Use of the Jolly Roger by submarines

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The personnel of the British submarine HMS Utmost showing off their Jolly Roger in February 1942. The markings on the flag indicate the boat's achievements: nine ships torpedoed (including one warship), eight 'cloak and dagger' operations, one target destroyed by gunfire, and one at-sea rescue

The Jolly Roger is a symbol that has been used by submarines, primarily those of the Royal Navy Submarine Service and its predecessors. The practice came about during World War I: remembering comments by First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, who complained that submarines were "underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English" and that personnel should be hanged as pirates, Lieutenant Commander Max Horton began flying the flag after returning from successful patrols. Initially, Horton's submarine HMS E9 flew an additional flag after each successful patrol, but when there was no room for more, the practice was changed to a single large flag, onto which symbols indicating the submarine's achievements were sewn.

The practice of flying the Jolly Roger was adopted by some other submarines during World War I, but became more widespread in World War II. Flotilla commanders began to issue flags to submarines, and procedures were drafted for usage. Although some sources report the use of the flag being a universal practice among British submariners, some submarine captains did not take it up as they felt the practice was boastful and the achievements could not always be confirmed. Usage of the Jolly Roger was copied by some Allied submarines during World War II, and the flag has also been used by submarines from other Commonwealth nations.

The symbols on a Jolly Roger are used to indicate the achievements of the submarine. Bars represented ships torpedoed, although post-war flags have sometimes used the silhouette of the target ship instead. Mines indicated minelaying operations, while torches or lighthouses meant the boat had been used as a navigation marker for an operation. More unusual symbols have also been used, with comic character Eugene the Jeep marking the recovery of a Chariot manned torpedo, and a dog used for submarines involved in Operation Husky. Some icons are unique to a submarine: HMS Sibyl bears a scarlet pimpernel flower, marking the time a French spy forgot the recognition password and instead quoted from the play The Scarlet Pimpernel to prove herself, while a stork and baby was added to the Jolly Roger of HMS United when news of the birth of the captain's first child arrived while on patrol.


Following the introduction of submarines in several navies, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, the First Sea Lord of the British Royal Navy, stated in 1901 that submarines were "underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English", and that he would convince the British Admiralty to have the crews of enemy submarines captured during wartime be hanged as pirates.[1][2]

In September 1914, the British submarine HMS E9 successfully torpedoed the German cruiser SMS Hela.[3] Remembering Wilson's statement, commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Max Horton instructed his signaller to manufacture a Jolly Roger, which was flown from the submarine as she entered port.[1][3][2] Each successful patrol saw Horton's submarine fly an additional Jolly Roger until there was no more room for flags, at which point Horton had a large Jolly Roger manufactured, onto which bars indicating the ships E9's sunk were sewn.[3] A small number of other submarines adopted the practice:[3] HMS E12 flew a red flag with the skull and crossbones on return from a foray into the Dardanelles in June 1915,[4] and the first known photograph of the practice was taken in July 1916 aboard HMS H5.[5] The Admiralty disapproved of the practice, but was unable to stop it.[2]

A submariner from HMS Taku making additions to the boat's Jolly Roger

The practice restarted during World War II. In October 1941, following a successful patrol by HMS Osiris, during which she sank the Italian destroyer Palestro the submarine returned to Alexandria, but was ordered to remain outside the boom net until the motorboat assigned to the leader of the 1st Submarine Flotilla had come alongside and delivered a "special recognition signal".[4][6] The flotilla leader wanted to recognise the boat's achievement, which had involved penetrating deep into the heavily guarded Adriatic, so had a Jolly Roger made and delivered to Osiris.[3][6][a] After this, the commanders of submarine flotillas began to issue the flags to submarines following the boat's first successful patrol.[6][b] Once handed over, it became the responsibility of the boat's personnel to maintain the flag and update it with new symbols indicating the submarine's achievements.[3] A submarine was entitled to fly the flag when returning from a successful patrol: it would be hoisted as the submarine passed the boom net, lowered at sunset, and could not be flown again until another successful patrol had occurred.[6] The Jolly Roger could also be flown on the day a submarine returned to the UK from a successful overseas deployment.[7] Although some sources claim that all British submarines used the flag,[8] the practice was not taken up by those submarine commanders who saw it as boastful and potentially inaccurate, as sinkings could not always be confirmed.[3]

The Polish submarine ORP Sokół returning to base in 1944. A Jolly Roger flag and two captured Nazi flags are flying from the periscope mast

Flying the Jolly Roger continued in the late 20th century and on into the 21st. HMS Conqueror raised the flag decorated with the silhouette of a cruiser to recognise her successful attack on the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano during the Falklands War.[9][2] Unmarked Jolly Rogers were flown by HMS Opossum and HMS Otus on their return from deployments during the Gulf War: this was suspected to indicate the deployment of Special Air Service and Special Boat Service forces from the submarines.[10] Several submarines returning from missions where Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired fly Jolly Rogers with tomahawk axes depicted, with crossed tomahawks indicating an unspecified number of firings, or individual axes for each successful launch.[9][11][10] The Jolly Roger has been adopted[when?] as the logo of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.[10]

Use by other navies[edit]

The practice, while commonly associated with British submarines, is not restricted to them. During World War II, Allied submariners working with Royal Navy fleets adopted the process from their British counterparts.[12] While operating in the Mediterranean, the Polish submarines ORP Sokół and ORP Dzik were presented with Jolly Rogers by General Władysław Sikorski, and continued to update them during the war.[13][14]

At least one British surface ship recorded their U-boat kills through silhouettes on a Jolly Roger.[15] The Royal Australian Navy has also flown the Jolly Roger from submarines on occasion. Following the first Australian live firing of a Mark 48 torpedo in 1987, HMAS Ovens used the flag to indicate the successful sinking of the target ship Colac.[16][17] HMAS Onslow flew the Jolly Roger in 1980, following her successful participation in the Kangaroo 3 wargame as an opposing submarine: the flag bore the silhouettes of the seven surface ships involved, as during the exercise, Onslow had successfully 'sunk' all seven.[18]

At least twice in 2017, the USS Jimmy Carter, a U.S. Navy attack submarine which has been modified to support special forces operations, has returned to its home port flying a Jolly Roger.[19] The reason for the flag in both cases is not known.

Symbols and meanings[edit]

Symbols common to multiple submarines
Symbol Meaning
White bar Merchant ship sunk[20]
Red bar Warship sunk[20]
Bar with "U", or U with a horizontal line from each side U-boat sunk[20][21]
Yellow bar Japanese merchant vessel sunk[22]
Black and white bar Merchant ship damaged but not sunk[21]
Red and white bar Warship damaged but not sunk[7]
Dagger 'Cloak and dagger' operation: typically the delivery or recovery of shore parties from enemy territory[8][23]
Stars (sometimes surrounding crossed cannon) Deck gun was used to sink a target: white stars for merchant ships, red stars for warships[8][7]
Sea mine Minelaying operations; sometimes only one symbol used with a number indicating how many operations
Lighthouse Used as navigational marker for an invasion force[23]
Torch Used as navigational marker for Operation Torch[23][22]
Lifebuoy Rescue personnel from downed aircraft or sunken ships[8]
Tomahawk axe (individual or crossed) Fired Tomahawk cruise missiles[9][11][10]
Chevron, chamber pot, or Chinese junk Small vessel sunk by gunfire[22]
Eugene the Jeep Recovery of Chariot manned torpedo[22]
Diver's helmet Exceeded safe diving depth[22]
Cross pattée Supply runs during Siege of Malta[22]
Aircraft Aircraft shot down[22]
Red flower Minefield reconnaissance[22]
Crossed sabres Boarded another vessel[22]
Dog Involved in Operation Husky[22]
Grating Forced an entry through a net barrier[22]
Explosive with fuse Ship sunk by demolition charge[21]
Ram's head Ramming[21]
Symbols unique to a submarine
Symbol Submarine Meaning
Ace of spades HMS Sickle A torpedo missed its target and detonated against a cliff in Monte Carlo, with the shockwave breaking all the windows of a nearby casino.[2]
Can opener HMS Proteus Survived attempted ramming by an Italian destroyer, with the ship heavily damaged by the submarine's hydroplanes[24]
The Saint HMS Unseen 'Cloak and dagger' operation, with halos indicating the number of operations: Unseen had permission from Leslie Charteris to use his character instead of the standard dagger[7]
Stork and baby HMS United Captain's first child born while on patrol[20]
Scarlet pimpernel flower HMS Sibyl A French spy, having forgotten the recognition password, quoted "They seek him here, they seek him there" from the play The Scarlet Pimpernel to identify herself[20]
Train HMS Turbulent Fired on shore targets, destroying two trains and a goods depot[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Some accounts state that Horton, now Commander-in-Chief Submarines, was visiting at the time of Osiris' return, and influenced the flotilla leader's decision.[4]
  2. ^ What constitutes a "successful patrol" is not made clear, but likely includes the sinking of a ship


  1. ^ a b Richards & Smith, Onslow's Jolly Roger, p. 10
  2. ^ a b c d e Kefford, Pirates of the Royal Navy: Our underwater heroes who flew the Jolly Roger into battle
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Compton-Hall, Submarines at War 1939–45, p. 62
  4. ^ a b c Submariners – Traditions and Values, at Defence Jobs
  5. ^ Mackay, A Precarious Existence, p. 115
  6. ^ a b c d Admiralty, His Majesty's Submarines, p. 43
  7. ^ a b c d Submariners Association of Canada (Central), The Jolly Roger
  8. ^ a b c d Sumner, The Royal Navy 1939–45, p. 12
  9. ^ a b c Richards & Smith, Onslow's Jolly Roger, p. 11
  10. ^ a b c d Oliver, Return of the Triumph
  11. ^ a b Norton-Taylor, Crusie missile sub back in UK
  12. ^ Compton-Hall, Submarines at War 1939–45, p. 64
  13. ^ Bartelski, Sokol – Operational history
  14. ^ Bartelski, Dzik – Operational history
  15. ^ Williamson2007, p. 59.
  16. ^ Richards & Smith, Onslow's Jolly Roger
  17. ^ Royal Australian Navy, HMAS Colac
  18. ^ Richards & Smith, Onslow's Jolly Roger, pp. 11–12
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b c d e f Simpson, Why Would Anyone Want to Swing a Cat?: ... and 499 other questions, pp. 163–4
  21. ^ a b c d Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Jolly Roger
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Skrukwa, Use of Jolly Roger by submarine service
  23. ^ a b c Allaway, Hero of the Upholder, p. 110
  24. ^ Allaway, Hero of the Upholder, pp. 110–1


  • Allaway, Jim (2004). Hero of the Upholder. Periscope Publishing. ISBN 1-904381-23-5.
  • Admiralty (1997). His Majesty's Submarines. World War II Monographs. 401 (3rd ed.). Merriam Press.
  • Compton-Hall, Richard (2004). Submarines at War 1939–45. Periscope Publishing. ISBN 1-904381-22-7.
  • Mackay, Richard. A Precarious Existence: British Submarines in World War I. Periscope Publishing. ISBN 1-904381-17-0.
  • Simpson, Andy (3 January 2014). Why Would Anyone Want to Swing a Cat?: ... and 499 other questions. London: Constable & Robinson. pp. 163–4. ISBN 9781849019477.
  • Sumner, Ian. The Royal Navy 1939–45. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-195-8.
  • Williamson, Gordon (2007). U-Boats Vs Destroyer Escorts: The Battle of the Atlantic. Duel Series. 3. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84603-133-8.
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