: Sometime ago we told you about General George Custer and why we thought he had been born in the wrong millennium. We said that he should have been born in that legendary group of Knights of the Round Table of King Arthur’s Court. Today we are going to propose another for that legendary group that was devoted to doing only good things. When we make this statement, we well understand that there were some faults with this legendary band since Sir Lancelot seduced and ran off with Queen Guinevere. On the other hand, there are many that say the seduction was the other way around and cite chapter and verse of Genesis in an endeavor to show that it is always the fault of the female. We have always said it takes two to tango.
With that quip, Ye Olde Editor fell silent because we refuse to join in trying to solve such insoluble questions and will proceed to nominate our latest Knight of the Round Table. An Honest Knight, a man born to Knighthood, I give you for a chair at this round table:
The date was December 1916. World War I had been dragging on and on since 1914, neither side able to throttle the other despite casualty losses which were an affront to the word, civilization. It was apparent that the Kaiser’s unrestricted U-boat warfare had changed the attitude of the United States from neutrality to being very close to entering the conflagration. In an effort to forestall this choice, the German Government decided to augment their very successful U-Boat campaign with surface raiders to deter what ultimately became an inevitable decision.
The question then was how could they do it? Many of the merchant ships and liners that would have been very useful as raiders were interned in neutral ports for the duration. They could not send out any of the German Grand Fleet as they were neutralizing the British and French fleets in a stand off. Neither side could afford to lose any more ships of their Battle fleets after the Battle of Jutland.
In the year just ending, three very good ships were setup and sailed, the Emden Moewe and Wolf. Each could qualify as a light cruiser and the three of them accounted for more than 300,000 tons of Allied shipping. All the German hierarchy had left was a wooden three masted bark, which they proceeded to commission, figuring that America had a large number of sailing vessels upon which it could feed.
This was not as silly a scheme as it appears to us in this day and age since more than a third of the craft moving cargoes around the world then were still sailing craft, many belonging to the Scandinavian Countries, Sweden, Norway and of course the United States.
Now, while the planners are searching for a windjammer captain to command her, let us look at the vessel selected. It was a 245-foot, three masted full-rigged bark built in Scotland in 1888 and nearing the end of its useful life. Its last owner was an American. Its last trip was carrying a load of cotton from New York to Murmansk, Russia. The Germans captured it off Norway, the cargo and vessel both confiscated.
It needed painting and scrapping badly; some of its standing and running rigging had to be replaced. Fall down covers for the two 4.2 inch guns in the bow had to be made and installed. Also included during her refurbishing were two small auxiliary engines with propellers and a 500-gallon tank for the gasoline to run them. These engines were too small for straight out propulsion, but could be used to nudge the SEEADLER (its German Name) closer to its prey.
These planners also knew that a Norwegian vessel, the MALETA, similar in type to the SEEADLER was going to leave Norway on the SEEADLER’s set sailing date. The Germans stole the MALETA’s logbook and temporarily renamed the SEEADLER the MALETA to get her through the British blockade.
Meanwhile the search of Admiralty records came up with an ideal fit for the SEEADLER’s captain, Count Felix Von Luckner. He had served in sailing ships for ten years and had an outstanding record since joining the German Navy. In addition, he had one previous cruise in a raider.
Just as the newly named MALETA was about to leave harbor, word was received that the British had augmented their blockade to try to catch the DEUTSCHLAND, a submarine that was supposed to be running the blockade. The “MALETA” was held in port almost a month before getting new sailing orders.
In the meantime, the actual MALETA had sailed. With this piece of news, the stolen log was useless unless the ship’s name, MALETA, was removed from it. A very delicate job, with the erasures a damning situation if discovered by a boarding party. Another ship’s name, “IRMA”, was now substituted for the first, since the authentic IRMA would sail at the time of the SEEADLER’s new sailing date. Von Luckner, in the “IRMA”, sailed on his assigned date, straight into the teeth of the most horrendous hurricane that had hit the North Sea in many years.
Now, before we go any further, let us look at what we have. We have a real live Count, a noble of the German aristocracy, Count Felix Von Luckner, an aged, run-down, old sailing vessel in the age of steam dependent solely on sails for propulsion, consisting of two outdated cannons and a few rifles. This in the third year of a war which had seen the development of fighting aircraft, heavily armored cruisers and battleships and the new concept of all-out submarine warfare. Stolen papers from another ship, a blockade so tight that it was said a fish could not swim from the Atlantic ocean to the North Sea without the British knowing it and stopping it to ask why, and instant contact by wireless between the blockading squadrons and headquarters. It would seem that Von Luckner’s chances of getting more than 100 miles from homeport would be in the very high negative numbers.
That is why the German plan could not succeed. Here is why it did. It seems that Count Felix Von Luckner had more brains than anyone else he was going to encounter on this voyage into naval history.
The hurricane, blowing at the time from South to North, had dispersed the British blockade, their ships forced back into port because of the rough seas. Von Luckner had the SEEADLER running under storm canvas with the wind. But the crew could do nothing about its course since the sails and lines and blocks were so iced up that no movement of the sails could be accomplished. She was being pushed steadily North until the captain and crew thought they would run into the Arctic Ice Pack.
Then, even as they saw the ice pack rising ominously on the horizon, the winds died down. The crew was able to hammer the ice from the blocks and the running rigging could again be used to change sail. Slowly, steadily, the SEEADLER moved away from the subsiding storm to calmer seas.
Tracking a course equidistant from the two continents, Von Luckner sailed southward looking for prospects and here they had their second scare. A British armed merchant cruiser stopped them and sent over a boarding party. The logbook, which might have presented a problem with its erasures, lay in the Captain’s cabin. However, seemingly anticipating this eventuality while still some miles away, the Count had all the portholes in his cabin broken and doused everything with salt water. When the officer of the boarding party asked for the log, he was handed a limp, soggy, unreadable book with apologies that some debris had broken the portholes and the sea had done the rest.
The boarding party returned to the cruiser and radioed the Admiralty for information. The British Admiralty office was closed for the Christmas Holidays and an inexperienced operator radioed a confirmation for the actual IRMA. Von Luckner and his surreptitiously titled ship were cleared to proceed.
On Jan 9, 1917, the Count made contact with his first prey, a steamship called the GLADYS ROYAL carrying 5,000 tons of coal. The SEEADLER approached close on the pretext that it wanted a chronograph check. The ruse worked, and when shown the raider’s guns, the GLADYS ROYAL immediately surrendered. When the whole crew of the captured ship had been taken safely aboard the SEEADLER, the GLADYS ROYAL was sent to the bottom. Von Luckner, Knight that he was, would not allow any of the crew of the hapless vessels he captured to drown or float around to starve and die in small boats far from land. This continued for thirty thousand miles of sailing. The SEEADLER sunk 14 ships divided about equally between sail and steam aggregating some 50,000 tons.
Now comes the most incredible story of World War I, which makes our Knight a real member of that legend of the Round Table on a par with Sir Galahad. Captured prisoners quickly found out that they were in no danger and were allowed much recreation time on deck. The food was far better than they ever had aboard their mother ships. Even the bunks were better than 99 percent of the ships sailing at that time. Finally, no work was required. The Captains were also treated well and were invited to dine with Von Luckner at the Captain’s table every day.
When the prisoners quarters filled to its 260 capacity, Von Luckner concluded that his guests must go to the nearest port, Rio de Janeiro, in the next prize captured. It turned out to be the French bark, the CAMBRONNE. This ship was well provisioned and Von Luckner appointed the most senior of his “Captain’s Club” to take it in, but only after the upper masts were removed. As a condition of their release, Von Luckner asked for and received from each freed Captain a promise that they would not try to converse with any ships, and would sail directly to Rio. Each one stood by his promise. This agreement allowed the SEEADLER time to make her getaway.
Von Luckner honored his departing captains with a fine banquet. Then he paid off every captured seaman what he would have earned if he had not been captured and had been allowed to finish his voyage. All this, from his own private funds. All the officers and seaman prisoners shook his hand and wished him well when leaving the ship to board The CAMBRONNE.
It was during this transfer that the Count received the title of “The Sea Devil”, a term of real affection from both his own crew and his enemies alike. He always referred to it proudly to the end of his life.
On August 2, 1917, the SEEADLER met its end on a little island in the South Pacific where she was watering when a huge tidal wave hit and threw her onto rocks a total wreck. Eventually, every man of the crew was returned to Germany. To his last day, Von Luckner always spoke proudly that he had lost not one of his own crew or any of those captured throughout his many raids.
The 50,000 tons, which the SEEADLER had sunk, were less than the average tonnage sunk by the other raiders. However, no other raider could boast that through all his sinkings he never lost a man whether his own or his enemies. This Knight in polished armor could certainly find his place with the other Knights of the Round Table. In a war where human life was sacrificed so casually and human misery became an objective, this man hewed to a higher principal.
Following the war, Von Luckner traveled extensively in England and the United States lecturing, teaching and writing before he returned to his native land until his death in 1968 at the age of 87. He took no part in World War II where man’s bestiality to man rose to even greater heights.
Ye Olde Editor’s note: This story has been in the works for a long time. Its genesis started in 1927 when Ye Olde Editor received for Christmas a copy of Lowell Thomas’, Count Felix Von Luckner, the Sea Devil, published by Garden City Press, Inc. 1927. The story lay fallow until we took over the Bent Prop as editor. Then we started to look for the book. Unfortunately, after one marriage, two children and three moves, the volume disappeared. Then one day, in a July heat spasm, we were checking on the attic fan to see that it was doing what it should be doing and we saw a book with an orange cover deep in the insulation at our feet. Yes, you guessed it; it was the missing book. But, you never saw such a mess. The glue holding the pages had deteriorated, the pages themselves yellow from the acid paper used at the time it was published, the cover in three pieces. It should have been thrown in the trash, but we could not. We used 10 days that August, with temperatures raging into the high nineties and sometimes into the 100s, to put it together and wring this story out of it for you. The pages had to be sorted back into their rightful order, re-glued, and then the ever-reliable duct tape took care of the cover. After all, that August it was even too hot to play Ye Olde Editor’s beloved golf. What better way then, to use that time?
Ye Olde Editor
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