Jolly Roger of H.M.S. Unbeaten

As part of ongoing work to improve the documentation and storage of Royal Pavilion & Museums’ collections, we are taking a closer look at many items in our stores. One such item recently ‘unfurled’ is this flag. Called a ‘Success Flag’, you might know it as a ‘Jolly Roger’.

Jolly Roger of H.M.S. Unbeaten

The white skull and cross bones on a black background is sure to conjure up images of pirates. Yet the Jolly Roger is a particularly significant flag for British submariners. No submarine was entitled to fly the success flag until it had been given by the Commanding Officer of her flotilla. Furthermore, it could only be flown upon returning from a successful patrol where the flag would be raised when entering harbour and remaining aloft until sunset. It then could not be hoisted again until the next return from a successful mission.

The various symbols sewn on by her crew depict a particular type of successful action. In this instance, we have two U-boats and eight enemy merchant ships sunk, and three separate incidents of gun action.

This particular Jolly Roger belonged to His Majesty’s Submarine ‘Unbeaten’ which entered service on 10 November 1940. It was adopted by the Town of Hove during Warship Week in March 1942. Embracing the slogan ‘Hove Must Save – Unite Now By Effectively Adding To England’s Navy’ (the first letter of each word spelling ‘H.M.S. Unbeaten’) the town’s residents raised £521,000. This exceeded the target set by the War Office for Hove, which was £425,000.

This flag was presented to Arthur H Clarke, Mayor of Hove, by half of Unbeaten’s crew in late Summer 1942 when she returned to Britain for repairs and a refit. Following the ceremony, the Mayor spoke to the Brighton & Hove Herald saying ‘as long as our destiny and our fate rest upon the efforts of such men as I met we need have no fear of the ultimate outcome of the present grim struggle.’

Later in the year, on Wednesday 9 December, a further ceremony was held at Hove Town Hall at which commemorative plaques were to be exchanged, further cementing the special relationship between the town and the crew of Unbeaten. The plaque pictured, also in the museum’s collections, was to be placed on the submarine, but it had left Britain the month previous to return to action in the Mediterranean.

Sadly, at the time of the presentation dinner, Unbeaten had been reported lost. Although she was reported missing a few weeks previous, this was not made public until the middle of December when the Brighton & Hove Herald stated that she was ‘overdue and must be considered lost’. It’s evident that Unbeaten was attacked in error by an R.A.F. Wellington of No. 172 Squadron on 11 November. She was lost with all hands.

Unbeaten’s Jolly Roger is pictured here on display at Hove Town Hall in the Brighton & Hove Herald in February 1943. Interestingly, a number of commentators thought the flag was lost shortly afterwards in an air raid on Hove Town Hall. The flag and the plaque survived the war and both were donated to Hove Museum & Art Gallery by the Town Clerk, Mr W Jermyn Harris, in 1945.

In recent weeks, the flag has been repacked using conservation-grade materials and associated documentation has been reconciled. David J B Smith, the author of Being Silent They Speak (2012) which tells the story of Unbeaten, has also been notified about the flag via Twitter, resulting in a flurry of interest. This has included persons connected with the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport. A loan of the flag and the associated plaque to either of these institutions will be explored in the coming months.

Dan Robertson, Curator – Local History & Archaeology

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