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Flags as victory markings

Last modified: 2014-09-29 by rob raeside
Keywords: victory markings |
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Canadian flag on a sail image by Esteban Rivera, 31 August 2014
Picture taken inside The Flight Museum in Seattle, Washington August 16, 2014, showing an Imperial Japanese Navy flag as a victory decal applied to the fuselage of an American plane to indicate a Japanese plane shot down.

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Flags as victory markings

Victory markings (also known as victory decals, kill markings or simply "kills") are usually (most commonly but not always) flags of enemy countries' military hardware (aircraft ( mostly but also tanks (, trucks (, radars (, vessels (, trains (, compounds (, power plants (, or even the weapon used to destroy/disable/target that enemy's hardware (usually bombs (;sa=media;in=4362;preview)) and missiles ( during a specific sortie (mission) ( or during an engagement with that foe. These markings are also used in peacetime (not to show kills but participation of a specific aircraft) during joint air exercises an air exercise (>).

One could say that the specific identification of military hardware became most notably commonplace to all parties involved in a military conflict in WWI. Prior to that, most (if not all) battles, campaigns and wars in the Modern Era involved infantry, cavalry and artillery
((naval/land) and some other weapons and tactics (which were not very prolific) such as rockets, observation balloons, animals as means of transportation, etc. Logistics (and the hardware involved) were not given the proper identification (nor importance) in the battlefield and so all of these hardware was just plain with no identification badges or flags (except for ships at sea or docked).

During WWI, before "dogfights" ( (aerial battles and air-to-air combats) became common, usually aircrafts and balloons were used for reconnaissance missions (to spot and scout the enemy's positions, capabilities, movements, etc.) The need to identify or distinguish one's hardware from the enemy's (in a friend-foe context) evolved and thus, first tanks but later aircrafts and balloons and dirigibles (Zeppelins) were identified with symbols ( or flags of its respective country and aircrafts started to feature roundels, fuselage markings and fin flash and also squadron emblems and even personal markings ( (all these pictorial appliances became known as Nose Art (

However, once these aerial encounters from both sides locating and spying each other became more and more common, each side realized the disadvantage of having its troop movements and strategies being discovered by the enemy, so these aircraft/balloon pilots started to attack each other with objects (at first), such as bricks, hand-held grenades and even pistols, rifles and carabines (not fitted for air combat, but for personal defense) and also attack other observation balloons as well. The development of weapons able to fire in the air (mainly having and artillery crew to operate a mounted gun in a defensive position, first in backward firing position and later in a rotating position) or even having forward firing guns (first above the plane or along the fuselage but later firing through the propeller) enabled all sides to develop not only weapons (basically machine guns) to be fitted into aircraft, but also on observation balloons and dirigibles to have that firepower needed for the different types of tactics and missions that evolved in the development of aerial warfare.

So when aircraft started to diversify according to their purpose (reconnaissance, bomber, fighter) air engagements were more often and resulted in the downing of an enemy aircraft (shoot down or "kill"). However, these "victories" over enemy aircraft (mainly, because air-to-ground combat was mostly strafing at troops or simply bombing missions and dropping leaflets for psychological warfare and propaganda) were not registered in the aircraft that achieved (scored) this successful victory even though now military hardware was becoming more easily identifiable by both own troops and enemy troops. The practice back then was to collect and store parts of the aircraft downed (specially if it had the enemy's symbol to show it was a foe defeated in combat). On the Allies' side, whenever an aircraft pilot scored five victories over enemy aircraft it was called an ace (on the German side however this "status" was achieved when a pilot scored ten victories although the Central Powers all started to adopt the term ace for five kills and it is now used as such, worldwide). Later on, these identification marks depicted not only individual victories, but when there were too many victories, usually bars and/or numbers or even laurel wreaths were used to identify the pilot's achievements.

It was not until WWII that scores were recorded on the military hardware used to achieve that victory and the respective enemy's defeat in combat. Kill markings started to appear not only on aircraft (, but also on tanks ( anti-aircraft ( and anti-tank guns (, as well as artillery pieces and naval guns and submarines ( Usually the flag depicted in this victory markings is the enemy's but some actually showed their own country's flag in a display of honour and respect towards one's country ( rather than display the enemy's flag or symbol (usually the cockade ( At first these markings appeared on the fuselage ( but also on the rudder ( and even the helmet ( worn by the pilot.

These markings are also used to count "confirmed", "probable" and/or "share" kills (depending on the system used by each country, since for example the Japanese awarded its pilots several points for downing a four-engine bomber, a twin-engine bomber, the Soviets and the Americans use to count in decimals victories shared and also ground victories, which were planes destroyed on the ground).

The term ace then expanded from fighter ace (a fighter pilot that shot down five or more planes of any type), to balloon ace (a fighter pilot that shot down at least five balloons), tank ace (a tank commander who destroyed at least five tanks), bomber ace (a pilot that downed at least five bombers,, anti tank ace (one or more crew members that destroyed at least five tanks/guns) and submarine ace (a submarine commander who destroyed at least five vessels).

Identification markings evolved into Nose Art and Pinups as mentioned before and also military insignia. And practice also enriched the way victory markings are displayed, evolving from the depiction of flags mainly ( to symbols and, silhouettes ( of the hardware destroyed/disabled/targeted, stars (, triangles (, bars ( and also display number of missions (, kills (, decorations (, place of origin ( and personal emblems such as mottos (, personal interests and hobbies (,_USA_-_Air_Force_AN0616770.jpg), etc ( The study and emphasis on this topic has resurfaced thanks to scale modelers ( attention to detail when reproducing an aircraft or any other type of military hardware that has these markings.


Esteban Rivera, 31 August 2014