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Naval Flags (Australia)

Last modified: 2021-08-14 by ian macdonald
Keywords: australia | naval ensign | white ensign: australian | stars: southern cross (blue) | southern cross (blue) | jolly roger |
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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 RAN should have a distinctive Australian White Ensign.
  • The Ensign should be 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 design had been initially submitted by then Commander G.J.H. Woolrych RAN.
Contributed by Raymond Morris, 20 February 2005

This flag was again proclaimed under Section 5 on 25 January 2008, with effect from 1 January 2008. The Legislative Instruments Act 2003 required the original to be lodged in a Federal Register, and due to an administrative oversight it was not, and the proclamation was automatically repealed. The new proclamation simply corrected that oversight.

The other 4 flags previously afforded the same status were re-proclaimed at the same time (the Defence Force Ensign proclamation needed to be back-dated further to 1 October 2006). One consequence of the Legislative Instruments Act, apart from the unintended repeal of the original proclamations, is to make all current legislative instruments enabled by the Flags Act available through the register at the Attorney-General's Department Federal Register of Legislation site.
Jonathan Dixon, 23 June and 1 October 2008

The Australian White Ensign is also worn by non-commissioned Navy vessels. This included Navy-crewed support craft, before these and naval support functions passed to private contractors around 1997. From 1988 to around 2012 the ensign was worn by non-commissioned vessels prefixed MSA (auxiliary minesweepers) and since 2015 by vessels prefixed ADV (Australian Defence Vessel) where these have been Navy-crewed. It is also worn by STS (sail training ship) YOUNG ENDEAVOUR and by former commissioned warships on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum.
Jeff Thomson, 4 September 2017

The Chief of Navy gave his permission in April 2020 for the Australian White Ensign to fly permanently at the HMAS Sydney (II) Memorial at Geraldton in Western Australia. The Australian White Ensign can now be permanently flown, by Chief of Navy’s permission, on land only at the HMAS Sydney (I) Mast on the northern shore of Sydney Harbour and the HMAS Sydney (II) Memorial at Geraldton as well as outside the gates of Royal Australian Navy shore establishments.
Hayden Williams, 16 May 2020

Commonwealth Naval Forces Ensign 1901 to 1911

The Commonwealth Naval Forces was formed in 1 March 1901 and took over a number of warships from the several discontinued naval forces of the Australian colonies. Photographs show that the former colonial warships flew the Commonwealth Blue Ensign and the Union Jack. The Commonwealth Blue Ensign may have been flown as the ensign before it was formally approved by the Imperial authorities, as the star design of these early flags resembled those seen in flag images of the 1901 Federal Flag Competition. The flags typically had an over-sized six-point Commonwealth Star and the original 1901 Southern Cross, with star-points of Alpha to Epsilon numbering from 9 to 5.

From late 1908 the large six-point Commonwealth Star was replaced by the seven-point type, yet the 1901 Southern Cross was retained for several more years. This Commonwealth Blue Ensign variant continued as the ensign until on or about 5 October 1911 when the Commonwealth Naval Forces became the Royal Australian Navy. Under Naval Order 78/1911, this 'flag of the Australian Commonwealth' became the jack, replaced as the ensign by the British White Ensign. The 1901-pattern Southern Cross continued for several more years after this until replaced by the current type, now the Australian National Flag.
Jeff Thomson, 4 September 2017

Royal Australian Navy flags from 1911

From January 1921 the Australian civil law Naval Forces Regulations provided for Navy flags in two regulations. The first regulation stated 'All ships and vessels of the Royal Australian Navy shall fly at the stern the White Ensign as the symbol of the authority of the Crown, and at the jack staff the distinctive flag of the Australian Commonwealth.' The second regulation stated 'The pendant, broad pendant or burgee shall be according to H.M. Royal Naval Service pattern.'

The flags in the first regulation were of course the British White Ensign and Australian Blue Ensign (Australian National Flag). This regulation was repealed without replacement in February 1967 shortly before introduction of the new Australian White Ensign. The second regulation about the pendant, broad pendant and burgee was repealed without replacement in November 1970. The Naval Forces Regulations are no longer in force.

In the Naval Forces Regulations, the regulations dealing with these flags could be found at:
1921 version (assent date 31 December 1920; No 1), as regulations 170 and 171.
1926 version (assent date 22 December 1926; No 196), as regulations 160 and 161.
1935 version (assent date 11 December 1935; No 133), as regulations 161 and 162.
Amendment (assent date 16 February 1967; No 20) regulation 161 repealed.
Amendment (assent date 14 November 1970; No 179) regulation 162 repealed.

In the Explanatory Statement issued with the 25 January 2008 re-made Proclamation appointing the Australian White Ensign to be the ensign of the Australian Navy under section 5 of the Flags Act 1953, the second paragraph states 'The Australian White Ensign is flown from the stern of naval vessels. The Australian National Flag is flown from the bow.'
Jeff Thomson, 4 January 2021

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 February 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

Use of Jolly Roger by Submarines

Today in the Anzac Day parade in Sydney, the submarine association was carrying a jolly roger. According to the commentator, the jolly roger was used by submarine to signify a successful patrol. [see similar usage in the British Royal Navy - ed.]
Marc Pasquin, 25 April 2007

Navy League of Australia

[Naval League of Australia] image provided by Hayden Williams, 13 February 2020

The Navy League of Australia will fly its new flag on 1 March 2020, as announced in the NLA newsletter. This is a non-government organization closely linked to the Royal Australian Navy advocating on naval and maritime matters.

Extracted from the February 2020 Vic-Tas issue of their newsletter:

"Many thanks to our NLA member Christine Nekrasov, her daughter Tess and Stephanie Stotler, for facilitating the production of an eps file of the above logo. It is being used to make a flag which can be flown at various events. We are excited to announce that it will be flown for the first time at the Lonsdale Cup Navigation Rally on 1 March 2020 to be held at the Royal Victorian Motor Yacht Club in Williamstown. This boating event celebrates the foundation of the Australian Navy on 1st March 1901 and honours those Naval Auxiliary Patrol sailors who served as Victorian war-time volunteers for Port and Harbour security from 1939 to 1945. The inaugural race took place in 1947. The race continued annually until 1954. It restarted in 2015 with a new perpetual Lonsdale Cup."