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Belgium: History of the Navy

Last modified: 2021-06-20 by ivan sache
Keywords: naval ensign | jack | royal navy section belge | fishery inspection |
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A comprehensive history of the Belgian Navy can be found in:
L. Nyssen. Einige Flaggen der belgischen Marine von 1815 bis heute [nys96], Flaggenkurier [dfk] (1995), also available online.
Hereafter is the translation/rendition from German of the most interesting parts (i.e. nearly everything) of the original paper.

Ivan Sache & Suzette Tanis-Plant, 11 May 2003

Before independence (1815-1830)

[Dutch national flag]

Dutch national flag - Image by António Martins, 22 April 1999

In 1815, after the abdication of Napoléon and the fall of the French First Empire, the Vienna Congress decided to unify Belgium and Holland under William I's rule. The new Kingdom of the Netherlands inherited more than 200 vessels abandoned by France in the ports of Den Helder and Antwerp. Since those vessels were old, the King decided to start a reconstruction program and it took 15 years to build 34 new vessels. Holland and Belgium shared the costs.
These warships as well as the merchant navy used the horizontally divided red-white-blue Dutch ensign, already known in the 16th century.

[First Belgium national flag]

First Belgian national flag - Image by Ivan Sache, 22 February 2004

The opposition between Belgium and Holland increased with time, and Belgians started to ask for a status of autonomy within the Kingdom in 1830. On 26 August 1830, the Belgians chose their own flag. The colours of the former Duchy of Brabant were placed horizontally on the new flag, from top to bottom red, yellow and black. The similarity with the colour pattern of the Dutch flag was intended to mean that the opponents were not promoting a total separation from the Netherlands.

Ivan Sache & Suzette Tanis-Plant, 11 May 2003

From independence to the First World War (1830-1914)

[First Belgium naval ensign]

First Belgian naval ensign - Image by Vincent Morley, 16 January 1998

William I sent troops against the insurgents. Belgium proclaimed independence after its victory during the fighting of September 1830.
In January 1831, the Provisory Government prescribed a new vertical placement of the colours. In the text, as well as in the Constitution adopted in February, the colour placement was described as red, yellow and black, with a drawing next to the text showing a non corresponding black-yellow-red flag. Moreover, while the proportions in the drawing are 3:4, they are not explicitely mentioned in the text. To make matters worse, the Decree was distributed all over the country without the companion drawing. Therefore, the Ministries of the Navy and the Interior each handled down a ruling, in October and November, respectively, to specify that black should be placed at hoist.

The question of the ensign hoisted by warships between 26 August 1830 and the end of 1831 is easily answered. The whole navy with a few exceptions remained under Dutch rule, controlling Antwerp and the Scheldt river. The Belgians did not receive half of the fleet as they required because they had paid for it. Most of the ships did not receive up-to-date information, about the Revolution and the Belgian national ensign, although a few of them did hoist the black-yellow-red ensign.
Since neither a Law nor a Regulation prescribed the proportions of the "flag for all", the proportion 2:3 became the favoured ones. The proportions of the Belgian flags used today for official purposes (13:15, unique in the world) are still not officially regulated.

The creation of the Belgian Navy was decided in 1831. It took years to accomplish the task, especially because the Navy would not come under the Ministry of War but Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Navy was named Marine Royale (Royal Navy). Over time, it was administrated by different ministries and was fully incorporated into the armed forces only in 1949 and finally came under the Ministry of Defence.
Neither Belgian people nor Parliament showed any interest in the Navy, whose funds and crew were constantly reduced.
However, a Royal ensign was introduced in 1858, and was to be hoisted when the King was on board. The ensign was modified several times, in practice every time the Head of the State changed.

In 1862, the Royal Navy was demilitarized and became a State Navy. Its main duty was to increase the security of the sea link between Oostende and Dover. The ensign remained unchanged, divided vertically into black-yellow-red with proportions 2:3.

[Fishery inspection flag]

Fishery inspection pennant - Image by Ivan Sache, 11 May 2003

In 1882, the service of fishery inspection was created and assigned to the State Navy. The inspection vessel hoisted the national ensign and a specific flag (triangular, 2:3, quartered yellow-blue-yellow-blue, with NW for North-West [Atlantic]) in black in canton), which is still in use.

Ivan Sache & Suzette Tanis-Plant, 11 May 2003

From the First World War to the Second World War (1914-1939)

Repeated attempts to reestablish a Navy failed in 1884, 1902 and again in 1914. In 1917 the Dépôt des Equipages (Crew Depot) was created. The Belgians adopted the French uniform, including the beret, except it had a blue instead of a red pompom. On 19 November 1919, the Depot was renamed Section des Torpilleurs et Marins (Section of Torpedo Boats and Seamen), and in 1924, it was once again renamed Corps des Torpilleurs et Marins (Corps of Torpedo Boats and Seamen). These units hoisted the aforementioned ensign and the masthead pennant.

The Navy was suppressed again in 1926. Officiers and seamen were incorporated into several units of the Army. Vessels were sold or scrapped. Only the Zinnia was kept to comply with international treaties. She was in charge of fishery inspection in the North Sea. The vessel was painted grey, like a warship and hoisted the masthead pennant, despite all regulations. This odd situation caused several incidents: when a foreign warship saluted the Zinnia with artillery shots and was answered with "blind shots" only, signals were sent to ask wether she was really a warship or not.

Belgium declared its neutrality in 1932 and 1934. After long debates about the need of coastal protection in case of war, a Decree dated 1936 established ensigns, honours etc. to be allocated to the Navy. The text prescribed ensigns, salutes and other courtesy items, but nothing was said about the vessels themselves. The text prescribed two new ensigns for State and private ships, whereas the merchant ensign was not changed. The houseflags had to be allowed. A yacht ensign was also adopted.

Ivan Sache & Suzette Tanis-Plant, 11 May 2003

The Second World War (1939-1945)

Since the risk of war had increased, the Crew Depot was revived, but there were still no vessels available. Fourteen days before the declaration of war between Germany, France and Britain, hundreds of mines were dropped in the Armel channel and along the border of the Belgian territorial waters. The autumn storms washed up hundreds of these mines on the coast. To protect the Belgian ports from the danger, the Naval Corps was partially mobilized, and a few old ships were requisitioned to start to pick up the mines.
On 12 May 1940, two days after Belgium entered in war, the Corps was totally mobilized. The capitulation of the Belgian Army on 28 May caused the withdrawal of the Corps to England by way of France.

The Corps was suppressed on 26 June 1940. The seamen were incorporated into the Belgian Army in Great Britain. In agreement with the British Admiralty, Navy Lieutenant Victor Billet organized the recruiting of seamen, however he disappeared in Dieppe in 1942. The Belgians had no other solution than being a section of the Royal Navy named Royal Navy Section Belge (RNSB).
The number of Belgian non-commissionned officers and seamen was so low that they could not constitute Belgian crews. Therefore, seamen of all ranks served in the Royal Navy under the White Ensign. In 1942, they were enough men to constitute the crew of the two corvets Godetia and Buttercup. The units of the 118th mine-clearing flotilla included more and more Belgian seamen. However, since the flotilla did not come under Belgian command until the last few days of the war, it used the ensign of the Royal Navy until the end of 1945.

After the war was over, Great Britain asked Belgium to take back the Section Belge and its seamen, which was done on 9th November. Under Belgian command, the unit was named Section Navale. It included twelve vessels and was under the joint control of Ministries of Transportation and Foreign Affairs. The only ensign used was the State Navy ensign.

Concerning the Belgian merchant float, more than 80% of the ships left for allied or neutral ports and were incorporated into the allied forces. The Belgian float was involved in all of the war acts of the allied forces, and experienced severe loss (1/3rd of the crew, 2/3rd of the ships representing 3/4th of the cumulated tonnage). All of those ships fought under the Belgian tricolor ensign.

Ivan Sache & Suzette Tanis-Plant, 11 May 2003

After the Second World War (1945- )

The three national ensigns - for the State Navy, the merchant navy and the yachts - remained unchanged. The ensign of the State Navy was also hoisted by warships. The RNSB, renamed Section Navale in November 1945, was commanded by a Commodore. It hoisted the ensign of the State Navy, as did the Oostende-Dover steamers, lifeships and lightships, Trinity House boats, tugboats and other service ships.

On 1 June 1946, Section Navale was renamed Force Navale, by analogy with Force Terrestre (Army) and Force Aérienne (Air Force). It was considered unappropriate to revive the former name Marine Royale, because the Royal question was controversial at that time.

On 15 June 1946, the regent Charles (King Léopold III was still living in exile in Switzerland) gave the Belgian seamen a standard designed on the model of the regimental flags of the Army. The standard should be used only for ceremonial purposes on land. It was a Belgian Tricolore with the mention of all the battles during which the seamen won fame. The standard (77 x 88 cm) was charged in canton with the Medal of War Cross 1939-1945 with palm.

On 25 February 1949, the Navy was incorporated into the Armed Forces, under the rule of the Ministry of Defence, ending 120 years of hesitation between different ministeries. On 23 February 1950, the Force Navale received its own ensign, clearly different from the national, state and civil ensigns as well from the yacht ensign.

When required, a jack (square Belgian Tricolor) with a height of 1.50 m flies from the bowsprit. In specific instances or during visit of important people on board, a specific square ensign with a height of 1.50 m is hoisted, e.g. the church ensign during a religious ceremony or the rank ensign of naval officiers.

Ivan Sache & Suzette Tanis-Plant, 11 May 2003

Royal Navy Section Belge

8 January 1942. Admiralty Fleet Order 1374/41. Royal Navy (Section Belge) Flag.

Belgian warships commissioned for Royal Navy service will fly,
(a) Belgian Ensign and White Ensign side by side at ensign staff or peak,
(b) British masthead pennant and,
(c) Union Flag at jackstaff when in harbour, or underway and dressed with masthead flags.
In presence of enemy or when national character needs to be indicated beyond possibility of misunderstanding a second White Ensign will be flown at main yard-arm, or if this is not practical at fore yard-arm.

A similar order about flags for French warships was issued by Admiralty Message on 15th July 1940.

Source: Public Record Office ADM 199/803

David Prothero, 20 April 2001