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Naval traditions about flags

Last modified: 2002-03-15 by phil nelson
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Hoisting of Colors

As with many traditions, the US Navy borrowed that of morning and evening colors from the British. According to the Royal Navy website

The present ceremony of hoisting colours (Union Jack at the jackstaff, and White Ensign at the ensign staff) each morning, with a guard and band paraded, was instituted by Lord St. Vincent in 1797 after the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore.

In the US sea services, evening colors have always been made at sunset. The first mention in regulations of the time for morning colors was in the 1843 Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Navy, which provided that if sunset was after 6:00 p.m., then morning colors were at 8:00 a.m.; if sunset was before six, then morning colors were at nine. The 1876 Regulations for the Government of the Navy provided that morning colors would be at 8:00 a.m. in all cases, and that has remained the practice since then. (US Navy Regulations (1990) articles 1259-1260). The Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration follow the same practice.

The ceremonies go as follows:

Morning Colors

  1. Approximately 0755, the word is passed FIRST CALL, FIRST CALL TO COLORS (aboard ship) or the bugle call "First Call" is sounded (ashore).
  2. The guard of the day and band are paraded.
  3. The bugle call "Attention" is sounded or one blast is sounded on the ship's whistle.
  4. At 0800, the word is passed EXECUTE, and the National Anthem or the bugle call "To the Colors" is played. The ensign is started up at the beginning of the music and hoisted smartly to the peak or truck. Aboard ship, the union jack is hoisted simultaneously. All within earshot face the ensign and salute during the playing of "To the Colors" or the National Anthem.
  5. If the ensign is to be displayed at half-mast, it (and, aboard ship, the jack) is then lowered slowly to a point 3/4 of the way to the peak or truck, or, on a pole-mast with a crosstree, to a point level with the crosstree. (At Marine Corps bases, half-mast is halfway up the pole, as for the Army.)
  6. The bugle call "Carry on" is sounded or three blasts are sounded on the ship's whistle.

Evening Colors

  1. Approximately five minutes before sunset, the word is passed First Call, First Call to Colors (aboard ship) or the bugle call "First Call" is sounded.
  2. The guard of the day and band are paraded.
  3. The bugle call "Attention" is sounded or one blast is sounded on the ship's whistle.
  4. At sunset, the word is passed EXECUTE (aboard ship), and the National Anthem or the bugle call "Retreat" is played. The ensign is started down at the beginning of the music and lowered slowly timed to be fully lowered at the last note. Aboard ship, the union jack is lowered simultaneously. If the ensign is at half-mast, it and the jack are run smartly up to the peak or truck at the beginning of the music, then lowered slowly. All within earshot face the ensign and salute during the playing of "Retreat" or the National Anthem.
  5. The bugle call "Carry on" is sounded or three blasts are sounded on the ship's whistle.

When evening colors are made ashore during a parade or review with troops and band present, the sequence is "First Call," "Attention," "Retreat," the National Anthem, and "Carry On," with the ensign being lowered during the National Anthem.

U.S. Navy Regulations, Chapter 12;
USCG M5000.3B; NTP-13(B);
NAVMC 2691; NAO 201-6;
James Stavridis, The Watch Officers Guide)

By the way, these times do not apply to ships under way, which fly their flags in daylight hours only under certain conditions specified in Navy Regulations (cruising near land, when falling in with other ships, coming to anchor, in combat, etc.).

And, finally, no, there are no words to either "To the Colors," played in the morning, or "Retreat," played in the evening. They are old (at least 19th century) army bugle calls.
Joe McMillan, 03 June 2000

Gin Flag

When I was in the RCN I heard reference to a "Gin flag" that was meant as an invitation to other ships crews to join the ship flying the flag to come aboard when in dock for "gin". Have you heard of this and do you know what it looks like?
Dale Vigar, 12 October 2001
Off list question to FOTW

I have heard of it, or actually read about it, in books covering customs and traditions of the Royal Navy. I have seen it described rather as the "gin pendant" or "pennant" and as being green. I've seen one suggestion that it is the "starboard" signal pennant--a trapezoidal pennant of four alternating green and white vertical stripes. But since 1950 NATO navies have used that as the signal indicating the vessel of the senior officer present afloat. It's possible that "starboard" was used before 1950 and that some other pennant or flag is used now, or that the green gin pendant was never the same as "starboard" but some other design altogether. Or that British and Canadian SOPAs are just exceptionally hospitable fellows.

As U.S. Navy ships have been "dry" since the 1910s, I do not believe this signal is used in the USN, so I doubt that I'll be able to find much more about it on this side of the Atlantic.
Joe McMillan, 12 October 2001

Looking further into the gin pennant, I just found a picture at of a group of USN officers and sailors on Midway in World War II holding what is described as a gin pennant. It is long and triangular, dark with a single vertical white stripe. The photo is B&W, but the pennant could well be green and white, but it is not the "starboard" pennant that is in the current signal books and used by senior officers present afloat in NATO.

And defines gin pennant as "usually green with a wine or cocktail glass on it." It says the pennant is used by UK, unofficial, and hoisted by ship's officers to announce that they are celebrating some event by offering drinks to visitors.
Joe McMillan, 13 October 2001

The page has:

*Editors Note: A tradition of the Royal Navy started at the height of the British Empire, was the hoisting of the "Gin Pendant", R.P.C., which means Request the Pleasure of your Company at 1800 hours, by RN warships in harbours around the world. Gin and angostura bitters at the end of the workday were de rigueur. The tradition continues today, though as a general signal for gatherings aboard ships to celebrate any number of events and anniversaries where officers call meet and talk "shop."
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 13 October 2001

Here is a slightly abbreviated extract from "Signal" by Barrie Kent, who was at one time Captain of the Royal Navy Signal School. He read a paper on "Signalling Flags" at the Congress of Vexilology in York earlier this year.

Origin uncertain but used since 1940 and probably earlier. Plymouth Gin distillery started supplying gin pennants in the 1950s, but they were more often made up on board. Sometimes was a small green triangular pennant emblazoned with a white wine glass hoisted on an inner halyard. More usually the green-white-green Starboard pennant (the old Pennant 9) was used with a green glass in the centre. The signal means that the wardroom (the officers mess) invites officers from ships in company to drinks; naturally tends to be used when not too many ships are present. A miniature gin pennant is often hoisted above the bar to signify that drinks are 'on the house', or on someone's wine bill on the occasion of their birthday or promotion.
David Prothero, 13 October 2001

Flying multiple rank flags

There is a photograph in the Mariner's Mirror of May 1965 showing the flags of three Admirals flying on the single-masted battleship HMS Hercules in December 1918. She was taking the First Inter-Allied Naval Armistice Commission from Portsmouth to Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. The Commission included a British Vice-Admiral, an American Senior Rear-Admiral (two starred blue) and a French Rear-Admiral. It was the British Vice-Admiral's own flagship.

All three flags were flown at the same height, but from the lower yard;

  • V-Adm Browning, starboard outboard
  • R-Adm Robinson, starboard inboard
  • R-Adm Grasset, port outboard.

Comment in the article was:- "The 'weight' was so obviously amassed on the one side that the ship's junior officers at least considered the arrangement most unseamanlike and expressed doubts as to whether the yard would stand the strain! No explanation ever seeped down to them and it is only in after-years that an explanation has dawned on the writer of this article. Allocation of the entire port (or junior) side to one Admiral whilst two shared the starboard gave equal status to all."
David Prothero, 12 February 2001, 13 February 2001

A somewhat parallel occurence was when both Fleet Admiral Nimitz and General of the Army MacArthur were aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender in 1945. Both five star flags were flown at the main truck, Nimitz's to starboard, since it was his flagship (at least for the duration of the ceremony).

I don't recall if they did so in 1918 or 1945, but modern Navy regulations and directives would most likely preclude either the Hercules or Missouri situations from arising today in the US Navy.

Naval Telecommunications Publication 13(B), "Flags, Pennants and Customs" says:

903d. Personal flags or command pennants of military officers, other than U.S. Naval offices eligible for command at sea, shall not be displayed from ships or craft of the U.S. Navy.

903e. The presence of foreign military officers and officials onboard U.S. Naval ships or craft is recognized by the display of the appropriate foreign national ensign as prescribed by Navy Regulation: "No flag or pennant, other than as prescribed by Navy Regulations or as may be directed by the Secretary of the Navy, shall be displayed from a ship or craft of the Navy, or from a naval station, as an honor to a nation or an individual, or to indicate the presence of any individuals."

Of course, (a) I don't know who would have the nerve to tell a Douglas MacArthur or modern equivalent that he couldn't fly his flag, and (b) the Secretary of the Navy could always give the necessary authorizations should a similarly unusual situation arise.
Joe McMillan, 13 February 2001

Use of Ensigns

In Britain the ensign flown by a ship indicates its status and not whether it is armed. Survey ships are commissioned into the Royal Navy and fly the White Ensign but often have no fixed armament. In wartime merchant ships may be fitted with defensive weapons but still fly the Red Ensign.
David Prothero, 19 February 2001

David's general point is clarified by international law. The UN Law of the Sea convention, and previous treaties and codifications of customary international law, lay down three criteria for a vessel to be considered a warship:

(1) It must be commanded by a commissioned officer. Traditionally, the officer had to be in physical possession of his commission document. Later this was superseded by the requirement that his name appear in published register of such officers, such as the Royal Navy's Navy List or the US Navy's Register of Commissioned and Warrant Officers. I'm not sure what the current requirement is--a military identification card may suffice.

(2) The crew must be under military discipline. This rules out merchant ships commanded by a reserve officer with a crew of civilian mariners.

(3) It must bear the distinguishing marks of warships of its nationality. In the US Navy, the distinguishing mark is the commission pennant or the flag or command pennant of an officer eligible to command at sea, or, for hospital ships, the Geneva Convention red cross flag. In the US Coast Guard (whose cutters are legally warships), add to the above list the Coast Guard ensign (distinguishing flag). I would think the Royal Navy and its descendants probably consider the white ensign one of the distinguishing marks of a warship.

Whether the vessel is armed or not doesn't affect its status as a warship, nor does whether it belongs to the Navy or some other military service. For example, I would say that Russian Border Guards and Interior Troops vessels are warships because they are commanded by commissioned officers, have military crews, and display special distinguishing marks (flags).
Joe McMillan, 19 February 2001

Dressing Ships

In the July issue of the US Naval Institute's *Proceedings, there's an article on the Indian Navy, illustrated with a number of photos taken at the Navy's recent Fleet Review. One of them shows a Kilo-class submarine flying its jack at the bow and its ensign from the sail (conning tower). I thought this was worth mentioning, since it copies Russian practice.

There was also a photo of a frigate underway with jack and ensign flying from bow and stern in the normal manner, and another ensign flying at the masthead, in the position where you'd expect a rank flag to be hoisted. What the significance of this is I don't know.
Tom Gregg, 15 July 2001

When a warship is underway, this is how it "dresses overall" on ceremonial occasions. It's quite logical when one thinks about -- having all those flags suspended from the masthead to both the bow and stern is bound to get in the way of its operations if it were to go to sea like that -- just think of what would happen if one of the lines twisted in a rotating radar dish, or some such thing!

In the Canadian navy (and I assume most -- if not all -- other Commonwealth navies) a ship will also dress *only* with masthead flags (on a day when the rest of the fleet dresses overall) if it is scheduled to leave harbour before noon.

In the Canadian navy the terms used to distinguish between the two scenarios are: a) dressing overall; and b) dressing with masthead flags.
Glen R. Hodgins, 15 July 2001

I agree with that explanation ; but in French Navy, we also use "petit pavois" for smaller occasion, or when the ship does not have possibility to put "grand pavois" (e g when under repairs, or when a very small ship,
Armand du Payrat, 16 July 2001

As far as I know, in the US Navy the jack is never flown while a ship is underway. When a US warship "breaks contact with the land," the ensign and jack are lowered from their staffs fore and aft, and the ensign is rehoisted at the principal mast. The opposite procedure is followed when the ship moors or anchors. These procedures are known as "shift colors."
Tom Gregg, 16 July 2001

One little quibble; it would not be "normal" to have a jack flying on a naval vessel that was under way. This is a ship that is "dressed" as opposed to "dressed overall". It is probably entering or leaving a harbour where ships that are not under way are dressed overall.
David Prothero, 16 July 2001

I agree with all that was already said about dressing of a ship, I only wanted to mention another term for it. In the Croatian Navy (and possibly it may be influenced by Italian terminology - what's the dressing called in Italian?) the terms are "velika gala" and "mala gala", where "velika" and "mala" are general words meaning "great" and "small", and "gala" should be cognate glamour and similar.

As said before, the "dressing overall" (grand pavois etc) is used of the most solemn occasions and the "dressing" (petit pavois) is used for lesser festivities, or when for whatever reason the overall dressing is impossible or unpractical.

There is a well established international protocol concerning the conduct of a foreign ship in a harbour when dressing is prescribed as well as the conduct of the ship that intend to perform the dressing in a foreign harbour.
Zeljko Heimer, 17 July 2001

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