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United Kingdom: Royal Navy

Last modified: 2022-02-05 by rob raeside
Keywords: royal navy | white ensign | colours | pennant | paying off pennant | dunkirk little ships | shifting the colours | showing the flag | jolly roger | oldest flag |
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[UK naval ensign] image by Martin Grieve, 10 July 2007
The Royal Navy White Ensign

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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 territorial 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

RNAS Bramcote was indeed called HMS Gamecock, but was three miles outside Nuneaton Warwickshire, many miles from Nottingham. The Navy left in 1959 and shortly after it was taken over by the Army who are still there in the form of 30th Signal Regiment.
Peter J. Hill, 4 October 2008

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 Defence 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

The White Ensign when used as a Battle Ensign
Being mistaken for the German Naval Ensign.

[UK naval ensign] British White Ensign     [Imperial German Naval Ensign] Imperial German Naval Ensign
image by Martin Grieve and Jaume Ollé

Flying one or more additional flags in battle is a practice common to most navies. A single ensign might be shot away in the action, giving the impression that the ship had lowered its colours as a sign of surrender. In the Royal Navy the Battle Ensign is usually an extra large White Ensign, but during the First World War, Union Jacks, Blue Ensigns or Red Ensigns were flown as additional flags in case the White Ensign was mistaken for the rather similar German Naval Ensign.
David Prothero, 23 February 2006

Dominion Navy Colours

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.
According to the 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.
In Edwards (1953), on page 145, and on the illustration of King's Colours on the opposite page, it 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 it 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.
David Prothero, 20 June 2000

Shifting the Colours
When did the Royal Navy adopt the "shift colours" procedure?

As far as the "colours procedure" is concerned, I can tell you why the practice started in the RN and roughly when, but not when (if ever) it was formalised? The wearing of an ensign at 'the peak' as opposed to an ensign staff at the stern, was introduced because of the replacement of a loose-footed spanker on the mizzenmast by a gaff sail with a horizontal boom which projected over the taffrail (and would have knocked it off its staff when the ship was underway). Whatever date the process started, it can confirm that it was not complete (in major ships at least) by 1805, since some of the ships which fought at Trafalgar carried their ensigns at the peak and some from a staff.
With the introduction of 'mastless ironclads' into the battle fleet - from the 1870's onward - the 'necessity' disappeared as fast as new ships could be built to replace the steam-assisted sailors, but the practice of an ensign on a staff when moored and from the peak at sea appears to have continued because of 'custom and practice'? With this introduction the practical reason for not flying a jack whilst underway ceased as well, and I wonder if the RN also took to flying them underway during the years before 1900?
Christopher Southworth, 1 October 2004

From my own experience as a sea-going commanding officer and 35 years of Naval service, the following observations on this subject. In modern navies the shifting of the colours from ensign staff to the masthead gaff was for the purely practical reason that leaving the ensign staff up (the reason for shifting the ensign in the first place is to strike the ensign staff) would interfere with the operation of aircraft (helos) and armament (turrets and ASW mortars). The only ceremonial involved was that the striking of the ensign at the ensign staff was not to be done before the ensign at the gaff was close-up. The ensign at the gaff was usually a storm ensign for obvious reasons. When in company, this evolution might be ordered by signal by the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC).
It was also the practice in our [i.e. South African] Navy (issued as an instruction after one ship managed to shoot its own jackstaff to smithereens) to strike the jackstaff as soon as the ship has left harbour. To protect it from foul weather also, even when no shoots are scheduled, the jack staff is struck and lashed on the forecastle as soon as the ship is at sea.
I have never heard of the jack being flown whilst underway in modern navies (except of course for ceremonial reasons such as dress ship days or conveying a head of state). The hoisting and lowering of the jack during the day (that is other than at the ceremony of Sunset) is today in fact a signal. The jack is hoisted as soon as the anchor is let go or the first line goes ashore when coming alongside. Similarly it is struck as soon as the anchor is up and down, i.e., broken loose from the ground, or the last line is cast off from the quay. In close waters the lack of a jack flying in a warship (and to some degree in merchant vessels) is thus a signal to all in the vicinity that the ship is underway, or when it is flying, that the ship is attached to the land in some way.
I suspect that these practices also apply in the British Royal Navy for the same reasons.
Andre Burgers, Cape Town, 1 October 2004

I don't think that, in general, it ever has been officially changed. Photographs show that RN ships normally leave the ensign on its staff at the stern, and only occasionally fly it from the mast of a ship with only one mast. Ships with two masts hoisted the ensign on a gaff at the after mast. Some ships, destroyers/frigates/ corvettes in World War II, and current mine counter-measure ships had/have a stub mast on the superstructure between the funnel and the stern on which the ensign is hoisted, sometimes on a gaff. Hoisting the jack in harbour was not made an official requirement until 1920, and before that, in some places and circumstances, was prohibited.
1844 Queen's Regulations; "... and with Union Jacks at bowsprit ends when it shall be thought proper to display them". It was not until 1913 that "jack staff" replaced "bowsprit-ends".
1907 Plymouth Station Order Book; "Ships refitting, coaling, giving general leave, or otherwise out of routine are to hoist ensign only, the jack when hoisted signifying that the ship is in full routine, and ready for the service for which she was commissioned."
1920 King's Regulations; "Union Flag is to be worn at the jack staff by all ships when in harbour, or under way and dressed with masthead flags." It is thought that this amendment changed a long-standing custom into an official instruction..
David Prothero, 2 October 2004

Kings Regulations (1808)

The following references to flags appear in, "Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea. Established by His Majesty in Council 1808."

Flag Officers.
XXII. "A Flag Officer is never to allow the squadron to carry the Colours hoisted at sea nor to hoist them in blowing weather in harbour."

XXVI. "If any Flag Officer shall die when on actual service his flag shall be lowered to half mast and shall continue so until he is buried."

The Captain.
XX. "He is to be very careful of the ship's Colours which are never to be hoisted at sea except on meeting with other ships, or for the purpose of being dried; nor are they to be hoisted in harbour in blowing weather."

Of Colours.
I. That Flag Officers are only to carry their own rank flag.

II. That when two Flag Officers of the same rank serve together the Commander-in-Chief may order either to carry such other flag as he sees fit.

III. About boat flags for admirals.

IV. "Packets employed by the Post Office and having a commander appointed by a commission from the Admiralty are permitted to carry a Red Ensign, a Jack, and a Pendant, but no other Pendant."

V. "Merchant ships are to carry a Red Ensign with a Union Jack in canton, and White Jack with Red Cross, commonly called St George's Cross, passing quite through it."

VI. "Private Commissions or letters of Marque or letters of Reprisal are to carry the same Ensign as merchant ships, and a Union Jack with a broad red border at the end and foot thereof."

VII. "Ships employed by Public Offices carry the same Ensign and Jack as ships having letters of Marque except that in the fly of the Ensign there shall be described the seal of the office to which they belong."

VIII. That foreign ships were not to be allowed to ride in ports and roads with false colours.

David Prothero, 18 February 2005

Use of Crown Finials on Flag Pole Shafts

RN Crown Finials image located by Pete Loeser, 26 January 2022

Warships of the Royal Navy have crowns as finials; a naval crown on the jack staff, and a royal crown on the ensign staff. They are made in three sizes; 8 inches, 6 inches and 4 ½ inches in diameter (205, 155, 115mms).
David Prothero, 19 November 2010

Decommissioned Ships Preserved as Memorials

The "Belfast" in London, the "Haida" in Toronto, and the "Sackville" in Halifax, Nova Scotia, have always been allowed to fly the White Ensign. The "Plymouth" and the "Bronington" both in Birkenhead used to fly a White Ensign, the fly defaced with the words 'Historic Warship', but now have permission to fly the undefaced White Ensign.
The HMS "President" flew the White Ensign while she was the drill ship of the London Division of the RNVR/RNR, from 1904 until 1988, when the Division moved to premises at St Katherine's Dock, below Tower Bridge. She was the screw sloop, formerly the HMS "Buzzard" until 1922, when the name was transferred to the sloop formerly the HMS "Saxifrage". She was joined by a sister ship the HMS "Chrysanthemum" in 1939. Both ships were sold in 1988. The HMS "President" should originally have flown the Blue Ensign. It was, I think, her unchallenged use of the White Ensign that set a precedent, and led to the White Ensign becoming the official ensign of the RNVR in 1924.
David Prothero, 9 August 2005

Oldest Surviving British Naval Flag

[Loutherbourg's 'The Glorious_First of June'] image located by Ivan Sache, 13 May 2009
Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg's "The Glorious First of June."

On 15 July 2007, Marie Woolf reported in "The Independent" that: "A historic Union Flag that survived sea battles at the mast of Britain's flagship during the French revolutionary wars has been saved for the nation after ministers decided it should not fall into American hands. The 18th-century flag was to be sold to an American collector until ministers declared it would be a "misfortune" to allow it to leave the UK. The flag flew on the mast of the 'Queen Charlotte', the flagship of Earl Howe, Admiral of the Fleet, during the battle of the 'Glorious First of June' in 1794. The battle, the first naval clash of the French revolutionary wars, was a major victory for the British - and confirmed the might of British sea power. The flag, which survived intact, was saved by William Burgh, a midshipman onboard the ship. The great clash is depicted in a painting by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, where the flag is shown flying from Earl Howe's mast...
His flag, which last flew on D-Day during the Second World War and has been in a private British collection for decades, was judged by experts to be of national importance. A spokesman for the Department of Culture said. 'This is the only surviving example of a command flag for the Admiral of the Fleet.'"
The painting "The Glorious First of June", by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) is shown on Wikipedia here.
Ivan Sache, 13 May 2009

[Loutherbourg's 'The Glorious_First of June'] image located by David Prothero, 14 May 2009

It is noticeable that the claim made in the headline is not repeated in the text, and that the flag in the painting of the battle, although theoretically correct, is different from a photograph of the real flag. Lord Howe's command flag is probably the second oldest existing British naval flag, the oldest being the Standard of the Generals at Sea of the 1650s, which is in the National Maritime Museum.
David Prothero, 14 May 2009