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The Jolly Roger

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.

During World War 1, remembering comments by First Sea Lord, 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 a small number of other submarines: HMS E12 flew a red flag with the skull and crossbones on return from a foray into the Dardanelles in June 1915,and the first known photograph of the practice was taken in July 1916 aboard HMS H5. The Admiralty disapproved of the practice, but was unable to stop it.

The practice restarted and became more widespread in World War 2. 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". 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. After this, the commanders of submarine flotillas began to issue the flags to submarines following the boat's first successful patrol. 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. 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. The Jolly Roger could also be flown on the day a submarine returned to the UK from a successful overseas deployment. Although some sources claim that all British submarines used the flag, 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.

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. 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. 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.

Submarine Jolly Roger Examples

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