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Use of the Jolly Roger by the British and US Navies

By Chris Martin

Submarines are “damned un-English.”

On 8 October 1900 the Royal Navy agreed to order five Holland-class submarines from the Electric Boat Company owned by American businessman Isaac Rice. Electric Boat negotiated the contract with the Royal Navy and subcontracted their construction out to Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, NJ.[1]

The Third Sea Lord, Rear Admiral Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson, VC, opposed the acquisition of submarines. He only agreed to the purchase because he wished for the Royal Navy to “test the value of the submarine boat as a weapon in the hands of our enemies.” However, he remained opposed to the Royal Navy’s operation of submarines, calling them a “damned un-English weapon.”[2]

RADM Wilson requested that First Lord of the Admiralty William Waldegrave Palmer, 2nd Earl of Selborne, call for a ban on offensive submarine operations in a speech announcing the Royal Navy’s planned expenditures in 1901. Selborne refused to include this statement in his speech.[3]

RADM Wilson then advised Selborne to declare that the Royal Navy would “treat all submarines as pirates in wartime and…hang all the crews.”[4]

RADM Wilson succeeded Admiral of the Fleet John “Jacky” Fisher as First Sea Lord on 25 January 1910. He left the Admiralty in November 1911.[5]

Royal Navy Submarines Fly the Jolly Roger in the World Wars

HMS E9 commanded by Lieutenant Commander Max Horton claimed the first “kill” by a Royal Navy submarine in World War I when it torpedoed the German cruiser SMS Hela in the North Sea six miles south of Helgoland on 13 September 1914.[6]

Recalling the negative comments about submarines RADM Wilson made in 1901, LCDR Horton ordered his signal officer to make a skull and crossbones Jolly Roger flag during HMS E9’s return to port in Harwich, UK. E9 flew the Jolly Roger from her periscope as she entered port. This is the first known use of the Jolly Roger by the Royal Navy.[7]

On a subsequent patrol E9 sank the German ocean-going torpedo boat SMS S116 on 6 October 1914. While it is unclear whether a member of E9’s crew constructed the flag, as the submarine entered the harbor in Harwich, she flew a second Jolly Roger to signify two different successful patrols. On later patrols E9 flew one Jolly Roger with a bar added to the flag for each successful attack on an enemy vessel.[8]

The Admiralty did not approve of E9 flying the Jolly Roger as it hampered their efforts to depict the Royal Navy’s submarines as “good” and the German U-boats as “bad.”[9]

In 1915, the Chief of the Russian Naval staff Admiral Alexander I. Rusin asked the Royal Navy to allow LCDR Horton to take over the role of Senior Naval Officer at the Royal Navy base in the Baltic. After reading the request, British Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Hamilton wrote, “I understand that Commander Horton is something of a pirate and not at all fitted for the position of SNO.”[10]

Despite the Admiralty’s disapproval, at least one other British submarine flew the Jolly Roger during World War I. A photographer caught HMS H5 flying the Jolly Roger as she entered port in July 1916. This is the first known photograph of a submarine flying the Jolly Roger.[11]

During World War II the Royal Navy’s submarine force resumed the practice of flying the Jolly Roger after a successful patrol.

On 22 September 1940, the O-class submarine HMS Osiris (N67) attacked and sank the Italian torpedo boat RM Palestro in the Adriatic Sea. As they neared Alexandria, Egypt, the sub’s crew was ordered via signal light to halt their boat before entering port and wait for “a special recognition signal in a sealed package marked JR to be opened by Commanding Officer only.” Osiris was not to enter port without the Jolly Roger flying.[12] This is the first known use of the Jolly Roger in World War II. Thereafter, the Captain (SM) [Submarines] of a Flotilla would present a Jolly Roger to a submarine’s commanding officer after its first successful patrol.[13]

The crew of each submarine was responsible for keeping a record of each patrol. This led to some complaints from some commanding officers who opposed the Jolly Roger tradition. LT Ian McGeogh, commanding officer of HMS Splendid (P228) considered the tradition “unduely boastful,” and that crews recorded “hoped-for sinkings,” as the exact number of Axis vessels sunk by British submarines was unknown.[14]

The Maltese business woman Carmela Cassar asked the nuns who made the lace she sold in her shop to make lace 12 x 18” Jolly Roger flags, which she presented to the commanding officer of each submarine that operated out of Malta.[15]

World War II British submariners were more creative than their World War I era predecessors. In addition to the white bar used during World War I, British submariners added new symbols to signify different types of successful attacks. A dagger signified a successful “cloak and dagger” operation; a sheep’s head signified an enemy vessel sunk by ramming rather than by a torpedo or gunfire and a lifebelt signified the rescue of a sailor.[16]

Adoption of the Jolly Roger by American Submariners

While it is unclear exactly when US Navy submariners embraced their role as “pirates,” events during the interwar period seem to have likely played a role.

At the invitation of President Warren G. Harding, representatives from several nations convened an international conference on arms limitations on 11 November 1921.

The United States, Great Britain, Japan, France and Italy signed the Washington Naval Treaty or the Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty on 6 February 1922.

The five naval powers simultaneously negotiated the Five Power Supplemental Treaty, or the Washington Submarine Treaty, which they also signed on 6 February.[17]

According to Article I of the Supplemental Treaty, all warships would be required to stop and search a merchant vessel and ensure the ship’s crew and passengers were “in safety” before sinking it.

Article III of the treaty stated that failure to abide by those rules would be considered an act of piracy.

Multiple US Navy submarines used the Jolly Roger in their WWII battle flags.

The use of battle flags became widespread in the submarine force after the Walt Disney Company began designing submarine insignia in 1944. Sailors replaced the small pennants with larger battle flags that bore the submarine’s official insignia along with the previously utilized symbols to indicate each warship and merchant ship sunk. Baya (SS-318), Drum (SS-228), Finback (SS-230), Growler (SS-215) and Plunger (SS-179) included the Jolly Roger on their battle flags.[18]

During World War II, the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Kidd (DD-621) became the first US Navy ship to fly the Jolly Roger.

Kidd (DD-621) was named for RADM Isaac C. Kidd, killed on board Arizona (Battleship No. 39) during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.[19]

The ship’s keel was laid down on 16 October 1942. Workers at Federal Shipbuilding & Drydock Company in Kearny, NJ constructed Kidd in less than a year, launching her on 28 February 1943.[20]

The sailors assigned to Kidd asked Inez N. Kidd, RADM Kidd’s widow and the ship’s sponsor, for permission to choose the pirate Captain William Kidd as the ship’s mascot. Furthermore, they asked her to persuade Navy officials to allow the ship to fly the Jolly Roger on its transit from the shipyard across New York Harbor to the New York Navy Yard. In addition to the pirate’s connection to the New York area, the sailors thought that William Kidd would be a fitting mascot because while he was a student at the US Naval Academy, RADM Kid’s friends nicknamed him “cap.” The nickname, which RADM Kidd embraced and carried with him throughout the rest of his life, referred to the rank of captain that British King William III gave William Kidd in his 1696 commission as a privateer.[21]

Inez Kidd not only granted permission for the sailors to choose RADM Kidd as the ship’s mascot, she was successful in persuading Navy officials to permit Kidd to fly the Jolly Roger.[22]

With CDR Alan Roby in command, on 23 April 1943, Kidd steamed away from the Federal Shipbuilding & Drydock Company and crossed New York harbor with the Jolly Roger flying high on her foremast. In addition to the pirate flag, an image of Captain Kidd adorned the ship’s foremost smokestack.[23]

Kidd served in the Pacific theater during World War II. Her crew referred to themselves as the “Pirates of the Pacific” and continued to fly the Jolly Roger.

On 11 November 1943, she supported the US Marine landing on Bougainville, Solomon Islands. During the battle Kidd dropped out of the American formation to rescue the crew of a downed aircraft launched from USS Essex (CV-9). Not only did Kidd successfully rescue the downed Navy aviators, the sailors manning her anti-aircraft guns destroyed three Japanese aircraft in the process.[24]

Kidd rescued multiple downed Navy aviators during the next several months of fighting. Each aviator was returned to his aircraft carrier in exchange for a “ransom” of ice cream.[25] Kidd earned six battle stars for her service in World War II and four more for her service in the Korean War.[26]

The Navy formally transferred custody of Kidd to the Louisiana War Memorial on 26 April 1982.

The current USS Kidd (DDG-100) is the only US Navy vessel authorized to fly the Jolly Roger on a regular basis.[27]


[1] Edwyn Gray, British Submarines at War 1914-1918 (Pen & Sword Maritime: South Yorkshire, UK, 2001), 14.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hew Strachan, The First World War, Volume I: To Arms, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 380.

[6] Rear Admiral W.S. Chalmers, Max Horton and the Western Approaches, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1954), 10-11; Gray, British Submarines at War, 36-37.

[7] Bill Richards and Peter Smith, “Onslow’s Jolly Roger,” Signals, No. 77, December 2006-February 2007, 10-12; Gray, British Submarines, 39 and Ali Kefford, “Pirates of the Royal Navy: Our Underwater Heroes Who Flew the Jolly Roger into Battle,” Daily Mirror, 18 September 2014,  (accessed 28 September 2017).

[8] Chalmers, Max Horton and the Western Approaches, 19.

[9] Royal Navy, “Astute Marks Centenary of Submarine Service’s Proudest Tradition,” 19 September 2014, (accessed 28 September 2014).

[10] CDR (ret.) Richard Compton-Hall, The Underwater War 1939-1945, (Poole, UK: Blandford Press, 1982), 62.

[11] Richard MacKay, A Precarious Existence: British Submariners in World War One (Berkshire, UK: Periscope Publishing Ltd, 2003), 115.

[12] Compton-Hall, The Underwater War, 62.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 64.

[16] Royal Navy, “Astute Marks Centenary of Submarine Service’s Proudest Tradition.”

[17] Joel Ira Holwitt, “Execute Against Japan”: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 32.

[18] Naval History and Heritage Command, “Submarine Battle Flags of World War II,” (accessed 2 October 2017); Ron “Warshot” Smith, “From Brooms to Battle Flags,” The Submarine Force Library and Museum, (accessed 2 October 2017).

[19] Naval History and Heritage Command, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, s.v. “Kidd (DD-621)” (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, n.d.), (accessed 2 October 2017).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Paul Hawkins, “History—The Commission” Captain William Kidd: Ultimate, (accessed 3 October 2017); USS Kidd (DDG-100), “The Pirates of the Pacific Carry on the Distinct Naval Legacy,” Pirates of the Pacific Newsletter: The Official Newsletter of USS KIDD (DDG-100)”1st Quarter 2013, (accessed 3 October 2017).

[22] USS Kidd (DDG-100), “The Pirates of the Pacific Carry on Distinct Naval Legacy,” Pirates of the Pacific Newsletter: The official Newsletter of USS KIDD (DDG-100).”

[23] Ibid.

[24] Naval History and Heritage Command, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, s.v. “Kidd (DD-621).”

[25] USS Kidd (DDG-100), “The Pirates of the Pacific Carry on Distinct Naval Legacy,” Pirates of the Pacific Newsletter: The official Newsletter of USS KIDD (DDG-100).

[26] Naval History and Heritage Command, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, s.v. “Kidd (DD-621).”

[27] The Defense Video Imagery Distribution System (DIVDS) has a photograph showing USS Kidd (DDG-100) flying the Jolly Roger while underway on 21 March 2017. (accessed 3 October 2017). 

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