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Posted on Aug 8, 2005 in Books and Movies

The Cruise of the Sea Eagle – Book Review

By Richard N Story

The Cruise of the Sea Eagle: The Amazing True Story of Imperial Germany’s Gentleman Pirate
Blaine Pardoe
Lyons Press, 2005

In 1916 the American clipper ship Pass of Balmaha left New York enroute to Czarist Russia. She was carrying a full load of cotton to the Russians and as his ship was neutral, Captain Scott was not worried about being seized by the British or Germans. He kept that happy thought in mind until he reached the North Sea and was stopped and boarded by a British armored cruiser. The Captain of the British ship had suspicions about the clipper ship and ordered her to Kirkwall in the Orkneys to undergo a more thorough inspection. Incensed about being unnecessarily delayed; Captain Scott protested the decision. To ensure compliance of his order the British captain placed a prize crew consisting of one naval officer and 6 Royal Marines. Adding insult to injury; the British officer ordered the Stars and Stripes struck and the Union Jack raised. As the British flag was being run up the staff; Captain Scott realizing that his ship no longer had the protection of neutrality told the officer that he wished the Germans would come. The very next morning the German submarine U-36 surfaced off the side of the Pass of Balmaha. Hiding the British prize crew in the hold; Captain Scott greeted the Germans but his luck held true. The Germans ordered the clipper ship to sail for Cuxhaven and to ensure she arrived there placed a very experienced officer aboard. The officer made it clear to Captain Scott that if anything happened to him than Captain Scott would die with him. Having no choice; Captain Scott had his crew lock the British in the hold they were hiding in. Later after a refit and bringing aboard a specially picked crew, the Pass of Balmaha left Hamburg outwardly the same, but now she sailed with the heart and claws of a tiger. She also sported a new name: Seeadler or Sea Eagle.

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Cruise of the Sea Eagle by Blaine Pardoe is the true life story of one of the world’s most famous raiders in history. Perhaps only one other raider in history can surpass the exploits of the Seeadler, but the Atlantis under Bernhard Rogge was a far more capable ship. Yet both Captains had one feature that made them stand out from their contemporaries – their outstanding humanity towards fellow sailors. Felix von Luckner is the type of Captain that if he had not really existed, somebody would have created him in fiction. The author understands that a ship is more than a collection of steel and, in this case, teak and canvas. The crew was the family aboard the ship, but the Captain was her heart and soul. So the author introduces Felix von Luckner in grand style as he chronicles the life and adventures the future captain of the Seeadler had in reaching his true avocation.

Drawn by the sea, young Felix von Luckner did not desire to follow his ancestors into the cavalry, but he did want to serve the Empire and Kaiser. At the age of 13 he ran away from where he was befriended by a harbor ferry captain. With the captain’s help; Felix was taken aboard a Russian sailing ship the Niobe. Discovering only one person aboard the ship spoke a language he could speak, Felix von Luckner spent weeks in a private hell that saw him despised by the captain and nearly drowned. Yet this did him a world of good as it turned the boy into a man. Signed aboard the German sailing ship Caesarea; Felix’s next voyage nearly ended in disaster but the future captain of the Seeadler learned another important lesson in life, the sea, and sailing which he would put to good use aboard the raider. Rescued at sea by an Italian freighter; Luckner returned home and entered a navigation college at Lubeck. After graduation he became a ship’s mate; an officer but still not in service of the Kaiser. Felix’s big break came when the German Navy opened up its ranks for reserve officers. Felix applied using his real name and was interviewed by an Admiral who turned out to be his uncle. Sympathizing with his nephews desire to become an officer; the Admiral had his daughter tutor the rough around the edges Count and make him a gentleman worthy of the refined tastes of the Imperial German Navy. As a Naval Officer Count Felix von Luckner won Imperial favor that would lead one day to the Seeadler.

Besides a good captain the ship needed a crew, and the crew of the Seeadler was hand picked by the Executive Officer Alfred Kling except the Prize Officer Richard Pries. This would play a pivotal role in the later events that happened to the crew. So with ship ready and crew aboard, the Seeadler left port to nearly run into disaster as they had sailed in the midst of a winter storm to avoid detection. On Christmas Day she was stopped by a British warship, but British miscommunications allowed the Seeadler to escape and to begin pillaging the shipping lanes. The results, for an old sailing ship like the Seeadler, were astounding. She sank 14 ships and captured one more at the cost of only one life. It was only a mischance due to exhaustion that ended the career of the Seeadler. Still this was not the end of the adventures for Captain Luckner. Seeking to rescue his captives and crew from the deserted island; von Luckner took to the sea in the motorized lifeboat. Captured and imprisoned in New Zealand, von Luckner escaped in the Warden’s yacht to only be recaptured. At the end of World War II, von Luckner showed up to work an agreement between the German forces and American forces ready to do battle over his home town. He reached an accord that allowed the Americans to take the town, but saved countless number of lives on both sides. Count Felix von Luckner was a remarkable man by anybody’s standards.

The Cruise of the Sea Eagle by Blaine Pardoe is an extremely well researched and written book. It corrects many of the mistakes in the previous tales of the Seeadler. The only flaw I had was that many of the photographs in the book were time worn and graying. I wondered if the photographs could have been digitally enhanced. I found no grammatical or typographical errors in the book. With a list price of $22.95 for a hardcover book; it represents a good investment for any student of World War I, naval history or anybody seeking a good true life adventure. I recommend the book highly.

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