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United Kingdom: Ministry of Defence

Last modified: 2023-11-11 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | ministry of defence | field marshall |
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[Joint services flag] image by Graham Bartram
Source: World Flag Database: United Kingdom Joint Service Flags.

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Ministry of Defence flag

In a question directed to the UK government it was determined that no Cabinet offices except the Ministry of Defence has its own specific flags.  However, I believe the Ministry of Defence flag is made only in miniature as a car flag, but even that is exceptional. In Britain it has never been considered necessary for ministerial cars to have flags. At Imperial Conferences in the 1930's, flags were supplied to the delegates of other participating governments, but not for the cars of British ministers. [National Archives (PRO) DO 35/132/3]

The provision of a car flag for the Minister of Defence was the result of a problem that arose when visiting military establishments with an accompanying officer who was entitled to a car flag. On these occasions the officer displayed his flag on the car, and it was argued that salutes given, on the arrival or passing of the car, were to the flag displayed, and not to the minister. After one Minister had improperly used the Combined Operations Flag on his car, a special flag was devised and approved by the Queen on 10 May 1957. [National Archives (PRO) DEFE 7/569]

Apart from the Admiralty, War Office, and Air Ministry, British Government Departments have not had land flags. A Public Office was entitled to a Blue Ensign, with its badge in the fly, for any boats or ships it operated, and did not need to obtain approval for it, although the Admiralty were often consulted in those cases where the design of the badge, or the right of a department to be classified as a Public Office, was in doubt. These Blue Ensigns were not flown on land, except by Customs and Excise who by tradition flew their Blue Ensign on Customs Houses.

In 1960 the Ministry of Transport asked if it could fly its ensign from its offices in London. It was told that the approval of the Lord Chamberlain would be required if they wanted to do it on other than appointed "flag flying days". On those days the Union Jack should be flown in addition to the Transport Ensign. Since this would have involved putting up additional flag poles the idea was abandoned. The Ministry was also told to stop flying its flag on the Sea Transport Offices in Aden and Singapore, but allowed it on Coastguard Stations, and colonial lighthouses. [National Archives (PRO) MT 45/580]
David Prothero, 16 April 2003

Since 1964 when the Ministry of Defence was created and the Board of Admiralty abolished, the old 17th century Navy Board flag (three vertical plain yellow anchors on maroon) has been used by both the Navy Board and the Admiralty Board (Navy Board plus Government Ministers), and often known as the Admiralty Board Flag. It was decided that the old Navy Board Flag should be used by only the new Navy Board, and that the Admiralty Board should have its own flag, a yellow vertical foul anchor on a maroon field. It was designed earlier this year by the College of Arms.
David Prothero, 1 October 2003

Joint services flag

[Joint services flag] image by Graham Bartram

The Joint Services Flag is a vertical tricolour with a plain black badge.
David Prothero, 11 November 2010

The badge is that of the Ministry of Defence - it is formed within a circle and consists of an anchor (symbolizing the Royal Navy). with two crossed swords for the Army and a pair of wings representing the Royal Air Force all ensigned by a St Edward's Crown. There are several flags and one pennant relating to the Joint Services (Secretary of State for Defence and Joint Commander in Chief, etc.), and they are all based on the dark blue, red and light blue tricolour (although largely horizontal rather than vertical), however, the details vary dependent on the rank involved.

As examples, the flag of the Secretary of State for Defence is a horizontal tricolour with a St Edward's Crown in full colour its centre crested by a gold lion passant guardant, whilst that of the Joint Commander in Chief is (again) a horizontal tricolour but with a Union Jack canton, and the Joint Services badge in full colour, surrounded by a gold wreath and ensigned by a crown (also in full colour) in the centre of the fly half.
Christopher Southworth, 1 October 2011

Chief of Defence Staff

[Chief of Defence Staff flag] by Graham Bartram, 17 December 2002

The British chief of defence staff flag was a development of the 1956 car flag of the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, whose name was changed to Chief of Defence Staff in 1959. The flag then was a horizontal tricolour, dark blue (Navy) over red (Army) over pale blue (Air Force) with proportions of 1 x 2. The badge in the centre had a white and blue eagle, two crossed red swords, and a dark blue foul anchor on a white disc encircled by yellow laurel leaves, surmounted by a royal crown in colour. The badge, known as the 'unified device', appears to have been a refined version of the Combined Operations Headquarters badge introduced in 1940. That had an eagle, a clear stockless anchor, and a sub-machine gun, all in red on a blue circle.

On 4 August 1965 the Chief of Defence Staff proposed that his flag should be changed and suggested the new Chief of Defence Staff badge in gold in the centre of the Union Flag. The new badge was an oval version of the unified device encircled by a garter and surmounted by a crown. The idea was submitted to the College of Arms. Garter King of Arms, Sir Anthony Wagner, did not approve. He wrote that it was bad heraldry to deface the Union Flag. The only exceptions should be Queen's and Regimental Colours. Any defaced Union already in existence (e.g., Chief of the Imperial General Staff flag) had not been sanctioned by the College of Arms and in strict sense was illegal. Additionally defaced Union Flags were not sufficiently distinctive and could be confused. He suggested Chief of Defence Staff badge on a white flag, or some other plain colour. Other suggestions were flags with a Union canton and the Chief of Defence Staff badge in the fly. Red, white, blue and six striped flags were rejected in favour of what was essentially the 1956 flag with a Union canton and revised badge moved into the fly.

The draft warrant 12 October 1965 states "Argent an Anchor Azure with a Cable Azure and Argent surmounted by two Swords in saltire Gules over all an Eagle volant affronty the head lowered and to the sinister of Royal Air Force the whole encircled by the Garter ensigned by the Royal Crown proper." Flag. "Tierced fessewise of Royal Navy Blue, Gules and Royal Air Force Blue a canton of the Union."

Sources:  Public Record Office document DEFE 24/178, Carr (1961), and Cole's 'Heraldry in War'.
David Prothero
, 17 December 2002

Sir Anthony's position that defaced union jacks were illegal (and bad heraldry) seems a bit quixotic considering the number of defaced union jacks that had been approved (by the Admiralty, I guess?) as governors' and diplomats' flags.
Joe McMillan, 17 December 2002

In the letter I think he had only army flags in mind. All the diplomatic, consular and gubernatorial defaced union jacks were covered by an Order in Council of 7 August 1869. The CIGS flag he quotes was not covered by it. General Officers Commanding, when afloat, have a properly authorised union jack with the royal cypher and crown on a blue disc surrounded by a laurel leaf garland, but the car flag of the Chief of the (Imperial) General Staff, royal crest on a union jack, was, from an heraldic point of view, possibly adopted without official authorisation.
David Prothero, 18 December 2002

Chief of the Defence Staff 1956-1965

[Joint services flag] image by Eugene Ipavec, 6 March 2006

Recently I came across a picture of the badge of the British Ministry of Defence: it's a crowned 'combined services' emblem (crossed swords, eagle and anchor). Can anybody tell me if this badge is used on flags? I'm guessing that the Minister of Defence would have a Union Flag defaced with this badge, while defence establishments not service-specific would use a blue ensign with this badge in the fly.
Tom Gregg,
18 December 1996

Strictly speaking, the badge is termed the 'joint services' badge. A slightly similar badge for 'combined operations' was used in World War II, with a tommy gun representing the Army. I don't have a reference for the date the current badge was first designed, but I presume it was sometime after the war when things had settled down and the College of Arms could 'correct' the crude design adopted by the military.

A flag for the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee was first approved towards the end of 1956 (H. Gresham Carr, Flags of the World, 1961, p. 133) - this was a horizontal tricolour of dark blue (Royal Navy) over red (Army) over air force (light) blue (Royal Air Force) - the order of seniority of the services - with the joint services badge overall. Originally the white circular background of the badge was surrounded by a gold cordon. Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma became the first Chairman. Three years later his title, and that of the flag was changed to Chief of the Defence Staff. The garter that is currently used was added when Lord Mountbatten was appointed Chief of the Defence Staff in 1965.

However, in 1964 when the unified Ministry of Defence was formed the 1956 flag was adopted as the joint services flag. It flies from the Ministry of Defence building along with the three services' flags, but I don't think it is the Ministry of Defence flag per se - it is meant to be flown wherever the three services have headquarters together. The Chief of the Defence Staff, having lost his flag, was given a new one - still the same tricolour and badge, but with a Union Flag in the canton and the badge shifted to the centre of the fly (William Crampton, Observer's Book of Flags, 1991, p. 33). As to the Secretary of State for Defence, I think he is entitled to fly the joint services flag from his car, but I don't have a reference to support this.
Roy Stilling, 19 December 1996

Possible manufacturer's variant of Chief of Defence Staff

images from Mattias Hansso, 10 October 2010

I managed to obtain a somewhat different UK Joint Service flag recently and have been trying to positively identify it, but have not succeed so thus I ask for everyone's opinion. My flag looks to be a combination of the Chief of the Defence Staff flag and the Unified Commander (2 Star) flag. The order of the garter should not be present in the Unified Commander's flag, but on the other hand if it is supposed to be the Chief of the Defence Staff flag, it is missing the Royal Crown as well as the fact that the motto is round and not oblong. It is marked 12'x6' (1988) Porter Bros Liverpool and then H8 8345-99 541 9771. I first thought it was a case of an error. Perhaps some one at Porter Bros got the two flags mixed up and discarded this one, but after having spoken to the lady that sold it to me, she says she has another identical one, only this one is marked 1986! What is the likelihood they made the same mistake, but two years later?
Mattias Hansson, 26 August 2010

It has to be the UK Chief of the Defence Staff or very closely related to it, as speculated by Mattias Hansson when he originally submitted this. The HSQMYP motto is always called "the garter" (from the Order of the Garter). According to our identification of the Joint services flag and the Chief of Defence Staff flag, the Garter was added when Lord Louis Mountbatten was appointed CDS in 1965. The Garter (either round or in an elongated oblong) is only used in British iconography when there is an authorised royal connection. Mountbatten was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, uncle of Prince Philip consort of the current Queen, last Viceroy of India and its first Governor General, and Chief of Combined Operations in 1941-43. From the latter to CDS, Mountbatten twice embodied the joint services ethos.

The CDS flag was "forever" changed for Mountbatten (at the end of his tenure) and all his successors. That's the way it is with royal favours; they are rarely taken away. The problem with the 1986 and 1988 flags is that they differ from the CDS flag in two important respects: the garter circle is round rather than oblong and there is no crown above it. (The pink inside the circle is presumably the red band bleeding into what had been white, and therefore of no significance.)

The Garter in the mystery flags is a very important clue closely tying this to the CDS. The first question I suppose is whether Graham Bartram's illustration of the CDS flag is absolutely correct and unchanged since 1965. Purely speculative on my part, but could the mystery flags be the Vice CDS or one of the Deputy CDS (currently three in number)? Note that these posts are separate from the Chiefs of the three services.
T.F. Mills, 21 November 2010

Secretary of State for Defence

[Secretary of State for Defence] image by Graham Bartram

Unified Commander flags

Unified Commander in Chief

[Unified Commander in Chief] image by Graham Bartram

Three star commander

[Three star commander] image by Graham Bartram

The "stars" mentioned refer to the ranks of the officers concerned, and are based upon two things, a) that US General Officers wear stars on their shoulder straps as a mark of rank, and b) (almost certainly following US practice) British General Officers (whilst they don't wear them on their shoulder straps) have stars on their car rank plates (although with six rather than five points on each). A full general (in both services) has four stars, a Lt General three, a Major General two and a Brigadier (a Brigadier General in US Service and several others) one.
Christopher Southworth, 4 May 2012

US and UK rank insignia aren't alike at all, but my recollection was that beginning during the first Gulf War, UK generals working in joint environments would wear US-style stars on the front of their uniforms for easier identification by non-UK personnel.
Dave Fowler, 5 May 2012

And the reason for referring to these flags by the number of stars instead of the rank title is that these are joint forces, so the commander could be of any of the British services and therefore bear any one of three different rank titles. For instance, the three-star commander's flag might be flown by a vice admiral, a lieutenant general, or an air marshal. Saying "three star" is just a convenient shorthand, and less esoteric than using the NATO standard rank code "OF-8."
Joseph McMillan, 5 May 2012

Two star commander

[Two star commander] image by Graham Bartram

One star commander

[One star commander] image by Graham Bartram

Police Ensign

[Ministry of Defence Police Ensign] image by Martin Grieve, 2 October 2006

The Flag Institute Library is in the process of taking delivery of the Ministry of Defence's official pattern flags, amongst which just happens to be an MOD Police flag, so I provide a photo here.
Ian Sumner, 4 July 2012

Senior office car pennants

Senior Officer Car pennants in WW1 were all rectangular, in the proportions 3:5. There were no actual regulations about size, other than to say 'small' - the ones I have seen in museums look to be about nine inches x fifteen inches (23 cm x 38 cm approx.). Having said that, senior naval officers serving at GHQ (the Principal Naval Transport Officer France was entitled to a rear-admiral's flag) may have used a flag in the naval proportions of 2:3. Liaison Officers serving at Allied HQs were entitled to a Red Ensign and this may have been in the conventional proportions of 1:2.
Ian Sumner, 16 June 2008

Armed Forces Day (commemorative flag)

[Armed Forces Day flag] image located by Esteban Rivera, 4 October 2023

Armed Forces Day (formerly Veterans' Day) in the United Kingdom is an annual event celebrated in late June to commemorate the service of men and women in the British Armed Forces (comprising Armed Forces, Veterans, Reservists, Cadets, Families and Charities). Veterans' Day was first observed in 2006. Although an official event, it is not a public holiday in the UK. The name was changed to Armed Forces Day in 2009. Armed Forces Day has so far been observed on the last Saturday of June.

[Armed Forces Day flag] image located by Esteban Rivera, 4 October 2023

The flag is a white horizontal background featuring the Union Jack on the upper half of the flag and below the name of the event, "ARMED FORCES DAY" (in blue capitals), with the slogan below "SHOW YOUR SUPPORT" (in red capitals).

Esteban Rivera, 4 October 2023

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