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United Kingdom: Royal Air Force

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[RAF ensign] by Martin Grieve

See also:


Description and use of the flag

The British Royal Air Force Ensign is in light "Air Force" blue with the Union Jack in the canton and the Royal Air Force roundel, concentric rings of red-white-blue (from the inside out) in the middle of the fly.
Roy Stilling
, 18 December 1995

Before 1918 the Royal Naval Air Service used the White Ensign and I presume that the Royal Flying Corps used whatever flags were appropriate for a corps of the army, perhaps just the Union Jack? An interim flag was produced to represent the Royal Air Force at the armistice celebrations; a 'white ensign' with an overall dark blue St George's Cross, the Royal Air Force eagle in the centre of the cross, and a royal crown above it on the vertical arm of the cross. Rather more attractive than the roundel ensign, but not to the liking of the Admiralty who thought it looked too much like a naval flag. Between the armistice and 26 July 1920 when the present ensign was approved, the Royal Air Force was supposed to fly the Union Jack, but some former Royal Naval Air Service units flew the White Ensign, or the white ensign with a blue St George's Cross, but without the eagle and crown.

During World War II there was a Royal Air Force ensign with a black, yellow and red roundel - the ensign of the Belgian Section of the Royal Air Force.

David Prothero, 11 November 1998

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 Royal Air Force ensign flying in that order (from the observer's left to right).
Joseph McMillan, 23 September

The Royal Air Force Ensign was approved without difference as the ensign of the Royal Australian Air Force on 24 July 1922 (AIR 2/211), and was not changed until 1949; but Canada and New Zealand had their own Air Force ensigns during WW2. 
The Royal Canadian Air Force was granted the right to use the Royal Air Force Ensign on 12 October 1921 (AIR 2/211), but replaced the central red disc with a red maple leaf in March 1940 (AIR 2/6141).
The Royal New Zealand Air Force applied to change its ensign in August 1939. The new ensign was described as, "the Ensign of the Royal Air Force defaced by the addition of the letters N Z superimposed in white upon the red roundel of the ensign" (AIR 30/140).
References are Public Record Office documents at Kew.
David Prothero, 2 June 2002

This flag was introduced in 1918, and was concurrent with the founding of the Royal Air Force as a separate fighting unit.
Christopher Southworth, 4 December 2003

The RAF have always referred to their flag as the RAF Ensign. It may possibly be by analogy with the White Ensign, particularly as the RAF originally wanted to have a White Ensign without the cross as their flag (they also tried a White Ensign with a blue cross, which they referred to as a St. Michael's cross). The Admiralty, on the other hand, stubbornly referred to it as an RAF flag, refusing to admit that the RAF had any right to fly an ensign.

The RAF flag/Ensign was flown by the various launches and tenders that were part of seaplane squadrons in the 1920s and 1930s, and then by the vessels of the Air Sea Rescue Service, formed in 1939. Later renamed the Maritime Section, it was civilianised in 1986. The craft then flew a Blue Ensign, defaced by a badge of an RAF eagle above an anchor, all in yellow. That has since been wound up, and ASR services passed over to RAF helicopter squadrons (plus the RNLI and Coastguard).

It remains open to question whether they actually had permission to fly the RAF Ensign as an ensign, however. The original Order in Council gave permission for the flag to be used whenever and wherever the Air Council saw fit, but the Admiralty did not think that the Order superseded the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act. In 1947, an RAF vessel was seized at sea by Customs, on the grounds that it was flying an illegal ensign (the RAF one), instead of the Red Ensign. The ASR launches got round the problem by the flying the flag from the mast, and flying nothing at the stern. In any case, as high speed vessels, the stern almost disappeared under the water when travelling at speed, so the ensign might not have properly visible anyway.

Air bases have always been referred to as 'stations', and individually by name with the prefix 'RAF', e.g. RAF Finningley. The service would certainly have inherited a tradition of flying a flag at each station from the Royal Naval Air Service (which went to part form the RAF in 1918).

Sources: PRO ADM 1/19970, 1/21665.

Ian Sumner, 4 December 2003

The RAF flag is definitely an ensign. It's been labelled that way in BR20 for years. In Britain "ensign" is traditionally just another word for "flag", but has come to mean a flag with the national flag in the canton. And it will be called the RAF Ensign in the next edition of BR20 too, along with the rest of the RAF flags.

The official Pantone shade of the RAF Ensign is 549, which looks too dark when printed on paper but works in fabric. The illustrations in the printed BR20 used Pantone 292 as and alternative, but I'm not happy with it and am looking at alternatives, such as a tint of Pantone 549 to simulate the fabric flag. A grey pale blue is a good description.
Graham Bartram, 5 December 2003

The RAF ensign is flown from gaffs. Because of their descent from RNAS stations, RAF stations, like naval shore stations, are pseudo 'ships', flying their ensigns as if from the spankers of sailing ships.
Stephen Fletcher, 12 August 2004


Order in Council

The original Order in Council was made on 24th March 1921:

"24 March 1921. Buckingham Palace.
Present : The King's Most Excellent Majesty in Council.

Whereas it is expedient that the Royal Air Force shall use and employ a distinguishing ensign:
Now therefore, His Majesty is pleased, by and with the advice of his Privy Council, to Order, and it is hereby ordered as follows.

  1. The following ensign is hereby established and shall be recognized as the colours of the Royal Air Force that is to say; of light blue, in the dexter canton the Union, and in the centre of the fly of the flag three roundles [sic] superimposed red upon white upon blue; and the said ensign shall be flown in such manner and on such occasions only as may from time to time be ordered by the Air Council.
  2. This Order may be cited as the Royal Air Force Ensign Order 1921."

Curiously, it is dated after the Air Ministry Order (Weekly Order 1130 of 11th December 1920) that contains the flag-flying instructions.

Ian Sumner, 5 December 2003


Constructions details

Based on current practice (rings 0.714 x height):

[RAF ensign] values provided by Graham Bartram

BR20 (produced by the MoD) used to give Pantone equivalents for the "Shades of Naval Bunting and Nato Stock Colours". These were deleted in Change No. 2, however, the details given for the RAF Ensign are 'Nato stock no.8305-99-130-4578, Pantone 549C, which accords with my memory of the flag (having seen it flying over an RAF Station) being a slightly greyish light blue.
Christopher Southworth, 5 December 2003

That colour appears to be 26-179-179 (10%,70%,70%) in RGB, which I suspect is a problem. Closest are 0-153-153 (too dark) and 0-204-204 (too light).
Changing the 0 to 51 doesn't help. Certainly having the B value at 255 is way off-beam.
James Dignan, 5 December 2003

Based on official figures (rings 0.764 x height of flag):

[RAF ensign] by Martin Grieve

The construction details given on Martin Grieve's illustration are taken from an annotated drawing in Admiralty file ADM/12493, and are (in essence) confirmed by an illustration in the 1939 Edition of the German Admiralty flag book - the Flaggenbuch - and by that published by the Ministry of Defence in the current edition of BR20. The colour of the flag's field is officially described as "Air Force Blue", but is not otherwise defined. It is flown at RAF airfields, by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Attaches and Advisors, and also by the Heads OF RAF Missions abroad.
Christopher Southworth, 4 December 2003

Having been in contact with Graham I can confirm that the original specifications (shown here) are the only official specifications extant, and that the five-sevenths referred to by him (and used for the upper construction diagram here) is, in fact, based on 'custom and practice'.
Christopher Southworth, 29 January 2004


Derivation of the flag

The RAF website has a section on the RAF Ensign. In a nutshell, in 1920, the Air Council decided that it was to have its own flag. The Admiralty opposed the move at first, but later conceded, stating that the flag should be the Union Jack with a badge. The Air Council did not like the idea, suggesting a plain White Ensign without the cross. This infuriated the Admiralty, for the White Ensign was (is) reserved for the Royal Navy. King George V wanted the matter to be resolved by the cabinet, but nothing materialized. Meanwhile, the public were sending in their own designs. None was adopted, but there was one suggestion which impressed the parties concerned. This was to use the RAF roundel. Before the final decision was made, Air Vice Marshal Salmond added a Union Jack in the canton of the new flag, symbolizing British authority. The RAF Ensign was then adopted in December 1920, and authorized by the King's Order in Council on 24 March 1921.

Miles Li, 25 January 2002


Other Royal Air Force flags

While browsing I.O. Evans's book Flags of the World (1971), I noticed that there are several other flags used by the Royal Air Force. These are (the text is quoted from the book):

Royal Observer Corps
Founded in 1925 to identify enemy aircraft, the Royal Observer Corps places its own emblem, instead of the Air Force roundels, in the fly of the Royal Air Force ensign. Its central device, encircled with a wreath of laurel and surmounted by the royal crown, represents an Elizabethan coast-watcher holding up a torch, and it includes the motto "Forewarned is Forearmed."

Air Training Corps

[ATC ensign] by Dean Thomas

The badge of the Air Training Corps, similarly placed in the fly of the Royal Air Force ensign, depicts a soaring falcon and places the Corps motto 'Venture Adventure' below it and an astral crown above.

Ocean Weather Ships
The badge of the Ocean Weather Ships displays the Royal Air Force eagle against the sun rising over the sea; this emblem, however, appears not on the Royal Air Force ensign but on the Blue Ensign.

Does anyone know if these services are still in existence and if these are still their flags?

Dave Martucci, 6 December 1997

The Royal Observer Corps was stood down in 1994. It had been disbanded and revived once before, but I doubt it will be revived again this side of warfare threatening Britain directly. After World War II, its original purpose of identifying overflying enemy aircraft became incidental to a new role of monitoring fallout levels and radiation hazards in the event of nuclear war. It was a civilian-staffed volunteer reserve organisation and there was once a network of ROC bunkers and observation posts across the country.

The Air Training Corps still exists and, whilst is no longer officially the cadet arm of the Royal Air Force, it remains affiliated to the Royal Air Force and I believe its members, junior and adult, still wear RAF-style uniforms.

Roy Stilling, 6 December 1997

There seem to have been three versions of the Royal Observer Corps badge:
1. Tudor crown and gold wreath;
2. St Edward's crown and a green wreath;
3. Tudor crown and a green wreath.

In 1993, when the Ocean Weather Ships were down to one ship (called "Cumulus" I think), the lettering on the badge was changed, without authorisation, from 'Weather Ship' to 'Weather Service'. I don't know if it's still operating.

David Prothero, 7 December 1997

A little while ago we discussed variants of the British Royal Air Force ensign and the question was posed as to whether they are still in use. Well, I finally had cause to talk to a colleague at work who is a former Royal Observer Corps (ROC) member and is now a leader in the Air Training Corps (ATC), which is a cadet organisation for young people who are considering a career in the Royal Air Force.

Firstly, Neville told me that the ATC ensign, which is a standard British ensign but with an "air-force blue" (i.e. sky blue) field bearing the ATC badge of a hawk in flight in the usual centre-of-the-fly position, is still very much in use and that in fact he marched behind it in a parade in Romsey (a town a few miles from here) last Sunday.

Secondly, he advised me of the status of the ROC Ensign which is again an air-force blue ensign bearing a fly badge. The ROC badge includes an Elizabethan fire-watcher - these were the men who looked out for the Spanish Armada in 1588 and lit beacon fires to alert the Royal Navy of its approach.) This flag remains an official British flag as the ROC still exists - although only on paper at the present time.

Neville also mentioned that the Royal Observer Corps Association, which is the grouping for former ROC members, has ceremonial flags of its own. The national ensign of the Association is "almost identical" to the ROC Ensign. Unfortunately I did not have time to ask in what way it differs, but I would be willing to bet it probably follows the practice of other ex-servicemen's association flags such as those of the Royal British Legion and the Royal Naval Association by having a much more nearly square field, rather than the 1:2 of most British flags. Neville also mentioned that area branches of the ROC Association parade behind dark blue flags bearing the firewatcher emblem in silver.

Roy Stilling, 11 February 1998

Some extracts about flags from Air Ministry Orders.

Distinguishing Flags and Lamps were introduced by AMO 782/18 on 2 August 1918.
The flags, for use by day, were the same as the present flags, the lamps, for use by night, were square.
Air Vice Marshall. Dark Blue, over Light Blue, over Red.
Air Commodore. Dark Blue over Red.
Group Captain. Dark Blue to left of Red.
Wing Commander. Dark Blue over Red. Tilted to make a diamond shape.
Squadron Leader. Dark Blue.

AMO 10/20. Use of White Ensign. A22216. 1 January 1920.
1. The use of the White ensign is reserved exclusively for H.M.Ships. The White ensign is not to be flown at any Royal Air Force station or by any Royal Air Force unit.
2. The question of a special ensign for the Royal Air Force is still under consideration.

AMO 600/20. Signal Flags etc.. for Marine Craft. 154352/20. 1 July 1920.
For 50 foot Motor Boats and Power Driven Lighters.
International and Naval Code. No.6 size. Nos. 601 to 669. One Set.
Flags, Union. 3 breadth. 1.5 yards by 0.75 yards. One.

Seems surprising to include a Union Flag.

AMO 1130/20. R.A.F.Ensign.
Paras 1 - 3. Detail how it should be flown, and on what sort of flag staff. Para 4. Royal Air Force Ensign is to be hoisted daily at the Headquarters of the force, Headquarters of area and independent commands, from airships, and at stations and units given in the appendix to this Order.

Since it mentions airships, but not marine craft, it was presumably not used at sea at that time.

AMO 599/48. Designation of Royal Air Force Marine Craft. A909870/47/S7(a). 22 July 1948.
1. H.M. the King has approved the designation His Majesty's Air Force Vessel, for all ocean-going ships and sea-going craft of the 68 foot launch class commanded by a RAF officer and manned by RAF personnel in uniform.
2. This designation is to be used whenever reference is made to such vessels in official publications, correspondence etc.
3. His Majesty's Air Force Vessels will fly the RAF ensign in accordance with King's Regulations article 156(9).

David Prothero, 11 December 2003


Queen's colours of the RAF

I don't think there is a Queen's Colour for the RAF as a whole. The Queen's Colour presented on 1 April 1968 (the 50th anniversary of the RAF's creation) was that of the RAF in the UK. It replaced a colour presented by King George VI on 16 May 1951.

The oldest colour is that for the RAF College, Cranwell, which was the first to be presented, on 6 July 1948. It was replaced 30 May 1975.

Other colours have been presented to the RAF as follows:

No.1 School of Technical Training, RAF Halton: 25 July 1952
RAF Regiment: 17 March 1953, replaced 1967
Near East Air Force: 14 October 1960, laid up 31 May 1976
Far East Air Force: 13 July 1961, laid up 13 June 1972
Central Flying School: 26 June 1969
RAF Germany: 16 September 1970
Royal Auxiliary Air Force: presented 1989 - see http://www.rafreserves.com/hm_the_queen.htm

The idea for RAF colours originated in 1943 (see note below on the significance of 1943), on the 25th anniversary of the service, but because of wartime austerity measures, it was not possible to present any until after the War's end. I don't think it had been intended to deprive the RAF of colours for 25 years, but rather, it was an idea for the 25th anniversary. Of those above, only Halton and Cranwell had a pre-war existence.

RAF squadrons have standards. These have to have completed 25 years' service in either the RAF, Royal Auxiliary Air Force (the part-time reserve service), the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Naval Air Service (these last two were the predecessors of the RAF) before a standard can be presented. Alternatively, a squadron can receive a standard for 'outstanding operations'. The regulations appear as Air Ministry Order A866 of 1943. Again, wartime austerity measures prevented their manufacture and presentation until the early 1950s.

Thirty squadrons immediately qualified, twenty-eight under the 25 year rule, and two (120 and 617) under the outstanding operations rule. The first standards bore a border of roses, thistles and shamrocks; then someone pointed out there was nothing to represent Wales, so those still at the embroiderers had to have leeks hurriedly embroidered into the borders before they could be presented.

First squadron: No.1, on 25 April 1953
First Auxiliary squadron: No.600 (City of London), in May 1953
First standard with leeks in the border: 605 (County of Warwick) RAuxAF, 11th March 1954

Standards are 32 inches on the staff x 48 inches (that's 81cm x 122cm, metric fans :-)). The staff itself is 97 inches (246 cm) with a gilt eagle finial.

I have not seen a justification for the 25-year rule. It may be something to do with the fact that many squadrons are disbanded at the end of a war, and so do not have a continuous existence, unlike, say the regiments of the British Army (battalions are disbanded, yes, but rarely whole regiments).

Ian Sumner, 12 December 2002

Significance of 1943

1943 was also the year in which the RAF Ensign was added to the flags on the national war memorial in London. This is a cenotaph in Whitehall, the street leading from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square. It was unveiled on 11 November 1920 with a Union Jack, White Ensign and Red Ensign on one side, and a Union Jack, White Ensign and Blue Ensign on the other. After the RAF Ensign was instituted in 1921 it was occasionally suggested that it should be added to the flags on the Cenotaph. The idea was always rejected on the grounds that the ensign had not existed during the war, and that the Royal Air Force had not been formed until seven months before the end of the war.

In February 1943 Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshall Sir Charles Portal, obtained the informal agreement of Buckingham Palace, to an Air Council request, that the Royal Air Force should be represented on the Cenotaph by the addition of an RAF Ensign on each side of the monument. This was passed on to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who replied that he did not want any changes. A second attempt to obtain his approval was made by obtaining the agreement of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and the Secretary of State at the War Office, that an RAF Ensign should be substituted for an existing flag. The Prime Minister was still opposed to any change, but abided by a Cabinet decision that the RAF Ensign should replace one of the White Ensigns.

The Admiralty asked that there should be no ceremony, and that the substitution should be done unobtrusively by the minimum number of persons. All the flags on the Cenotaph were changed immediately after dawn on 1 April 1943, an RAF Ensign replacing the White Ensign on the west side. At 1130 a Royal Air Force Regiment guard paraded at the Cenotaph and a wreath was placed beneath the RAF Ensign.

[Public Record Office, PREM 4/3/12, AIR 2/6698, ADM 1/12550]

David Prothero, 13 December 2002

Standard of Number One Squadron

[RAF Squadron standard] located by David Prothero

This standard of Number One Squadron is from Standards Guidons and Colours of the Commonwealth Forces by T.J. Edwards. Description of the badges of the squadrons listed, is listed below.

Air Ministry Order 886, 9 September 1943: Institution of RAF Ceremonial Flag.

  1. To mark the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the formation of the RAF the King has signified his intention of awarding a ceremonial flag known as "The Standard" to RAF operational squadrons.
  2. The Standard will be awarded, by order of the King in every case, to operational squadrons qualifying in one of the two following respects.
    (i) By the completion of twenty-five years of existence in the Royal Air Force, Royal Flying Corps or Royal Naval Air Service.
    (ii) By having earned His Majesty's appreciation of specially outstanding operations.
  3. The Standard will consist of a rectangular silk flag with the appropriate squadron badge in the centre on a light blue background, the flag to be fringed and tasselled with scrolls added as requisite for recommended battle honours. The Standard will be carried by means of a staff surmounted by a gold eagle.
  4. The Standard will not be made or presented until after the war. It will be consecrated on presentation and instructions will be issued in due course regarding its custody and the ceremonial to be followed when it is carried on parade.
  5. The King has approved the award of The Standard to the following squadrons, which had qualified by length of service on 1 April 1943: Numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 20, 24, 25, 27, 28, 30, 31, 39, 45, 47, 55, 56, 60, 70, 84, 100, 207, 208 and 216. Additions to this list will be announced in the London Gazette and Air Ministry Orders.

David Prothero, 8 January 2004

 Badges of RAF Squadrons entitled to a Standard:
1. Winged Number One : In Omnibus Princeps.
2. Carrick Bend (Wake's Knot) superimposed on RAF Roundel : Hereward.
3. Cockatrice : Tertius Primus Erit.
4. Thunder Bolt superimposed on Radiant Sun : In Futurum Videre.
5. Maple Leaf : Frangas Non Electas.
6. Eagle grasping a Snake : Oculi Exercitus.
7. Constellation Ursa Major : Per Diem Per Noctem.
8. Oriental Dagger : Uspiam et Passim.
11. Two Eagles flying : Ociores Acrioresque Aquilis.
12. Fox's Mask : Leads the Field.
14. Winged St George's Circular Shield, surmounted by Helm : (Arabic inscription).
20. Flying Eagle grasping a Sword, superimposed on Rising Sun : Facta Non Verba.
24. Black Grouse Displaying : In Omnia Parati.
25. Hawk, wings spread, on a Glove : Feriens Tego.
27. Elephant : Quam Celerrime Ad Astra.
28. Pegasus rising from behind an Axe and Fascine : Quicquid Agas Age.
30. Palm Tree : Ventre A Terre.
31. Five Pointed Star superimposed on a Garland : In Caelum Indicum Primus.
32. Badge is a golden hunting horn on a blue ribbon and the motto is "Adeste Comites".
39. Winged Bomb : Die Noctuque.
45. Winged Camel : Per Ardua Surgo.
47. Heron's Head superimposed on a Circle of Heraldic Waves : Nili Nomen Roboris Omen.
55. Arm holding Spear : Nil Nos Tremefacit.
56. Phoenix : Quid Si Coelum Ruat.
60. Curly Horned Antelope Head : Per Ardua Ad Aethera Tendo.
70. Winged Lion Couped : Usquam.
84. Scorpion : Scorpiones Pungunt.
100. Scull and Cross Bones : Sarang Tebuan Jangan Dijolok.
207. Winged Lion Standing : Sember Paratus.
208. Sphinx : Vigilant.
216. Eagle grasping a Bomb : CCXVI Dona Ferrens.

120. Hawk standing on North Pole of Couped Globe : Endurance.
617. Thunder Bolts breaching a Dam : Apres Moi Le Deluge.

David Prothero, 8 January 2004

The standards of disbanded squadrons are mostly kept at the RAF College at Cranwell, Sleaford, Lincolnshire NG34 8HB, although a few have been laid up in local churches.
Ian Sumner, 30 July 2004


RAF Yacht Club

Ensign

[RAF Yacht Club] by Jose C. Alegria Diaz

Burgee

[RAF Yacht Club] by Jose C. Alegria Diaz

The Royal Air Force Yacht Club, U.K. of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The burgee of the Royal Air Force Yacht Club is flown with a (dark) blue ensign with a crowned flying eagle in gold in the fly.
Miles Li, 23 April 2003


Use of the US flag and RAF ensign at US Air Force bases in Britain

6 August 1965. Air Attaché, US Embassy, London, to Ministry of Defence.

In accordance with AFM 900-2, 1 August 1961, para 28, the following policy concerning the display of the United States flag and the Royal Air Force ensign at United States Air Force installations in Great Britain is established.

  1. The United States flag and the Royal Air Force ensign when flown side by side will be of approximately the same size.
  2. The flags are to be flown from flag staffs of precisely the same height and level.
  3. When both United States flag and the Royal Air Force ensign are flown at military installations, both will be raised and lowered simultaneously.
  4. The United States flag will be flown on the left hand side of the saluting base as seen from the parade ground.
  5. On ceremonial occasions with band and British dignitaries present, the British National Anthem will be played first with the raising of the Royal Air Force ensign.
  6. When a band is present for the lowering of flags, the United States flag will be lowered first.
  7. On ceremonial occasions when United States military forces only are involved the Royal Air Force ensign should be raised before the ceremony so that the United States National Anthem only is played while the United States flag is being raised or lowered.
  8. On occasions when it is appropriate to fly the United States flag at half staff the Royal Air Force ensign will be flown in a like manner. Similar courtesy will be accorded the Royal Air Force ensign under like circumstances.

[National Archives (PRO) AIR 2/18233]
David Prothero, 20 February 2004

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