewel set in an alabaster ring,” von Luckner was to recall. The crew dined on pork, fish, turtle and crab flesh, birds’ eggs, coconuts, champagne and brandy, and lay about in the tropical sun.
Even paradise can carrya sting, however, and / soon after their arrival, catastrophe struck. Again, von Luckner’s biographer was not found wanting when it came to an explanation. According to Thomas, the Seeadler was destroyed by a tsunami. Waves 12 or more metres high flung the ship on to the reef, snapping its masts and spars like so many matchsticks and turning the rigging into a mass of tangled cordage. The vessel which had been the terror of the shipping lanes was totally wrecked, its hull punctured by jagged coral. The small mercy was that no one was injured.
Another version of the story is that the Seeadler had been careened to clean barnacles from its hull, but that a heavy sea drove it on to the reef. A third, even less flattering, account states that an American schooner captain among the ship’s prisoners warned von Luckner that he had anchored too near the reef, but that he was ignored. A gale came up and the vessel was destroyed.
Whatever the string of events, the outcome was the same. Von Luckner, his crew and all 48 American prisoners were marooned in paradise. They salvaged what they could, including 380 tonnes of diesel, rigged a wireless aerial in the pines and built huts from timber, sailcloth and palm leaves. They even wired up an electric light from a generator for the public meeting place. The Americans, who proved adept as castaways, built a separate town for themselves, naming its streets Broadway, The Bowery, Pennsylvania Avenue. The Imperial German flag flew from the highest palm over this, the last German colony in history.
But if his subjects were happy, the “Sea Devil King of the South Seas” was not. He quickly grew impatient with the constraints of Mopelia, and his crew proved less at ease in holiday heaven than their prisoners. The time had come for action.
Von Luckner had the Seeadler’s whaleboat scraped, corked and painted, and crammed into its six-metre length food, water, tobacco, civilian clothes, machine guns, pistols, hand grenades and an accordion. He then picked five crew, including his navigating officer Lieutenant Kircheiss, christened the boat Kronprinzessin Cecilie and, on August 26, 1917, set off into the wide, empty Pacific in search of a new ship. The plan was straightforward: to capture a vessel, preferably in port, then return to rescue those who had remained at Mopelia, before resuming a life of buccaneering on behalf of the Kaiser.
The Cecilie leaked badly and amidships had only 300 mm freeboard. Nevertheless, within a few days they had reached Atiu in the Cook Islands, where they passed themselves off as Dutch Americans sailing from Honolulu to the Cooks and back for a wager of $US2 5,000.
Von Luckner transformed himself into Van Houten, “of cocoa fame,” while Kircheiss became an American tourist. The resident agent, whom they found indolently stretched out in a chair on his porch, was taken in by the story and allowed them to secure fresh supplies.
Soaked by tropical downpours and heavy breaking seas, they then made for Aitutaki, which again they reached after several days at sea. They found the resident agent at Aitutaki pleasant, but suspicious. Von Luckner’s answers seemed to allay his fears, but the Cook Islanders were not taken in and pressed the resident to take action. He gave the boat’s log a cursory inspection while a hostile crowd numbering several hundred gathered outside his house. Von Luckner, forced at last to drop the deception, took the nervous resident on board and revealed the store of arms. The resident urged the Germans to leave to avoid bloodshed, while making out to the Islanders that all was well.
Extracting themselves from an unsatisfactory situation, the Dutch-American-Norwegian-Germans decided against taking the island by force, which would have been easily done, and capturing the next ship to arrive—only a few days away, as it happened. Instead, they again put to sea, this time steering a course for Fiji, more than 3000 kin away. It was to prove a fatal mistake. Forgetting that it was the stormy season, they let themselves in for seemingly unending days of rain and bitterly cold nights. They jettisoned their mattresses, which had become unbearably sodden, and slept on the wet planks of the hull. Whenever the sun appeared, it stiffened their clothing into boards of salt which cruelly chafed their skin. Then the clothes would be soaked afresh and the salt would seep into the raw wounds, setting their flesh on fire.
On september 23, a halfcaste youth in a cutter landed at Levuka in Fiji in the teeth of a tropical storm with news that a strange launch had arrived at Wakaya Island, some 18 km away. Sub-inspector Harry Hills, a 33-year-old former New Zealand customs officer serving with the Fijian constabulary, questioned him and discovered that the launch had a fender around it like that of a ship’s boat. Moreover, its crew spoke English in a peculiar way—like Mr Straub, the former German Consul at Levuka.
Suspecting it was linked in some way with the launch which had been seen in the Cook Islands the previous month, Hills left for Wakaya that day, but was driven back by the storm. He telephoned his superiors in Suva for permission to arm his Fijian Indian police and try for Wakaya the following day. The request for weapons was turned down, but Hills was told that he could pack his service revolver—at his own risk.
Having learned that the cattle steamer Amra had arrived at Suva, Hills persuaded the governor there to charter it. The next day it arrived at Levuka, and Hills set out with his small force.
Von Luckner and his party, meanwhile, had been eyeing suitable shipping in Wakaya. Posing as day trippers from a vessel in Suva, they were instantly attracted to a new twin-engined schooner, Gleaner A, which had taken refuge there from the storm. Learning that the schooner’s owner would be returning from Suva shortly, von Luckner decided to ask for a tow, then board and capture the vessel once they were clear of land. With that in mind, he instructed his crew to keep their uniforms and arms always near at hand.
It was then that the Amra hove into sight and anchored in the bay. Von Luckner had already upped-anchor and was heading for the reef opening and the open sea. A boat was swiftly lowered from the Amra, and Hills’ men pulled hard across the lagoon to cut across the whaler’s path. Hills stood up in the bow and waved his hat three times—an island signal to stop. Von Luckner slowed, but kept on. As Hills got within hearing, he shouted: “Stop. That steamer has you covered with her guns.” A surprised von Luckner obeyed, and Hills’ boat drew alongside. With a hand on what was in fact an empty service revolver, the sub-inspector announced: “You are all prisoners. You will surrender as prisoners of war!”
“I looked and saw his armed natives, but could do nothing, as our small arms were packed in our kit bags, and the machine gun, bombs, etc. were hidden under canvas, rugs and other gear,” said the Count later. “Had I suspected [the Amra’s] purpose she would have been at the bottom of the Koro Sea in a few minutes.”
Lieutenant Kircheiss stepped aboard Hills’ boat, identified himself and handed over his automatic pistol. Hills removed the magazine. Two bayonet-wielding Fijians then jumped aboard the whaler, and Hills called on the man at the stern to surrender. The man handed Hills his pistol and said: “My name is Count von Luckner, commander of Seeadler. I surrender.” The rest of the crew then did the same. The whaler was found to be carrying a machine gun and 5000 rounds of ammunition, six Mauser pistols, six rifles and a cache of hand grenades.
Once on board the Amra, von Luckner was keen to learn about the vessel’s armaments. When he discovered there were none, he was indignant—more so when he discovered that the ship was down to a few bags of coal and would have been in no condition to give chase.
It was September 21, two days short of a month since, in high spirits, they had left Mopelia. After an open-boat voyage in the manner of Captain Bligh’s following the mutiny on the Bounty, the Sea Devil had been caught. And not merely caught, but fittingly caught. Got by bluff. Duped.
Some claimed the Count had mistaken the prominent cattle pens on the Amra’s deck for camouflaged guns. Others that he took ventilation slots in the cattle ship’s sides for gun ports. Von Luckner later made an unconvincing attempt to deny any mistake. His marine glasses, he said, had shown him exactly what the Amra was.
In Thomas’s version of the capture, it came down to naval code. With their uniforms still stowed below, the raiders would have been forced to fight off arrest as civilians, “and as civilians we would have to raise our weapons against soldiers. That not on went against the grain, but it went agains at the unwritten laws of the game.”
In other words, the fate of Ian snipers, spies or common bandits would have been theirs: a hanging, or worse.
After a brief stay in Fiji, the six crew were shipped to New Zealand, where they were confronted by hostile crowds who had got wind of their arrival. At around the time von Luckner had been captured, the Cunard steamer Port Kembla had been sunk 18 km off Cape Farewell, and war had entered New Zealand waters. The passenger steamer Wairuna, too, had been lost at sea, missing since May, and von Luckner, commerce raider, slayer of the innocent, was surely to blame.
In reality, the two ships had been the victims of another German raider, the Wolf; which was also active in the Pacific. Passengers and crew had been taken on board the German vessel as captives. This truth was slow to arrive, however, and the Count was hidden away for a time in the Devonport torpedo yard barracks at North Head. From there he was taken by train to Wellington for interrogation before being transferred, with his second-in-command, to Motuihe.
It was less than two months later that he and 10 other prisoners rounded Cape Colville in the stolen Pearl. They made for the Mercury Islands where, finding a sheltered bay, they set a lookout and lay low to attend to the launch’s faltering engine and to see whether they could surprise and capture a seagoing vessel. They were now 112 km from their island prison.
Von Luckner’s plan was, after hijacking a suitable vessel, to put its crew ashore on the distant Kermadec Islands and head for South America. However, time was not on their side, as by now some 29 vessels were patrolling the waters of the Gulf in search of them.
On Sunday December 16 the lookout saw two ships standing off the coast, and von Luckner called all hands to the Pearl. The ships proved to be scows—sturdy, flat-bottomed coastal traders of a type unfamiliar to the Germans. They were some eight kilometres apart and both heading north under full sail. It was decided to attack the vessel astern, the Moa, as the other, the Rangi, appeared faster.
Once outside the three-mile limit, von Luckner swore the cadets into the Imperial German Navy and, still flying the New Zealand flag, ordered the scow to stand to. The Pearl was made fast and von Luckner, bearing a German battle ensign made from painted flour sacks, sprang aboard. Brandishing hand grenades and rifle, he demanded the ship’s surrender.
Knowing nothing of the Motuihe escape, William Bourke, captain of the Moa, was mightily displeased at this blatant act of piracy. Von Luckner informed him and his five crew—including 11-year-old Joseph Grogan, on the voyage for his health—that they were civilian prisoners of the Kaiser. The Count advised them to obey orders and offer no resistance. They would, he added, be paid for the time spent in the Kaiser’s service.
Unhappily for von Luckner, the Rangi’s captain had seen the capture, and, as the Pearl had been damaged getting alongside the Moa, his scow proved too fast to be overtaken. It was to be a costly failure.
Von Luckner abandoned the chase, jettisoned as much of the Moa’s cargo as possible—more than half its 80,000 feet of sawn rimu timber—and crowded on sail for the Kermadecs. En route, the Pearl capsized and sank in heavy weather.
Meanwhile, the Rangi had intercepted the cable ship Iris off Cape Colville, and the news was passed to Auckland. The Iris then returned to Auckland to take on board two six-pounder guns and their gunners. (How the high command must have craved air power. This was to be a pursuit in slow motion.)
On December 21, after five days at sea, the crew aboard the Moa made landfall in the Kermadecs, 960 km north-east of New Zealand, and hove to off Curtis Island, which, in a defiant gesture, von Luckner claimed for Germany. His men were taking aboard provisions after pilfering stores kept for shipwrecked mariners on the island—bacon, butter, lard, canned beef, blankets—when Kircheiss saw smoke on the horizon: the Iris.
Not wishing to be embarrassed as he had been in Fiji, von Luckner set sail at once, ignoring the steamer’s signals and determined to outrun it. A shell fired across the Moa’s stern soon convinced him otherwise. It was the first shot of the war in New Zealand waters. The Count ordered the scow brought to, and he and his crew were taken aboard the Iris at gunpoint and searched. The bid for freedom had failed.
As if justifying his actions, von Luckner said to his captors: “You left your door open;
With its sheltered white sand beaches and impressive mudstone cliffs, its reefs and rolling farmland, Motuihe Island made an idyllic holding pen for Count Felix von Luckner and his fellow prisoners. For some New Zealanders, the two-and a-half-kilometre-long island, nestled amid a huddle of islands in the inner Hauraki Gulf, will forever be connected with the memory of von Luckner and his flamboyant escape. But there is more to Motuihe than that. It has, at one time or another, been fitted out for almost every job an island near a major city can take on.
A summer Mecca for tourists and day trippers since the 1930s, Motuihe still carries evidence of the substantial Maori occupation that began in the 13th century. Some 37 marked archaeological sites can be visited, including the remains of fortified pa which date back to the Ngati Paoa and the earlier Ngati Huarere. The island was originally known as Te Motu 0 Ihenga after the nephew of the Arawa canoe’s navigator. With the coming of the Europeans, however, human activity began to leave more obvious traces.
Most of them are to be found on the attractively formed western headland. A short way up the winding road from the beach is a grove of gnarled and prolific olives, said to have grown from seeds brought out from Scotland in the middle of last century by Sir John Logan Campbell. Campbell, remembered as the “Father of Auckland” for his many gifts to the city, bought Motuihe with his business partner William Brown in 1843 and farmed it until 1858.
They and a later owner energetically planted ngaio trees, cereals, vegetables and gorse, and shipped over horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, partridges, turkeys, pheasants, quail, geese “without number” and herds of deer. By 1868, Motuihe had become something of a game park masquerading as a farm. The mood on the island, however, soon became less sportive. In 1872, Motuihe was bought by the Government, and the following year, when a sailing ship arrived in Auckland with smallpox on board, the entire island was pressed into service as a human quarantine station. Buildings were hastily thrown up on the northern headland, some of them fashioned from materials salvaged from the demolished Albert Barracks, which had been built in central Auckland during the war against Maori in the Waikato.
Around two large two-storeyed accommodation buildings known as you cannot blame me for walking out.”
The Motes original crew were found to be unharmed, and admitted to having been well treated. The Germans had even given the ship’s boy sweets and chocolates taken from the internment camp. The crew had just one complaint to make about the episode: the Count had inexcusably replaced their picture of Lord Kitchener with one of Field Marshal von Hindenburg.
By comparison, the Germans felt hard done by. Sentenced to 14 days in Mount Eden prison—like old drunks, in the Count’s opinion—they began their confinement on Boxing Day. It was the day of an important race meeting, he later recalled. “We were hustled into the cold, cold cells in order to allow the saucy-looking major to be in time to see the first race. ‘Hurry up, Count,’ said he, ‘and hop in or I will miss it,’ and, despite my protests, I had to ‘hop in’.”
Von Luckner and Kircheiss were transferred to Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour, where for six months they were kept in close confinement. “I verily believe that had we stayed there much longer we would have died of ennui,” said the Count, who entertained thoughts of escape in an empty tar barrel.
To their delight, the two prisoners were then returned to Motuihe, where they found camp life relatively unchanged. There was a new commandant, of course; one who was alert to any signs of “Hun foxiness.” To be sure, some of the Count’s countrymen, who had in vain spent such time learning their lines for the Christmas play, seemed to hold a grudge. Most prisoners, however, greeted the escapees enthusiastically.
When the war ended on November 11, 1918, the unstoppable Count was on the verge of another escape attempt. Before being repatriated, he showed guards a camouflaged dugout in the side of a dry river bed on the far south-east of the island, which had been painstakingly stocked with food, clothing and weapons. He and others, including the former governor of German Samoa, had anticipated lying low there for up to six weeks before setting out to capture yet another ship.
It was only on his return to Germany that von Luckner learned the fate of the 58 Seeadler crew he had left on Mopelia. They had succeeded in capturing a two-masted French schooner, the Lutece, which had sighted their wreck. Renaming it Fortuna, they made for Easter Island, where they were forced to sink their leaky vessel.
Two months later, on November 25, 1917, they were taken aboard a Chilean steamer and spent the rest of the war in Chile as guests of the country’s German community.
In 1938, von Luckner, now an international celebrity, returned to New Zealand with his Swedish wife aboard their yacht Seeteufel (“Sea Devil”). They were warmly received by a public enamoured of the Count’s colourful exploits. Strong as an ox, his favourite crowd-pleaser was to rip telephone directories apart.
Accused by some of spreading Nazi propaganda, he replied: “I respect Herr Hitler, as I do the German Government, but I take no part in it. If I am an ambassador, let me be one of peace.”
Nevertheless, the beginning of war in 1939 cast a shadow of suspicion over his Pacific travels in Seeteufel—the two-year voyage was widely seen as one of espionage—and clouded the reputation of a man once described by the Pope as “a great humanitarian.” He spent World War Two in retirement in Germany and died in 1966 in Malmo, Sweden at the age of 85.
An incident which could well serve as his epitaph occurred in England in 1935. There on a goodwill visit, he had been invited aboard a British battleship as an honoured guest by a group of naval officers, some of whom had hunted him across half the oceans of the world.
At one of the festively decorated tables on the quarterdeck an admiral rose, and after a speech of welcome turned to Captain Holland, the man who years earlier had unsuspectingly let von Luckner slip through the North Sea blockade.
“Well, Holland,” said the admiral. “Today you are again with him. Are you sorry you let him go?”
Holland is said to have stood and replied: “From all accounts, sir, and that includes even our own official history, it is quite clear that the operations of Seeadler represented the only really romantic episode of the war at sea . . . If I hadn’t let Count Luckner and his ship go, naval history would have been the poorer.”
Loud applause. A clatter of chairs. Shouts of “Three cheers for the last of the pirates!”And fade.