An extraordinary tale of war-time escape and piracy took place in New Zealand by Count Felix Nikolaus Alexander Georg Graf von Luckner - or The Sea Devil.
It’s the sort of story Hollywood movies are made of.
Von Luckner was born in Dresden on June 9, 1881, part of the aristocracy. But he wanted adventure and at 13, ran away to sea.
His adventures were nearly immediately over, on his first voyage he fell overboard and it was only because the first mate defied the Captain’s order that he was rescued.
In Australia he jumped ship and worked a series of jobs - kangaroo hunter, circus worker, professional boxer, assistant lighthouse keeper and barman. He narrowly escaped outraged fathers, broke his legs, spent time in a Chilean jail for stealing pigs but in the end went back to Germany.
Once there he joined the Imperial German Navy and in January 1912 was on his first ship. By 1916 he took the helm of the Seeadler or Sea Eagle.
In WWI he proved his extraordinary skill and cunning aboard the three masted Seeadler, seeking out and capturing 17 ships in an eight-month-period.
His skill was extraordinary, for all those crews, only one person died. Von Luckner preferred not to kill.
In 1917 the ship was unexpectedly wrecked in a storm and the crew reached Mopelia, an island now known as Maupihaa.
Von Luckner and his crew then rigged a long boat and began an epic open water journey 2000 miles until they came to the Fijian island of Wakaya - the same journey Captain Bligh made after the mutiny of the Bounty 150 years earlier.
There they were arrested and shipped to Auckland arriving on October 7, 1917 to hostile crowds - who believed them to be responsible for the sinking of the cargo steamer Wairuna.
It was later learned that a cruiser called Wolf had sunk it.
Von Luckner was detained at the Devonport naval base and the four seamen shipped off to Wellington’s Somes Island. Von Luckner and another officer Lieutenant Carl Kircheiss there soon sent to Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf.
Von Luckner recruited a bunch of German ship cadets interned there. They already had an escape plan, which included stolen tools and charts of the Hauraki Gulf.
The initial plan was to steal a boat and go for it but von Luckner went further. He went to the camp commandant and asked permission to organise a Christmas play.
The prisoners made fake bombs and guns and fashioned a German flag out of flour sacks.
Two real pistols with ammo were stolen and a sextant assembled from parts.
They struck on December 13, stealing down to the water and commandeering the island’s motorboat the Pearl.
Von Luckner was dressed as a NZ Army officer, including a sword and scabbard stolen from the camp commandant. The escapees cut the telephone wire to Auckland and lit a fire in the barracks as a diversion.
They then headed for Red Mercury Island where they hid for a few days, while boats were scouring the area looking for them.
But von Luckner wasn’t done - he began to plan piracy. Back to sea they went and he encountered two log scows, the Rangi and the Moa. He chased them in the Pearl. The Rangi escaped and instead he boarded the Moa and raised a German flag making it a vessel of the Imperial German Navy.
Off he set for the Kermadec Islands where the New Zealand Government maintained a cache of provision for shipwrecked sailors, which he plundered.
He tried to sail away but ran across the Iris - an armed cable laying ship. She fired on him as he tried to evade and was he forced to surrender
His next imprisonment was on Ripapa Island together with Kircheiss. Von Luckner dreamed up an escape plan involving getting into a tar barrel and floating in the harbour until rescued, at which point he would steal his rescuer's vessel.
After the war in 1919 he went back to Germany where he was a hero.
Years late, in 1938, he returned to New Zealand with his then wife Countess Ingaborg.
Von Luckner died in Malmö, Sweden at the age of 84 in 1966. However, his body was returned to Germany and was buried in the Main Cemetery Ohlsdorf, Hamburg.
The sextant used in the escape is at Te Papa.