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United Kingdom: Royal Navy

Last modified: 2002-12-28 by rob raeside
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[UK naval ensign] by Vincent Morley

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History of the White Ensign

In origin there were three naval squadrons, of the Red, White and Blue, and they took these colours from those of the Union Jack. The division was made in the 1680s, if I remember correctly. Because the Red Ensigns of England and Scotland had already been established as merchant flags a Red Ensign with the Union in the canton became the merchant flag of Great Britain upon Union in 1707. This led to potential confusion - was that ship a merchantman or a member of the red squadron?

In 1864 it was decided to end this anomaly. Henceforth the White Ensign was reserved to the Royal Navy; the Blue Ensign undefaced to the Royal Naval Reserve and defaced with the appropriate departmental or teritorial badge to government service; and the Red Ensign to the 'merchant navy' (as the term is in Britain).

Roy Stilling, 6 July 1996

Use of the White Ensign

I quote from the 1951 Admiralty Manual of Seamanship;

All H.M. ships in commission wear the White Ensign. It is worn at the ensign staff when in harbour; it is also worn at the ensign staff at sea whenever possible, but in bad weather, or when cleared for action, or during war, it is worn at the peak of the gaff on the mainmast, or on a suitable staff mounted in the after part of the ship.
I think that nothing has changed since then, except that the Navy now consists mainly of small ships in which, when at sea, it is usually more practical to fly the ensign from a mast rather than the ensign staff, particularly since many operate helicopters over the stern.

The White Ensign is flown at the peak of all Royal Navy/Royal Marines shore establishments, commanded by a commissioned officer, regardless of distance from the sea. There used to be a Naval Air Station near Nottingham, almost as far from the sea as you can get in Britain, but it was called H.M.S. Gamecock and flew the White Ensign. I can't remember if a commissioning pennant is flown at the masthead of shore establishments.

David Prothero, 14 July 1999

The Queen's Regulations for the Royal Navy, (London: HMSO, 1967) provides at paragraph 1210 that "In a fleet establishment commissioned as one of H.M. ships and similarly commanded, the masthead pennant is to be flown at the head of the flagstaff wherever fitted." From the context, "similarly commanded" means "commanded by a naval officer".

Joseph McMillan, 4 September 1999

Above the main entrance of the Ministry of Defense building in Whitehall are three flagpoles with the Royal Navy's white ensign, the British Army flag, and the RAF ensign flying in that order (from the observer's left to right).

Joseph McMillan, 23 September

Dunkirk Little Ships

The Dunkirk Little Ships were those vessels taken up and used during Operation Dynamo in 1940. They may fly the White Ensign at the jack when at anchor or in port but not at sea when the normal ensign applies.

Steven Vincent, 10 September 2002

Royal Navy colour

[Royal Navy King's Colour, George VI] by T.F. Mills

This is a drawing of the Royal Navy King's Colour from the reign of George VI. I adapted this from a black and white line drawing in T.J. Edwards, Standards, Guidons and Colours of the Commonwealth Forces, (1953). I assume the circlet is blue because it is the Garter. The motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense is partially concealed by the crown.

T.F. Mills, 24 January 1999

Origin of Royal Navy King's/Queen's Colours

Colours were originally called ensigns. Ensigns came into use on the ships of Queen Elizabeth I in the 1570s, and imitated regimental flags, which at that time were called ensigns. Until the early 1600s each ship had its own individual ensign (colour) that was different to the ensign of any other ship. By this time the ensigns on land were being called colours, because of the variety of colours used to distinguish the flag of one regiment from another. The equivalent naval flags retained the name ensign, and it became the practice for all the ships in a squadron to have an ensign of the same design .

Two hundred years later there were occasions when the Royal Navy needed to parade a flag on land. An Admiralty Board Minute of 1807 proposed that a White Ensign paraded by a Naval Guard would be considered a Colour. I don't know whether the proposal was adopted at that time, but in 1920 there were regulations about the use of the White Ensign by landing parties ashore. However although it was a special White Ensign, in the sense that it was reduced in length to make it suitable for use in a parade, it was no different in design to any other White Ensign. This caused a problem when, at a ceremony, there were both Naval and Military Guards of Honour. The Naval Guard saluted the Military Guard as a mark of respect for the King's Colour of the regiment providing the Guard, but the Military Guard did not salute the Naval Guard since there was no Colour to salute. This was criticised by those who did not appreciate that the salute was to the Colour, and not to the troops parading it. 

After an incident at the Royal Tournament in 1923, the King was asked to approve the use, by the Royal Navy, of colours corresponding to the King's colours carried by military forces. On 5th March 1924, as a temporary measure, the King approved a Service Colour which consisted of a silk White Ensign 36 inches by 45 inches, with red, white and blue cord and gold tassels, carried on a staff, capped with a crown and three faced shield bearing the Admiralty anchor. The Service Colour with the addition of a crown and royal cypher superimposed on the centre, was approved as a King's Colour by King George V on the 12th May 1925.

A Colour, each identical, was provided for the Commands of each Home Port and each Overseas Station. Similar colours were purchased by the Royal Australian Navy (2), the Royal Canadian Navy (2), the New Zealand Division and the Royal Indian Navy. New colours were needed after the death of King George V as it was not possible to alter the royal cypher from GVR to GVIR. The Royal Indian Navy Colour did not need to be replaced as its royal cypher was GIR (Emperor of India) which did not change.

Colours are normally changed after 25 years, but the Portsmouth Command Colour presented in 1952, became so worn that it had to be replaced after just ten years. Depending upon their condition old colours are either laid-up or destroyed. The Plymouth Command Colour of 1937 was laid up in Liverpool Cathedral in 1953, but the Portsmouth Command Colour of  1937, which had been damaged in the blitz in 1941, was destroyed by burning in the presence of two officers holding sovereign's commissionson on 13th May 1961.

David Prothero, 19 February 2002

David Prothero discussed above the origin of the RN flag used during ceremonial occasions ashore. As I recall, this flag was granted by the king to the RN circa 1922. When "showing the flag" prior to that, it's likely that RN landing parties used some sort of national flag ... perhaps a small ensign. Can anyone provide some insight into what they might've used between 1900 and 1922?

Al Fisher, 28 February 2002

As far as I know, a plain White Ensign. There was an Admiralty Fleet Order 1362 of 1922 which contained instructions for landing the White Ensign ashore, at home and abroad, when it was to be carried in review. This was cancelled in 1924 to avoid confusion between the recently inaugurated King's Colour and the White Ensign.

An instruction in force in 1934 restricted landing the White Ensign in foreign territories, to those States recognised by the British Government and was limited to occasions when the Head of State was present.

David Prothero, 4 March 2002

If I remember my Queen's Regulations for the Navy correctly they are to use a Queen's Colour, if it is available, for occasions when the Head of State is to be present, and if one is not available the white ensign is to be used in its place.

Actually the chances of a Queen's Colour being available are pretty slim unless someone thought to organize it some months in advance!

Graham Bartram, 5 March 2002

It occurs to me that Al's expression "showing the flag" implies a landing party operating in a situation of tension or a "small war." By the time frame he asks about, the custom of troops carrying flags of any kind in combat was becoming obsolescent, wasn't it? So the landing party would carry the flag only under the ceremonial conditions David describes, not under combat conditions. 

My question would be what flags RN landing parties carried before about 1900--say, between about 1800 and 1880? Anyone have an idea?

Joe McMillan, 5 March 2002

Royal Navy Supply & Transport Service

[Royal Navy Supply & Transport Service] by Joe McMillan

Image based on a Ministry of Defence poster called Colours of the Fleet.  The complete caption to the flag is, "The civilian manned RNSTS is responsible for the great majority of stores used throughout the Fleet. This flag was granted by the Queen in 1984 and is flown at Naval Stores Depots." My guess is that it is flown alone outside depots just as a company flag might be flown outside a factory.
David Prothero, 17 November 2001

Royal Naval Reserve

Reported on the Royal Navy website:

Following a personal recommendation by the First Sea Lord, Her Majesty the Queen has graciously approved the presentation of the Sovereign's Colour for the Royal Navy to the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) in recognition of their continuing support to the Regular Service. Commodore John Ellis, the Senior Reserve Officer, said: "This is a tremendous accolade for those who have served in the RNVR and RNR and for those serving today. The Wavy Navy (RNVR) which was amalgamated into the RNR in 1958, provided more than 80% of Naval Officers and Ratings in 1945 and that valiant spirit lives on, with more than 97% of today's RNR coming from a volunteer civilian background."

It is planned to combine the presentation of the Sovereign's Colour with a special parade in London to mark the centenary of the Naval Volunteer Reserves next year.

David Prothero, 21 August 2002

Dominion Navy Colours

Edwards (1953), page 145 and illustration of King's Colour Royal Navy on page opposite shows an illustration with a gold cord and gold tassels, while the text describes the Colour as having, "... red, white and blue silk cord and gold tassels." In fact the cord is blue and gold, and the tassels are blue and gold, and have probably never been otherwise. They are described as such in correspondence of 1925 in ADM 1/8972, and can be seen in colour photographs of the Colour being paraded at the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Red, white and blue cord was used only on the "Service Colours", which had no Cypher or Crown, approved 5th March 1924, but replaced by the "King's Colour", approved 12th May 1925.

The Colours of Dominion Navies were the same as those of the Royal Navy except for the Royal Indian Navy, which had GRI [George Rex Imperator] as the Cypher, instead of GRV or later GRVI. They were taken to the National Defence Academy in Delhi in December 1950.
ADM 1/20767

A Colour was presented to the Royal Indian Navy in 1935. A problem arose in 1947 when the Navy was divided between India and Pakistan; which navy should have the Colour, supposing that either wanted it? The Colour was taken to Delhi on 10th August, five days before Independence, and lodged in the Defence Academy three years later.
David Prothero, 18, 20 June 2000

Corps of the Royal Marines

I don't know if it is the general practice, but a boat operated on the River Congo by 40 Commando, Royal Marines, flew the White Ensign above the Corps of the Royal Marines flag. The latter is officially, I think, the Royal Marine badge superimposed on a horizontally striped flag. The stripes (from the top) are: dark blue 4 units, yellow 1 unit, green 1 unit, red 2 units, blue 4 units. This represents the pattern of the Royal Marine stable belt on a blue flag. Blue for the maritime connection, yellow for the original uniform colour, green for the light infantry and red for the uniform colour in 1876. In the photograph of the boat, the flag has been simplified by omitting the badge and making all the stripes the same width.

David Prothero, 25 September 1999

This is the camp flag of Royal Marines headquarters, rather than the Royal Marines themselves. The Royal Marines do not have an ensign of their own and use the white ensign. Unlike the Royal Navy, they do have their own set of camp flags. 40 Commando's camp flag is unequal vertical stripes of light blue, dark blue, light blue. There are gold daggers on the light blue stripes and the Royal Navy badge on the dark blue stripe.

Graham Bartram, 27 September 1999

Each unit of the Corps of the Royal Marines has is own house flag and will fly this where they can. The Corps uses the Union flag when in Barracks, as a Commando in its home, on land base is working under the Army Act. This may change with the new amphibious force which is forming now jointly commanded by the Commandant General as the Military head and an Admiral as the amphibious head. The Corps uses the White Ensign on all her boats as they belong to the Navy, but as you say may fly a house flag alongside this. The Corps always uses a White Ensign on Naval Bases but may fly the Corps Colours (Blue, Red, Green, Yellow). You might also find that at Barracks like Lympestone, and Stonehouse the Corps might only use this flag in preference to either the Union flag or the White Ensign. 

Roger, Royal Marines, 26 December 2001

Merchant Navy proposals

The term "merchant navy" dates from the Tudor period, when the term "navy" lacked the strictly military meaning it has now. The "merchant navy" was simply the nation's merchant fleet. John S. Ayer, 6 June 2000

The merchant navy is simply that. George V upgraded the Merchant Marine to the Merchant Navy in recognition of their services during WWI.

On 17th July 1918 the Naval Secretary wrote to the First Lord, "King sent for me yesterday and expressed a desire to signalise the war service of the Mercantile Marine by some distinctive recognition. He suggested a red St George's cross fimbriated white on the Red Ensign (see illustration by António Martins, 9 June 2000). This would not be for yachts, only bona fide merchant ships. The blue Ensign might be similarly altered with a red St George's cross fimbriated white." See illustration by António Martins", 9 June 2000.
ADM 1/8530/203.

Had these ever been introduced the dimensions would probably have been more like those of the later Civil Air Ensign. The Admiralty persuaded King George V that this was not a good idea and suggested a number of alternatives, one being an order that in future the Service was to be known as the British Merchant Navy. Later the Prince of Wales was appointed "Master of the British Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets".

The term used before Merchant Navy, was Mercantile Marine, which had in general replaced the earlier term Merchant Service. The first commercial signal code introduced in 1817 was called, Captain Marryat's Code of Signals for the Merchant Service.
David Prothero and Andrew Yong, 6 June 2000

A Board of Admiralty meeting on 18th July 1918 concluded that there was no objection from a purely naval point of view, and appointed the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff and Naval Secretary to consider the historical aspects. On the same day the Head of the Legal Branch wrote that it would not conflict with any foreign flags, but would require amendments to the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 if it was not to be for yachts, which had in many cases rendered good service. He added that it would also be necessary, if adopted to make fresh provision for badges in the fly of colonial ensigns, and that it was not clear how altering the Blue Ensign would recognise the service of the Merchant Service.

A Board meeting on 25th July advised against the proposals because:-

  1. The Red Ensign had been used by the Royal Navy and flown in many famous naval actions. The Red Ensign, as it was, conferred a greater honour on the wearer than would a modified ensign with no historical associations.
  2. The proposed modification symbolised only England .
  3. There would be a problem with badges of Public Authorities, Dominions and Colonies.
  4. It would be difficult to frame a definition of a merchant vessel entitled to wear the modified ensign, that would confine the honour to the ships on which H.M. desired that it should be conferred.
The Board suggested a red bordered Union Jack as jack in the bows, and a blue bordered Union Jack as jack for vessels that wore the Blue Ensign, but this was not, in the King's view, a sufficient privilege.

On the 12th August the Naval Secretary wrote that Captains of the Merchant Service had indicated that sentiment attached to the plain Red Ensign was so great that altering it would be an unpopular idea. Other ideas were floated including a white St George's cross on the Red Ensign, but by 20th August the Admiralty had decided that they were, "averse to any tampering with the Red Ensign".
David Prothero, 10 June 2000


In the Royal Navy a paying-off pennant is flown to mark the end of a ship's commission. Traditionally the pennant is the same length as the ship, and somewhat longer if the commission has been extended. It is said to have originated in the 19th century when all cleaning rags were tied together and hoisted as a sign that they were finished with. The pennants were usually of the same width, and had a small St George's cross of the same size, as a normal commissioning pennant. However a recent photograph of one shows it to be only about half the length of the ship, three or four times broader than normal, and with the St George's cross covering half the length of the pennant.

David Prothero, 19 November 1999

Did second-class commodores' broad pennants not have swallow-tails? In which case, were they triangular by any chance?
Joseph McMillan, 9 March 2000

As I understand it, after looking through W.G.Perrin's "British Flags", there was no difference in shape or size between the broad pennants of contemporary 1st and 2nd class commodores.

"Broad Pennants" started as "broad" ordinary pennants and therefore had the shape of a very slender triangle with a slit at the end of the fly. I should think that they were similar to the pennants on the "Royal George" on the front cover of "Flags at Sea", but about 2/3rds as broad again. Perrin quotes Pepys' "Miscellanea" in which the original broad pennant of 1674 is described as being 4 feet 7 inches broad at the head and 21 yards in length (roughly 1.4 x 19 metres). This compared with ordinary pennants that were 2 feet 9 inches at the head and between 22 and 32 yards in length, depending on the size of the ship (0.8 x 20 to 30 metres). Over the years between 1674 and 1864 broad pennants changed from proportions of 1:14 to 1:2.

Don't forget that in the Royal Navy a burgee is not a small triangular flag, but a "rectangular flag with a swallowtail". Definition in the "Flags at Sea" glossary and part 5 of Phil Nelson's 1913 Signal Flags.
David Prothero, 12 March 2000

Paying Off Pennant

Traditionally, a paying-off pennant has the length of the ship, plus one foot for each year of service - so long, in fact, that several balloons are often needed to keep the pennant flying!
Miles Li, 26 October 2002


England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty

Nelson's signal at Trafalgar shows some of the shortcomings Howe's code. The first eight words were each signaled with a three flag hoist. Even the two letter word "do" needed a hoist of three flags. Nelson had wanted to send "confides", but the word was not in the code book so he settled for "expects" which was. The last word "duty" was also not in the code book, and the closest words that were, "best" and "utmost" were not considered appropriate. "Duty" therefore had to be spelt letter by letter which took seven flags. Because illustrations of the signal show all the flags at once it is sometimes thought that this was how the signal was sent. Actually of course it was sent in a succession of hoists over a period of four minutes.

To avoid the code being deciphered, in time of war the actual meaning of each flag in Howe's code would change periodically (every six months(?)). Hence, would one expect Popham's code to change with it. Thus to resend Nelson's signal six months later, it appears one would have needed different flags.)

It used to be thought that Nelson's signal had been sent using the 1803 code. In about 1912 Perrin, the Admiralty Librarian who wrote "British Flags", discovered that a 1799 code book had been captured by the French in August 1803, and that consequently the code had been changed before Trafalgar in October 1805. Illustrations of Nelson's signal before between 1885 and 1908 show the correct flags in the wrong arrangement.

David Prothero, 4 December 2001

The 1799 code was changed by an Admiralty Circular of 4th November 1803. Nelson's Trafalgar signal was shown correctly until 1885. In that year it was pointed out that the Signal Book of 1799 was not replaced until 1808, and that the signal made at Trafalgar in 1805 must have used the 1799 code. The Admiralty were persuaded that this was correct and a coloured leaflet was issued illustrating the signal according to the numerary code in the 1799 Signal Book.

In 1908 Perrin found a book of the numerary code, corresponding to that in the 1808 Signal Book, that had been authorised and signed by three admirals, who were in office together in the Admiralty only between 21st January and 15th May, 1804. This convinced the Admiralty that the original sequence of flags was correct, and a circular was issued admitting that the leaflet of 1885 was wrong.

Remembering that the numerary code was only a part of the complete Signal Book, the sequence of events was:
1780, ca.: Howe's code, partly table-based, partly positional.
1788: An officer of the Navy published a numerical code system.
1790: New signal book by Howe, using a numerical code system. Signals: Must have changed, since they are no longer positional. Still included sail-signals. 260 entries. Numbers: may or may not have been equal to 1788. Was gradually expanded until: 
1799. New Signal Book. Signals: Sail signaling was dropped. 340 entries. Numbers: Unchanged?
1800: Popham introduces his 'Telegraphic Signals of Marine Vocabulary'
1803: Popham's code officially adopted by British Royal Navy. 3000 entries.
1803. August. Code book captured.
1803. November. Instruction to change the numbers that had been assigned to the numerary flags in the 1799 Signal Book.
1804. Revised code book.
1805, September: 50 Popham code-books issued to British fleet at Cadiz.
1805, October. Trafalgar; Nelson's signal made in revised code.
1808. Revised version of 1799 Signal Book. Numbers: Unchanged (from 1804). Signals: ? Depends on what was actually changed. The need to add directly coded signals would probably have lessened due to those being codable with Popham's code as well.
1813: Expanded version of Popham's dictionary, to 6000 phrases and 60,000 words (one sources has "30,000 words"). 
1885. Assumption that Nelson's signal must have been made in the code shown in the 1799 Signal Book.
1908. Discovery of 1804 code book and recognition that Nelson's signal was made in the revised code.

Due to a peculiarity of that part of the code used to send the letters of the alphabet, the word "duty" appears to be mis-spelt.
"T" the 20th letter of the alphabet was signalled "19", because the alphabet had been reduced to 25 letters and "I" and "J" were both signalled by "9". This moved all subsequent letters up one number. However "U", the 21st letter was signalled "21", because in the alphabet it was listed after "V".

David Prothero and Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 5 December 2001

Howe's code allowed only 1000 signals, but apparently the Popham code could send those 3000 entries by adding a separate flag for each of three tables of 1000 entries. This appears to be a rather cumbersome way of simply adding a fourth digit, which could have been done more consistently by adding a third repeater. I do wonder how this was for the eventual 66,000 entries. I doubt they used 66 flags merely to indicate the correct table. So there must have been a table of sorts to indicate the table with a more limited set of flags. Adding yet a fourth repeater would have given room for 100,000 signals. (All on the assumption there was room for four-flag resp. five-flag hoists.)

Further information can be found at The Early History of Data Networks - Mirrors and Flags and Signal Flags

Nelson's words were changed to numbers using Popham's Vocabulary Book. The numbers were signaled with the flags of the 1790 Signal Book selected in accordance with the revised numbering of 1803, which also introduced a white flag and removed the red flag. 
253 269 863 261 471 958 220 370 4 21 19 24
The first substitute (D) was used for the second 2 in 220.

The hoist 253 for "England" was preceded by the Telegraph Flag to show that succeeding hoists constituted one message. If 253 had not been preceded by the Telegraph Flag it would have had a different meaning.

David Prothero, 6 December 2001