COUNT VON LUCKNER'S ESCAPE
The sailing Scow 'MOA' becomes a German Naval Vessel.
by Anthony G. Flude. © 2001.
The Auckland timber scow 'MOA' was captured by German escaped prisoner's in December 1917, during the First World War.
The German prisoners, led by Count Von Luckner, had been captured in Fiji, then sent to Auckland, where they were interned on Motuihe Island, situated between Rangitoto and Waiheke Islands in the Hauraki Gulf outside Auckland Harbour.
The Count was a splendid seaman and Commander of the German raider "Seeadler" (origionally the fully rigged sailing ship, the Pass of Balmaha), that had been responsible for the sinking of 14 merchant ships in the South Atlantic Ocean which were carrying food and supplies.
Persued by the British Navy into the Pacific Ocean, misfortune struck the Seeadler when she ran into a violent storm which eventually cast her ashore on the reef at Mopelia Island in the Society Group. Manning the boats, Von Luckner and some of his men made the long sea voyage down to the Fiji Group, occupied by Australian and New Zealand Forces, where they were captured as prisoners of war.
On arrival in Auckland they were transferred to a P.O.W. [prisoner of war] camp on Motuihi Island, along with several other German sailors who had been in Auckland at the outbreak of the war. Count Von Luckner and his men began to investigate ways and means of escape from custody.
Unaware of these plans, the New Zealand Camp Commander, Colonel Turner and the guards felt relaxed about the safe custody of the Germans, especially as the prisoners were held on an island several miles from Auckland. They therefore allowed the prisoners a reasonable amount of freedom in their activities.
Using the timber from an old boat steering wheel and other pieces of wood, the German sailors cleverly constructed a sextant which they carefully hid. The camp had a library for the prisoners, from which they could borrow books; among these they found an old atlas of the South Pacific. From this, they carefully charted the islands in the vicinity so that it could be used during their escape from New Zealand.
The telephone wires between the mainland military headquarters in Auckland had also been 'tapped' by the prisoners who could listen to all the 'phone calls to and from Auckland.
Two of the "trusted" German prisoners who spoke a little English were employed on the Camp Commander's launch, the Pearl, in which he plied between the island and the New Zealand Military Headquarters in Auckland. It was this little vessel that Von Luckner had marked as a possible means of escape from the island.
His crew of eleven seamen were hand-picked. One was chosen for his ability to use naval signals as he had successfully repaired and modified a small broken down valve radio which they were to take with them. Another of the crew members who spoke fluent English would be needed if the escapers were ever challenged during their bid.
By December 3rd the group had gathered together their supplies, kit bags were packed with warm clothes, the radio, sextant, maps and a German naval flag that one of the prisoners had kept concealed when he had been captured. The meagre stores they had pillaged from the cookhouse were safely stowed away in the lockers aboard the Colonel's launch.
Unaware of their secret activities, Colonel Turner and his guards failed to notice that fuel had been gradually syphoned off from the 'Pearls'' tanks by the two 'trusted' seamen, who had carefully hidden this in glass containers in the undergrowth near the mooring jetty. All was ready for their escape attempt.
On several occasions they came close to being found out during guards inspection and searches of their huts and toilet blocks but their luck held out and they now awaited the opportunity to grab the launch and make good their escape.
On December 13th they learned from the lookouts that the coast was clear. Count Von Luckner and a party of ten men slipped silently past the guards chatting in the guardroom and made their way down to the wharf into a cold, black, windy and stormy night .
Carefully they eased the 'Pearl' away from the shore into the teeth of the strong northerly wind before starting up her engines. The Count headed her out, setting a course for Cape Colville, a distance of some 38 miles.
Rounding the headland the next morning and using the maps from the library, he set a new course for the Mercury Group of Islands some 20 miles distant, East-South-East from Cape Colville.
The launch engine had given some trouble during this leg of the journey and they were thankful when they motored into a small bay where they could land and carry out some repairs.
Mooring the launch among a large group of rocks, Von Luckner sent a man up to a large bluff as a lookout, while his crew busied themselves repairing the engine. They carefully tuned their radio, powered by the launches engine, to the Auckland Radio Stations to see if word of their escape had been broadcast.
They now had to get hold of a larger sea-going vessel if they were to make their way into the Pacific Ocean. Von Luckner and his first lieutenant decided that they must first head for the volcanic Kermadec Islands, some 470 miles in a north-easterly direction, before venturing further out to sea.
Meanwhile, news of the escape had reached Auckland and early next day, some thirty vessels, steamers, launches and yachts began to search the Hauraki Gulf, looking in all the small bays for the escaped prisoners. The Count and his men managed to elude them all lying low in the Mercury Islands awaiting a chance to seize a larger vessel.
At 7 o'clock in the morning of December 15th the lookout man on the bluff signalled that a sail was in sight.
Two schooners were coming up from the south, both fairly close to the other. Von Luckner recalled his man from the lookout and they boarded the Pearl heading out to intercept the two vessels approaching.
The vessels were two large timber scows, the Rangi and the Moa. The Rangi was ahead and leading by about four miles when the launch arrived and crossed their course.
Flying the New Zealand ensign, Von Luckner decided he would capture the 94ft long Moa which would make a bigger and better prize. When the launch reached her and he was in hailing distance, he called for the skipper of the scow to luff up into the wind.
Pulling alongside the scow, the Count sprang aboard her, followed by his men who had been in hiding aboard the launch until now. They waved a rifle at the crew members of the scow telling them to surrender. Unarmed and threatened by the German crew members, the skipper, William Bourke and his crew of four men and a boy, had little choice but to obey.
The launch Pearl was taken in tow but later floundered in the heavy seas and had to be cut loose. Despite being advised that the vessel was not a fit craft to take off-shore, the Count paid no heed and ordered the crew to square away the scow, when he set a new course for the Kermadec Islands. The scows crew were sent forward to take up their quarters in the fore-peak, while Von Luckner and his men occupied the cabin aft.
The Moa was heavily laden with 80,000 feet of sawn rimu timber and so began to make heavy going as she headed out into the open sea. The Count gave orders for two-thirds of the deckload of timber to be jettisoned overboard.
Lightened of her load, the Moa now made good headway towards the volcanic Kermadec Islands as the crew, who had no experience sailing this type of vessel, learned to handle the big scow.
The Count had good reason to make for the
Kermadec Islands, where he had learned there was a store on Curtis Island, left there by the New Zealand Marine Department for the use of shipwrecked crews. Here he could replenish his stores stolen from the camp ready for the long voyage ahead of them to South America. He planned to abandon the scows crew there, before setting sail again.
Von Luckner crowded on all sail, driving the Moa onwards to the north-east. After five days sailing, they reached their destination on the 21st December, when volcanic Curtis Island in the Kermadec Group came into view through the clouds of smoke and steam.
This group comprises of three islands, Curtis Island, MaCauley Island and the island to the north, which is called Raoul Island, or Sunday Island, as it was origionally known.
This island was at one time inhabited by the Bell family, who lived there for some thirty years, when regular calls were made by the New Zealand Government Steamer and other South Sea Island trading vessels.
Standing the Moa off from the island, Von Luckner sent Lieutenant Kerscheiss ashore next day with four men to raid the store shed of its provisions.
Using axes, they broke down the door and took one load of clothing and supplies down to the scow. Returning, they began to stack the remaining stores outside ready to be taken down to the dinghy and loaded aboard. They were suddenly interupted as a cry went up.
"Smoke in sight!"
It was apparent that a steamer was heading straight for the island.
The dinghy was quickly recalled to the Moa and the crew scambled aboard. All sail was crowded on in an attempt to make a getaway before the steamer could reach them.
Steering east before a strong wind and full sail, the Moa made a good ten knots but the steamer gradually came closer and began to catch up with them.
Von Luckner saw a signal flying from its masthead but chose to ignore this, hoping that the steamer was unarmed. In defiance, he run up the German Naval Flag on the scows masthead and was determined to give the steamer a good chase before being caught.
His hopes were shattered when the crew of the steamer, seeing he was taking no notice of their signal, fired a warning shot, the shell landing some fifty yards ahead of them. Realising that the game was up, Von Luckner gave orders for the scow to be hove to.
The steamer, the Pacific Cable Board's steamer Iris quickly came alongside, where the Captain demanded to know where the vessel was from and who was aboard. It was quickly apparent that these were the escaped German prisoners that they were looking for and Von Luckner and his men were ordered aboard the steamer where they were searched and then placed in custody below. The German's had thrown the rifles overboard on the Counts orders after the shot had been fired at them but
during a later search of the Moa the radio and sextant were both discovered.
Von Luckner's was heard to remark shortly after his capture, "You left your door open, you cannot blame me for walking out!"
With the scow in tow, the steamer Iris began the long haul back to Auckland. Heavy westerly weather prevailed causing some delay in their arrival and they were still 190 miles out of Auckland on December 25th, Christmas Day.
"Christmas dinner was not worth having", complained one of the soldiers aboard, "mutton, roast potatoes, cabbage, spinach and fresh peaches." Then added, "The German's seemed to tuck in and enjoyed the hot meal given to them. They must have been hungry!"
Following Von Luckner and his crew's capture, he and two of the ringleaders in the escape were shipped to Lytteton to be interned at the prison at Fort Jervois, Ripapa Island. The prison had been built many years before by convict labour. They were held in the prison on the island for a period of 109 days before being transferred back to Motuihe Island to join the rest of the P.O.W's held there.
Von Luckner and his crew did not attempt another escape and they were held on Motuihe Island until the Armistice was signed in 1918, when all the German's held in prison camps in New Zealand were repatriated back to Germany.
An interesting footnote:
Von Luckner and his crew may have made good their escape from New Zealand had it not been for the skipper of the scow Rangi which was accompanying the Moa on her outward passage.
When he saw her luff up into the wind and a launch go alongside, his suspicions were immediately aroused as he had spoken to one of the searching ships captain and was aware of their escape and the search being carried out.
The skipper of the Rangi, Captain Francis hastened to Port Charles, near Cape Colville and from there had telegraphed to Auckland saying that he had seen the Moa boarded and then square away heading to the north-east and the open sea.
After leaving Port Charles to continue his voyage, he had passed close by the steamer Iris which was outward bound from Auckland continuing the search. Signalling her, he told the Captain about the boarding of the Moa, who on hearing of the report, set off in pursuit which led to the subsequent capture of Count Von Luckner.
The Count was a ''fine seaman,'' said the New Zealand skipper of the Moa, Captain Bourke, "he treated us well while we were prisoners in his charge."
The scow Moa, returned to her normal duties after the incident. She was considerably modified over the years until in 1935 she was wrecked on the Hokianga Bar on the West coast of the South Island of New Zealand.