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United Kingdom: Royal Air Force

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[RAF ensign] by António Martins

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Description and use of the flag

The British Royal Air Force Ensign is in light "Air Force" blue with the Union Jack in the canton and the Royal Air Force roundel, concentric rings of red-white-blue (from the inside out) in the middle of the fly.

Roy Stilling, 18 December 1995

The roundel is 5/7ths of the fly width, with the rings having the following diameters: red 1/7th of fly, white 3/7ths of fly, blue 5/7ths of fly.

Graham Bartram, 19 September 1999

Before 1918 the Royal Naval Air Service used the White Ensign and I presume that the Royal Flying Corps used whatever flags were appropriate for a corps of the army, perhaps just the Union Jack? An interim flag was produced to represent the Royal Air Force at the armistice celebrations; a 'white ensign' with an overall dark blue St George's Cross, the Royal Air Force eagle in the centre of the cross, and a royal crown above it on the vertical arm of the cross. Rather more attractive than the roundel ensign, but not to the liking of the Admiralty who thought it looked too much like a naval flag. Between the armistice and 26 July 1920 when the present ensign was approved, the Royal Air Force was supposed to fly the Union Jack, but some former Royal Naval Air Service units flew the White Ensign, or the white ensign with a blue St George's Cross, but without the eagle and crown.

During World War II there was a Royal Air Force ensign with a black, yellow and red roundel - the ensign of the Belgian Section of the Royal Air Force.

David Prothero, 11 November 1998

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

Joseph McMillan, 23 September

The Royal Air Force Ensign was approved without difference as the ensign of the Royal Australian Air Force on 24 July 1922 (AIR 2/211), and was not changed until 1949; but Canada and New Zealand had their own Air Force ensigns during WW2. 
The Royal Canadian Air Force was granted the right to use the Royal Air Force Ensign on 12 October 1921 (AIR 2/211), but replaced the central red disc with a red maple leaf in March 1940 (AIR 2/6141).
The Royal New Zealand Air Force applied to change its ensign in August 1939. The new ensign was described as, "the Ensign of the Royal Air Force defaced by the addition of the letters N Z superimposed in white upon the red roundel of the ensign" (AIR 30/140).
References are Public Record Office documents at Kew.

David Prothero, 2 June 2002

Derivation of the flag

The RAF website has a section on the RAF Ensign. In a nutshell, in 1920, the Air Council decided that it was to have its own flag. The Admiralty opposed the move at first, but later conceded, stating that the flag should be the Union Jack with a badge. The Air Council did not like the idea, suggesting a plain White Ensign without the cross. This infuriated the Admiralty, for the White Ensign was (is) reserved for the Royal Navy. King George V wanted the matter to be resolved by the cabinet, but nothing materialized. Meanwhile, the public were sending in their own designs. None was adopted, but there was one suggestion which impressed the parties concerned. This was to use the RAF roundel. Before the final decision was made, Air Vice Marshal Salmond added a Union Jack in the canton of the new flag, symbolizing British authority. The RAF Ensign was then adopted in December 1920, and authorized by the King's Order in Council on 24 March 1921.

Miles Li, 25 January 2002

Flags of rank

All Royal Air Force flags of rank are based on a theme of red stripes on an 'air force blue' background with dark blue borders at the top and bottom. Senior officers have rectangular flags, whereas junior officers' flags are either swallow-tailed or pennant shaped. 'Air force blue' is the distinctive shade of sky blue used by the RAF for its flags and uniforms since its formation in 1918 from the army's Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Contrary to popular belief, the colour was not chosen to represent the sky - the Royal Air Force was intended to wear khaki uniforms like the army - instead a large order of light-blue cloth for uniforms for the Tsar's bodyguard was on offer at a very reasonable price due to the 1917 revolutions in Russia and was snapped up for the new service.

Roy Stilling, 9 February 1997

Marshal of the Royal Air Force:

[Marshal of the RAF] by Roy Stilling

This is equivalent to admiral of the fleet in the navy and to field marshal in the army.

Air chief marshal:

[Air chief marshal] by Roy Stilling

This is equivalent to admiral in the navy and to general in the army.

Air marshal:

[Air marshal] by Roy Stilling

This is equivalent to vice-admiral in the navy and to lieutenant-general in the army.

Air vice-marshal:

[Air vice-marshal] by Roy Stilling

This is equivalent to rear-admiral in the navy and to major-general in the army.

Air commodore:

[Air commodore] by Roy Stilling

This is equivalent to commodore in the navy and to brigadier-general in the army.

Group captain:

[Group captain] by Roy Stilling

This is equivalent to captain in the navy and to colonel in the army.

Wing commander:

[Wing commander] by Roy Stilling

This is equivalent to commander in the navy and to lieutenant-colonel in the army.

Roy Stilling, 9-10 February 1997

Royal Air Force rank flags are made in only one size - 2 feet by 3 feet (0.61 m by 0.91 m) - and are flown at the masthead to indicate the rank of a station commander. The Royal Air Force ensign is flown at the peak. At stations where more than one unit is located, the flag of a unit commander may be flown on a flagstaff at unit headquarters.

David Prothero, 30 January 2000

Other Royal Air Force flags

While browsing I.O. Evans's book Flags of the World (1971), I noticed that there are several other flags used by the Royal Air Force. These are (the text is quoted from the book):

  • Royal Observer Corps
    Founded in 1925 to identify enemy aircraft, the Royal Observer Corps places its own emblem, instead of the Air Force roundels, in the fly of the Royal Air Force ensign. Its central device, encircled with a wreath of laurel and surmounted by the royal crown, represents an Elizabethan coast-watcher holding up a torch, and it includes the motto "Forewarned is Forearmed."
  • Air Training Corps
    The badge of the Air Training Corps, similarly placed in the fly of the Royal Air Force ensign, depicts a soaring falcon and places the Corps motto 'Venture Adventure' below it and an astral crown above.
  • Ocean Weather Ships
    The badge of the Ocean Weather Ships displays the Royal Air Force eagle against the sun rising over the sea; this emblem, however, appears not on the Royal Air Force ensign but on the Blue Ensign.
Does anyone know if these services are still in existence and if these are still their flags?

Dave Martucci, 6 December 1997

The Royal Observer Corps was stood down in 1994. It had been disbanded and revived once before, but I doubt it will be revived again this side of warfare threatening Britain directly. After World War II, its original purpose of identifying overflying enemy aircraft became incidental to a new role of monitoring fallout levels and radiation hazards in the event of nuclear war. It was a civilian-staffed volunteer reserve organisation and there was once a network of ROC bunkers and observation posts across the country.

The Air Training Corps still exists and, whilst is no longer officially the cadet arm of the Royal Air Force, it remains affiliated to the Royal Air Force and I believe its members, junior and adult, still wear RAF-style uniforms.

Roy Stilling, 6 December 1997

There seem to have been three versions of the Royal Observer Corps badge:
1. Tudor crown and gold wreath;
2. St Edward's crown and a green wreath;
3. Tudor crown and a green wreath.

In 1993, when the Ocean Weather Ships were down to one ship (called "Cumulus" I think), the lettering on the badge was changed, without authorisation, from 'Weather Ship' to 'Weather Service'. I don't know if it's still operating.

David Prothero, 7 December 1997

A little while ago we discussed variants of the British Royal Air Force ensign and the question was posed as to whether they are still in use. Well, I finally had cause to talk to a colleague at work who is a former Royal Observer Corps (ROC) member and is now a leader in the Air Training Corps (ATC), which is a cadet organisation for young people who are considering a career in the Royal Air Force.

Firstly, Neville told me that the ATC ensign, which is a standard British ensign but with an "air-force blue" (i.e. sky blue) field bearing the ATC badge of a hawk in flight in the usual centre-of-the-fly position, is still very much in use and that in fact he marched behind it in a parade in Romsey (a town a few miles from here) last Sunday.

Secondly, he advised me of the status of the ROC Ensign which is again an air-force blue ensign bearing a fly badge. The ROC badge includes an Elizabethan fire-watcher - these were the men who looked out for the Spanish Armada in 1588 and lit beacon fires to alert the Royal Navy of its approach.) This flag remains an official British flag as the ROC still exists - although only on paper at the present time.

Neville also mentioned that the Royal Observer Corps Association, which is the grouping for former ROC members, has ceremonial flags of its own. The national ensign of the Association is "almost identical" to the ROC Ensign. Unfortunately I did not have time to ask in what way it differs, but I would be willing to bet it probably follows the practice of other ex-servicemen's association flags such as those of the Royal British Legion and the Royal Naval Association by having a much more nearly square field, rather than the 1:2 of most British flags. Neville also mentioned that area branches of the ROC Association parade behind dark blue flags bearing the firewatcher emblem in silver.

Roy Stilling, 11 February 1998

Queen's colours of the RAF

I don't think there is a Queen's Colour for the RAF as a whole. The Queen's Colour presented on 1 April 1968 (the 50th anniversary of the RAF's creation) was that of the RAF in the UK. It replaced a colour presented by King George VI on 16 May 1951.

The oldest colour is that for the RAF College, Cranwell, which was the first to be presented, on 6 July 1948. It was replaced 30 May 1975.

Other colours have been presented to the RAF as follows:

No.1 School of Technical Training, RAF Halton: 25 July 1952
RAF Regiment: 17 March 1953, replaced 1967
Near East Air Force: 14 October 1960, laid up 31 May 1976
Far East Air Force: 13 July 1961, laid up 13 June 1972
Central Flying School: 26 June 1969
RAF Germany: 16 September 1970

The idea for RAF colours originated in 1943 (see note below on the significance of 1943), on the 25th anniversary of the service, but because of wartime austerity measures, it was not possible to present any until after the War's end. I don't think it had been intended to deprive the RAF of colours for 25 years, but rather, it was an idea for the 25th anniversary. Of those above, only Halton and Cranwell had a pre-war existence.

RAF squadrons have standards. These have to have completed 25 years' service in either the RAF, Royal Auxiliary Air Force (the part-time reserve service), the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Naval Air Service (these last two were the predecessors of the RAF) before a standard can be presented. Alternatively, a squadron can receive a standard for 'outstanding operations'. The regulations appear as Air Ministry Order A866 of 1943. Again, wartime austerity measures prevented their manufacture and presentation until the early 1950s.

Thirty squadrons immediately qualified, twenty-eight under the 25 year rule, and two (120 and 617) under the outstanding operations rule. The first standards bore a border of roses, thistles and shamrocks; then someone pointed out there was nothing to represent Wales, so those still at the embroiderers had to have leeks hurriedly embroidered into the borders before they could be presented.

First squadron: No.1, on 25 April 1953
First Auxiliary squadron: No.600 (City of London), in May 1953
First standard with leeks in the border: 605 (County of Warwick) RAuxAF, 11th March 1954

Standards are 32 inches on the staff x 48 inches (that's 81cm x 122cm, metric fans :-)). The staff itself is 97 inches (246 cm) with a gilt eagle finial.

I have not seen a justification for the 25-year rule. It may be something to do with the fact that many squadrons are disbanded at the end of a war, and so do not have a continuous existence, unlike, say the regiments of the British Army (battalions are disbanded, yes, but rarely whole regiments).

Ian Sumner, 12 December 2002

Significance of 1943

1943 was also the year in which the RAF Ensign was added to the flags on the national war memorial in London.This is a cenotaph in Whitehall, the street leading from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square. It was unveiled on 11 November 1920 with a Union Jack, White Ensign and Red Ensign on one side, and a Union Jack, White Ensign and Blue Ensign on the other. After the RAF Ensign was instituted in 1921 it was occasionally suggested that it should be added to the flags on the Cenotaph. The idea was always rejected on the grounds that the ensign had not existed during the war, and that the Royal Air Force had not been formed until seven months before the end of the war.

In February 1943 Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshall Sir Charles Portal, obtained the informal agreement of Buckingham Palace, to an Air Council request, that the Royal Air Force should be represented on the Cenotaph by the addition of an RAF Ensign on each side of the monument. This was passed on to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who replied that he did not want any changes. A second attempt to obtain his approval was made by obtaining the agreement of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and the Secretary of State at the War Office, that an RAF Ensign should be substituted for an existing flag. The Prime Minister was still opposed to any change, but abided by a Cabinet decision that the RAF Ensign should replace one of the White Ensigns.

The Admiralty asked that there should be no ceremony, and that the substitution should be done unobtrusively by the minimum number of persons. All the flags on the Cenotaph were changed immediately after dawn on 1 April 1943, an RAF Ensign replacing the White Ensign on the west side. At 1130 a Royal Air Force Regiment guard paraded at the Cenotaph and a wreath was placed beneath the RAF Ensign.

[Public Record Office, PREM 4/3/12, AIR 2/6698, ADM 1/12550]

David Prothero, 13 December 2002