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Naval traditions about flags

Last modified: 2019-04-13 by rob raeside
Keywords: naval traditions | gin pennant |
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Hoisting of Colors

As with many traditions, the US Navy borrowed that of morning and evening colors from the British. According to the Royal Navy website

The present ceremony of hoisting colours (Union Jack at the jackstaff, and White Ensign at the ensign staff) each morning, with a guard and band paraded, was instituted by Lord St. Vincent in 1797 after the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore.

In the US sea services, evening colors have always been made at sunset. The first mention in regulations of the time for morning colors was in the 1843 Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Navy, which provided that if sunset was after 6:00 p.m., then morning colors were at 8:00 a.m.; if sunset was before six, then morning colors were at nine. The 1876 Regulations for the Government of the Navy provided that morning colors would be at 8:00 a.m. in all cases, and that has remained the practice since then. (US Navy Regulations (1990) articles 1259-1260). The Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration follow the same practice.

The ceremonies go as follows:

Morning Colors

  1. Approximately 0755, the word is passed FIRST CALL, FIRST CALL TO COLORS (aboard ship) or the bugle call "First Call" is sounded (ashore).
  2. The guard of the day and band are paraded.
  3. The bugle call "Attention" is sounded or one blast is sounded on the ship's whistle.
  4. At 0800, the word is passed EXECUTE, and the National Anthem or the bugle call "To the Colors" is played. The ensign is started up at the beginning of the music and hoisted smartly to the peak or truck. Aboard ship, the union jack is hoisted simultaneously. All within earshot face the ensign and salute during the playing of "To the Colors" or the National Anthem.
  5. If the ensign is to be displayed at half-mast, it (and, aboard ship, the jack) is then lowered slowly to a point 3/4 of the way to the peak or truck, or, on a pole-mast with a crosstree, to a point level with the crosstree. (At Marine Corps bases, half-mast is halfway up the pole, as for the Army.)
  6. The bugle call "Carry on" is sounded or three blasts are sounded on the ship's whistle.

Evening Colors

  1. Approximately five minutes before sunset, the word is passed First Call, First Call to Colors (aboard ship) or the bugle call "First Call" is sounded.
  2. The guard of the day and band are paraded.
  3. The bugle call "Attention" is sounded or one blast is sounded on the ship's whistle.
  4. At sunset, the word is passed EXECUTE (aboard ship), and the National Anthem or the bugle call "Retreat" is played. The ensign is started down at the beginning of the music and lowered slowly timed to be fully lowered at the last note. Aboard ship, the union jack is lowered simultaneously. If the ensign is at half-mast, it and the jack are run smartly up to the peak or truck at the beginning of the music, then lowered slowly. All within earshot face the ensign and salute during the playing of "Retreat" or the National Anthem.
  5. The bugle call "Carry on" is sounded or three blasts are sounded on the ship's whistle.

When evening colors are made ashore during a parade or review with troops and band present, the sequence is "First Call," "Attention," "Retreat," the National Anthem, and "Carry On," with the ensign being lowered during the National Anthem.

U.S. Navy Regulations, Chapter 12;
USCG M5000.3B; NTP-13(B);
NAVMC 2691; NAO 201-6;
James Stavridis, The Watch Officers Guide)

By the way, these times do not apply to ships under way, which fly their flags in daylight hours only under certain conditions specified in Navy Regulations (cruising near land, when falling in with other ships, coming to anchor, in combat, etc.).

And, finally, no, there are no words to either "To the Colors," played in the morning, or "Retreat," played in the evening. They are old (at least 19th century) army bugle calls.
Joe McMillan, 03 June 2000

Gin Pennant

When I was in the Royal Canadian Navy I heard reference to a "Gin flag" that was meant as an invitation to other ships crews to join the ship flying the flag to come aboard when in dock for "gin". Have you heard of this and do you know what it looks like?
Dale Vigar, 12 October 2001
Off list question to FOTW

I have heard of it, or actually read about it, in books covering customs and traditions of the Royal Navy. I have seen it described rather as the "gin pendant" or "pennant" and as being green. I've seen one suggestion that it is the "starboard" signal pennant--a trapezoidal pennant of four alternating green and white vertical stripes. But since 1950 NATO navies have used that as the signal indicating the vessel of the senior officer present afloat. It's possible that "starboard" was used before 1950 and that some other pennant or flag is used now, or that the green gin pendant was never the same as "starboard" but some other design altogether. Or that British and Canadian SOPAs are just exceptionally hospitable fellows.

As U.S. Navy ships have been "dry" since the 1910s, I do not believe this signal is used in the United States Navy, so I doubt that I'll be able to find much more about it on this side of the Atlantic.
Joe McMillan, 12 October 2001

Looking further into the gin pennant, I just found a picture at of a group of USN officers and sailors on Midway in World War II holding what is described as a gin pennant. It is long and triangular, dark with a single vertical white stripe. The photo is B&W, but the pennant could well be green and white, but it is not the "starboard" pennant that is in the current signal books and used by senior officers present afloat in NATO.

And defines gin pennant as "usually green with a wine or cocktail glass on it." It says the pennant is used by UK, unofficial, and hoisted by ship's officers to announce that they are celebrating some event by offering drinks to visitors.
Joe McMillan, 13 October 2001

The page has:

A tradition of the Royal Navy started at the height of the British Empire, was the hoisting of the "Gin Pendant", R.P.C., which means Request the Pleasure of your Company at 1800 hours, by RN warships in harbours around the world. Gin and angostura bitters at the end of the workday were de rigueur. The tradition continues today, though as a general signal for gatherings aboard ships to celebrate any number of events and anniversaries where officers call meet and talk "shop."
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 13 October 2001

Here is a slightly abbreviated extract from "Signal" by Barrie Kent, who was at one time Captain of the Royal Navy Signal School. He read a paper on "Signaling Flags" at the Congress of Vexillology in York earlier this year.

Origin uncertain but used since 1940 and probably earlier. Plymouth Gin distillery started supplying gin pennants in the 1950s, but they were more often made up on board. Sometimes was a small green triangular pennant emblazoned with a white wine glass hoisted on an inner halyard. More usually the green-white-green Starboard pennant (the old Pennant 9) was used with a green glass in the centre. The signal means that the wardroom (the officers mess) invites officers from ships in company to drinks; naturally tends to be used when not too many ships are present. A miniature gin pennant is often hoisted above the bar to signify that drinks are 'on the house', or on someone's wine bill on the occasion of their birthday or promotion.
David Prothero, 13 October 2001

[British gin pennant]  [British gin pennant] images by Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 13 September 2009, 31 March 2019

The website at defines:
'Gin Pennant - (UK) An unofficial flag flown to signify that a ship's wardroom has free drinks or a celebration underway. Usually green with a wine or cocktail glass on it.' (Naval Slang, Jargon and Terminology FAQ)

See also:

Flying multiple rank flags

There is a photograph in the Mariner's Mirror of May 1965 showing the flags of three Admirals flying on the single-masted battleship HMS Hercules in December 1918. She was taking the First Inter-Allied Naval Armistice Commission from Portsmouth to Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. The Commission included a British Vice-Admiral, an American Senior Rear-Admiral (two starred blue) and a French Rear-Admiral. It was the British Vice-Admiral's own flagship.

All three flags were flown at the same height, but from the lower yard;

  • V-Adm Browning, starboard outboard
  • R-Adm Robinson, starboard inboard
  • R-Adm Grasset, port outboard.

Comment in the article was:- "The 'weight' was so obviously amassed on the one side that the ship's junior officers at least considered the arrangement most unseaman-like and expressed doubts as to whether the yard would stand the strain! No explanation ever seeped down to them and it is only in after-years that an explanation has dawned on the writer of this article. Allocation of the entire port (or junior) side to one Admiral whilst two shared the starboard gave equal status to all."
David Prothero, 12 February 2001, 13 February 2001

A somewhat parallel occurrence was when both Fleet Admiral Nimitz and General of the Army MacArthur were aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender in 1945. Both five star flags were flown at the main truck, Nimitz's to starboard, since it was his flagship (at least for the duration of the ceremony).

I don't recall if they did so in 1918 or 1945, but modern Navy regulations and directives would most likely preclude either the Hercules or Missouri situations from arising today in the US Navy.

Naval Telecommunications Publication 13(B), "Flags, Pennants and Customs" says:

903d. Personal flags or command pennants of military officers, other than U.S. Naval offices eligible for command at sea, shall not be displayed from ships or craft of the U.S. Navy.

903e. The presence of foreign military officers and officials onboard U.S. Naval ships or craft is recognized by the display of the appropriate foreign national ensign as prescribed by Navy Regulation: "No flag or pennant, other than as prescribed by Navy Regulations or as may be directed by the Secretary of the Navy, shall be displayed from a ship or craft of the Navy, or from a naval station, as an honor to a nation or an individual, or to indicate the presence of any individuals."

Of course, (a) I don't know who would have the nerve to tell a Douglas MacArthur or modern equivalent that he couldn't fly his flag, and (b) the Secretary of the Navy could always give the necessary authorizations should a similarly unusual situation arise.
Joe McMillan, 13 February 2001

On the cover of the Proceedings magazine of the US Naval Institute for January 2006, is a photograph of two destroyers/frigates in line ahead. The sub-title reads as follows: USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) escorts Spanish frigate Alvaro de Bazan in the Persian Gulf. It is not quite clear which is the US and which the Spanish ship but I suspect that the leading ship is the Spanish frigate.

The flag related fact about the photo is that the leading ship is wearing a large Stars and Stripes at the outer halyard of the starboard yardarm and a blue flag with what looks like two white stars (presumably a rear-admiral's flag) on the starboard inner halyard. On the port outer yardarm halyard is the Spanish naval ensign. I have never seen two national ensigns of different countries flying on the same ship unless for ceremonial purposes. There is no evidence on the photo of any ceremonial in progress (although it is not excluded), but is there another reason why this unique situation might have arisen,
Andries Burgers, 5 February 2006

This arrangement isn't consistent with US Navy Regulations or the directive on Flags, Pennants, and Customs (NTP-13(B)). It's not unusual for a U.S. Navy ship to display an extra US ensign on the starboard outboard halyard on such occasions, but the admiral's flag should normally be at the main truck. Maybe someone got tangled in the idea that that would mean the admiral's flag was flying "above" the US and Spanish flags and would therefore be inappropriate.

As for the Spanish ensign at the port yardarm, totally wrong. If flown at all, it should be at the truck (in which case the admiral's flag would shift to the starboard yardarm). This would be done if the US ship were dressed in honor of a Spanish occasion or if Spanish royalty were aboard, but in that case there should be no extra ensign at the starboard yardarm.
Joe McMillan, 5 February 2006

Use of Ensigns

In Britain the ensign flown by a ship indicates its status and not whether it is armed. Survey ships are commissioned into the Royal Navy and fly the White Ensign but often have no fixed armament. In wartime merchant ships may be fitted with defensive weapons but still fly the Red Ensign.
David Prothero, 19 February 2001

David's general point is clarified by international law. The UN Law of the Sea convention, and previous treaties and codifications of customary international law, lay down three criteria for a vessel to be considered a warship:

(1) It must be commanded by a commissioned officer. Traditionally, the officer had to be in physical possession of his commission document. Later this was superseded by the requirement that his name appear in published register of such officers, such as the Royal Navy's Navy List or the US Navy's Register of Commissioned and Warrant Officers. I'm not sure what the current requirement is--a military identification card may suffice.

(2) The crew must be under military discipline. This rules out merchant ships commanded by a reserve officer with a crew of civilian mariners.

(3) It must bear the distinguishing marks of warships of its nationality. In the US Navy, the distinguishing mark is the commission pennant or the flag or command pennant of an officer eligible to command at sea, or, for hospital ships, the Geneva Convention red cross flag. In the US Coast Guard (whose cutters are legally warships), add to the above list the Coast Guard ensign (distinguishing flag). I would think the Royal Navy and its descendants probably consider the white ensign one of the distinguishing marks of a warship.

Whether the vessel is armed or not doesn't affect its status as a warship, nor does whether it belongs to the Navy or some other military service. For example, I would say that Russian Border Guards and Interior Troops vessels are warships because they are commanded by commissioned officers, have military crews, and display special distinguishing marks (flags).
Joe McMillan, 19 February 2001

Dressing Ships

In the July issue of the US Naval Institute's *Proceedings, there's an article on the Indian Navy, illustrated with a number of photos taken at the Navy's recent Fleet Review. One of them shows a Kilo-class submarine flying its jack at the bow and its ensign from the sail (conning tower). I thought this was worth mentioning, since it copies Russian practice.

There was also a photo of a frigate underway with jack and ensign flying from bow and stern in the normal manner, and another ensign flying at the masthead, in the position where you'd expect a rank flag to be hoisted. What the significance of this is I don't know.
Tom Gregg, 15 July 2001

When a warship is underway, this is how it "dresses overall" on ceremonial occasions. It's quite logical when one thinks about -- having all those flags suspended from the masthead to both the bow and stern is bound to get in the way of its operations if it were to go to sea like that -- just think of what would happen if one of the lines twisted in a rotating radar dish, or some such thing!

In the Canadian navy (and I assume most -- if not all -- other Commonwealth navies) a ship will also dress *only* with masthead flags (on a day when the rest of the fleet dresses overall) if it is scheduled to leave harbour before noon.

In the Canadian navy the terms used to distinguish between the two scenarios are: a) dressing overall; and b) dressing with masthead flags.
Glen R. Hodgins, 15 July 2001

I agree with that explanation ; but in French Navy, we also use "petit pavois" for smaller occasion, or when the ship does not have possibility to put "grand pavois" (e g when under repairs, or when a very small ship,
Armand du Payrat, 16 July 2001

As far as I know, in the US Navy the jack is never flown while a ship is underway. When a US warship "breaks contact with the land," the ensign and jack are lowered from their staffs fore and aft, and the ensign is rehoisted at the principal mast. The opposite procedure is followed when the ship moors or anchors. These procedures are known as "shift colors."
Tom Gregg, 16 July 2001

One little quibble; it would not be "normal" to have a jack flying on a naval vessel that was under way. This is a ship that is "dressed" as opposed to "dressed overall". It is probably entering or leaving a harbour where ships that are not under way are dressed overall.
David Prothero, 16 July 2001

I agree with all that was already said about dressing of a ship, I only wanted to mention another term for it. In the Croatian Navy (and possibly it may be influenced by Italian terminology - what's the dressing called in Italian?) the terms are "velika gala" and "mala gala", where "velika" and "mala" are general words meaning "great" and "small", and "gala" should be cognate glamour and similar.

As said before, the "dressing overall" (grand pavois etc) is used of the most solemn occasions and the "dressing" (petit pavois) is used for lesser festivities, or when for whatever reason the overall dressing is impossible or unpractical.

There is a well established international protocol concerning the conduct of a foreign ship in a harbour when dressing is prescribed as well as the conduct of the ship that intend to perform the dressing in a foreign harbour.
Željko Heimer, 17 July 2001

Dipping flags in salute

The U.S. Navy dips the U.S. ensign only in return to the dip rendered by another ship. Navy Regulations, article 1263: "When any vessel, under United States registry or the registry of a nation formally recognized by the Government of the United States, salutes a ship of the Navy by dipping her ensign, it shall be answered dip for dip. If not already being displayed, the national ensign shall be hoisted for the purpose of answering the dip. An ensign being displayed at half-mast shall be hoisted to the truck or peak before a dip is answered.

2. No ship of the Navy shall dip the national ensign unless in return for such compliment."

As long as the U.S. Navy (or the Royal Navy) don't take offense at a foreign warship's not dipping its ensign, there's nothing necessarily arrogant about this policy--it simply reflects an assumption that warships don't salute each other by dipping their ensigns. Instead, according to U.S. Navy regulations (article 1230.2), they render passing honors: "Passing honors shall be exchanged with foreign warships passed close aboard and shall consist of parading the guard of the day, sounding "Attention,” rendering the salute by all persons in view on deck, and playing the foreign national anthem." (This last is usually dispensed with, since it is a very rare ship that has a band aboard.)

I think there was a time when the RN insisted on all ships rendering such salutes to HM warships, but I believe that's in the distant past.
Joe McMillan, 16 April 2005

A military vessel never salutes a civil vessel - but if the civil vessel salutes the naval vessel, it always salutes back. At least that's the case in Sweden.

Also, in earlier times, a naval ship who lowered its flag did this as a sign of surrender. Therefore, you don't want to be the first to do so, but if the other vessel does it, you can do it too to show that you have no hostile intentions but will let the other vessel move on.
Elias Granqvist, 15 April 2005

Speaking as a retired professional naval officer and former communications specialist (responsible in our navy for naval ceremonial at sea and ashore), I have followed the discussion about flag dipping both at sea and ashore over the last few days with great interest. In general, the rules concerning these matters, particularly at sea, are international in character with only minor differences between nations, and have developed over the centuries mostly among the Atlantic navies. The correct rendering of salutes at sea is today a matter of ceremonial and protocol, but in the past it was at times literally a matter of war or peace. I recall that one of the Anglo-Dutch Wars started because a Dutch admiral refused to dip his colours (and or sails) at a British fleet in the Channel.

To the best of my knowledge:

Warships never dip their ensigns, except in answer to such a salute by a merchant vessel. This is a courtesy nowadays honoured more in the breach than the practice.

Warships render salutes when meeting at sea, not by dipping their ensigns, but by rendering what is termed 'passing honours'. This can be done either by parading a band (very rare these days), sounding a bugle call, or using the bosun's call. The junior ship sounds the 'attention or still' according to the practice of that navy, wait for the senior ship to do the same and sound the 'carry on', and then sound the 'carry on' also. With a band available, the national anthem of the senior ship might also be played (if known - if not, the own anthem is played instead). While all this is going on, the respective ships company members on the upper decks will be standing at attention facing towards the other ship while all officers will hand salute. It is to be noted that these salutes only take place if the passing ships can see and hear what is being done and can respond in like manner. It is no use saluting if the other ship is miles away and might not even be aware that one is saluting.

The question of who salutes first depends on the respective seniority of the commanders of the ships concerned. This is ascertained these days by radio beforehand. The respective seniority for officers of the same rank depends on the date of appointment to the rank. Obviously if the commanding officer of one ship is junior in rank to the other, he will intiate the salute. The sizes of the ships concerned does not matter. A captain commanding a frigate might well be more senior by date of appointment than a captain commanding a cruiser for example, although this is unlikely. In this case the cruiser captain will initiate the salute. It also often happens that the senior officer might signal, particularly when ships of different nations are engaged in exercises together, that salutes are to be considered as given and replied to, that is, they are dispensed with.

When flag officers are encountered at sea, the question of rendering gun salutes also arise. This will usually only happen by prearrangement these days as ships no longer have long rows of muzzle loading guns easily charged with blank charges. Ships now carry special two pounder saluting guns which have to be broken from storage and rigged for the gun salute to take place. Also, with the speed at which warships proceed nowadays, ships simply passing by chance, will already be out of sight of each other before they have completed firing the requisite number of guns.

Regarding the dipping of the national flag/ensign on parade ashore, the rule in our services is that the national flag is never dipped. Any regimental or service colours carried on parade in company with the national flag/ensign is, however, dipped in salute to the person taking the salute. The word 'dipped' in this instance mean that the staff is lowered to a horizontal position with the flag hanging straight down. At sea the word means that the flag is lowered at the ensign staff to at least its own width below the truck as the length of the ensign staff can be a problem in different classes and sizes of ships sometimes. If the ensign is flown at a masthead gaff, it would be lowered by about a third the length of the halyard.
Andries Brugers, 16 April 2005

I think that dipping an ensign is being confused with warships exchanging salutes.

"When one warship passes another in harbour they exchange salutes. The nature of the salute depends upon the nationality of the ships, and upon the relative ranks or seniorities of their respective Flag Officers or Captains or any important personages in them; it may be made by parading guards and bands, sounding the " Alert " on the bugle, or piping the " Still". Warships do not usually exchange salutes at sea. When a merchant ship passes close to a warship, either at sea or in harbour, she dips her ensign as an act of courtesy and recognition, and the warship acknowledges it also by dipping her ensign. On no other occasion (except when they are half-masted) are the colours of H.M. ships lowered out of routine times. H.M. ships do not dip their ensigns to each other or to foreign warships." [Admiralty Manual of Seamanship.]

England first claimed sovereignty of the four seas in 1320, and other ships were expected to recognise it by lowering their top-sails. Under the Tudors a foreign ship that refused to salute the English flag became, if taken, the lawful prize of the commander of the English ship. The practice was not disputed because England levied no duties on ships passing through the Dover straits, but only insisted on the salute, which cost nothing. It was put on a more formal footing in 1654 at the end of the war between England and Holland. An article in the Treaty declared that, "the ships of the Dutch - as well ships of war as others - meeting any of the ships of war of the English, in the British seas, shall strike their flags and lower their top-sails in such manner as hath ever been at any time heretofore practiced."

In the 18th century an instruction was included in King's Regulations:

When any of His Majesty's Ships shall meet with any Ship or Ships belonging to any Foreign Prince or State, within His Majesty's Seas, (which extend to Cape Finisterre) it is expected that the said Foreign Ships do strike their Topsail, and take in their Flag, in Acknowledgement of His Majesty's Sovereignty in those Seas; and if any shall refuse or offer to resist, it is enjoined to all Flag Officers and Commanders to use their utmost Endeavours to compel them thereto, and not suffer any Dishonour to be done to His Majesty. And if any of His Majesty's Subjects shall so much forget their Duty, as to omit striking their Topsail in passing by His Majesty's Ships, the Name of the Ship and Master, and from whence, and whither bound, together with Affidavits of the Fact, are to be sent up to the Secretary of the Admiralty, in order to their being proceeded against in the Admiralty Court. And it is to be observed, That in His Majesty's Seas, His Majesty's Ships are in no wise to strike to any; and that in other Parts, no Ship of His Majesty's is to strike her Flag or Topsail to any Foreigner, unless such Foreign Ship shall have first struck, or at the same time strike her Flag or Top-sail to His Majesty's Ship.

After Trafalgar it was felt that no loss of prestige would arise from the abandonment of the claim, and in 1806 the instruction was amended to apply only to British ships. In 1834 it was removed completely, but nearly one hundred years later an Admiralty Fleet Order 500/23, issued on 2nd March 1923, had to remind naval officers that dipping an ensign by merchant ships was a courtesy or custom, and not a rule. However flagrant or repeated disregard of the custom by British merchant ships was to be reported.
[National Archives (PRO) ADM 1/8611/160 and ADM 1/8727/148]
David Prothero, 16 April 2005

Warships normally wear their ensigns from the ensign staff right aft especially when in sight op ports or congested waterways. The ensign is shifted to a gaff or yardarm when on long sea crossings or when the ensign staff has to be struck when operating helicopters, or when it may interfere with the operation of weapons systems.
Andries Burgers, 18 April 2005

Parley Flag

The parley flag was the signal for a ceasing of hostilities (temporary or otherwise). The calling of a “council of war” had called for a single flag in previous years, but that would have been raised by the senior ship, and any request from a junior would have required more than one.
Christopher Southworth, 4 November 2015