WWII Operation Mincemeat’s Jolly Roger flag fetches £14,000 at auction

WWII Operation Mincemeat's Jolly Roger flag fetches £14,000 at auction

Photo story (Clockwise from top left): (1) WWII Operation Mincemeat’s Jolly Roger flag that fetched £14,000 at auction (2) RAF Flight Lt Charles Cholmondeley of MI5 in 1943 (3) Royal Navy intelligence officer Lt Commander Ewen Montagu in 1943 (4) Dead body of a Welsh alcoholic hobo Glyndwr Michael was dressed up as a commando ‘Major Martin’ in uniform; photo taken at a London hospital; he was kept in a canister aboard HMS Seraph (5) HMS Seraph during WWII (6) British Prime Minister Winston Churchill instructed the deception plan

Several military forces have used skull & crossbones variations. Jolly Roger flags used by the submarines got the largest among those. The flag originated from the practices of pirate ships’ crew during the 17th to 18th century. The pirate flag was flown by pirate ships to frighten the victims and force them to surrender without a fight. It meant that the outlaws slaughtered those they defeated in battle. To indicate the toughness and ferocity like the pirates, the Jolly Roger has been used by various military units since the decline of pirates & piracy.

Use of Jolly Roger flag in the submarines began in 1914. Royal Navy’s Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC said that the ‘underhand, unfair & un-English’ enemy submarines should be treated as pirate vessels and the submarine crews should be hanged like pirates during wartime. After sinking German destroyer SMS S-116 and cruiser SMS Hela, Royal Navy’s Lt Commander Max Horton first flew the Jolly Roger flag on his return trip to port.

At first the tradition was to fly a Jolly Roger flag for each successful patrol by the submarine. Soon there were no rooms for flags and Horton’s submarine had a large Jolly Roger. Symbols were sewn onto the flag to indicate success history of the submarine.  It was a duty of the submarine crew to keep the Jolly Roger flag updated.

Submarines of the Royal Navy and Allied Navy flew the Jolly Roger flag upon completion of a successful naval mission during the WWII. But the Jolly Roger has become the emblem of Allied Navy as an indicator of stealth and bravado, not lawlessness.

Web edition of The Daily Mail, the prominent tabloid news paper in UK, reported that WWII Operation Mincemeat’s Jolly Roger flag was expected to fetch £10,000 at auctions on 6th November 2013. Auction house Bosleys of Marlow, Buckinghamshire released the price of the auction and termed the auction as their ‘best ever’. The WWII Operation Mincemeat’s Jolly Roger was sold at £14,000.

WWII Operation Mincemeat was a successful British deception plan. In the operation, false information about Allied Italy invasion plots was planted into the hands of Nazi intelligence. To cover the Allied invasion of Sicily from North Africa, widespread deception was carried out. WWII Operation Mincemeat, part of Operation Barclay, successfully convinced the Nazi German high command that Greece & Sardinia were going to be invaded by the Allies in 1943 instead of the actual objective, Sicily.

After the Allied victory in the invasion of French Algeria and French Morocco as part of the Operation Torch in November 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that everyone except for a bloody fool would easily figure out that the next Allied target was Sicily. So a secret plan was devised to divert enemy attention.

The Allied forces also spread diplomatic rumors and fed misinformation through double agents. The operation was planned by RAF Flight Lt Charles Cholmondeley of MI5 and Royal Navy intelligence officer Lt Commander Ewen Montagu. The recently sold Jolly Roger flag from HMS Seraph has got a lot of historical significance due to the WWII Operation Mincemeat.

A dead body of a Welsh alcoholic hobo, Glyndwr Michael who died of rat poison ingestion, dressed up as a commando in uniform was dropped a mile off Spanish coast near the Huelva town by the senior crew of British S-class submarine HMS Seraph on 30th April 1943. Fake identity documents showed that it was Royal Marine Major William Martin’s corpse and a briefcase containing false secret plans was attached to his wrist.

The body was washed ashore the Spanish coast as planned and the misleading documents ended up in the hands of Adolf Clauss, an officer of German Military Intelligence Abwehr. Montagu included the name of ‘Major Martin’ in the list of British casualties published in The Times on 4th June 1943, in case the Germans checked in British media. Along with the bogus ‘top secret’ documents, fake love letters from fake Major Martin’s fiancée were also included to give more credence to the deception.

The Germans subsequently diverted their defensive efforts and sent reinforcements to Sardinia, Greece and Corsica instead of all important Sicily. Two months later, the Allies successfully invaded Sicily. For the first time since the Battle of Dunkirk in France, the Allied forces had a foothold on Adolf Hitler’s fortress in Europe. Ewen Montagu wrote the story of the operation in the book ‘The Man Who Never Was’ in 1953. It was a best seller and was made into a movie of the same title in 1956.

The flagman on HMS Seraph added a dagger insignia to the submarine’s Jolly Roger flag to mark the WWII Operation Mincemeat, alongside other emblems for different missions. After the Jolly Roger of HMS Seraph was replaced by new one in 1944, a junior rating kept the flag and later handed it to his son who sold it at last month’s auction.

Video story: A documentary on WWII Operation Mincemeat.

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE