Submariners Christmas Cake Finally Unwrapped

The story of a WWII sailor’s un-eaten Christmas cake has finally been revealed thanks to new research carried out at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire.   The story of christmas cake has revealed a poignant tale of separation and loss at Christmas time during WWII. The celebration cake was bought for submarine sailor “Bert” Smith, but he would never return to enjoy it as he was lost at sea on the submarine HMS P33 in the summer of 1941.

The cake was left at the Submarine Museum by Bert’s sister Flo in 1983 following an earlier visit.  The full facts behind the story of the cake had never been recorded and staff only knew that the Christmas cake had never been opened and was kept in memory of the lost submariner.

George Malcolmson, Archivist at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum said, “Using contemporary correspondence between the Museum and Mrs Flo Burbage and archive movement records we finally discovered the full story”

Mrs Burbage told how the cake was purchased for Bert’s Christmas leave in 1939 and that it was one of his favourites.  Bert would never get to eat his cake as he was serving in the submarine HMS Osiris in the Mediterranean that Christmas. On return to the UK he sent a short telegram to reassure his family saying:  “the wanderer returned for brief spell still in one piece”

Bert never had the chance to return home as the war situation saw him sent to Scotland to join the crew of the submarine HMS P33 which was soon heading for the island of Malta.   On her first patrol P33 suffered a fierce counter attack by three enemy torpedo boats. Over 100 depth charges were dropped on the submarine causing serious damage and forcing P33 to dive for safety below normal operating depth. Just a month later, P33 was repaired and back on patrol sailing to intercept an enemy convoy off the coast of Libya.  The Commanding Officer of submarine HMS P32 operating in an adjacent area reported hearing a sustained depth charge attack lasting several hours, when he tried to contact the P33 there was no answer. The exact circumstance of the loss of HMS P33 has never been confirmed and the submarine may have succumbed to the depth charge attack or even have been lost to an enemy mine.

George Malcolmson said, “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”.

Bert Hamilton Smith may never have got his cake but he is commemorated in the museum’s “Area of Remembrance” that lists the 5300 British Submariners who lost their lives on “Active Service”. “Bert’s” Christmas cake is on permanent display in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, which is open during the Christmas holidays.

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