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Naval Flags (Australia)

Last modified: 2006-05-27 by jonathan dixon
Keywords: australia | naval ensign | white ensign: australian | stars: southern cross (blue) | southern cross (blue) |
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Naval Ensign

[Australian naval ensign] image by António Martins, 28 Nov 2005
Ratio 1:2 | [war ensign]

The 1967 naval ensign was a white ensign with blue southern cross and union star. This replaced the simple British St. George's cross with a Union Jack in the canton.
Brendan Jones, 19 March 1996

In her book [fol96], Foley has a very abbreviated account of the White Ensign's history. She quotes the then Prime Minister as saying it was appropriate for Australia to fly a flag that "...while indicating our allegiance to the Crown, (was) distinctively the flag of the Royal Australian Navy." She also says, re. before the 1967 change: 'The British Admiralty wanted the warships to wear the British White Ensign whereas the Australian ministers wanted Australian warships to fly either the British White Ensign defaced with a seven-pointed blue star, or, alternatively, the Australian national flag. Finally it was agreed that Australian warships would fly the British White Ensign at the stern at all times with the Australian national flag on the jackstaff at the bow when in harbour.'
David Cohen, 9 May 1999




By J.H. Straczek, Senior Naval Historical Officer

On the morning of the 1 March 1967 the Australian National Line cargo ship BOONAROO was commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy for war service. This event in itself is not unusual as merchant ships have been requisitioned by navies for centuries. What made this particular commissioning noteworthy is that BOONAROO was the first vessel to be commissioned under a distinctly Australian White Ensign.

Prior to the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy the Australian colonial navies had flow uniquely Australian ensigns. This was a Blue ensign defaced by the badge of the individual colony.

During the 1909 Imperial Conference the question of what ensign the dominion navies would fly was first raised. The representatives from Australia and Canada proposed that the ensign should be a white ensign defaced by the emblem of the particular dominion. No decision was reached on this matter.

In August 1910 the Admiralty raised the issue concerning the status of dominion warships and proposed that they should fly the white ensign. Shortly after this the Parramatta City Council sought advise as to the flag to be worn by PARRAMATTA as they wished to present her with one. They were informed that PARRAMATTA would fly the Australian Blue Ensign on her arrival in Australia and until the matter of an ensign had been resolved with the Admiralty.

Australian opinion favoured a uniquely Australian ensign but the Admiralty continued to resist and insisted that the Dominion Navies use the white ensign. The Admiralty eventually won out and the ships of the newly formed Royal Australian Navy flew the white ensign. Here the matter rested until 1965.

On 28 October 1965 the Member for Batman, Mr SJ Benson MP, whilst speaking on the Naval Estimates argued that Australia should have its own, distinctive white ensign. His point was that Australian ships were engaged in a war flying the ensign of another country. The Minister for the Navy informed the House, on the same day, that the Navy was already looking at possible variants of the white ensign which would carry a distinctly Australian appearance.

The Chief of Naval Staff subsequently sought the views of other members of the Naval Board and his senior officers. Following this consultation the matter was considered by the Naval Board on 21 January 1966. The Board decided to recommend to the Government "that the Royal Australian Navy should have its own unique white ensign". The ensign was described as being a "white flag with the Union Flag in the upper canton at the hoist with six blue stars positioned as in the Australian flag".

The Minister for the Navy, Mr F Chaney MP, informed the Prime Minister of the Naval Board's decision and the formal approval of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was requested. Royal assent to the new ensign was granted on 7 November 1966.

The formal announcement of the new ensign was made by the Prime Minister on 23 December 1966. Originally it was intended to introduce the new ensign on the 1 May 1967 but this was subsequently amended to 1 March 1967.

contributed by David Cohen, 9 May 1999

The web site does mention that the idea for change originated in the Australian parliament. This doesn't rule out any British influence or advice at the matter, but the change may simply have been a natural and obvious move. As far as I know Vietnam was the first major military campaign taken by Australia without the UK. Until then we had fought as part of the Empire and flown the Empire's White Ensign. By the 1960's the Empire had evolved into the Commonwealth and Australia's foreign policy 'allegiance' had shifted from the UK to the US. The adoption of the new ensign may have occurred naturally to the UK and Australia as they responded to this new state of affairs. The references to the change being made at the request of the UK in Australian sources (such as Ausflag) may simply be an anti-British spin put on the story by some republicans and newflagists.
Dylan Crawfoot, 31 May 1999

More details from the Australian National Flag Association website

Following World War II however the RAN in line with the rest of the Australian community began to develop more independent attitudes and a growing feeling that our policies, our ships and our personnel should be more readily identifiable as Australian. Recognising this, in 1965 the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sir Alan McNicoll initiated action for change by soliciting views on the desirability of adopting a distinctively Australian White Ensign. He made the points that in overseas waters our ships needed to be readily identifiable if the national policy of projecting Australia as an independent nation was to be furthered and that in home ports our Navy needed to be seen as an Australian service totally independent of any form of overseas control. The involvement of RAN ships in the Vietnam War where they were flying a distinguishing ensign identical with that of another country not engaged in the war lent logic and urgency to his argument.

Vice Admiral McNicoll's proposal for change was warmly accepted throughout the Navy and proposed designs for an Australian White Ensign were called for. Several designs eventuated and on 21st January 1966 the Naval Board recommended to the Government that:-

The design had been initially submitted by then Commander G.J.H. Woolrych RAN.

Contributed by Raymond Morris, 20 February 2005

Battle Ensigns

Is it a fact that Australian warships are required to fly a large Australian flag from the mainmast during battle and have been since the fleet was formed in 1911?
Ray Morris, 23 February 2006

Battle Ensigns, Ray - large ensigns flown from the port and starboard yardarms before and during a surface engagement at sea - and based on (of course) the Royal Navy tradition, but I don't know whether the RAN fly or flew the White or the Blue (although the date you give sounds right).
Christopher Southworth, 23 February 2006

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. I imagine it quite likely that when the British White Ensign was the ensign of the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Blue or Red Ensigns might have been flown as Battle Ensigns.
David Prothero, 23 February 2006

Here is a letter I have received from an Australian government naval historian that I thought might be of interest. It concerns the use of the Australian national flag by the navy.

Dear Mr Morris,

I refer to your letter of 16 Feburary 2006 to the Minister for Defence concerning the use of the Australian flag during battle by ships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The Minister has asked me to respond on his behalf.

I can confirm for you that it is customary for ships of the RAN to fly a large Australian White Ensign at the foremast of single masted ships, and at the mainmast of two masted ships when in action.

Throughout World War II this was common practice and perhaps one of the most famous examples of this was during the Battle of the Sunda Strait, when HMAS Perth (I) was in action against superior Japanese forces with the USS Houston. Lieutenant Hamlin, USN, a survivor of the Houston described Perth's appearance in this action as follows:

"there was Perth, a beautiful white bone in her teeth...three battle flags streaming...smoke pouring...firing all the time...rapid salvoes...shells falling all around her...It was one of the finest sights I have ever seen."

It should be noted that RAN warships wore the Royal Navy White Ensign until 1967 and that prior to this date it was not uncommon for RAN ships to fly the Australian National flag from the masthead when in action.

I trust this information will be of assistance to you.

John Perryman
Senior Naval Historical Officer
Royal Australian Navy
Sea Power Centre - Australia

Ray Morris, 9 March 2006