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United Kingdom: Royal Navy pennants

Last modified: 2020-07-25 by rob raeside
Keywords: royal navy | pennant | paying off pennant | commissioning pennant |
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Did second-class commodores' broad pennants not have swallow-tails? In which case, were they triangular by any chance?
Joseph McMillan, 9 March 2000

As I understand it, after looking through W.G.Perrin's "British Flags", there was no difference in shape or size between the broad pennants of contemporary 1st and 2nd class commodores.

"Broad Pennants" started as "broad" ordinary pennants and therefore had the shape of a very slender triangle with a slit at the end of the fly. I should think that they were similar to the pennants on the "Royal George" on the front cover of "Flags at Sea", but about 2/3rds as broad again. Perrin quotes Pepys' "Miscellanea" in which the original broad pennant of 1674 is described as being 4 feet 7 inches broad at the head and 21 yards in length (roughly 1.4 x 19 metres). This compared with ordinary pennants that were 2 feet 9 inches at the head and between 22 and 32 yards in length, depending on the size of the ship (0.8 x 20 to 30 metres). Over the years between 1674 and 1864 broad pennants changed from proportions of 1:14 to 1:2.

Don't forget that in the Royal Navy a burgee is not a small triangular flag, but a "rectangular flag with a swallowtail". Definition in the "Flags at Sea" glossary and part 5 of Phil Nelson's 1913 Signal Flags.
David Prothero, 12 March 2000

In the Royal Navy the 'commissioning pendant' is exactly that, it indicates no more nor less than the ship flying it is a warship 'in commission' and not one which is 'in reserve'. Having said that it also has the extra benefit of telling an interested observer that the ship flying it is a "private ship" and does not have a commodore or admiral on board.
Christopher Southworth, 19 November 2003

The Squadron Command Pennant flies from the starboard yardarm. It's a bit difficult to work out exactly which part of the "yardarm" it is on as modern Navy frigates have two diagonal yard arms on each side, forming a saltire centred on the mainmast. I have only ever seen it flown from the middle halyard of the forward pointing starboard yardarm. Here is a photo of HMS Montrose flying the pennant - you will see that the signal flags carrying her "number" are flying from the middle halyard of the stern pointing starboard yardarm, with courtesy flags on the two outer halyards of the rear pointing yardarms (the ship was in Scotland).
Graham Bartram, 3 August 2006

Commissioning Pendant (Masthead Pendant)

[Masthead Pendant] by Martin Grieve

The Commissioning Pendant, alternatively known as the Masthead Pendant brings up another "flag mystery". The main problem is that all publications within our possession describe/illustrate this flag as terminating at a sharp point, but as Chris mentions in his notes below, according to that great, and very highly decorated Naval Officer of the British Royal Navy, Vice-Admiral Sir Gordon Campbell, KB., VC., DSO., RN(ret), this may not be the case, as he describes the pendant as being squared-off at the fly (i.e., trapezoidal in shape as opposed to triangular). The next stage in the research took Chris and Željko to that authoritative tome on flags - "Flaggenbuch" by Ottfried Neubecker, published in 1939, and, of course, one of the best flag books ever produced. It is not very often that Flaggenbuch is incorrect, but in one of those rare occurrences, this would certainly appear to be the case in this matter. Flaggenbuch explains that the pendant terminated at a point - and also supplies us with the construction figures. Željko very kindly re-produced these and added two additional columns:

1.       1a.      2.        3.          4             4a.
20.... 720..... 4 .......54....... 1.5........ 1:180
18.... 648..... 4 .......54....... 1.5........ 1:162
16.... 576..... 4........48....... 1.5........ 1:144
14.... 504..... 4 .......42 .......1.5........ 1:126
12.... 432..... 4....... 36....... 1.5........ 1:108
10.... 360..... 4 .......36 .......1.5........ 1:90
8...... 288..... 4....... 30 .......1.5........ 1:72
6.......216..... 4 .......30....... 1.5........ 1:54
4...... 144..... 2.5 ....24....... 1 5.........5:288 (1:57.6)
3...... 108..... 2.5 ....18........1 5.........5:216 (1:43.2)


1) Overall length (from hoist to fly) in yards
1a) Overall Length in inches (added by ZH)
2) Hoist width in inches
3) Length from the hoist to the fly-most end of the cross in inches
4) width of the stripes in inches
4a) Width/Length ratio (added by ZH)

Martin Grieve, 10 January 2004

The Pendant in its present form was certainly introduced (along with red and blue versions) in March 1653 by order of the Navy Commissioners, and most probably predates this by at least 20 years? A tricolour (or "common") Pendant was introduced in 1662 but had fallen out of use by the 1850s, whilst the red and blue pendants were abolished in general Naval service by an Order in Council of 9 July 1864, leaving only the white. The specification given here is based upon a pendant of 6 yards (18 feet) long, as detailed in the 1939 edition of the Flaggenbuch. Please note, however, that the standard lengths given range from 20 yards to 3 yards long - battleship to motor torpedo boat? - and the illustrations do not match the figures shown. It should be further noted that the Flaggenbuch shows a pointed fly, whereas the construction details below have a square end [sic] as per Vice Admiral Gordon Campbell, The Book of Flags, Oxford University Press 1950, page 24.
Christopher Southworth, 10 January 2004

I have the official specifications for the masthead pennant (or distinguishing pennant). They come from DefStan 83-49 (Part 1)/Issue 3. Taking Martin's diagram as a start, if we call the figures by letter:

Length 864 = A
Hoist 5 + 6 + 5 = B
Fly 6 = C
Cross arm length 57 = D
Cross width 6 = E

Then the figures should be (in cms)

A            B        C         D         E
91.0       7.5     1.5       9.0       2.5
182.0     7.5     1.5     18.0       2.5
274.0     7.5     1.5     27.0       2.5
366.0     7.5     1.5     36.0       2.5
549.0   10.0     2.0     55.0       3.0
914.0   10.0     2.0     91.0       3.0

As you can see there is no one construction, it changes with the size. One fact which is absolutely certain is that the pennant doesn't come to a point, it is squared off. The cross arm length is roughly 1/10 of the pennants length, so Martin's are too short as they should be 85. The cross width should be 5.333. The fly end should be 3.2. (These are all based on the smaller sizes, the figures would change for the two larger sizes). The red is Pantone 186.
Graham Bartram, 11 January 2004

It is interesting to note that the longest pendant of 1939 was 60 feet (approx 1,830 cm) long, whilst that of the modern navy is only 30 feet (914 cm). The smallest size is equally revealing, 9 feet (2.74 m) in 1939, and 3 feet (91 cm) in today's navy.
Christopher Southworth, 15 January 2004

The BBC tv programme 'Coast' visited the Royal Navy strategic submarine base at Faslane in the West of Scotland. H.M.S. Vanguard was under going sea trials after a lengthy refit and one of the shots is of her captain on the conning tower. The boat's masthead pennant is clearly seen, and confirms that the end of the pennant is square and not tapering to a point.
André Coutanche, 15 August 2005

This is definitely a non-standard item - officially the smallest size of pennant is 91cm long by 7.5cm wide, and has a cross which extends 9cm along its length, but there again HM's submarine service have always been a law unto themselves and perhaps the captain was fond of St George (or at least his cross)?
Chris Southworth, 15 August 2005

Paying Off Pennants

In the Royal Navy a paying-off pennant is flown to mark the end of a ship's commission. Traditionally the pennant is the same length as the ship, and somewhat longer if the commission has been extended. It is said to have originated in the 19th century when all cleaning rags were tied together and hoisted as a sign that they were finished with. The pennants were usually of the same width, and had a small St George's cross of the same size, as a normal commissioning pennant. However a recent photograph of one shows it to be only about half the length of the ship, three or four times broader than normal, and with the St George's cross covering half the length of the pennant.
David Prothero
, 19 November 1999

Traditionally, a paying-off pennant has the length of the ship, plus one foot for each year of service - so long, in fact, that several balloons are often needed to keep the pennant flying!
Miles Li, 26 October 2002

A paying-off pennant is an ultra-long version of the masthead pennant. To quote Admiralty Manual of Seamanship 1979 (HMSO), Volume 1, page 394:

"Since before the Napoleonic wars it was the custom of HM ships to fly a paying-off pennant at the main truck when they left their fleet to return to their home port to pay off. Custom ordained that the length of the pennant should equal the length of the ship if she left station at the end of a normal period of foreign service. If, however, a commission had been extended, the length of the pennant was increased in proportion to the extra length of service (e.g. for a commission of 2 years extended to 2 years and 2 months the length of the pennant would be the length of the ship plus 1/12th). It was similar to, and flown in place of, the masthead pennant, and was displayed by a ship from a foreign station when entering or leaving harbours during her passage home, and by a ship of the fleet on leaving for and arriving at her home port. It was also the custom on all stations for a ship to fly this pennant on the Sunday preceding her departure, or, if already in her paying-off port, on the Sunday preceding the day on which she paid off."
Miles Li, 14 July 2004

[Paying-off pennant] located by David Prothero

Paying-off pennants do not photograph well, being very long but relatively narrow. Attached is about the best that I have seen. HMS Milford in the 1930s.
David Prothero, 14 July 2004

To quote Admiral Sir Gordon Cambell (P.24, The Book of Flags) "This Pendant is not official issue, but is made from any bunting which the Signalmen can scrounge".
Christopher Southworth, 16 July 2004

In USA, the paying-off pennant is referred to as the homeward bound pennant. The US Navy doesn't "pay off" (i.e., decommission) ships when they go into overhaul, only at the end of their service, so the pennant is flown by ships headed home after long deployments. More details at Sea Flags.
Joe McMillan, 16 July 2004

In 1961 or '62 while serving in the RNR as a Surgeon. Lieut. on HMS President, I spent a weekend as a member of a gash crew made up mainly of RNR doctors and dentists and a few execs and other odds and sods, on HMS Isis, the coastal minesweeper which was the training ship of the RNR London division. I think we cruised as far as Land's End and on the way back overnighted in Portland harbour, for a good run ashore.
     On the last leg, it was realised that this was actually the decommissioning cruise. A pipe from the bridge was received by the sick bay requesting anything that could be made into a paying off pennant. We dutifully supplied a series of crepe bandages, starting with 12 inch and progressing step by step through eight, six, four, two-inch, to one inch, all stitched together at the appropriate length. There were no balloons on board, and pigs' bladders were in even shorter supply, but an inflated condom (supplied in pristine condition by the sick bay) tied to the very end of the 'pennant' served very well to keep it afloat. We steamed up the Solent receiving compliments from passing vessels in great style!
     I thought it was somewhat slack of the execs to have not organised a proper pennant, and only realised on reading your article that the pennants used to be made up of rags etc. with a pig's bladder on the end. So perhaps crepe bandages were step up! Not sure about the condom but it served the purpose.
John Crockett 25 June 2020