War off our shore: Documentary looks at WW II U-boat attack in Maritimes

New Brunswicker Howard Burchill was a young radio operator on the Liverpool Packet, when a German U-boat tore the ship apart with a single torpedo off Nova Scotia.

Merchant ship sunk, but German commander let survivors go, including New Brunswick crewman

The Liverpool Packet was sunk by U-432 on May 30, 1942, off the South Shore of Nova Scotia. (Wikipedia)

New Brunswicker Howard Burchill was a young radio operator on the Liverpool Packet, when a German U-boat tore the ship apart with a single torpedo off Nova Scotia.

The blast killed two men working in the engine room on May 30, 1942.

Burchill and the remaining crew survived, in no small part because of the compassion of the U-boat's commander, Heinze-Otto Schultz.

At least that's what Howard's son, Michael Burchill of Rothesay, believes.

Cameraman Robert Guertin and Mike Burchill in Barrington, N.S., discuss filming of the documentary Liverpool Packet. (Connell Smith/CBC)

Although Howard died more than a decade ago, Michael has developed a fascination with the little-known tragedy off the South Shore. He even got a friend, CBC reporter Connell Smith, involved in his search for the truth.

On Sunday at noon, Liverpool Packet, a documentary written and directed by Smith, will be shown on CBC TV's Land and Sea. A longer radio version will be broadcast Sunday at 8:30 a.m.

Smith said his interest was piqued last fall after Michael Burchill visited a small museum in Barrington, N.S., which had an exhibit about the Liverpool Packet, which had been captained by Norm Smith, a former rum-runner with long experience at sea.

Officers of the merchant ship Liverpool Packet served under Capt. Norm Smith, third from left. (David Hartigan)

The exhibit provided the names of all those who served on the ship, and Burchill learned many of them had lived in the South Shore community.

Later in the fall, Burchill, Smith and cameraman Robert Guertin returned to the area.

"We met with families and friends of other crew from the ship and heard their stories," Smith said in an interview on Information Morning. "They vary in some parts and agree in others. I'll leave that for the documentary."

The torpedo struck the Liverpool Packet just as it was getting dark. Several crew were in the mess at the time.  

After the blast, some of the 19 survivors had barely managed to drag themselves into lifeboats when the U-boat, now surfaced, appeared above them.

The men were certain they were about to be shot, Mike Burchill said. 

The 12 families living there during the war actually thought the sailors who came to land were Germans.- Connell Smith, director of Liverpool Packet

"I don't know how often it happened but it happened quite a few occasions that my dad would wake up in the middle of the night screaming, having nightmares," he said.

"When you're a five or six or seven-year-old kid, that sort of sticks with you for a while."

But there was to be no gunfire. Details about the conversation that followed have fascinated the younger Burchill.

In the version passed on to him by his father and later by uncles and aunts, the German commander came to check on the survivors, make sure they knew the direction to the nearest point of land and to offer assistance.

The survivors rowed for 20 hours against strong currents until they reached Seal Island, where they were rescued even though they weren't initially trusted.

"Seal Island is a real outpost of Nova Scotia — a couple of hours offshore by boat," Smith said. "And the 12 families living there during the war actually thought the sailors who came to land were Germans. There was a lot of propaganda during the war."

U-432 Commander Heinze-Otto Schultz died a year after sinking the Liverpool Packet (uboat.net)

Since the documentary was made, Burchill has taken his research in a new direction.

Schultz, the commander of U-432, the vessel that sank the Liverpool Packet, died later in the war on a different submarine and there is no remaining family.

But 20 members of the U-432 crew survived the war as prisoners after their submarine was discovered on the surface and sunk in 1943 by a corvette from the Free French Navy.

Burchill has their names and birth dates. A handful would be in their mid-90s, if they are still alive.

If they're not, he's certain there will be children and grandchildren.

"There is a good possibility, out of these 20 survivors, there are probably descendants from these people," said Burchill. "I've got these names. I'm pretty excited about it. I'd like to reach out to them in some form." 

Former Seal Island, N.S., resident Sheldon Symmonds recalls surviving sailors from the Liverpool Packet arriving by lifeboat in 1942. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

With files from CBC's Information Morning