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United Kingdom: Royal Navy

Last modified: 2005-04-23 by rob raeside
Keywords: royal navy | united kingdom | white ensign | colours | pennant | paying off pennant | dunkirk little ships | shifting the colours |
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[UK naval ensign] by Vincent Morley

See also:

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 teritorial 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

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 Defense 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

Use as a courtesy ensign

Should a visiting warship display a "courtesy ensign" at all and, if so, in the case of British waters should this courtesy ensign be the White Ensign (by analogy with the rule governing the use of the Red Ensign as courtesy by merchant ships) or should it rather be the Union Flag?
Merrick Bryan-Kinns, 8 September 2004

The answer is that in British waters a foreign warship would fly a White Ensign if they were to fly a courtesy ensign at all - it's not required by law that they do, but is always appreciated. Similarly vessels in government service, but not in their navy, should fly a Blue Ensign as a courtesy ensign. All other vessels should fly the Red Ensign. Of course warships and government vessels could fly a Red Ensign if they didn't have the appropriate White or Blue Ensign. It is an offence under the Merchant Shipping Act to fly a Union Flag from a ship, other than a commissioned ship of Her Majesty's Royal Navy. An appropriate course of action for an RN officer who notes a foreign vessel flying a Union Flag is to first check that no Admiral of the Fleet is visiting (the only possible reason for a foreign ship to be flying a Union Flag), and then present the vessel in question with an appropriately sized White Ensign to replace their erroneous flag, and explain diplomatically that they should not be flying the Union Flag.

As for the opposite case, a British warship in foreign waters, Queen's Regulations state that RN ships do not fly courtesy ensigns, but in true British fashion they sometimes do! They fly the naval ensign of the country they are visiting. In fact British warships even fly courtesy ensigns in Britain! When a warship is visiting a port in Scotland or Wales it is quite common for the ship to fly a saltire or red dragon as a courtesy ensign.
Graham Bartram, 8 September 2004

Dunkirk Little Ships

The Dunkirk Little Ships were those vessels taken up and used during Operation Dynamo in 1940. They may fly the White Ensign at the jack when at anchor or in port but not at sea when the normal ensign applies.
Steven Vincent
, 10 September 2002

See also: Dunkirk Jack

Royal Navy colour

[Royal Navy King's Colour, George VI] by T.F. Mills

This is a drawing of the Royal Navy King's Colour from the reign of George VI. I adapted this from a black and white line drawing in T.J. Edwards, Standards, Guidons and Colours of the Commonwealth Forces, (1953). I assume the circlet is blue because it is the Garter. The motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense is partially concealed by the crown.

T.F. Mills, 24 January 1999

Origin of Royal Navy King's/Queen's Colours

Colours were originally called ensigns. Ensigns came into use on the ships of Queen Elizabeth I in the 1570s, and imitated regimental flags, which at that time were called ensigns. Until the early 1600s each ship had its own individual ensign (colour) that was different to the ensign of any other ship. By this time the ensigns on land were being called colours, because of the variety of colours used to distinguish the flag of one regiment from another. The equivalent naval flags retained the name ensign, and it became the practice for all the ships in a squadron to have an ensign of the same design .

Two hundred years later there were occasions when the Royal Navy needed to parade a flag on land. An Admiralty Board Minute of 1807 proposed that a White Ensign paraded by a Naval Guard would be considered a Colour. I don't know whether the proposal was adopted at that time, but in 1920 there were regulations about the use of the White Ensign by landing parties ashore. However although it was a special White Ensign, in the sense that it was reduced in length to make it suitable for use in a parade, it was no different in design to any other White Ensign. This caused a problem when, at a ceremony, there were both Naval and Military Guards of Honour. The Naval Guard saluted the Military Guard as a mark of respect for the King's Colour of the regiment providing the Guard, but the Military Guard did not salute the Naval Guard since there was no Colour to salute. This was criticised by those who did not appreciate that the salute was to the Colour, and not to the troops parading it. 

After an incident at the Royal Tournament in 1923, the King was asked to approve the use, by the Royal Navy, of colours corresponding to the King's colours carried by military forces. On 5th March 1924, as a temporary measure, the King approved a Service Colour which consisted of a silk White Ensign 36 inches by 45 inches, with red, white and blue cord and gold tassels, carried on a staff, capped with a crown and three faced shield bearing the Admiralty anchor. The Service Colour with the addition of a crown and royal cypher superimposed on the centre, was approved as a King's Colour by King George V on the 12th May 1925.

A Colour, each identical, was provided for the Commands of each Home Port and each Overseas Station. Similar colours were purchased by the Royal Australian Navy (2), the Royal Canadian Navy (2), the New Zealand Division and the Royal Indian Navy. New colours were needed after the death of King George V as it was not possible to alter the royal cypher from GVR to GVIR. The Royal Indian Navy Colour did not need to be replaced as its royal cypher was GIR (Emperor of India) which did not change.

Colours are normally changed after 25 years, but the Portsmouth Command Colour presented in 1952, became so worn that it had to be replaced after just ten years. Depending upon their condition old colours are either laid-up or destroyed. The Plymouth Command Colour of 1937 was laid up in Liverpool Cathedral in 1953, but the Portsmouth Command Colour of  1937, which had been damaged in the blitz in 1941, was destroyed by burning in the presence of two officers holding sovereign's commissionson on 13th May 1961.

David Prothero, 19 February 2002

David Prothero discussed above the origin of the RN flag used during ceremonial occasions ashore. As I recall, this flag was granted by the king to the RN circa 1922. When "showing the flag" prior to that, it's likely that RN landing parties used some sort of national flag ... perhaps a small ensign. Can anyone provide some insight into what they might've used between 1900 and 1922?

Al Fisher, 28 February 2002

As far as I know, a plain White Ensign. There was an Admiralty Fleet Order 1362 of 1922 which contained instructions for landing the White Ensign ashore, at home and abroad, when it was to be carried in review. This was cancelled in 1924 to avoid confusion between the recently inaugurated King's Colour and the White Ensign.

An instruction in force in 1934 restricted landing the White Ensign in foreign territories, to those States recognised by the British Government and was limited to occasions when the Head of State was present.

David Prothero, 4 March 2002

If I remember my Queen's Regulations for the Navy correctly they are to use a Queen's Colour, if it is available, for occasions when the Head of State is to be present, and if one is not available the white ensign is to be used in its place.

Actually the chances of a Queen's Colour being available are pretty slim unless someone thought to organize it some months in advance!

Graham Bartram, 5 March 2002

It occurs to me that Al's expression "showing the flag" implies a landing party operating in a situation of tension or a "small war." By the time frame he asks about, the custom of troops carrying flags of any kind in combat was becoming obsolescent, wasn't it? So the landing party would carry the flag only under the ceremonial conditions David describes, not under combat conditions. 

My question would be what flags RN landing parties carried before about 1900--say, between about 1800 and 1880? Anyone have an idea?

Joe McMillan, 5 March 2002

Her Majesty The Queen will present a new Colour to the Royal Navy at a Fleet Assembly off Plymouth on 23 July 2003. Unlike the Colours of the Army, which carry battle honours and vary in design from regiment to regiment, The Queens Colours of the Royal Navy do not alter from Command to Command. There have been only two previous Fleet Colour presentations. The first was by King George V in 1926, and the second by Queen Elizabeth II in 1969.

More details at

David Prothero, 21 January 2003

Royal Navy Supply & Transport Service

[Royal Navy Supply & Transport Service] by Joe McMillan

Image based on a Ministry of Defence poster called Colours of the Fleet.  The complete caption to the flag is, "The civilian manned RNSTS is responsible for the great majority of stores used throughout the Fleet. This flag was granted by the Queen in 1984 and is flown at Naval Stores Depots." My guess is that it is flown alone outside depots just as a company flag might be flown outside a factory.
David Prothero, 17 November 2001

The 'Flags and Ensigns' issue of Royal Mail Stamps (October 2001) included illustrations from 'The Maritime Flags of All Nations' (Richard H Laurie, 53 Fleet Street, London, 4 January 1842.) One was the flag of the Victualling Service, a red ensign defaced with the same crossed-anchors badge as used by RNSTS. The Victualling Service (later the Victualling and Transport Service) is presumably the predecessor of RNSTS. Samuel Pepys became its Surveyor-General in 1665.
Stephen Fletcher, 12 August 2004

Royal Naval Reserve

Reported on the Royal Navy website:

Following a personal recommendation by the First Sea Lord, Her Majesty the Queen has graciously approved the presentation of the Sovereign's Colour for the Royal Navy to the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) in recognition of their continuing support to the Regular Service. Commodore John Ellis, the Senior Reserve Officer, said: "This is a tremendous accolade for those who have served in the RNVR and RNR and for those serving today. The Wavy Navy (RNVR) which was amalgamated into the RNR in 1958, provided more than 80% of Naval Officers and Ratings in 1945 and that valiant spirit lives on, with more than 97% of today's RNR coming from a volunteer civilian background."

It is planned to combine the presentation of the Sovereign's Colour with a special parade in London to mark the centenary of the Naval Volunteer Reserves next year.

David Prothero, 21 August 2002

Royal Naval Auxiliary Service Senior Officer (Obsolete)

[Royal Naval Auxiliary Service Senior Officer] by Miles Li

Source: H.M. Stationery Office (1958)
Miles Li, 19 June 2004

Dominion Navy Colours

Edwards (1953), page 145 and illustration of King's Colour Royal Navy on page opposite 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 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.

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.
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.
David Prothero, 18, 20 June 2000

Corps of the Royal Marines

I don't know if it is the general practice, but a boat operated on the River Congo by 40 Commando, Royal Marines, flew the White Ensign above the Corps of the Royal Marines flag. The latter is officially, I think, the Royal Marine badge superimposed on a horizontally striped flag. The stripes (from the top) are: dark blue 4 units, yellow 1 unit, green 1 unit, red 2 units, blue 4 units. This represents the pattern of the Royal Marine stable belt on a blue flag. Blue for the maritime connection, yellow for the original uniform colour, green for the light infantry and red for the uniform colour in 1876. In the photograph of the boat, the flag has been simplified by omitting the badge and making all the stripes the same width.

David Prothero, 25 September 1999

This is the camp flag of Royal Marines headquarters, rather than the Royal Marines themselves. The Royal Marines do not have an ensign of their own and use the white ensign. Unlike the Royal Navy, they do have their own set of camp flags. 40 Commando's camp flag is unequal vertical stripes of light blue, dark blue, light blue. There are gold daggers on the light blue stripes and the Royal Navy badge on the dark blue stripe.

Graham Bartram, 27 September 1999

Each unit of the Corps of the Royal Marines has is own house flag and will fly this where they can. The Corps uses the Union flag when in Barracks, as a Commando in its home, on land base is working under the Army Act. This may change with the new amphibious force which is forming now jointly commanded by the Commandant General as the Military head and an Admiral as the amphibious head. The Corps uses the White Ensign on all her boats as they belong to the Navy, but as you say may fly a house flag alongside this. The Corps always uses a White Ensign on Naval Bases but may fly the Corps Colours (Blue, Red, Green, Yellow). You might also find that at Barracks like Lympestone, and Stonehouse the Corps might only use this flag in preference to either the Union flag or the White Ensign. 

Roger, Royal Marines, 26 December 2001

Merchant Navy proposals

The term "merchant navy" dates from the Tudor period, when the term "navy" lacked the strictly military meaning it has now. The "merchant navy" was simply the nation's merchant fleet. John S. Ayer, 6 June 2000

The merchant navy is simply that. George V upgraded the Merchant Marine to the Merchant Navy in recognition of their services during WWI.

On 17th July 1918 the Naval Secretary wrote to the First Lord, "King sent for me yesterday and expressed a desire to signalise the war service of the Mercantile Marine by some distinctive recognition. He suggested a red St George's cross fimbriated white on the Red Ensign (see illustration by António Martins, 9 June 2000). This would not be for yachts, only bona fide merchant ships. The blue Ensign might be similarly altered with a red St George's cross fimbriated white." See illustration by António Martins", 9 June 2000.
ADM 1/8530/203.

Had these ever been introduced the dimensions would probably have been more like those of the later Civil Air Ensign. The Admiralty persuaded King George V that this was not a good idea and suggested a number of alternatives, one being an order that in future the Service was to be known as the British Merchant Navy. Later the Prince of Wales was appointed "Master of the British Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets".

The term used before Merchant Navy, was Mercantile Marine, which had in general replaced the earlier term Merchant Service. The first commercial signal code introduced in 1817 was called, Captain Marryat's Code of Signals for the Merchant Service.
David Prothero and Andrew Yong, 6 June 2000

A Board of Admiralty meeting on 18th July 1918 concluded that there was no objection from a purely naval point of view, and appointed the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff and Naval Secretary to consider the historical aspects. On the same day the Head of the Legal Branch wrote that it would not conflict with any foreign flags, but would require amendments to the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 if it was not to be for yachts, which had in many cases rendered good service. He added that it would also be necessary, if adopted to make fresh provision for badges in the fly of colonial ensigns, and that it was not clear how altering the Blue Ensign would recognise the service of the Merchant Service.

A Board meeting on 25th July advised against the proposals because:-

  1. The Red Ensign had been used by the Royal Navy and flown in many famous naval actions. The Red Ensign, as it was, conferred a greater honour on the wearer than would a modified ensign with no historical associations.
  2. The proposed modification symbolised only England .
  3. There would be a problem with badges of Public Authorities, Dominions and Colonies.
  4. It would be difficult to frame a definition of a merchant vessel entitled to wear the modified ensign, that would confine the honour to the ships on which H.M. desired that it should be conferred.
The Board suggested a red bordered Union Jack as jack in the bows, and a blue bordered Union Jack as jack for vessels that wore the Blue Ensign, but this was not, in the King's view, a sufficient privilege.

On the 12th August the Naval Secretary wrote that Captains of the Merchant Service had indicated that sentiment attached to the plain Red Ensign was so great that altering it would be an unpopular idea. Other ideas were floated including a white St George's cross on the Red Ensign, but by 20th August the Admiralty had decided that they were, "averse to any tampering with the Red Ensign".
David Prothero, 10 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 WW2, 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