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United Kingdom: ensigns

Last modified: 2002-12-28 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | civil ensign | naval ensign | naval reserve ensign | red ensign | white ensign | blue ensign | yellow ensign |
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The Red Ensign:

[UK civil ensign] by Graham Bartram

The White Ensign:

[UK naval ensign] by Vincent Morley

The Blue Ensign:

[UK naval reserve ensign] by Graham Bartram

See also:

The Blue Ensign

According to H. Gresham Carr, Flags of the World, 1961, p.130:

The plain Blue Ensign is worn by British merchantmen commanded by an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve, having a certain number [he doesn't specify] of R.N.R. officers and ratings on board, and holding an Admiralty Warrant which is issued in accordance with the conditions laid down in Queen's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions: "During the early part of 1950 it was decided that Commodores R.N.R., whether on the active or retired list, may, when afloat, use the Blue Ensign in their own right, provided Admiralty permission has been obtained."

Roy Stilling, 3 October 1996

This is a list of the current defaced Blue Ensigns of the United Kingdom, excluding those of yacht clubs. The list is correct as of July 1996 and I am not aware of any changes since then. Some of of these ensigns are fairly obscure and little used, but are said to be warranted:

David Prothero, 22 September 1997

The Blue Ensign with horizontal yellow anchor is the government ensign used by departments not authorized a distinctive badge, i.e. it is the 'default' government ensign. With two yellow waves added under the anchor, it is the ensign of the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service. With a vertical yellow anchor it is the ensign of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service.

Tom Gregg, 25 August 1997

The Blue Ensign is also flown by ships that are commanded by a member of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and have a certain proportion of officers (at least three I think) that are also in the RNR. Normally only prestigious passenger liners carry sufficient RNR officers to meet the criteria and it is considered a mark of honour to fly the Blue Ensign instead of the Red. On one ship that my father was an officer on they just happened to meet the criteria, despite being a cargo ship. They therefore flew a Blue Ensign - much to the annoyance of the passenger liners who felt that it degraded "their" ensign to see it flown on a timber-carrying cargo ship!

Graham Bartram, 8 January 1998

Members of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) were not ex-Royal Navy. They were Merchant Navy personnel who joined the RNR and received a limited amount of training. The captain of a merchant ship who was in the RNR had to apply for a warrant to fly the Blue Ensign instead of the Red Ensign. Even with the warrant issued, he could not fly the Blue Ensign unless at least, I think 10, of his crew were also in the RNR. The warrant was still good if he took command of another ship in the same shipping company, but if he was appointed captain of a ship in another company, he needed to re-apply for a new warrant.

In an interesting case in 1913, a member of the RNR, who was captain of a ship registered in a Canadian port, applied through the Canadian High Commission for a warrant to fly a Blue Ensign defaced with the Canadian badge. This was refused on the grounds that it was the British RNR, and until the Royal Canadian Navy established their own reserve the plain Blue Ensign was the proper flag.

Warrants were also granted for some yacht clubs to fly the undefaced Blue Ensign.

Ships flying Blue Ensigns defaced with a colonial badge were usually unarmed, but if a colonial government wanted to arm a ship for use in its territorial waters the same ensign was used, with the addition of a Blue Pennant at the masthead.

David Prothero, 8 January 1998

A recent change in regulations now requires new Royal Navy ships on contractors' trials to fly the Blue Ensign while on trials. The change took place 1 Jan 2000 and is not a plain Blue Ensign, but the "Government Service Ensign" which is a Blue Ensign with a horizontal gold anchor in the fly.
David Prothero, 29 April 2000

British Blue Pennant

What is the extent the British blue pennant (blue with red St. George's Cross on white at hoist) is used since 1864? Is it used on various naval auxiliaries vessels? troopships wearing the Blue Ensign? Royal Indian Marine?

Miles Li, 13 November 2001

The general rule was set out in a Colonial Office Circular of 22nd December 1865. Any vessels maintained by any colony under the clauses of the 3rd Section of the Colonial Naval Defence Act, should wear the Blue Ensign with the Seal or Badge of the Colony in the Fly thereof, and a Blue Pennant. All vessels belonging to or permanently in the service of the Colonies, but not commissioned as Vessels of War under the Act should wear a similar Blue Ensign but not the Pennant.

In essence the Blue Pennant was supposed to be the commissioning pennant of a vessel that flew the Blue Ensign, just as the White Pennant is the commissioning pennant of a vessel that flies the White Ensign.

Auxiliaries and troopships unless commissioned as vessels of war do not wear a pennant.

In theory the Blue Pennant would have been used by the Colonial Navies of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, the Australian Navy 1901-1911 and the Indian Navy until 1928. Possibly also by Tasmanian and New
Zealand vessels, though they were only small torpedo boats. However, "through an over-sight, the Board's wishes with respect to the pendant were not carried out for 55 years, when King's Regulations & Admiralty Instructions were amended." This suggests that perhaps the Blue Pennant was not generally used until 1920, though I would have thought that a colonial navy would have referred to Colonial Office Regulations rather than KR&AI.

In the 1930s the Blue Pennant authorised by an Admiralty Warrant of 14th April 1886 for "Police Vessels of the Government of Canada", was worn by Canadian Fishery Protection Vessels

Various Naval Defence Forces formed in the late 1930s and early 1940s used a Blue Pennant even though some, Burma, Straits Settlements, Hong Kong, Kenya and Tanganyika were allowed to fly the White Ensign. After the war the Royal Malayan Navy, the Royal East African Navy, the Hong Kong Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, the Malayan RNVR and the Mauritius Naval Volunteer Force had White Ensigns and Blue Pennants.
[ADM 1/8759/206 and ADM 1/23988]

David Prothero, 14 November 2001

I have checked the book "The International Code of Signals" (Spottiswoode, London, 1908) and can confirm this. Specifically:
* Vessels of the Surveying Service commanded by officers of the Royal Navy flew the Blue Ensign and the Blue Pennant.
* Hired transport vessels commanded by officers of the Royal Navy flew the Blue Ensign defaced with an gold Admiralty Anchor, and a Blue Pennant defaced with a gold Admiralty anchor next to the St. George Cross.

Miles Li, 16 November 2001

The White Ensign

The current official specifications for the white ensign are given in BR20 along with the specifications for the Union Flag, admirals' rank flags and pennants. The St.George's cross should be 4/30ths of the flag width, i.e. a little more than 1/7ths. This means that the Union in the canton is 13 x 28 units, i.e. slightly longer than usual.
Graham Bartram, 3 February 2000

Did Nelson's use of the white ensign at Trafalgar result in the use of the white ensign by the Royal Navy?

The White Ensign became the sole ensign of the Royal Navy in 1864. The use of the White Ensign by Nelson at Trafalgar may have influenced the choice, but I think was not the main reason. The Red Ensign was the obvious choice of ensign for the Royal Navy as it was the ensign of the senior squadron. However merchant ships had always used the Red Ensign, and it would not have been practical to change that. The White Ensign was next in seniority.

David Prothero, 12 September 2002

Under what circumstances can the White Ensign be flown, apart from HMS and Naval shore establishments? Particularly Merchant Navy vessels and replicas of early Naval Square Riggers not now directly associated with the RN. What qualifies these vessels to fly the White Ensign (ex RN crewmembers perhaps) and where should the ensign be worn (stern flagstaff, masthead etc.)?
Tom Robinson, 24 June 2000

My purely amateur understanding of the matter is that a British owned vessel that flies the White Ensign is committing a Statutory Offence and is liable to prosecution, unless it is operated by the Royal Navy or has a warrant to fly the White Ensign issued by the Ministry of Defence (Navy).
David Prothero, 4 July 2000

David is quite correct that only vessels of the Royal Navy or the Royal Yacht Squadron (plus the Trinity House vessel "Patricia" when escorting the Sovereign) are allowed to fly the white ensign at sea or in harbour. The question of historic warrants for restored ships is still "under consideration" but there is a great deal of reluctance in the MoD to grant such warrants.

Ships captained and officered by RNR Officers can apply for an undefaced Blue Ensign.
Graham Bartram, 4 July 2000

Members of the Royal Yacht Squadron are granted the privilege of flying the white ensign, at stern, to denote nationality, on their recreational boats.
Jose C. Alegria, 2 July 2000

Use of White Ensign on Land

The use of the White Ensign on land is a grey area as it is not clear what law, if any, is being broken (Britain not having land flag laws as such).
Graham Bartram, 4 July 2000

The Admiralty disapproved of the use of the White Ensign on land and did what they could to discourage it. (I imagine that the Ministry of Defence (Navy) take a similar view.) They were not able to prosecute anyone who did fly the White Ensign since, as Graham wrote, there are no British laws that relate specifically to the use of flags on land.

The White Ensign is used by some football fans, who write the name of the club they support along the horizontal arm of the St George's cross. I have never heard of any attempt to curtail or prohibit this.

If the authorities did want to take action against its use they could prosecute those responsible under other, more general, laws. For example: an Italian restaurant that flew the Italian Flag was prosecuted by the local authority with breach of the planning regulations on the grounds that the flag was an unauthorised advertisement. I imagine that it would also be possible under certain circumstances to charge a person or organisation that flew the White Ensign on land with misrepresentation, or acting with intent to deceive.

One ironic result of this situation is that, whilst those who possibly have no regard for the Royal Navy can use the flag almost with impunity, organisations or individuals who would like to fly the White Ensign as an indication of their support for the Navy, or of their former association with it, do not do so, since they know that it would not meet with the approval of the Navy.
David Prothero, 5 July 2000

When arranging a funeral in January 2000, I considered a white ensign on the coffin as an act of remembrance. I contacted the Admiralty in London where I was referred to the Flag Lieutenant in the First Sea Lords Office. He referred me to the Portsmouth Naval Base which deals with requests for buglers flags, honour guards, etc. I discovered the ensign is not officially used at funerals but some people do use it anyway.
Hugh Watkins, 6 July 2000

Yhe British command flag of an 18thC Admiral of the White was usually St George's Cross, flown at the relevant mast truck (main, fore, mizzen, for Admiral, Vice-Admiral, Rear-Admiral), as Nelson's as Vice-Admiral of the White at Trafalgar; that for an Admiral of the Fleet or acting Admiral of the Fleet was the Union at the main, with red Ensign at the mizzen or flagstaff (as Howe's at the Glorious First of June, 1794).

Roger Marsh, 31 December 2001

International influence of British ensigns

Unless otherwise stated (a) the relevant national flag appears in the canton, and (b) the term 'white ensign' means a flag with a red St. George's cross.

Antigua: Civil ensign; possibly defunct
Standard British red ensign
Australia: War ensign, State ensign, Civil ensign
War ensign: British Union flag in canton; white field with blue southern cross and seven-pointed Australian star.
State Ensign, Civil Ensign: As above, but with white stars on a red field.
Bahamas: Civil Ensign
Civil Ensign: Red field with white cross.
War Ensign: White ensign
Bangladesh: Civil ensign
Red ensign
Belize: War ensign,State ensign,Civil ensign probably defunct
War ensign, State ensign: British union flag in canton on blue field with state arms on a white disc.
Civil ensign: Standard British red ensign
Brunei Darussalam: War ensign
White field with blue cross
Fiji Islands: Civil ensign,State ensign,War ensign; current status unknown
Fiji uses the British red, blue and white ensigns (the latter without the St George's cross) as its civil, state and war ensigns respectively, with the addition of the state shield.
Ghana: Civil ensign,War ensign
Red and white ensigns
India: War ensign,Civil ensign,State ensign
War ensign,Civil ensign: White and red ensigns respectively.
Civil ensign: Blue field with yellow anchor, on its side
Jamaica: War ensign
White ensign
Jordan: War ensign
White ensign, without cross but with a black anchor emblem
Kenya: Civil ensign
Plain white field on which there is a red anchor
Republic of Korea: War ensign
National flag in canton modified with addition of crossed black anchors behind 'yin/yang' symbol instead of the four black 'kwae' marks. On a blue field. British influenced design?
Malaysia: War ensign, Royal flag
War ensign has plain white field with blue anchor design.
Royal flag has plain red field.
Mauritius: State ensign, Civil ensign
Red and blue ensigns, defaced with addition of state arms, the former in a white disc.
New Zealand: Civil ensign, War ensign, State ensign
Red, white and blue ensigns respectively, defaced with addition of white, red and red-with-white-outlined stars of the southern cross. The State ensign is the same as the national flag on land. The white ensign does not have a St. George's cross.
Nigeria: War ensign
White ensign
Pakistan: Civil ensign,State ensign
Red ensign used for both purposes. The war ensign is a variant of the national flag, but with different proportions
Saint Kitts and Nevis: Civil ensign, probably defunct
British red ensign
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines: Civil ensign, State ensign, War ensign probably defunct since introduction of new national flag in 1979
The colonial blue ensign, defaced with a modified version of the state arms on a disc was official for all purposes at sea.
Samoa: Civil ensign, State ensign
Blue canton on which there is a representation of the southern cross on white. Red field. Used for official purposes at sea (Is the national flag on land as well).
Singapore: State ensign, War ensign
Blue and white ensigns respectively, the white ensign being minus the St. George's cross. The canton is the stars on red background from the top hoist of the national flag on land - a sort of canton of a canton? Both flags are defaced with the addition of a red and white 8-pointed star design
Solomon Islands: Civil ensign, State ensign, War ensign
Red, blue and white ensigns respectively. A 'pure' adoption of the British pattern.
South Africa: War ensign, presumably defunct or superseded since introduction of new national flag
White ensign, with green cross instead of red,
Trinidad and Tobago: War ensign
White ensign
Tuvalu: Civil ensign,State ensign; presumably defunct since introduction of new national flag
The State ensign and Civil ensign were the same as the (old) national flag, itself a derivative of the blue ensign.
United Kingdom: Civil ensign,State ensign,War ensign
The three ensigns were originally the flags of the three squadrons of the Royal Navy. This system was reformed in c1830, with only the white ensign being retained for the Royal Navy.

Stuart Notholt, 9 February 1996

Perhaps the US, influenced by the Red Ensign even though the color is not used, and Israel (among others?), which uses its national flag in a canton, could be considered part of this list too.

Nathan Lamm, 14 August 2002

Application of the Merchant Shipping Act

Any ship registered in a British port, which includes ports in Overseas Territories and Dependencies, is subject to the Merchant Shipping Act. Certain sections of the Act describe the flag that should be flown, which is the Red Ensign "without any defacement or modification whatsoever". The warrant or order in council is a legal document which exempts certain defined ships from this requirement and indicates the authorised defacement. For example, this is the text of the Admiralty Warrant for the Cyprus Red Ensign.

"Whereas we deem it expedient that vessels registered under the Cyprus Registration of Ships Law 1922, and belonging to British Subjects or to Bodies Corporate established under or subject to the law of the Island of Cyprus, and having in the Island of Cyprus the primary Place of Business, and also boats forming part of the equipment of such Vessels shall be permitted to wear the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet with the badge of the Island of Cyprus on the fly thereof. We do therefore by virtue of the Power and Authority vested in us hereby, Warrant and Authorise the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet and the badge of the Island of Cyprus in the fly to be used on board the Vessels hereinbefore specified. 25 August 1922."
That is a document that covered any number of ships, but other exemptions were for named ships. During WWII Danish merchant ships operating out of Britain had to be placed on the British Register and were therefore required to fly the Red Ensign. Later it was agreed that providing the Master and crew of a Danish ship were all Danish nationals it could fly the Danish flag whilst remaining on the British Register. Certificates of Exemption were issued individually to those Masters whose ships met the requirement.

The arrangement for those yacht clubs whose members are privileged to fly a defaced Red Ensign are different.

David Prothero, 14 August 2000

The "Yellow Ensign"

I know that at the time of Trafalgar there were 3 sqaudrons of the Royal Navy who had admirals of the red, blue and white. In Bernard Cornwells book 'Sharpe's Trafalgar' there are admirals of the yellow mentioned who don't have ships. Did yellow ensigns exist?

T.M. Cox, 11 September 2002

No, nor did yellow admiral's flags. "Admiral of the yellow" or "yellow admiral" was a colloquial, somewhat sarcastic term for a flag officer without a flag. In the Royal Navy of the early 19th century, promotion beyond the rank of captain was purely by seniority. If you lived long enough, you made rear admiral regardless of merit or performance. Now suppose the time came when a certain Captain Smith was next in line for promotion, but Captain Brown, next junior to him on the list, was better qualified or had better political connections or whatever. The Admiralty really wants to promote Brown, but it cannot jump him ahead of Smith. It promotes them both, but assigns Brown to a command as a rear admiral of the blue and leaves Smith sitting on the beach without an assignment--nowhere to hoist his admiral's flag. Technically, Smith has become a "rear admiral without distinction of squadron."

But everyone knew that admirals were all of a particular color--blue, white, or red. So people began referring to officers like Smith as "admirals of the yellow" as a kind of grim joke, or at least it was grim to Smith and other "yellow admirals."

The prospect of being "yellowed" looms large in the fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey in the later volumes of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. Since the last book is entitled "Blue at the Mizzen," it is not giving away the ending to say that Aubrey avoids this fate worse than death.

Joe McMillan, 12 September 2002

'Yellow Admiral' was a term used in Britain to denote a post-captain promoted to rear admiral on retirement but without serving in that rank. They were promoted to flag rank and placed on the retired list on the following day, so that they did nor automatically swell the rear-admirals' list. The term was in use between 1815 and 1864.
Source: The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (1976)

Jarig Bakker, 12 September 2002