Liverpool Packet, sunk by Nazi U-boat, surfaces in new documentary
New Brunswick filmmaker Mike Burchill meets eyewitness to his father's WW II rescue on Seal Island
New research for a CBC documentary is shedding light on how a wartime attack on a Mersey Pulp and Paper ship sparked fears that the Nazis were invading Seal Island, N.S.
As the Second World War raged around the world in late May 1942, the Liverpool Packet sailed off Nova Scotia's South Shore. Usually, the ship carried newsprint to U.S. ports for Mersey, but on this return trip it had military supplies bound for the American military base on Newfoundland.
A German U-boat spotted it shortly before 9 p.m. on May 30 and fired a torpedo. It hit, sinking the ship in three minutes. Two men died, but 19 survived and managed to get into a damaged lifeboat and a small dory.
The U-boat surfaced. The Canadians prepared to die.
'Nova Scotia is that way'
But they didn't die, says Rothesay, N.B., filmmaker Mike Burchill. One of the crew was wireless radio operator Howard Burchill — his father.
The captain of the Nazi vessel, Heinz-Otto Shaultz, instead made contact with Norman Smith, captain of the Liverpool Packet. After a "pleasant" exchange, Shaultz asked the crew if they knew where they were. "In broken English, he pointed toward Nova Scotia and said, 'Nova Scotia is that way,'" Burchill says.
The German captain let the men paddle away toward the unseen shore. They knew it well: Howard Burchill was from New Brunswick and Smith was a legendary figure on Nova Scotia's South Shore. Smith fought in both world wars, crossing the Atlantic 42 times, and later entered politics.
In total, 12 of the 19 men were from the area.
Fears of a Nazi invasion
They paddled their lifeboats for 20 hours before a lobster fisherman and his sons spotted them. "He knew a lot of the people in the lifeboats because they were from his backyard," Burchill says. The fishermen pulled the sailors aboard and brought them to Seal Island, a remote community off the Yarmouth County coast.
Mike Burchill tells CBC's Information Morning Saint John that when he interviewed locals recently, he met Sheldon Simmons. Simmons was 14 at the time and part of one of about 20 families living on Seal Island. They had all heard the torpedo explosion the day before and were on edge.
"[Simmons] remembers being scared to death. He couldn't believe the Germans were landing on his island," Burchill says. "It was just pure fear that first hour they were on the island."
Once they got a closer look, they saw it wasn't Nazis but locals. They warmed them up and fed them seafood chowder.
The rescue story is well known on the South Shore, but Burchill didn't know about his father's wartime brush with death until 10 years ago when his uncle gave him the flashlight his father held as he abandoned the Liverpool Packet (it still works). That sparked his curiosity, and he dug deeper.
He's turning his research into a documentary that will air on Land and Sea this winter.