Pirates of the Royal Navy: Our underwater heroes who flew the Jolly Roger into battle. 'Sneaky' submarine crews were originally thought of as the 'pirates' of the Royal Navy and so crews defiantly embraced the description by flying the Jolly Roger - a tradition which lasted from the Great War to the Falklands
Sir Arthur Wilson was infamous within the Royal Navy for being an admiral with a tetchy temper. His nickname – Old ’Ard ’Art – was a bad joke
about his uncaring nature.
Yet a verbal broadside he delivered in 1901 was to spawn one of the Submarine Service’s most loved and deeply ingrained
traditions – the flying of the Jolly Roger flag to mark the victorious return from a successful patrol.
Wilson, later a hugely unpopular First Sea Lord,
is said to have blasted the innovation of submarines, dubbing the covert way they operated as “underhand, unfair and damned un-English”.
He even went
so far as to say: “They’ll never be any use in war and I’ll tell you why. I’m going to get the First Lord to announce that we intend to treat all submarines as pirate vessels in wartime and that we’ll hang all the crews.”
Britain’s fledgling submariners, enduring a perilous existence on board their basic early boats as they developed underwater warfare, ground their teeth at the snub. And they
never forgot it.
One hundred years ago this week, shortly after the start of the Great War, British submarine HMS E9 despatched two torpedoes at close range at
Germany’s SMS Hela in a skirmish off Heligoland.
Its commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Max Horton, had to dive immediately to avoid return fire,
so he did not see the cruiser sink.
But the 13-year-old Silent Service had notched up its very first kill, confirming the deadly effectiveness of sneaking around
in the deep then launching a surprise attack on an enemy.
Horton, recalling Admiral Wilson’s words, told his signaller to sew a piratical Jolly Roger flag,
which flew proudly from his boat’s periscope as she sailed into Harwich, Essex.
A naval tradition was born, as the skull and crossbones went on to be the
Royal Navy Submarine Service’s official emblem. Top brass, however, were not amused.
George Malcolmson, archivist at the RN Submarine Museum in Gosport,
Hants, said: “The Admiralty certainly took a disliking to the flag. At the time it was keen to distance our ‘good’ submarines from German ones, which were ‘bad’.”
But any efforts to stamp out the practice failed, with a cluster of other Great War captains following Horton’s example.
in World War Two the Jolly Roger tradition was resurrected by the Royal Navy with gusto. Submariners hoisted the flag just as they passed the boom outside a home port, lowering it at sunset.
Sarah Fletcher, ex-editor of magazine Navy News, said: “Submariners’ lives were harsh then and about a third of them died. But veterans say their hearts always soared when they ran up a Jolly Roger.”
At first crews simply chalked up the number of ships they had sunk – but soon they were stitching in other white emblems against the black backdrop.
A dagger indicated a covert operation, such as landing special forces in enemy territory, while a lifebelt was added if the submarine had rescued crew from a sinking ship. A sheep’s
head was used to show that another boat had been rammed – and a diving helmet if the submarine had gone below her official limit, often to dodge depth charges.
sailors, with plenty of time to kill during long hours underwater, also used one-off emblems. One submariner sewed on a Scarlet Pimpernel symbol after the vessel secretly carried a female French secret service agent to safety.
Another added a stork when the captain became a father while at sea. Second World War submarine HMS Sickle successfully sank an enemy vessel off Cape Ferrat in the South of France in May
But one of the four torpedoes she fired hit a cliff in Monte Carlo, blowing out the windows of the casino on top. As her Jolly Roger fluttered in the wind,
those watching from the shore with binoculars could see it featured an ace of spades. Her captain, Lt James Drummond, became known as “the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo”.
Sadly the joke was short-lived. Drummond, HMS Sickle and all her crew were lost around June 16 1944, after she is thought to have struck a mine.
She was the last British submarine sunk in the Mediterranean during that war. HMS Sickle was paid for by the people of Epping and Harlow in Essex, who raised the £175,000 required. Borough residents have always remembered their submarine
and this summer Epping council flew a Jolly Roger above its buildings to mark the 70th anniversary of her sinking.
Historically significant Jolly Rogers can be
valuable today. The one sewn by the crew of HMS Seraph, which took part in the top-secret Operation Mincemeat and helped change the course of the war, was sold at auction last year for £14,000.
Mincemeat was a successful disinformation plan to convince Germany that the Allies would attempt a landing in Greece and Sardinia, not Sicily as they intended.
Seraph deposited a corpse – in Royal Marines uniform and carrying special secret documents about the fake plan – so it would wash up on a Spanish beach.
The last submarine to hoist a flag after firing her torpedoes was HMS Conqueror, when she returned to Faslane on the Clyde after sinking the Argentine light cruiser ARA General Belgrano.
More recently HMS Splendid and HMS Turbulent’s Jolly Roger flags featured tomahawks after they launched cruise missile attacks during the Iraq War.
And all 130 members of HMS Triumph’s crew added stitches to record how her missiles wiped out Colonel Gaddafi’s anti-aircraft systems, enabling RAF Tornados to fly missions over Libya in 2011.
Then-captain Cdr Rob Dunn said: “It’s the only public recognition we get as a submarine. It goes to the very core of what we do.” If achievements are too covert
even to be hinted at, such as landing the Special Boat Service on a foreign shore, a flag is still sewn but not flown from the bridge.
A century on from the birth
of the tradition, the Admiralty has yet to warm truly to the practice and politicians have made various bids to ban it. One ex-submariner said: “We never actually got a direct order not to fly one of the flags – so we did.”
HMS Astute, on a classified deployment, marked the centenary by making a skull and crossbones cake – using up all the chefs’ black food colouring.
Able seaman Ben Coy, 25, from Lincolnshire, said: “The Jolly Roger is always created on board and is unique to every submarine. It’s vital to us that the traditions of
the service are kept alive.” Coxswain Alan Wakefield, 45, of Clackmannanshire, said: “The Jolly Roger is our way of showing everyone what we’ve done. They become pockets of history which we keep on board. We do our best – but to be
honest I’m not sure some of the sewing is that good.”
HMS Astute’s Commander Gareth Jenkins explained the real significance of Jolly Rogers
to submarine crews for the last 100 years, saying: “The technology was so new and the work so secret that our submarines’ achievements must have been largely misunderstood a century ago.
“Our fearsome reputation was earned by forebears like Max Horton, who showed incredible courage in conducting special operations with an extremely basic submarine by today’s standards.
“Today’s Silent Service has the same piratical spirit and reputation for its ability to conduct covert missions. All you’ll see in recognition of this is, perhaps, the brief
flying of a flag. But for us it’s enough.”
Real life stories: Ali Kefford. The Mirror.