Felix Graf von Luckner (9 June 1881 – 13 April 1966), sometimes called in English, Count Luckner, was a German nobleman, naval officer, author, and sailor who earned the epithet Der Seeteufel (the Sea-Devil), and his crew that of Die Piraten des Kaisers (the Emperor's Pirates), for his exploits in command of the sailing commerce raider SMS Seeadler (Sea Eagle) between 1916 and 1917.
It was Luckner's habit of successfully waging war without casualties which made him a hero and a legend on both sides.
In the early months of the First World War Felix von Luckner saw action at the Battle of Heligoland Bight (1914). At the Battle of Jutland he commanded a gun turret on board the battleship Kronprinz Wilhelm.
At the beginning of the War, Germany converted a considerable number of merchant ships into merchant raiders by equipping them with guns and sending them in search of Allied merchant shipping. Most of the armed raiders were not particularly successful, but they did tie up considerable Allied forces in hunting them. By early 1915, most of the armed raiders had either been hunted down and sunk or else had run out of fuel and been interned in neutral ports.
Hoping to revive commerce raiding, the Imperial Navy equipped the impounded three-masted sailing ship Pass of Balmaha (1,571 tons) with two 105 mm guns hidden behind hinged gunwales, several machine guns, and two carefully hidden 500 HP auxiliary engines. She was commissioned as the auxiliary cruiser Seeadler ("Sea Eagle"). As he was almost the only officer in the German Navy with extensive experience of large sailing ships, Luckner was appointed to command her.
Seeadler left port on 21 December 1916 and managed to slip through the British blockade disguised as a Norwegian ship. Many of the crew of six officers and 57 men, including Luckner himself, had been selected for their ability to speak Norwegian, in case they were intercepted by the British. By Christmas Day, Seeadler was southeast of Iceland, where she encountered the British armed merchant cruiser Avenger. Avenger put an inspection party aboard, but failed to detect the German deception.
On 9 January 1917, Seeadler came upon a single-funneled steamer, raised a signal requesting a time signal (not an uncommon thing for a sailing ship long out of contact with land to do), and raised the German ensign too late for the target ship to take any evasive action. Three shots were needed to persuade the 3,268 ton Gladys Royle, carrying coal from Cardiff to Buenos Aires, to heave to. Her crew was taken off unharmed, and she was scuttled.
The following day, Seeadler encountered another steamship, which refused to identify itself. The German ensign was raised and a shot fired across the bow of the Lundy Island, which was carrying sugar from Madagascar. The steamer still refused to heave to, and Luckner fired four rounds directly at her. The steamer then hove to and lowered her boats, but her captain ignored an order to come to Seeadler. A German boarding party was sent over and discovered that the crew had abandoned ship when the first shots were fired, leaving the captain alone on board. Captain Bannister later told Luckner that he had previously been captured by a German raider and had given his parole, which he had broken; thus, he was not anxious to be a prisoner of war again. Luckner continued his voyage southwards, and by 21 January he was in mid-Atlantic between Brazil and West Africa when he found the 2,199 ton French three-masted barque Charles Gounod, which was loaded with corn. She was quickly dispatched, but her log book recorded information about other ships she had met and their intended route.
On 24 January, the small 364-ton Canadian schooner Perce was met and sunk by machine gun fire, after taking off her crew and her captain's new bride. The 3,071 ton French four-master Antonin, which was loaded with Chilean saltpetre, was overhauled on 3 February and soon scuttled. On 9 February, the 1,811 ton Italian Buenos Aires, also carrying saltpetre, was sunk. On 19 February, a four-masted barque was spotted, which immediately piled on sail in an effort to get away; however, Seeadler's engines allowed her to overhaul the 2,431 ton British steamer Pinmore, which was carrying a cargo of grain. By coincidence, Luckner had himself sailed in Pinmore in his civilian sailing days, back in 1902. He took Pinmore into Rio de Janeiro in order to get more supplies, before eventually scuttling her.
The next ship to be stopped was the Danish barque Viking, but as there was nothing unusual about her cargo the neutral ship was allowed to proceed unmolested.
The ensign which Luckner would raise on the Seeadler to convey hostile intent is now on display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
On the morning of 26 February, the 1,953 ton British barque British Yeoman, carrying a welcome cargo including chickens and pigs, was stopped and sunk; the same evening the French four-master Le Rochefoucauld fell victim to the Seeadler. The boarding party discovered Le Rochefoucauld had only recently been stopped by a British cruiser which was looking for Seeadler.
On the evening of 5 March, Seeadler discovered a four-masted barque in the moonlight and signalled "Stop immediately! German Cruiser". Bizarrely, the captain of the 2,206 ton French ship Dupleix rowed across to Seeadler, convinced another French captain was playing a practical joke on him. He was soon disabused of the idea when his ship was scuttled. Seeadler's next victim on 10 March was asked for the time, but ignored the signal. Luckner ordered a smoke generator to be lit, and the 3,609 ton Horngarth turned back to render assistance to the 'burning' sailing ship. A single shot put the British ship's radio out of action; this resulted in the only loss of life in the Seeadler's voyage. A British sailor, Douglas Page, was killed when a steam pipe was ruptured by the shot. Horngarth was soon scuttled by Seeadler's now experienced crew.
By this time, Luckner had the problem of feeding and keeping safe nearly 300 prisoners, in addition to his own crew. Consequently, when on 20 March, the French four-masted barque Cambronne was captured, Luckner arranged for the ship's topgallant mast and additional spars and sails to be removed, before putting his prisoners aboard Cambronne under the command of Captain Mullen of Pinmore. The much-reduced rigging on Cambronne ensured Seeadler would be able to escape before her location could be reported to the hunting ships.
The Royal Navy was well aware of Seeadler's general location and set a trap consisting of the armed merchant cruisers Otranto and Orbita and the armoured cruiser HMS Lancaster at Cape Horn. However, a severe storm blew Seeadler considerably further south, before she entered the Pacific Ocean on 18 April and sailed north along the Chilean coast. By early June, Seeadler was east of Christmas Island and learned that the United States had entered the war. Seeadler therefore turned her attention to American shipping, sinking the 529-ton A. B. Johnson of San Francisco on 14 June, the 673 ton R. C. Slade the next day, and the schooner Manila on 8 July. By this time, Seeadler needed to be laid up so that her hull could be scraped clean. She put into the small island of Mopelia, also known as Maupihaa, a coral atoll some 10 km (6 mi) in diameter in the Society Islands, some 450 km (280 mi) from Tahiti.
Seeadler was too large to enter the sheltered lagoon of Mopelia, and consequently had to anchor outside the reef. On 24 August, disaster struck. According to Luckner, the ship was struck by a tsunami which wrecked her on the reef. However, some American prisoners alleged that the ship drifted aground while the prisoners and most of the crew were having a picnic on the island.
The crew and their 46 prisoners were now stranded on Mopelia, but they managed to salvage provisions, firearms, and two of the ship's boats.
Luckner decided to sail with five of his men in one of the 10 m (33 ft) long open boats, rigged as a sloop and named Kronprinzessin Cecilie. Ever the optimist, he intended to sail to Fiji by way of the Cook Islands, capture a sailing ship, return to Mopelia for his crew and prisoners, and resume his raiding career.
Three days after leaving Mopelia, the seamen reached Atiu Island, where they pretended to be Dutch-American mariners crossing the Pacific for a bet. The New Zealand Resident, the administrator of the island, gave them enough supplies to reach another island in the group, Aitutaki, where they posed as Norwegians. The New Zealand Resident in Aitutaki was suspicious but had no means of detaining the group, and Luckner quickly took his party to the island of Rarotonga. Approaching Rarotonga in the dark, Luckner saw a dark ship which he thought was an auxiliary cruiser, but in fact it was a beached ship.
Luckner pressed on to the Fijian Wakaya Island, arriving after a voyage of 3,700 km (2,300 mi) in an open boat. Most people on Wakaya accepted the Germans' story of being shipwrecked Norwegians, but one sceptic called a party of police from the old Fijian capital of Levuka. On 21 September, the police threatened that a non-existent gun on the inter-island ferry Amra would blow Luckner out of the water. Not wishing to cause bloodshed, and not realizing the police were unarmed, Luckner and his party surrendered and were confined in a prisoner-of-war camp on Motuihe Island, off Auckland, New Zealand.
Meanwhile, back on Mopelia, a small French trading ship, the Lutece, anchored outside the reef. Leutnant Kling of Seeadler, having heard on the radio of his captain's capture, sailed out to Lutece and captured her at gunpoint. The French crew was put ashore with the other prisoners, and all the Germans embarked on the ship, which they renamed the Fortuna, and set course for South America. The master of A. B. Johnson, Captain Smith, then took the remaining open boat from Mopelia with three other American seamen, and sailed 1,600 km (990 mi) to Pago Pago, arriving on 4 October, where they were finally able to inform the authorities of the activities of Seeadler and arrange for the rescue of the other 44 sailors left stranded on Mopelia.
Fortuna, meanwhile, came to grief when she struck uncharted rocks off Easter Island. The crew scrambled ashore, where they were interned by the Chileans for the remainder of the war.
Luckner still refused to accept that the war was over for him. The commander of the prisoner of war camp at Motuihe had a fast motor boat, the Pearl, at his disposal, and on 13 December 1917, Luckner faked setting up a play for Christmas with his men and used his provisions for the play to plan his escape. He and other prisoners seized the Pearl and made for the Coromandel Peninsula. Using a machine gun, Luckner then seized the 90-ton scow Moa and, with the help of a handmade sextant and a map copied from a school atlas, he sailed for the Kermadec Islands, which was a New Zealand provisioning station, with larger ships anchored there. A pursuing auxiliary ship, the Iris, had guessed Luckner's probable destination and caught up with him on 21 December. A year after his mission began, the war finally ended for Felix von Luckner. He spent the remainder of the war in various prisoner of war camps in New Zealand, including Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour, before being repatriated to Germany in 1919.
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d8,Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Knowledge (Battle) d8, Notice d8, Persuasion d6, Piloting d6, Repair d6, Shooting d6
Charisma: +2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Sanity: 6; Toughness: 5
Hindrances: Code of Honor, Loyal, Stubborn
Edges: Charismatic, Command, A few good men, Death before dishonour, Elan, Hard to Kill, Level Headed, Lucky, Upper class, Rank (Officer)
Gear: Uniform, nautical maps, compass
Acc/Ts Toughness Notes
3/10 19(4) 20 Heavy Armor, Acc/TS is 1/3 under sail
Type Range Damage ROF Notes
10.5mm Cannon x2 50/100/200 2d10,AP 4 — 1 Heavy Weapon
MG08 7.92mm 30/60/120 2d8 Auto, May not move