The Royal Navy Submarine Service in 1939

The Royal Navy Submarine Service in 1939

When war broke out on September 3, 1939, the Royal Navy’s submarine service was 38 years old.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of submarine warfare was considered by senior personnel in the Admiralty to be "Underhand, unfair and damned un-English". However, those in favour of experimenting with submarine technology eventually won the argument, and the Royal Navy launched its first submarine, Holland 1, in 1901.

The Submarine Service proved its worth in World War I, where it was awarded five of the Royal Navy's 14 Victoria Crosses of the war, the first to Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, Commanding Officer of HMS B11.

Known to all who sailed in submarines as ‘the Trade’, the service began its Second World War four days before the outbreak of hostilities with Germany, when on 30 August 1939 Rear Admiral Submarines, Rear Admiral B.C. Watson, moved his headquarters from Gosport to Aberdour, Scotland. It was later, much more sensibly, re-located to Swiss Cottage in north London.

The RN started the Second World War with just 60 submarines. By the time it was over Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, had paid his tribute to the Royal Navy’s submariners when he told Parliament, “There is no branch of His Majesty’s forces which in this war have suffered the same proportion of losses as our Submarine Service. It is the most dangerous of all services.”

Indeed, when it came to the earning of Britain’s highest honour for valour, of the Royal Navy’s twenty two VCs awarded during the Second World War, nine were won by submariners. And of the 238 RN submarines to put to sea between 1939 and 1945, 76 were sunk.

Even the Germans admired their heroism. General Fritz Bayerlein, chief of staff to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Afrika Korps’ legendary commander, observed that, “We would have taken Alexandria and reached the Suez Canal if it had not been for the work of your submarines.”


The Jolly Roger

The ‘skull-n-crossbones’ flag, or ‘Jolly Roger’ is the legendary ensign of the pirate. It is also unofficial flag of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service, and the story of how it came to be adopted dates back to the early days of the 20th Century.

The concept of underwater warfare was in its infancy in 1901 when Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson VC, the Controller of the Royal Navy, summed up the opinion of many in the Admiralty at that time with the words, "[Submarines are] underhand, unfair, and damned un-English. ... ( and that the British government should …) treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews."

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral Sir) Max Horton in command of the E class submarine HMS E9, decided to take Admiral Wilson at his word, and first flew the Jolly Roger on his return to port after sinking the German cruiser SMS Hela and the destroyer SMS S-116.

Then, from the start of the Second World War, it became common practice for the submarines of the Royal Navy to fly the Jolly Roger on return from war patrol, decorated with symbols representing the number and types of enemy warships they had sunk.

The symbols included:

A white bar for a merchant ship sunk

A red bar for a warship

A dagger for clandestine commando operations

Stars around crossed cannons for warships sunk by deck gun action

A lifebuoy for rescues at sea

An aircraft silhouette for aircraft shot down

The tradition has continued into modern times; in 1982 returning from the Falklands conflict HMS Conqueror flew the Jolly Roger depicting one dagger for an SBS deployment to South Georgia and one torpedo for her sinking of the Argentinian Cruiser Belgrano.

The Jolly Roger continues to be the emblem of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.