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Swiss Flags at Sea

Last modified: 2023-12-09 by martin karner
Keywords: switzerland | sea merchant flags | naval flags | naval | rectangular flag |
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[Swiss flag at sea] image by António Martins

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Flag at Sea

During WWII a Swiss Naval Ensign was adopted with the proportions 2:3. The National Flag of Switzerland is square.
Nick Artimovich, 12 February 1996

It is used only by the Swiss commercial fleet outside Switzerland. On the lakes the usual square flag is used.
Harald Müller, 12 February 1996

This may have been the intention, but I have visited two of the Swiss lakes and (bearing in mind that it was over twenty years ago) the flags flown by the commercial vessels which plied those lakes were definitely 2:3.
Christopher Southworth, 21 March 2009

This seems to be correct for at least some of the vessels – see here [postcard from early 20th century, Lake Constance, see Emil Dreyer's comment below] and here – but not all of them – see here [expired].
Joe McMillan, 21 March 2009

See possibly Meylan (1974). I seem to remember that the situation is a bit difficult, and somewhat different from lake to lake, so there is no simple rule, and definitely no straightforward legislation, but only some custom.
M. Schmöger, 30 March 2009

As we all know, Swiss sea-going ships are entitled by the law of 9 April 1941 (effective as of 17 April 1941) to use the rectangular national flag. Swiss ships on the lake of Constance had used a rectangular flag of 2:3 as early as 1911 (Lake Constance steamship company regulations of 15 January 1911; see postcard from early 20th c., steamship "Rhein" on Lake Constance), but they were the only Swiss ships to use such a flag shape until 1941.

The law of 1941 was passed because during WWII it was necessary to distinguish the few Swiss ships carrying supplies home, not to be seized or torpedoed by war-faring powers. The internationally recognised ratio of 2:3, estimated to be the usual maritime type of flag, was chosen. Those ships not only wore the rectangular Swiss flag, but had large square (sic!) Swiss flags painted at the sides and on top of the ships.

In fact, the construction sheet of this rectangular Swiss flag is the only official drawing of a Swiss national flag so far. This specific flag is officially denominated "national flag at sea" (Schweizerflagge zur See), whereas the square national flag has no official name at all, it is indifferently called the "federal flag" (Bundesfahne), the "confederate flag" (eidgenössische Fahne), the "national flag" (Nationalfahne) or the "flag of the country" (Landesfahne).

The first and only official mention of a Swiss national flag is to be found in the constitution of 1848 (article 20, point 5), where it simply says that "all troops in confederate service fly the confederate flag" (Alle Truppenabteilungen im eidgenössischen Dienste führen die eidgenössische Fahne). Only in 1851 is this flag described in a military regulation about uniforms and equipment (regulation of 27 August 1851), in article 62 it says: "... each infantry batallion has a flag with the colours of the confederation, the white cross on red field ...".
That's all what ever was regulated about the Swiss national flag during the last 158 years. The actual Swiss constitution has no mention to a national flag, there is obviously no need to mention what has always been. There is no regulation as to the shape of the flag (of course it is square, but this is said nowhere), as to the size of the cross in respect to the field, nor as to the shade of red or white.
Only the proportion of the cross has been regulated on 12 December 1889, to amend the regulation of 14 July 1815, whereby "... the red field should contain a freely standing upright white cross, its arms being each one sixth longer than broad". So it has remained until today.

Now back to the rectangular Swiss national flag. As I said, ships on Lake Constance wear this rectangular flag 2:3 since 1911, sea-going Swiss ships wear it since 1941. A regulation of 15 March 1971 introduced the use of emblems to be placed on the rectangular Swiss flag "as long as it does not be mistaken with any other foreign flag". Nothing is said about where such emblems should be placed and how big these should be, etc. Usually such emblems are placed in the upper hoist corner, following the example of the Cruising Club of Switzerland, which had adopted its flag as early as 1956 (but which was not allowed to use it as a national flag until 1971).

There are no official government regulations for the use of rectangular flags on Swiss lakes and rivers, usually though yachts and boat owners use the rectangular flags. I say usually, because square flags are seen quite often too. Swiss ships on lake Geneva, on lake Lugano and on lake Maggiore (lakes having a boundary to France and Italy respectively) started using rectangular flags very early, but after 1941. Somewhat later followed the ships on lake Neuchâtel. I do not know the exact dates of adoption of the use of rectangular flags by the steamship or motorboat companies on those lakes. I have this research on my mind since 30 years ...
Each person or company is entitled to use the flag of individual preference. Swiss flags on ships cruising on little lakes (like those of Zurich, Hallwyl, Sempach, Zug, the Walensee, Ägeri, Thun, Biel, Murten, Brienz) are usually square, as are those on the Lake of Lucerne. It seems as those regions in the interior are more conservative and of course they have less maritime traditions than when you live at those lake shores where you can see foreign ships.

The lack of clear regulations on the Swiss flag is on one side an expression of liberty of the individual citizen. The Swiss identity is immediately recognised, whatever shape the flag should have, and you can't show it upside down. So there's no need for regulations, the flag has always been a white cross on red, that's it. There is no government pursuit of offenses to the flag, either by burning or soiling, or flying a square or rectangular or dark red or bright red flag, the flag is the flag of every citizen, it has no political, religious, cultural or ethnic burden.
Only the military have a strict regulation to the use of the flag (i.e. colour). Government should have a serious use of the flag too, but sometimes even officials use rectangular flags instead of the square one (like it used to be flown on government cars until I insisted in the new flag regulation of 2008 that only square flags had to be used).

On the other hand, lack of regulation drives vexillologists crazy :-)

Emil Dreyer, 30 March 2009

In the Dutch harbour of Sneek pleasure craft ships had hoisted rectangular Swiss ensigns. Sneek is an inland harbour, and at least one of the craft flew a Basel flag (as a hoist; should have been the jack). In all, that tells us that they could have reached us inland, suggesting the Swiss rectangular ensigns are not necessarily limited to sea-going vessels or local Swiss water ways only.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 18 May 2023

Construction Sheet

RS 747.30. Maritime Traffic Law (23 September 1953). Article 3: Swiss ensign
(Source: Website of the Swiss government, German / French / Italian)

  1. The Swiss ensign shall be displayed only by Swiss ships. A Swiss ship shall display the Swiss ensign, to the exclusion of all other ones.
  2. The Swiss ensign bears a white cross on a red background; its shapes and proportions shall follow the figure published in the appendix of the present law.
[Swiss ensign, construction sheet] image by Ivan Sache, based on figure that accompanied the 1953 law

The flag is a 2:3 rectangle, with A (length) = 1.5B (height). The central element of the cross is a square of side b. The square is placed in the geometrical center of the flag. Each horizontal arm of the cross has a height of b and a length of b+(1/6)b (the cross has the same specifications as in the coat of arms). There is a length of 0.5A between the cross edges and the left and right edges of the flag. Similarly, each vertical arm of the cross has a height of b+(1/6)b and a length of b. There is a height of b between the cross and the upper and lower edges of the flag.

Ivan Sache, 2 March 2002

RS 747.321.7. Regulation concerning Swiss yachts at sea (15 March 1971). Article 1, Paragraph 3
(Source: Website of the Swiss government, German / French / Italian)

  • Swiss yachts must fly the Swiss ensign, in accordance with Art. 3 of the Maritime Traffic Law of 1953. The Swiss Maritime Navigation Office can allow yacht owners who are members of a Swiss maritime club to deface their ensign with the emblem of their club, so long that no confusion with other national flags should arise.
This law does not specify which emblems may be used, their size, nor where the emblem should be placed.

Emil Dreyer, 23 May 2002

Merchant maritime flag use

Recommendations from the British Government

One of three extracts from a memorandum sent to the Marine Department of the Board of Trade in connection with revisions to the pages of national ensigns in the International Code List published in 1879. [Public Record Office MT 9/183]

Proposal of the Government of Switzerland to establish a Swiss maritime flag.

1864. "Switzerland has no distinctive maritime flag. Her Majesty's Minister in Berne observed to the President of the Confederation that in the case where the merchant marine would not have the protection of a military one, the measure might lead to political complications in that while the position of Switzerland and her guaranteed neutrality induced all Foreign Powers under existing circumstances to extend to her citizens protection and goodwill, yet the use of the flag afloat might bring them into altercations with belligerent Powers."

The question was referred to Admiral Harris who replied that "HM Government could only view with satisfaction on the ocean, and in the ports of the British Empire the flag of an industrious and friendly power, and that in time of peace no question were likely to arise which would not admit of easy adjustment. However graver questions might arise in time of war in consequence of Switzerland possessing no port of her own, and from the ships bearing her flag hailing from ports of a belligerent. Neutrality guaranteed to the territory of Switzerland could not be held to afford exceptional privileges to the merchant vessels of Swiss citizens, and the power proposed to be given to Swiss consuls to register vessels provisionally was considered likely to give rise to grave international difficulties. The question of enforcement of Swiss municipal law on board such vessels, and the manner in which respect to the Swiss Flag could be ensured were matters for the Swiss Government."

Law Officers' Opinion. "The proposal is novel and though Swiss Marine must necessarily be dependent upon the use of ports of other countries, there is no principle in International Law which ought to lead other countries to refuse to recognise the flag of an inland state, when used either by public ships of that state, or by the ships of its subjects under the authority of its Government upon the high seas."

Proposal adjourned by Swiss Legislature to the following session, and abandoned in 1866.

David Prothero, 17 April 2001

It would seem peculiarly British to suppose that a state needed a distinctive ensign – different from the national flag – for display at sea, since most other countries even then used the same flag for both purposes.
The more relevant point is that subsequent treaties including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea explicitly recognize the right of landlocked states to use the high seas under their own flags.
Joe McMillan, 17 April 2001

Non-maritime use of rectangular Swiss flags

There is no law enforcement regarding unusual Swiss or cantonal flags. Flags may be rectangular, with faded colours, or with too big or too small crosses, or hung upside down, or two flags on one mast or whatever vexillological "don'ts" you may find across the country, only because there are no laws to the contrary. Flag manufacturers are therefore free to produce Swiss flags however they like – except for the Swiss ensign, which has a construction plan set by law.
Not only does the Swiss government do nothing to prevent the non-maritime use of rectangular Swiss flags, but the government also uses such flags often in international matters. Official car flags have become rectangular during the past years to match them better with the mostly rectangular flags of official visitors. During international meetings abroad the Swiss flag is always rectangular. While this is understandable from the organisers' or manufacturers' point of view, since they may try to avoid causing offence to anybody by using flags of different sizes and it is much cheaper to have all flags the same shape, the use of rectangular Swiss flags on land is not encouraged. The national flag on land is square and is used by Swiss citizens as such.
Emil Dreyer, 23 May 2002