Count Felix Von Luckner of the Imperial German Navy was a World War I naval commander known as “The Sea Devil” who terrorized the Atlantic in the early 20th-century at the helm a motherfucking three-masted sailing ship that packed a pair of hardcore 105mm deck guns and a full-auto 7.92mm machine guns. At a time in history where naval battles were being fought by hulking steel-plated dreadnaught battleships, Count Von Luckner and his crew, “The Emperor’s Pirates” (Die Piraten des Kaisers) captured, sunk, and plundered 64,000 tons of Entente shipping in a vessel that looked like it just sailed out of a fucking Pirates of the Caribbean movie. He commanded the only square-rigged warship fielded by either side in World War I, and used it to evade the U.S., French, and British Royal Navies, striking terror into merchant shipping and smashing the delivery of weapons and supplies from America to the battlefield. He also once completed a 1000-mile journey in a whaling boat, escaped a New Zealand prisoner of war camp, and ended up pissing off Hitler so hard that the Nazis eventually put a death sentence on his head – one that they never managed to collect. Luckner was also an amazing public speaker, incredibly charismatic, and so unbelievably strong that even at the age of 57 he could still rip the 1938 New York City telephone book in half with his bare hands.
But despite a hardcore career of government-sanctioned old-school sailing ship Kaiser Piracy that cut a swath of destruction across two oceans and sent more than a dozen French, British, and American commerce vessels plunging to the depths of the sea, this is the truly amazing thing about Count Von Luckner and the Emperor’s Pirates:
They did the whole thing without killing a single person.
Felix Von Luckner was born June 9, 1881, to an aristocratic German military family in Dresden. He came from a long line of Prussian-style asskickers, mostly cavalrymen, and Luckner was pretty much expected to join the cavalry and carry on the tradition of stomping balls in the name of the Vaterland. Luckner, however, was kind of a badass loose cannon, and at the age of 13 he stole his dad’s pistol, ran away from home, and volunteered to work a Russian sailing ship as an unpaid cabin boy. This almost backfired pretty spectacularly, because a few weeks after leaving port Luckner was knocked overboard in a storm and nearly drowned. The Russian captain told the crew not to risk their lives to save Luckner, leaving the young German to swim back to the boat, and while he was doing that he was bizarrely attacked by a fucking flock of albatross birds that started pecking the shit out of him while he struggled to keep his head above water. Luckner somehow managed to get back aboard the ship, and when the Russians put into port in Australia, Luckner made the wise decision to quit his job and just hang out in Australia.
Details aren’t super clear what the fuck Felix Von Luckner was up to for the next seven years, but it basically just sounds like an epic Fear and Loathing style bender. He got a job as an assistant lighthouse keeper, but then got fired when his boss caught him banging the dude’s daughter. He hunted kangaroos, boxed for cash, worked as a bartender, was thrown into jail in Chile for stealing pigs, and got kicked out of a hospital in Jamaica because he couldn’t afford to have doctors re-set his broken leg. Like I said, it’s some weird shit.
Felix Von Luckner returned to Germany at the age of 20, which was kind of a surprise to his parents who pretty much figured he was dead by that point. Luckner attended Lubeck Navigation College, got a Masters from Papenburg Nautical College, and enlisted in the Imperial German Navy in 1910 – just one year before the start of World War I.
Luckner’s first posting was to the gunboat SMS Panther, which operated off the coast of West Africa in support of Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck’s operations. He was transferred to the Konig-class battleship SMS Kronprinz in 1914, where Luckner found himself on the firing line for the largest and most important naval battle of World War I – the Battle of Jutland, the ultimate showdown between British and German warships in the North Sea.
Kronprinz was at the front of the German battleship line when it encountered the full might of the Royal Navy at Jutland, both sides coming out of a dense fog and suddenly finding themselves on top of each other. Kronprinz and her crew of 1,136 men opened fire immediately, smashing into the British lines with everything they had. She fired 144 heavy shells during the epic battle, was constantly in the middle of the fight, and is sometimes credited with scoring the hit that sunk the HMS Defiance. Despite heavy British shells whizzing past her hull all afternoon, and a Royal Navy destroyer missing her bow with a torpedo by mere inches, the Kronprinz made it through the engagement without sustaining any significant damage. I read one report that Luckner was wounded during this fight, but I wasn’t able to confirm that with any other sources. Either way, it’s pretty clear he was doing something right, because in December of 1916 he was given his first command – the recently refitted auxiliary cruiser SMS Seeadler:
Seeadler (meaning “sea eagle”) was a 245-foot, square-sailed 3-masted windjammer. Originally built in Scotland, the Seeadler had started out as the Pass of Balmaha, a U.S.-flagged ship out of Boston that had been running weapons to the Russians. Pass of Balmaha was captured by a German U-Boat in 1915, refitted with a concealed 500-horsepower auxiliary engine, and fitted with two 105mm deck guns and two 7.92mm machine guns, all cleverly hidden so that you couldn’t tell this fucker was a warship if you were looking at her with a telescope from a couple nautical miles away. In the hands of KaptainLeutnant Felix Von Luckner, this ordinary-looking sailing ship would become one of the most ferocious commerce raiders of the war.
Luckner’s first problem was that the British Royal Navy had a blockade that completely surrounded the North Sea and prevented all ship traffic in or out of the German Empire. Engaging it head-on would have been suicide, so Luckner was going to have to find some other way around the entire British Navy if he was going to ever get started on his career in piracy.
Crew of the Seeadler
Seeadler was intercepted by HMS Avenger just five days after she left port. On Christmas Day 1916, the imposing British warship approached Seeadler, docked beside the German ship, and sent aboard a small contingent of Royal Marines and Royal Navy officers to speak with the captain.
Felix Von Luckner and several of his officers met the Royal Navy officers and told the Brits, in perfect Norwegian, that they were a whaling vessel from Norway headed out to the Atlantic.
And you know what? It worked.
After bluffing his way past the blockade, Luckner went to work hammering shipping all throughout the Atlantic. Basically, it worked like this – he’d either run down a merchant ship, or send out a distress call so they’d come over to assist him. Then he’d board the ship, jam guns in everyone’s faces, demand the ship’s surrender, and take the crew prisoner. Luckner and his men would then investigate the cargo of the merchant ship, plunder anything worthwhile, scuttle the ship, and then head off on their way. For four months he smashed English, French, and Italian shipping up and down the sailing lanes (he later wrote about how he really hated that Holland was neutral in the war, because the Dutch ships were always carrying a bunch of awesome booze but he wasn’t allowed to plunder it since they weren’t at war with Germany), evading Royal Navy patrols every step of the way.
Ok, well while Luckner never killing anyone was a pretty awesome and admirable quality (it is worth noting I guess that one British sailor did die when a steam pipe burst on his ship as they tried to escape from the Seeadler), pretty soon Luckner had a different problem on his hands – he had 300 prisoners on his ship and he didn’t really have room to take on any more. So, the next time he captured a ship (the French ship Cambronne) off the coast of Brazil, rather than sinking his prize he looted it, pulled down the main mast, stripped it’s weapons, put all 300 prisoners on the ship, and told the POWs to wait 24 hours and then sail it into port in nearby Rio de Janiero.
The United States entered the war in 1917, and this made life in the Atlantic a real pain in the fuckin ass for Felix Von Lucknow. He attacked and sank two American transport ships, bringing his total to 11, and then he decided he had to get the hell out of there before someone jammed a battleship up his ass. Luckner rounded Cape Horn, attacked and sank three more British ships, and then headed to the Society Islands to find a nice quiet deserted island where he could refit, repair, and resupply. As he closed on Mopelia Island, however, Luckner got caught in a tsunami, dragged anchor, and ran aground on a coral reef just off the island – the Seeadler sank after a few hours, and if you visit the island today you can go scuba diving and still see the wreckage:
Before Seeadler went down Luckner was able to evacuate all crew and prisoners and strip the hold of its supplies and food. His men set up camp on the island, and Luckner took five men, loaded them into one of the ship’s boats, and basically took a fucking rowboat from Tahiti to Fiji – a trip that took nearly a month and spanned 1,800 miles of open, featureless ocean:
Luckner and his men landed in Fiji in September 1917 and tried to pass themselves off as Norwegians, but the Fijians weren’t going to be fooled as easily as the Royal Navy was. Luckner was arrested and sent to New Zealand, arriving in Auckland exactly 99 years ago today.
The people of New Zealand were pretty pissed at Luckner, because they blamed Seeadler for the sinking of the passenger ship Wairuna that caused the deaths of nearly 100 innocent civilians – it took them a while to realize that Luckner hadn’t been the captain responsible for that attack.
Well, as you can expect, Felix Von Luckner immediately went to work on his escape. He had men stranded on that island, he wasn’t going to give up their positions to the New Zealanders, and he sure as fuck wasn’t going to leave them there to die. So, over the course of two months he and his men plotted their escape. They tapped the prison telephone lines, built a working sextant from materials they’d procured, and bided their time. On the evening of December 13, 1917, they popped open their cell doors, cut the camp’s power, cut the telephone lines, stole the camp commandant’s personal motorboat, which was now proudly flying a homemade Imperial German Naval ensign that Luckner had fashioned from a bedsheet and an empty bag of flour.
The next morning, off the coast of the Mercury Islands, Luckner and the five dudes in his motorboat sailed straight up to a New Zealand civilian fishing ship, boarded it, jammed a pistol in the captain’s face, and took over.
Luckner’s balls-out plan was to attack the island’s supply depot, load up on gear, and then bring it to the wreck of the Seeadler, but before he could continue his insane prison break he was run down by a New Zealand warship and forced to surrender. He spent the rest of the war in a prison camp located on a small island just off the coast of Auckland. It worked out OK for his crew, though – when a French commercial ship sailed over to check out the wreckage, the Emperor’s Pirates boarded it, took over, and sailed it to South America.
Felix von Luckner returned home to Germany after the war, wrote his memoirs, gave a lot of talks, and was basically a huge hero across the country. In the 1930s he sailed around the world, visiting Australia, New Zealand (where he was greeted with open arms as a worthy and noble adversary), and touring the United States. During World War II Hitler tried to us Luckner’s fame for propaganda purposes, but when Luckner refused to give up his position as a Freemason and his honorary citizenship to the city of San Francisco (?!), Hitler froze his bank accounts, accused him of being a pedophile, and tried to have him arrested. Luckner was later sentenced to death by the Nazis for the crime of handing out passports to Jews so they could escape Germany… but this sentence was never actually carried out. To this day, Luckner is a hero in the city of Halle, because the old war hero was the man who personally negotiated the city’s surrender to the United States in the closing days of the war. He moved to Sweden after the war, married a nice Swedish woman, and died in 1966 at the age of 84.
Torpedo Bay Navy Museum
New Zealand’s War at Sea
Thomas, Lowell. Raiders of the Deep. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004.
Thomas, Lowell. Sea Devil – The Story of Count Felix Von Luckner. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
Tucker, Spencer. World War I. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014.
Watson, Bruce. Atlantic Convoys and Nazi Raiders. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.