The Tale of the Christmas Cake


This is a story of a submarine serviceman, Bert Smith, who loved Christmas cake. Unfortunately, the serviceman couldn’t enjoy his gift in 1939 while he was on the submarine, HMS Osiris as they were deep within the waters of the Mediterranean.

During a brief stay back to the UK, the “wanderer returned for a brief spell still in one piece”, as he wrote to his family in a telegram, he still could not have a slice of that Christmas cake. He was quickly sent to Scotland, where he was set on a mission aboard the HMS P33 en route to Malta. On the way, they were met with a counter attack by three enemy torpedo boats. This forced the submarine to dive deep underwater… Further down than normal safe diving depths.

Unfortunately, the P33 met a mysterious end. After intercepting an enemy convoy of the coast of Lybia, the submarine may have fallen to  sustained depth charge that was heard by the crew of the HMS P32. This vessel was operating in an area nearby. The Commanding Officer made an unsuccessful attempt to make contact with the P33. Some think that a mine could have also led to the submarine’s mysterious fate.

“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 tells Culture24.

“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.”

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE