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United Kingdom: Royal Navy rank flags

Last modified: 2013-05-11 by rob raeside
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Early usage (after 1864)

A historical note: since the abolishment of the three squadron system in 1864, a plain St George Cross flag was flown by admirals at the main masthead, by vice admirals at the fore masthead, and by rear admirals at the mizzen masthead. A broad pennant of similar design was flown by commodores (1st class at main main masthead, 2nd class at fore masthead). The evolution in warship design soon made such practices impossible. Instead, the vice admiral's flag was given a small red ball at the extreme canton, while the rear admiral's flag got two small red balls, arranged like the circles on the % sign, also at extreme canton. The balls were difficult to be seen from a distance, however, so that the designs were changed to the current forms circa 1900.
Miles Li, 22 September 2000

"British Flags" (W.G.Perrin, Cambridge University Press, 1922) has a lot to say about naval rank flags. In 1864 the 'three squadron' system of the Royal Navy was abolished, and all flag officers came under the St George's cross banner, flown by the admirals in the main masthead, by the vice admirals in the fore masthead, and by the rear admirals in the mizzen masthead. There were also a set of flags for use on boats: the admirals used the St George's cross banner; the vice admirals used a similar flag with a small red ball (before 1864 it was blue) at the extreme canton of the flag; the rear admirals used a similar flag with two red balls, one above the other, at the extreme canton. As warships designs of the late 19th century reduced the masts to two, the system of denoting ranks by flying a flag on different masts became impractical, so boat flags came to use on warships as well. In order to make the balls easier to be seen from a distance, the current set of flags were adopted in 1898.
Miles Li, 19 March 2001

The white field bearing a red Cross of St George became the command flag of Admirals of the White or leading squadron (later Admirals of the White) by an Order dated 6 May 1702, and were standardised at 2:3 early in Queen Victoria's reign. It became the command flag of all Admirals by an Order in Council (abolishing squadronal colours) of 9 July 1964, while at the same time, opportunity was taken to alter the "balls" of difference in the 'boat flags' of junior grades of Admiral from blue to red. By the 1870's and the demise of the masted Navy, these 'boat flags' had come into general use on major ships, and the system was regularized in 1898 when the balls were increased in size to one half the canton, and the second (denoting a Rear-Admiral) necessarily moved from the upper to the lower hoist.
The construction details given here are taken from the Ministry of Defence figures published in the current edition of BR20 "Flags of all Nations".
Christopher Southworth and Martin Grieve
, 12 December 2003

The regulations of 1898 resulted in the "balls of difference" being increased in size (to one-half the canton) and one moved from the upper to the lower hoist. The exact pattern of the earlier balls had, as far as I know, never been specified, possibly because their use on a command flag (as opposed to a boat flag) dates only from the 1870's and had not, at least until 1898, been properly established. I have seen illustrations where they are shown in a vertical, horizontal and diagonal arrangement, and have no idea which (if not all) is actually "correct"?
Christopher Southworth, 1 November 2004


Admiral of the Fleet

[UK Admiral] 1:2 image by Clay Moss, 16 December 2006

The British Admiral of the Fleet uses the Union Flag flown at the masthead, but the proportions of the flag have been disputed. In BR20, the Ministry of Defence flag book, they are given as 2:3, but the Royal Navy web-site and other sources showed it to be 1:2. It has now been agreed that the flag of an Admiral of the Fleet has always been, and still is, a Union Flag in proportions 1:2. The Ministry of Defence will remove the 2:3 Union Flag from BR20 at the next change. "Admiral's flags" are 2:3, but the flag of an Admiral of the Fleet is not an "admiral's flag", it is the Union Flag.
David Prothero, 3 December 2002

A Union Flag at the main masthead is no longer flown only by an Admiral of the Fleet.
From Chapter 91 of ‘The Queen’s Regulations for the Royal Navy’:

9106. Flag Officers and Commodores
1. Admirals’ Flags. Admirals of the Fleet, the First Sea Lord, former First Sea Lords and Admirals who are or have been Chief of Defence Staff are to fly the Union Flag at the main when embarked in one of HM Ships or visiting one of HM establishments. The flag of an Admiral or a Commander in Chief is to be flown at the main whilst other Flag Officers are to fly their flags at the fore.
David Prothero, 8 July 2012
 

Admiral

[UK Admiral] [UK Admiral] by Martin Grieve

A straight-forward English flag in the ratio of 2:3
Martin Grieve
, 12 December 2003

Vice-Admiral

[UK Vice-Admiral] [UK Vice-Admiral] by Martin Grieve

As per Admiral's flag, but one ball added in upper canton.
Martin Grieve, 12 December 2003

Rear-Admiral

[UK Rear-Admiral] [UK Rear-Admiral] by Martin Grieve

As per Vice-Admiral, but an additional ball inserted in 3rd quarter and centrally placed on white panel..
Martin Grieve, 12 December 2003

Commodore

[UK Commodore]       [UK Commodore]

by Martin Grieve

The rank of Commodore, the status of which had remained murky throughout the 18th Century, was legally established by Regulations of 1806, and formally divided into those of the 1st class (with a Captain under them) and 2nd class (when commanding the ship themselves) in 1826. The previously used Red and Blue Broad Pendants disappeared with the abolition of squadronal colours in 1864 leaving only the White, with a "ball of difference" being introduced for the boat pendants of Second Class Commodores at the same time. From the same cause that affected Admiral's flags, this form with the ball became the only one for use for the second class. In 1958 however, the rank of of First Class Commodore was placed "in abeyance" and the broad Pendant without a ball accordingly dropped. The construction details given here are taken from figures issued by the Ministry of Defence and published in the current edition of BR20.
Martin Grieve and Christopher Southworth, 26 December 2003

Commodore of the Royal Navy Reserve

[UK Commodore or the Royal Navy Reserve] by Martin Grieve

The flag of Commodore RNR (introduced in 1958) as well as the flag of Commodore 1st class (1826-1958).
Martin Grieve, 26 December 2003

A special Broad Pennant, white swallow-tail with blue St George's cross, was introduced during the Second World War for Royal Naval Reserve Commodores of Convoys. On 2nd November 1959 the privilege of flying this Broad Pennant was granted to Commodores on the active list of the Royal Naval Reserve; there are normally two such Commodores*. From Flags of the World 1971 edition by E.M.C.Barraclough.
David Prothero, 23 August 2002

*There is only one active Commodore RNR at any one point. Prior to the 1950s merger of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR being merchant-navy qualified and professional seamen) and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR being the "civilian" volunteers) into the one RNR there well may have been! But certainly not now!
Andrew Thomas, 31 August 2006

Squadron Command Pennant

[UK Chief of Squadron] by Ivan Sache

Squadron Commander. Longer broad pennant with upper and lower edges in red. Source: Album des Pavillons.
Ivan Sache, 26 April 2000