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United Kingdom: blue ensign

Last modified: 2013-11-16 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | civil ensign | blue ensign |
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[UK naval reserve ensign] by Clay Moss, 1 March 2008

See also:

The Blue Ensign

According to H. Gresham Carr, Flags of the World, 1961, p.130:

The plain Blue Ensign is worn by British merchantmen commanded by an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve, having a certain number [he doesn't specify] of R.N.R. officers and ratings on board, and holding an Admiralty Warrant which is issued in accordance with the conditions laid down in Queen's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions: "During the early part of 1950 it was decided that Commodores R.N.R., whether on the active or retired list, may, when afloat, use the Blue Ensign in their own right, provided Admiralty permission has been obtained."

Roy Stilling, 3 October 1996

This is a list of the current defaced Blue Ensigns of the United Kingdom, excluding those of yacht clubs (yacht clubs are listed here). The list is correct as of July 1996 and I am not aware of any changes since then. Some of of these ensigns are fairly obscure and little used, but are said to be warranted:

David Prothero, 22 September 1997

The Blue Ensign with horizontal yellow anchor is the government ensign used by departments not authorized a distinctive badge, i.e. it is the 'default' government ensign. With two yellow waves added under the anchor, it is the ensign of the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service. With a vertical yellow anchor it is the ensign of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service.

Tom Gregg, 25 August 1997

The Blue Ensign is also flown by ships that are commanded by a member of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and have a certain proportion of officers (at least three I think) that are also in the RNR. Normally only prestigious passenger liners carry sufficient RNR officers to meet the criteria and it is considered a mark of honour to fly the Blue Ensign instead of the Red. On one ship that my father was an officer on they just happened to meet the criteria, despite being a cargo ship. They therefore flew a Blue Ensign - much to the annoyance of the passenger liners who felt that it degraded "their" ensign to see it flown on a timber-carrying cargo ship!

Graham Bartram, 8 January 1998

Members of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) were not ex-Royal Navy. They were Merchant Navy personnel who joined the RNR and received a limited amount of training. The captain of a merchant ship who was in the RNR had to apply for a warrant to fly the Blue Ensign instead of the Red Ensign. Even with the warrant issued, he could not fly the Blue Ensign unless at least, I think 10, of his crew were also in the RNR. The warrant was still good if he took command of another ship in the same shipping company, but if he was appointed captain of a ship in another company, he needed to re-apply for a new warrant.

In an interesting case in 1913, a member of the RNR, who was captain of a ship registered in a Canadian port, applied through the Canadian High Commission for a warrant to fly a Blue Ensign defaced with the Canadian badge. This was refused on the grounds that it was the British RNR, and until the Royal Canadian Navy established their own reserve the plain Blue Ensign was the proper flag.

Warrants were also granted for some yacht clubs to fly the undefaced Blue Ensign.

Ships flying Blue Ensigns defaced with a colonial badge were usually unarmed, but if a colonial government wanted to arm a ship for use in its territorial waters the same ensign was used, with the addition of a Blue Pennant at the masthead.

David Prothero, 8 January 1998

A recent change in regulations now requires new Royal Navy ships on contractors' trials to fly the Blue Ensign while on trials. The change took place 1 Jan 2000 and is not a plain Blue Ensign, but the "Government Service Ensign" which is a Blue Ensign with a horizontal gold anchor in the fly.
David Prothero, 29 April 2000

"'The Blue Ensign to be carried by all vessels employed in the service of any public office with the seal and badge of the office to which they belong' in the Order in Council of 9th July 1864, is considered to constitute a warrant from His Majesty within the meaning of Section 73(2) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, and to dispense with the need of a warrant from the Admiralty under the same section."
30th July 1916. [National Archive (PRO) ADM 1/8464/183]
David Prothero, 25 June 2003

British Blue Pennant

What is the extent the British blue pennant (blue with red St. George's Cross on white at hoist) is used since 1864? Is it used on various naval auxiliaries vessels? troopships wearing the Blue Ensign? Royal Indian Marine?
Miles Li
, 13 November 2001

The general rule was set out in a Colonial Office Circular of 22nd December 1865. Any vessels maintained by any colony under the clauses of the 3rd Section of the Colonial Naval Defence Act, should wear the Blue Ensign with the Seal or Badge of the Colony in the Fly thereof, and a Blue Pennant. All vessels belonging to or permanently in the service of the Colonies, but not commissioned as Vessels of War under the Act should wear a similar Blue Ensign but not the Pennant.

In essence the Blue Pennant was supposed to be the commissioning pennant of a vessel that flew the Blue Ensign, just as the White Pennant is the commissioning pennant of a vessel that flies the White Ensign.

Auxiliaries and troopships unless commissioned as vessels of war do not wear a pennant.

In theory the Blue Pennant would have been used by the Colonial Navies of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, the Australian Navy 1901-1911 and the Indian Navy until 1928. Possibly also by Tasmanian and New Zealand vessels, though they were only small torpedo boats. However, "through an over-sight, the Board's wishes with respect to the pendant were not carried out for 55 years, when King's Regulations & Admiralty Instructions were amended." This suggests that perhaps the Blue Pennant was not generally used until 1920, though I would have thought that a colonial navy would have referred to Colonial Office Regulations rather than KR&AI.

In the 1930s the Blue Pennant authorised by an Admiralty Warrant of 14th April 1886 for "Police Vessels of the Government of Canada", was worn by Canadian Fishery Protection Vessels

Various Naval Defence Forces formed in the late 1930s and early 1940s used a Blue Pennant even though some, Burma, Straits Settlements, Hong Kong, Kenya and Tanganyika were allowed to fly the White Ensign. After the war the Royal Malayan Navy, the Royal East African Navy, the Hong Kong Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, the Malayan RNVR and the Mauritius Naval Volunteer Force had White Ensigns and Blue Pennants.
[ADM 1/8759/206 and ADM 1/23988]

David Prothero, 14 November 2001

I have checked the book "The International Code of Signals" (Spottiswoode, London, 1908) and can confirm this. Specifically:
* Vessels of the Surveying Service commanded by officers of the Royal Navy flew the Blue Ensign and the Blue Pennant.
* Hired transport vessels commanded by officers of the Royal Navy flew the Blue Ensign defaced with an gold Admiralty Anchor, and a Blue Pennant defaced with a gold Admiralty anchor next to the St. George Cross.

Miles Li, 16 November 2001

Are there any extant UK regulations governing the flying of the blue pennant, or has it lapsed as an official pennant? The Royal Navy website states this of the normal pennant (i.e. white commission pennant):

"WHITE MASTHEAD PENNANT - Flown in all HM Ships and establishments in commission (unless displaced by a senior officer's flag). St Georges Cross occupies only a portion of the length because this is the 'White' pennant as opposed to the 'Red' or 'Blue' pennant which are now rarely used"
Andrew Thomas, 14 January 2004

The Order in Council of 1864 (which abolished squadron colours in the Royal Navy) did retain the right to use the Red and Blue "colours for such special occasions as may appear to us or to officers in command of Fleets and Squadrons to require their adoption". According to Tim Wilson: "a ship's suit of colours may  be defined as the set of distinctive flags appropriate to her station", and from this it would appear that the RN retain the right to display both the Red and Blue Ensigns, and the Red and Blue Commissioning Pendants, if they so choose? If this is so, I do not, however, know why the RN Website only mentions the Blue?
Christopher Southworth, 14 January 2004

Just speculation here, but is it theoretically possible that the UK might place a non-warship in commission, either under a naval officer or an officer of a different service? It's a stretch, but the analogy would be the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the old U.S. Army Transportation Service. The ATS used to have commissioned ships with army officers in command, and they flew a distinctive commission pennant (red hoist with white stars; fly divided blue over white). NOAA still has commissioned ships with commissioned NOAA officers in command; they also fly a distinctive commission pennant (white hoist with 7 red triangles; blue fly).

Keeping the blue masthead pennant available if needed would make sense if the UK ever needed or wanted to place, say, an army vessel officially in commission. Since HMAVs wear a blue ensign, they would logically also wear a blue pennant. Red pennants would be less necessary, since any government vessel would be using a blue ensign rather than red.
Joe McMillan, 14 January 2004

There is no direct connection between a Blue Ensign and a Blue Pennant (blue with a St George's cross next the staff). A yacht entitled to a Blue Ensign, plain or defaced, should have the club burgee at the mast head. Captain's of merchant ships that qualified for a Blue Ensign under Royal Naval Reserve regulations, were not authorised a pennant on the warrant that authorised the ensign.

I don't know whether Army Vessels commanded by a commissioned officer had a blue masthead pennant, but there are no longer any HMAVs in commission. Colonial RNVR Divisions used to fly the White Ensign with a blue masthead pennant.
David Prothero, 14 January 2004

David Prothero says that he does not know whether ships of the Army commanded by commissioned officers (HMAVs) wore a blue masthead pennant. The answer is that they did not.
John Davies, ex-HMAV Captain, 5 November 2004

Blue ensign used on the Titanic

The RMS Titanic flew a Blue Ensign. I don't have the information to confirm but this would appear to imply that Captain Smith and a percentage of his crew were members of the Royal Naval Reserve according the the Regulations pertaining in 1912.
Christopher Southworth, 24 September 2006

I am under the impression that Royal Mail ships were also entitled to wear the Blue Ensign whence the RMS, and that they did not necessarily had to have RNR's as masters.
Andries Burgers, 25 September 2006

Captain Smith of the "Titanic" was an honorary Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve. I do not know if a master holding an honorary rank was entitled to apply for a Blue Ensign Warrant, but a British merchant ship did not necessarily have to meet reservist crew requirements in order to fly the Blue Ensign.

In 1876 the Admiralty opened a register of merchant ships that could be used as armed cruisers in time of war. After 1888 a small subsidy was paid to the owners of the most serviceable of these vessels as a retaining fee, and in 1900 there were fifty large fast vessels known as Royal Naval Reserved Merchant Cruisers, belonging to Canadian Pacific, Cunard, Orient, Pacific, Peninsular & Oriental, Royal Mail, and White Star. Armament was stored at the British port to which the ship belonged, and the owners could apply to the Registrar General of Shipping for a Blue Ensign Warrant.

"Whereas we deem it expedient that the British Steam Ship ........Official Number.......... measuring ......... tons registered at the Port of ........... and owned by ................ being one of the Special Vessels receiving an Admiralty Subvention shall be permitted to wear the Blue Ensign of Her Majesty's Fleet. We do therefore by virtue of the power and authority vested in us warrant and authorise the Blue Ensign of Her Majesty's Fleet to be worn on board the ............. accordingly so long as that vessel shall fulfil the conditions of the agreement entered into by Us and the Owners for the purchase or hire of the vessel whenever she may be required for Public Service."

Royal Mail Ships, as such, were not entitled to a Blue Ensign, but many did qualify, either because they were subvented liners, or because their commander and crew fulfilled the Royal Naval Reserve requirements.

David Prothero, 25 September 2006

Very interesting, indeed. So, a ship could have a red ensign first, then apply for a blue ensign and fly that because of its status in the Naval Reserve, and then in case of war get enlisted and change to the white ensign?
Elias Granqvist, 26 September 2006

Armed merchant cruisers were a fact of Royal Naval life in both the First and Second Wars - these were converted merchant vessels commissioned into the RN, from memory carried a broadside of six inch guns (or similar), were manned by naval crews and accordingly flew the White Ensign, but it is hard to imagine a vessel the size of the Titanic as being amongst their number? I don't know what their Lordships of the Admiralty had in mind to do with her and her like, but I imagine that they had thoughts of troop or hospital ships which would not (as far as I am aware) have been commissioned into the RN and would therefore fly a Blue or Red Ensign?

I don't have access to the relevant books at the moment, but my memory tells me that the RMS Titanic was actually longer than the contemporary Dreadnought battleships, with the same speed but (of course) no armour plate whatever.
Christopher Southworth, 26 September 2006

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