Why British Submarines carry the Jolly Roger
Pirates of the Royal Navy

First Lord Sea Admiral Arthur Wilson called submarines “underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English”.  

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.

Their sailors should be “hanged as pirates”.

Wilson went on to say that the undersea boats were “weapons of a weaker power and can be no possible use to the Mistress of the Seas.”

WWI British Submarine Commander Max Horton hoist his petard to THAT by improvising a Jolly Roger flag.

After its first kill, the submarine entered port flying the iconic pirate flag.

With each successful patrol, Horton’s submarine added a Jolly Roger until he ran out of space.

At which point, Horton had a larger Jolly Roger made, onto which bars indicating kills were sewn.

Bars on a Jolly Rodger represent ships torpedoed, although post-war flags sometimes use 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.

In World War Two the Royal Navy resurrected the Jolly Roger tradition with gusto.

A torpedo fired by HMS Sickle 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”.

Some icons are unique to a submarine.

HMS Sibyl bears a scarlet pimpernel flower, marking the time a French spy forgot the password and instead quoted from the play The Scarlet Pimpernel.

The Jolly Roger of HMS United gained a stork and baby when news of the birth of the captain’s first child arrived.

More recently, at least twice in 2017, the USS Jimmy Carter has returned home flying a Jolly Roger.

The reason for the flag in both cases is unknown.

Every April 11 is Submarine Day.

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.