U-Boats New England: Liverpool Packet
SS Liverpool Packet under her previous name, Sonia, owned by Warren, F. K. – hence the W. prominently displayed on the stack.
The steam cargo ship Liverpool Packet was built in 1926 as the Norwegian ship Nidarnes by the Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd. shipyard in Wallsend, Sunderland, England. Her gross registered tonnage was 1,188, length was 248 feet, and beam 37.1 feet. For her first two years George Hansen or A. L. Ombustvedt owned her as Rederi A/S Nidaros of Oslo, then from 1928 to 1930 the Delson Steamship Company Ltd. of Montreal took ownership and called her SS Delson. From 1929 or 1930 to 1941 she was renamed SS Sonia and owned by the Sonia Shipping Company Ltd., F. K. Warren, of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Finally, in 1941 she was sold to the Markland Shipping Company Ltd. of Liverpool, NS. That year alone she was in and out of New York Harbor seven times: in September, October, November (twice) and December (twice) as well as January and March 1942. She made her final departure from that port on 28 May.
Some background information on the firm which owned the Liverpool Packet. In 1928 an understudy of Lord Beaverbrook (the Canadian newsprint tycoon named Max Aitken) named Izaak Walton Killam purchased 150 square miles of timber on the Mersey River in Nova Scotia and founded the Mersey Paper Company. At a place called Liverpool he built a large mill and loading port for the export of rolls of newspaper print. In 1930 the firm started the Mersey Shipping Company Limited to move the product to market. This was renamed the Markland Shipping Company Limited in 1937, after its first ship. The company’s ship the Markland served the Washington Post in the District of Columbia as well as the New York Timesand papers as far afield as New Zealand and Australia. After the outbreak of World War II Mersey Paper Company officials realized that the Markland, which was British flagged, could be requisitioned for the war effort at any time, leaving them without a ship. Indeed in June of 1940 she was.
As a contingency, the firm purchased the Sapinero in March of 1940 and renamed her the Vineland (they later went on the purchase the Sonia and Zenda, which became the Liverpool Packet and Liverpool Loyalist respectively). These ships were envisioned to carry finished newsprint to Australia and New Zealand, with interim voyages carrying pulpwood and coal from Cape Breton to Liverpool. In order to avoid having them requisitioned like the Markland, the owners registered the Vineland under shell companies like the Scotia Shipping Company, and flagged it to Panama, though her home port was still listed as Liverpool. It is believed she was registered under the Markland Shipping Company of Liverpool as well (Liverpool is southwest of Halifax and went into such decline that in 1996 it dis-incorporated as a town).
Flagging to Panama was only partially successful, as the Canadian Shipping Board’s Department of Transport called Vineland to service carrying bauxite from the Virgin Islands to Portland, Maine. By early 1942 efforts were well underway to re-flag her to Canada (then a dependency on Great Britain) under the Markland or Vineland Shipping Company. The Canadian National Archives have correspondence between the Markland Shipping Company, Limited and Furness, Withy and Company Limited as evidence of the effort have the ship registered to Ottawa.
On her final voyage the Liverpool Packet left New York Harbor with 1,945 tons of US government stores and supplies destined for bases in Newfoundland, via Halifax. Just as they approached the Canadian coast, roughly 30 to 15 miles from Cape Sable, she was discovered and torpedoed by U-432 under the command of Heinz-Otto Schultze. The attack happened on the night of 30 May 1942 – at 7:47 pm local time, or 1:47 in the morning of the 31staccording to German time. At the time the ship was not in convoy.
Shultze sought and found the Liverpool Packet’s master, Captain Norman Emmons Smith. Eighteen out of the crew of 21 merchant sailors were able to get away from the ship in a small ship’s dory and a damaged lifeboat. “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.’” Smith knew his way around the Atlantic, having crossed it 42 times, and fought in WWI as well. A dozen of the sailors were from the Bay of Fundy and Nova Scotia regions.
Two men – Norman Burnell Atwood, aged 35 and a fireman, and Burns Williams, an oiler, perished in the attack. The 19 others, including Radio Operator Howard Burchill, managed row for 20 hours towards Seal Rock, or Seal Island. Around sunset on the 31st they were discovered by local lobstermen who were a team of a father and his sons. The survivors were pulled aboard and some of them recognized each other.
Because the inhabitants of Seal Island – some 20 families who eked a living from the sea – had heard torpedo explosions the night before, they were on edge. When 14-year-old Sheldon Simmons saw 19 strangers being landed on their island he feared the worst, thinking the Nazis had invaded. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up the fellow Canadians were “warmed up” and given a seafood chowder.
They were taken by local fishermen to the community of Barrington Passage, on the mainland, which connects to Sable Island on the southeast tip of Nova Scotia. From there they would have found land transportation to Halifax, their original destination. Howard Burchill’s son Mike, who has made a documentary about the episode, still has his father’s flashlight from the Liverpool Packet. Captain Smith went on to a career in politics following the war.
Sources: Liverpool Packet, sunk by Nazi U-boat, surfaces in new documentary