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Board of Ordnance: War Department Fleet (Britain)

Last modified: 2011-06-11 by rob raeside
Keywords: board of ordnance | ordnance | cannons | cannonballs | war department fleet |
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War Department Fleet

A banner of the shield of the Ordnance Board Seal

[A banner of the shield of the Ordnance Board Seal] by Martin Grieve

A banner of the shield of the Ordnance Board Seal; possibly the flag of the Master General. On 30th July 1806 the shield was registered with the College of Arms.
"Azure, three Field-Pieces in Pale Or, on a Chief Argent three Cannon Balls Sable." To it were added: "Crest - Out of a Mural Crown a Dexter Hand holding a Thunderbolt all proper"; together with the motto : "Sua Tela Tonanti." and supporters, "On either side a Cyclops, in the exterior hand of the Dexter a Hammer, in that of the Sinister a Pair of Forceps resting on the shoulder of each respectively all proper."
David Prothero, 18 September 2004

Ordnance ensign 1801-1855; War Department ensign 1855-1864

[Ordnance ensign 1801-1855; War Department ensign 1855-1864] by Martin Grieve

The shield, its colours now defined, continued as the badge on the Red Ensign. The registration of the arms was later found to be deficient and a new Earl Marshall's Warrant was issued on 16th May 1823. The change concerned only the crest; "Out of a mural crown, argent, a dexter cubit arm the hand grasping a thunderbolt, winged and in flames, proper". The incorrect crest was to become the badge on the ensign of the Submarine Mining Service, and the revised crest the badge on the ensign of the Royal Engineers.
David Prothero, 18 September 2004

War Department ensign 1864-1890

[War Department ensign 1864-1890] by Martin Grieve

Due to its poor performance during the Crimea War the Board of Ordnance was dissolved in 1855, its ships becoming the War Department Fleet based at Woolwich, Portsmouth, Chatham and Devonport. The ensign remained unchanged until 1864, when British maritime flags were re-organised, and ensigns of Public Offices changed from Red to Blue. The Ordnance shield gained a red border to separate the blue ground of the shield from the blue field of the ensign.
David Prothero, 18 September 2004

[War Department ensign with pale blue shield] image by Martin Grieve, 15 September 2009

This photo of a flag with a pale blue shield and yellow border was provided by Harriett Baker, owner.  Its provenance is unknown.
4 February 2008

I also have an example of this flag which seems to be an older ‘Ordnance Arms’ cut into a newer blue ensign as if a repair. The ordnance arms are printed light blue with yellow cannons and border as in Harriet Bakers picture. This was given to me by a retired ordnance officer (RAOC) along with a copy of "Ordnance Flags: Their Origin and Use Past & Present" by Brigadier G.A. Viner OBE (late RAOC) published around 1960 but with a 1963 amendment. In the Ordnance book it refers to W.O. memo D.D.C.S. (A) /696/44 dated 30th Oct 1944 ‘The debased shield was replaced by a pale sky blue and the red border deleted’ but I am sorry to say no reference to a yellow border.

I also have an extract from a 1962 RAOC Gazette on the change of the Corps Ensign from a Blue background with RAOC Badge in full, to one with no UJ and 7 Red diagonal stripes with central RAOC badge. Stating:
"The War Office announces that the present Corps Flag viz. the Blue Ensign with Corps badge in the fly thereof, is liable to cause confusion as the design is to close to that of the Flag, Maritime, Distinguishing, Ordnance Ensign – a Blue Ensign with the Arms of the Board of Ordnance i.e. the Shield, in the fly – which is flown by ships on War Office, Royal Artillery or Royal Army Ordnance Corps business."
[Note the change from ‘crewed by’ to ‘on ~ business’]

Why in 1962 was it felt necessary to change the flag to avoid confusion with an Ensign that was considered more or less obsolete? There were several reasons why the Ordnance Corps would fly such an Ordnance Ensign, one example was Ammunition and Supply Ships, including those engaged in the Deep Sea Dumping of unwanted ammunition.
Mike Comerford, 10 April 2009

This badge appeared in the 1930 Admiralty Flag Book as "War Office; Ordnance, Royal Artillery" In a 1947 amendment, "War Office" was deleted, and a note was added that "the yellow outline to the shield is optional."
David Prothero, 10 June 2009

In Campbell and Evans "The book of flags" (4th edn.,1960) on page 30, it says:
"The Army Council - the committee of high ranking officers and civilian organizers headed by a Cabinet Minister which controls the army - has its own flag, the Union, charged in its centre by a shield bearing the arms of the old Board of Ordnance: three old-fashioned cannon arranged one above the other, gold on a blue field; above them are three old-fashioned cannon balls, side by side, white, but shaded so as to appear round, on a white field. The Ordnance and Royal Artillery fly the Blue Ensign with a similar shield, with or without a yellow border, in its fly. (The cannon on both flags now point towards the hoist.)"
In the accompanying pictures on page 31, the badges of both flags still have the cannon towards the fly. There's no mention or indication of a pale blue field of the badge.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 11 November 2010

[War Department ensign 1864-1890] by Clive Chapman

I've had a close look at a British War Department Blue Ensign. In fact, the shield does not have a light blue border to separate it from the background. It has a white border (same white as the top panel of the shield, behind the cannon balls), but thinner than the red border shown above. The ensign apart from the shield is made up of individually coloured panels of cloth, down to each element of the union flag (the entire ensign less the union flag and shield panel is one piece). The shield is on a single sewn-in panel of the same colour as the main ensign's background, slightly larger in area than the shield. On this panel is painted the shield (on both sides). The thin white border is also painted, and seems intended to visually separate the shield from the background rather than have any meaning? From memory, the cannon fire away from the mast end (to the fly?). The cannon resemble the Ree's Cyclopaedia 1820 version.
Does anyone have information on the possible origins of my ensign?
Clive Chapman, 17 June 2005

In vexillology, there can be fewer more authoritative sources than "eyeball witnesses" (in this case - one who possesses an historical flag). What is manufactured and what is actually stipulated are clearly in conflict here (as we have always believed anyway).
Martin Grieve, 17 June 2005

All that I know about the flag in the 20th century is written above. "The Ordnance Ensign was retained for 'boats manned by crews of Royal Artillery or Army Ordnance Corps', though it probably saw little further use. A 1944 War Office minute observed that, ' the RA and RAOC ensign is rarely, if ever, flown on duty.' In view of this it seems unlikely that there were any Blue Ensigns with the badge as amended in 1945, when the direction of the cannon was reversed, and when the background colour may have been changed from dark blue to light blue. Last known use of this ensign was on land at the Proof and Experimental Establishment, Eskmeals, in Cumbria."

I doubt that the white border is significant. Just an alternative way of separating the badge from the field. If your ensign is 13' x 6'6" (3.9x1.95m), it was obviously not made for a boat. I'm not sure whether the fact that the badge is painted is an indication of its age. Badges were still being stenciled on to some ensigns in the 1940s.
David Prothero, 19 June 2005


War Department jack 1868-1890

[War Department jack 1868-1890] by Martin Grieve

A white-bordered Union Jack was designated the jack for Public Service vessels, but changed in 1868 (see note) to a square version of the ensign. J. Steeple wrote in a Mariner's Mirror article that the white-bordered Union Jack of Ordnance had the Ordnance shield in the centre, but this seems to me, to be unlikely.
David Prothero, 18 September 2004

Note : 1868 might be wrong. I had assumed that it was that year because reference to a blue jack does not appear in Queen's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions until they were amended on 1st June 1868. However the Order in Council of 9th July 1864 was promulgated by an Admiralty Circular of 5th August 1864. Another Circular on Colours was issued on 23rd February 1865. I will check the two circulars at the next opportunity to see when the blue jack is first mentioned.
David Prothero, 19 September 2004

The correct date, as far as I can see, is 5th August 1864, the date of the Admiralty Circular Number 35 (Distinguishing Flags and Pennants) that announced the changes introduced by the Order in Council of 9th July 1864.

The Order in Council does not refer to jacks, but the Admiralty Circular, which amends Queen's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions, does. "Reference Chapter 2, Section XII. Colours Not Navy. Article 2. Ships and vessels in the service of any public office shall carry the Blue Ensign and a small blue flag with the union described therein, as prescribed by the said article (2), blue being substituted for red where colour is therein specified."

1st June 1868 was the date of the addenda to QR&AI that included the changes made to distinguishing flags and pennants.
David Prothero, 28 September 2004


Ordnance and Royal Artillery

Ordnance badge as used on Blue Ensign

[Ordnance badge as used on Blue Ensign] by Martin Grieve

In 1888 the Army Service Corps, formed in 1869, was made responsible for supply and transport, and took over the War Department Fleet. The Ordnance badge which appeared in the Admiralty Flag Book of 1889 described as ' War Office ', was amended on 14th September 1891 to read ' War Office : Ordnance and Royal Artillery '.

The Ordnance Ensign was retained for ' boats manned by crews of Royal Artillery or Army Ordnance Corps ', though it probably saw little further use. A 1944 War Office minute observed that, ' the RA and RAOC ensign is rarely, if ever, flown on duty. ' In view of this it seems unlikely that there were any Blue Ensigns with the badge as amended in 1945, when the direction of the cannon was reversed, and when the background colour may have been changed from dark blue to light blue. Last known use of this ensign was on land at the Proof and Experimental Establishment, Eskmeals, in Cumbria.
David Prothero, 19 September 2004


 
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