The Sea Devil

When Germany was blockaded by the British in 1916, naval officer Felix von Luckner hit on a dashing solution: He outfitted a three-masted sailing ship, the Seeadler, with hidden guns and engines and crept through the cordon posing as a humble Norwegian wood carrier. Once safely at sea he spent the ensuing year as a sort of humanitarian pirate, sinking one merchant ship after another while imprisoning their crews and leading the British and American navies on a merry chase. Over 225 days he captured some 16 ships and 300 prisoners with nearly no loss of life (one British sailor was killed by a ruptured steam pipe). The Seeadler was finally wrecked on a reef in August 1917, and Von Luckner spent the rest of the war in a New Zealand prisoner-of-war camp.

In the interval he returned a measure of romance to naval warfare, giving his “guests” run of the ship and even permitting captured cooks to prepare meals in their native cuisines. “When he discovered, after sinking the [Canadian schooner] Percy, that he had interrupted a honeymoon, he was most contrite and gave the Kohlers a cabin to themselves, remarking that he was desolated at having had to sink their ship,” writes John Philips Cranwell in Spoilers of the Sea. “Captain Kohler’s remarks on the subject are not, unfortunately, available.”