Royal Navy Battle Ensign

It is well-known that the Royal Navy has always flown Battle Ensigns when in action: numerous, big flags, from various parts of the ship. The tradition originally began in the days of the sailing navy, to ensure that at least one flag would continue to fly should the rigging be damaged, because showing no ensign was a signal that the ship had surrendered.

The tradition has continued into the twentieth century. In October 1998, a question was raised on MARHST-L:

Just how many Battle Ensigns would be flown by Royal Navy ships in action during World War One?

Underlying this question are a few well-known photographs from the Second World War, in which only 1 Battle Ensign appears - contrasted with several quotes describing "numerous" ensigns flown during the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916.

At least in 1913, the policy (here quoted from the Handbook of Signalling was:

The Captain is to see that two Ensigns are always displayed in a conspicuous position, without interfering with signalling.

In the article An Appreciation Given at the Annual Jutland Dinner in H. M. S. Warrior on 25 May 1978 (The Mariner's Mirror, Volume 66 Number 2, 1980), the late Admiral of the Fleet Lord Louis Mountbatten would recall that during the 19 August 1916 sortie, when he was on the forebridge of Lion,

The great black box containing our Battle Ensigns was brought up and the lid unscrewed.

Obviously, they were treated with some respect!

The following post from Byron Angel (trdntint@TIAC.NET), describes the use of Battle Ensigns at the Battle of the Falkand Islands, December 1914:

extracted following from The Battle Cruisers at the Falklands by R Verner:

".....the two Battle Cruisers forcing their way through the quiet sea, white streaks at stems and the water boiling in their wakes, often higher than the after-decks, masses of black oily smoke from the funnels, against which the many ensigns (we were flying five) showed up in striking contrast."

Verner's watercolor illustrations, which are re-produced in the book, show: INFLEXIBLE flying three ensigns from the fore-topmast (white ensign at the peak, red ensign below, white ensign just above the fore spotting top) plus two ensigns flying from the mainmast (white ensign at peak of main-topmast, white ensign at the peak of the gaff). INVINCIBLE flying four white ensigns (one at peak of fore-topmast, one just above fore spotting top, one halfway down the main-topmast, one at the foot of the main-topmast.

The following answer from David Prothero (RNO@TGIS.CO.UK), quoted by permission, provides the answer:

"In action, ships wear at least two ensigns in a conspicuous position."
(Extract from Admiralty Manual of Seamanship-1964).

In WWI the second ensign was not white.

Because the German Imperial naval ensign was, in poor visibility liable to confusion with the White Ensign the Admiralty issued a succession of orders about the use of additional flags.

2nd September 1914. Ships were to hoist a Blue Ensign as well as a White Ensign when going into action or approaching a suspicious vessel.

6th September 1914. Order revoked and the Union Flag was to be used in addition to the White Ensign.

November 1914. Changed again; the Red Ensign was to be the additional flag.

11th January 1916. Back to the Union Flag with the White Ensign.

The war ended before they could change their minds again.

This comes from "Flags at Sea" by Timothy Wilson who points out that "the ships at Jutland had like the ships at Trafalgar, White Ensigns and an extra Union".

Dressing Ship. "Prior to 1889 it was usual in the Royal navy for one of the junior officers to draw up a scheme for dressing ship on ceremonial occasions for the approval of the captain, but since that date the order of the signal flags, some 60 in number, has been laid down in the Signal Manual so that uniformity is secured, the national ensign(or ensign of a foreign power if the occasion warrants the use of this) being exhibited only at a masthead." "British Flags" by W.G.Perrin writing in 1922.

I hope I'm not stating the obvious, if I make the point that the possible confusion between the German Ensign and the White Ensign, arose only because the original white ensign (no overall St George's cross) had the cross added to avoid confusion between the RN white squadron flag and the white flag of pre-revolutionary France.

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Last Updated: 30 March, 2002.