Gentleman Or Pirate


Depending on whom you ask, Felix von Luckner was a noble, a gentleman, a pirate, and a hero. Born into a German military family, he dreamed of becoming a naval officer since he was a child, even though his father pushed him to follow in his footsteps and become a cavalry officer.

At the age of 13, after failing his tests in school, von Luckner ran away and joined a Russian commercial ship. He sailed to Australia where he became a jack-of-all-trades. Some of the odd jobs he took over the years included a fisherman, a lighthouse keeper, a boxer, a circus worker, a bartender, a railroad construction worker, and a guard in the Mexican army for President Diaz.

At the age of 20, von Luckner returned to Germany and fulfilled his dream to become a naval officer. By 1914, World War I had broken out and the German navy was no match for the powerful British and her allies. One way that the Germans tried to balance the scales was by attacking merchant ships carrying supplies for their enemies.

Von Luckner outfitted a large sailboat with hidden guns and engines, and disguised it as a harmless commercial sailboat carrying lumber. His plan was simple. They'd approach a merchant ship asking for the time, and when the merchant ship got close enough, they'd raise their German flags and fire three warning shots.

After boarding each merchant ship, they'd take everyone prisoner and then sink the ship. It was at this point that von Luckner got his reputation for being a gentleman pirate. He had outfitted his boat with 400 bunks for his prisoners and spacious rooms for the captured captains and officers. He even had special dining rooms outfitted with French and English magazines and books and a gramophone with the latest music.

After the war, he wrote, “War or no war, I still considered all sailors my pals and had my own ideas as to how our prisoners should be treatedI wanted them to feel as if they were my guests.”

Time after time von Luckner pulled the same trick sinking French, British and American ships, while treating his prisoners with unheard of hospitality. At one point when he had collected 262 prisoners, supplies were low, so he gave them a ship that would take them to freedom. Before doing so, he paid each of his prisoners their normal working wage for the time they had been imprisoned on his ship.

Over the course of 225 days, von Luckner sank 16 ships with only one accidental casualty. His days as a gentleman pirate ended when a tidal wave destroyed his ship and he ended up being captured.