Historic submarine standards shed light on proud Royal Navy tradition

Topic: Fighting armsSubmarine Service Storyline: Submarine Service

This is a Jolly Roger. Not any Jolly Roger either, but for submariners the Holy Grail - the oldest believed still existing.

Raised on World War 1 submarine HMS E54 after successful patrols, it can now be seen at the spiritual home of the Silent Service.

This earliest known surviving example of a Royal Navy submarine Jolly Roger joins the RN Submarine Museum’s newest acquisition, the flag from HMS Thorough from 1943 as centrepieces of a new display celebrating the links between British boats and the skull and crossbones, plus the cultural history of the iconic standard.

E-class boat HMS E54 served in the second half of the Great War, chiefly employed as a U-boat killer in the North Sea and Atlantic – sinking two German submarines in the process.

HMS Thorough saw extensive action in the Far East in the later years of World War 2, where she proved to be a scourge of the Japanese, dispatching more than 40 vessels to strangle Tokyo’s sea lanes. Thorough remained in service until the early 60s, becoming the first Royal Navy submarine to complete a circumnavigation.

The association between the Service and the Jolly Roger dates to the first days of World War 1 when Lieutenant Commander Max Horton had a makeshift flag hoisted on his HMS E9 as she returned home sinking a German warship.

It was an act of defiance to some of the dinosaurs in the Admiralty who regarded the submarine as a machine unworthy of the Royal Navy: “underhanded, unfair and damned unEnglish… treat all submarines as pirates in wartime… and hang all their crews” – in the words of Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson.

E54’s flag was a rather basic affair. By WW2, the Jolly Roger had become more standardised – though still crafted by crews – and elaborately decorated with symbols to signify success: a white bar for a merchant ship, red for an enemy warship, a explosion for gunfire support, a dagger for special ops (‘cloak and dagger’).

“Visitors are intrigued by our Jolly Rogers and enjoy deciphering their meanings. They give a fascinating insight into the often secret and mysterious world of the submariner under the waves and out of sight,” said Alexandra Geary, curator of artefacts from the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

The flag continues to be flown to this day by any submarine which sees front-line action from HMS Conquerer, which sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano in the Falklands, to HMS Turbulent in Iraq in 2003 and HMS Triumph in Libya in 2011 for launching Tomahawk missile strikes.

As well as learning about the boats, their exploits and the significance of the Jolly Roger, visitors are able to create their own skull and crossbones through an interactive display, projecting their creation on to a wall.

The new display is included in a Submarine Museum ticket, available at https://historicdockyard.co.uk/tickets-and-offers/  

Images credited to the National Museum of the Royal Navy.