Christmas cake left uneaten by sailor lost at sea tells sad World War II submarine story

By Culture24 Reporter | 20 December 2013

An uneaten Christmas cake, left to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum by the sister of a sailor lost at sea in World War II, has been re-examined by archivists in Gosport more than 30 years after it was handed over unopened.

A photo of an ancient toffee tin with a cake from the 1930s inside it
© Royal Navy Submarine Museum, NMRN
Bert Smith cherished Christmas cake, but his service on the submarine HMS Osiris, in the Mediterranean, saw him denied a slice of his sugary present in 1939.

Even a brief return to the UK - “the wanderer returned for brief spell still in one piece”, as he told his family in a brief telegram - failed to see Smith have his cake or eat it. He was swiftly dispatched to Scotland, where a mission on the HMS P33, en route to Malta, met a counter attack by three enemy torpedo boats of a ferocity which forced the vessel to dive below normal operating depth for safety.

Sadly, the repaired P33 met a mysterious fate. Intercepting an enemy convoy off the coast of Lybia, the vessel may have succumbed to a sustained depth charge heard by the crew of HMS P32, a vessel operating in an adjacent area whose Commanding Officer made an unsuccessful attempt to contact the P33. A mine could also have scuppered the submarine.

“Using contemporary correspondence between the Museum and [Bert’s sister] Mrs Flo Burbage and archive movement records, we finally discovered the full story,” says George Malcolmson, the museum’s Archivist.

“The Christmas cake is a poignant and timely reminder of the feeling of separation so keenly felt at Christmas time by service men and women of Royal Navy.”

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A photo of a post office telegram from the 1930s with blue ink handwriting on it
Albert Hamilton Smith sent this telegram to his family© Royal Navy Submarine Museum, NMRN
A black and white photo of two submarines next to a ship during the Second World War
The P33 is on the right of this photo© Royal Navy Submarine Museum, NMRN
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