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Maritime Signal Flag History

Last modified: 2020-04-25 by rob raeside
Keywords: signal flag | maritime signal flags | international code of signals | signal 39 |
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Signal Flag History

The designs of the individual flags are lost in the mists of time. They were developed separately for various iterations of naval and merchant marine signal codes over the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries. What Popham, Marryat, and the Board of Trade did was to assign these mostly pre-existing designs to specific numbers and letters. In other words, a blue flag with a white square on the center was the signal for "about to sail" long before it was assigned to the letter P, and solid yellow was used for purposes connected with quarantine long before it was designated as Q, but whoever designed the first blue flag with a white square on the center is probably not the same person who came up with a yellow flag with a black disk (now used for the letter I).
Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006

I don't think it is possible to assign credit for the design of signal flags to an individual or nation. One of the earliest maritime entities to make use of a numeral flag signal code was the Order of the Knights of Malta. The galley captains of the Order apparently used codes consisting of up to fifteen flags. I have seen no depictions, but according to the written descriptions, they were of simple single, bicolour and tricolour designs, including pennants of equally simple designs. Simple signal flag design is an imperative at sea and it is the practical seamanlike requirement to be able to identify signal flags at the longest possible distance, which enforced these simple designs. Kempefeldt, Popham, Marryat et al no doubt designed some flags as the codes grew in complexity requiring more flags, but they also made use of many designs already in existence since late medieval or early Renaissance times. Their main claims to fame rest with the code systems they developed and which gradually grew into the modern International Code of Signals. So lets lift a glass or two to the unknown sailors who invented these simple designs still in use today!
Andries Burgers, 20 March 2006

The expansion of the signal codes in the 18th Century required the invention of a number of hitherto unknown flags and if the compilers of the various codes (or members of their staff as appropriate) did not invent them, then who did? As just one example, the code used by Rodney in 1782 required the addition of 23 previously unknown flags and pennants, and a number of these were later found to be impractical (from a visibility point of view) so had to be revised in subsequent expansions.

The current International Code of Signals contains 40 different flags and pennants and the current NATO code a further 28, whereas a signal book of 1762 shows 26 in total of which only 20 are purely signal flags.

The other six flags were - the (royal) standard, the union jack, the red ensign, and the plain red, white and blue admiral's command flags.
Christopher Southworth, 20 March 2006

Here are some observations on the subject from an article entitled "The Development of Signalling in the Royal Navy" by Captain (later Vice-Admiral) L.E. Holland [hnd53], published posthumously in the Mariner's Mirror of February 1953.

"Chequered flags should be abolished. Quartered, halved, three-striped, striped corner ways, half up and down, and pierced, are the only ones that are properly distinguished at a distance." Captain Young, Admiral Rodney's flag-captain, 1780.

Kempenfelt thought that three stripe flags were more distinct if the stripes were vertical rather than horizontal, and that chequered pendants were unsatisfactory.

Sir Home Popham wrote in 1812, that the Dutch and French flags were very good over long distances. He also liked the French signal flags which were white with a blue border and red centre, or red border and blue centre.

Swallow-tailed pennants were a shape favoured by Sir Samuel Hood who wrote to Popham in 1814, "The Broad Pendants give great relief to the observer, the flag wafting out with every change of view, the colours are more perfectly distinguished. There certainly is not that advantage in triangular flags; they are in general difficult to discern." However five that were in the 1816 signal book were replaced by different shapes in the 1827 book, and earlier Kempenfelt had written that pendants should not have swallow tails.

Holland wrote that the best colour combinations were red and white, blue/black and white, and blue/black and yellow. Howe considered red and blue a poor combination, and preferred red and black, and yet red and blue is now used in the International Code. Similarly Kempenfelt thought that red and yellow gave poor results and changed this combination for blue and yellow, and yet this is also in the International Code. Perhaps with modern dyes it is possible produce colours that have more contrast than was achievable in the 18th century.
David Prothero, 21 March 2006

In beginning of 17th century, Mahé de la Bourdonnais use only 4 colours: large blue, scarlet red, arsenic yellow and white.

The maritime world is very conservative because now only one other colour is used extra in International Code of Signals: it is the black. The first man (to my knowledge) who used black is Lord Richard Howe for his substitute flag. But it is not a proof that manufacturer at the time did not made flags with other colours: for distinguish the 121 regiments of the French ground army in 1730, they used 16 colours: white, blue, blue Turkish, red, carmine, black, green, brown, yellow, dead leaf, dawn, light fawn, isabelle, purple, flax-grey and moiré.
Dominique Cureau, 22 March 2006

Roland-Michel Barin marquess of la Galissonniere (1693-1756) left the port of Toulon for the expedition of Mahon in the Isle de Minorque on April 8th, 1756 with a fleet of 193 boats carrying an army consisted of 23 battalions with a regiment and a train of artillery. The army was commanded by Mr. the marshal of Richelieu.

The book of signals which was used by de la Galissonniere shows the care brought by this leader of squadron to stay in communication with his ships. A reproduction is in Histoire de la Marine by "l'Illustration" 1934. The document is in the National library, Department Manuscripts
Dominique Cureau, 26 March 2006

Signal 39 and 16

Signal 39 as flown by Admiral Parker was the signal for "recall" or to "leave off the action".

Lord Nelson was made aware of the signal and put the telescope to his blind eye and declared to Foley "I really do not see the signal!'

Nelson not only ignored the signal but forbade repeating the signal to the fleet and ordered the signal officer to keep the "close action" signal flying.
Lord Nelson, The Immortal Memory by David Howarth and Stephen Howarth, Viking 1989, page 253
Wayne Lovett, 24 November 2006

When in the Napoleonic Wars the countries around the Baltic Seas took up arms to collectively defend their neutrality, Great Britain sought to force them to give up that neutrality. To this end, a fleet was sent to Denmark, with Sir Hyde Parker as Commander-in-Chief, that was to dissociate Denmark from the alliance, after which an attack should be made into the Baltic. When negotiations failed, Sir Hide Parker was satisfied with blockading the Baltic, as Denmark was not very supportive of the alliance to begin with. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, however, persuaded him to attack the Danes.

Since British preparation had been less then optimal, the battle initially did not go well for the attackers. At one point vice-admiral Nelson and rear admiral Graves seemed to be in so bad a position, as seen from Sir Hyde Parker's ship some four miles away, that he had signal 39 made: Recall / Leave off the action. According to The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson - Robert Southey (1896), Sir Parker elaborated on his order with: "I will make the signal of recall, for Nelson's sake. If he is in a condition to continue the action successfully, he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat, and no blame can be imputed to him."

Neither of the commanders complied. According to Southey, when Nelson was made aware of the signal, he ordered to acknowledge it, but not to repeat it to his ships; rather to keep up his signal for close action, being signal 16. Graves did in fact repeat the signal, but left the signal 16 up in a more prominent place. To his captain, Nelson elaborated: "You know, Foley, I have only one eye, I have a right to be blind sometimes:". He then put his spying glass to his blind eye and continued: "I really do not see the signal!", and then, "Damn the signal! Keep mine for closer battle flying! That's the way I answer signals! Nail mine to the mast!"

Either for the original motive of the signal 39, or for the fact that the battle was indeed won for Great Britain an hour later, the two men's disobedience somehow was never mentioned afterwards.

As you might have noticed, twice the way these signals are flown plays a part: One is the fact that two signals could be flown simultaneously, from different locations. The other is that the signal is from a mast, as it can be nailed to it.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 7 October 2007

The signals were from the Admiralty Book of 1799.

16. Engage the enemy more closely.
1. yellow over red over yellow.
6. diagonal from lower hoist to upper fly, white over blue.

39. Discontinue the action.
3. blue / white / blue.
9. blue over white over red.

David Prothero, 8 October 2007

Four-letter signal flags

The 1872 edition of ‘The International (Commercial) Code Of Signals For The Use Of All Nations’, includes “The 1,440 Signals, from GQBC to GWVT, and the 53,040 Signals, from HBCD to WVTS, are reserved for the Distinguishing Signals of Men-of-War and of Merchant Vessels respectively.” An Official Notice, attached to the code, lists established Signal Stations.
David Prothero, 6 October 2015

Flags used by Captain William Padget

A few years ago I wrote a piece on William Paget for my local antiquarian magazine (in Anglesey). As well as being the local MP Paget was a navy captain who died in the Mediterranean in somewhat mysterious circumstances in 1794, after having captured a French frigate (La Sybille) off Mykonos. The following entries occur in the logs.

14 Fresh Gales Squally AM at 20m. past 5 made the Signal 104 at half past 5 made the Tabular Sig 24 and bore up by express orders from Capt Paget & made sail. Parted Company from the convoy …

15 Squally Wr with heavy swell from the Dr wd [?] at 10 m past 2 Departed this life Capt Paget Island of Minorca NebE 5 Leagues 15 Tons of Water only on board.

14-20 At Anchor off the Quarantine island

17 Completed our Waters recd in all 70 Tons.

25 Spoke a ship 3 days from Gibraltar

Hauld round Europa Pt and came too in the Bay & moord. Unbent all sails Down t/g yards and lower yds and struck t/g masts

Oct 3 Interred Capt Paget in the Convent at 11 the Ceremony took place & the Romney fir'd 79 Minute Guns

The entry in G Patterson's log - he being Master of the Romney - is practically identical in its account of what occurred when she parted company from the fleet: "20 Minutes Pr 5 Made ye Sigl Bo 104 at 30 Minutes pt 5 Made ye Tabular Sigl 24 & bore up by Express orders & Directions of Captn Pagett."
Paul Davies, 30 November 2006

In 1794 the Mediterranean Fleet were using Lord Howe's Numerary Signal Book of 1790. The 1793 edition is the same but arranged differently. The Tabular Signal was probably also from the one devised by Howe, as he had a second numerary code intended for the use of private ships when communicating with the flagship.
David Prothero, 2 December 2006

Evolution of the flags of the International Code of Signals

Flag and first usage notes
Flag Description Notes on Origins
Alpha (A) White-Blue vertical swallowtail

Rectangular version by Admiral Vernon, RN, mid-18th century
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)

Bravo (B) Red swallowtail Rectangular version from antiquity; swallowtail in Admiral Russell, RN, 1691
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Charlie (C) Blue-White-Red-White-Blue horizontal French Adm Duchuffault, 1780
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)

introduced in 1934 to replace triangular flags.
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)

Delta (D) Yellow-Blue-Yellow horizontal introduced in 1934 to replace triangular flags.
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Echo (E) Blue-Red horizontal Commodore David Porter's 1809 signal book had Blue-Red horizontal as well as Red-Blue
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)

This flag (which could be flown either way up) was included in the signals used by Admiral Rodney (Royal Navy) in 1782.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)

introduced in 1934 to replace triangular flags. Echo is a flag that was used in Lord Howe's Signals and Instructions on the North America Station in 1776. [Facsimile] It was a combination that he considered unsatisfactory, and was not used in his later codes.
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)

Foxtrot (F) White with Red lozenge introduced in 1934 to replace triangular flags. A white flag pierced with a red lozenge was in Admiral Robert Digby's
code of 1782. [Mariner's Mirror Feb 1953]
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Golf (G) Yellow-Blue-Yellow-Blue-Yellow-Blue vertical introduced in 1934 to replace triangular flags.
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Hotel (H) White-Red vertical This was also used by Rodney in 1782, but first appears in reversed colours (Red-White) in Instructions issued by Admiral Russell (Royal Navy) in 1691.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)
India (I) Yellow with Black disk This flag first appears as 'H' in the British Admiralty naval code of 1889, the The International Code of Signals as revised in 1897 gives a yellow flag with a 'blue' ball.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)

I With a blue ball, this was introduced in 1878 by Burney. [Gordon's FOTW]
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)

Juliet (J) Blue-White-Blue horizontal Marryat 1817
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Kilo (K) Yellow-Blue vertical Howe 1790
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Lima (L) Yellow-Black quartered This flag first appears as 'F' in the British Admiralty naval code of 1889, the Commercial Code of Signals of 1857 gives yellow and 'blue' quarterly.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)

With blue and yellow in Digby's code of 1782. [Mariner's Mirror Feb 1953]
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)

Mike (M) Blue with White saltire Duchuffault 1780
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
November (N) Blue-White checkered Pennant form Royal Navy 1756; rectangular Duchuffault 1780
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Oscar (O) Red-Yellow falling diagonal a Red-Yellow diagonal (orientation unknown) was included in the English Naval Instructions of 1673.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006

Howard Chapin's article in US Naval Institute Proceedings on the evolution of signal flags describes this flag as diagonal stripes, which is why I identified it with the modern flag for Yellow.
(Joe McMillan, 22 March 2005)

Papa (P) Blue with White square Royal Navy by 1756
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)

more like the years between 1756 and 1762
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)

Quebec (Q) Yellow Royal Navy by 1688
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)

A plain yellow signal flag first appears in Boteler written in the early 1630's, and appears again in 1691.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)

Romeo (R) Red with Yellow cross Marryat 1817
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Sierra (S) White with Blue square US Navy 1812
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Tango (T) Red-White-Blue vertical US Navy 1803
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Uniform (U) Red-White quartered Howe 1790
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)

Kempenfelt 1780. [Mariner's Mirror Feb 1953]
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)

Victor (V) White with Red saltire Royal Navy by 1689
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Whiskey (W) Blue-White-Red concentric squares International Code of Signals by 1867
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)

I think this flag was introduced in the revisions of 1887
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)

one of the French signal books in the 18th century provided for this flag as well as a Red-White-Blue version.
(Joe McMillan, 22 March 2005)

On a French Code Flag Signal Chart captured by HMS Fisguard in 1804. [Facsimile]
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)

X-Ray (X) White with Blue cross Adm Hawke, Royal Navy, 1762
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Yankee (Y) Yellow-Red diagonal stripes Royal Navy 1673
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)

There is a red and white striped diagonal listed in the 1673 Instructions but apparently no red and yellow
(Christopher Southworth, 24 March 2006

Howard M. Chapin, "Notes on the Early Development of the Designs in Marine Signal Flags," United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 53, No. 297 (Nov 1927), pp. 1191-1195, says that the 1673 Instructions introduced a flag with red and yellow diagonal stripes, as well as one with red and white diagonal stripes and another with red and white horizontal stripes. The two red and white ones were carried over to the 1689 instructions, but the red and yellow one wasn't. I don't have a copy of the Instructions themselves, just the Chapin article, so I can't verify his statement.
(Joe McMillan, 23 March 2006

Zulu (Z) Black-Yellow-Red-Blue diagonally quartered

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