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Board of Ordnance: Royal Engineers (Britain)

Last modified: 2011-12-23 by rob raeside
Keywords: board of ordnance | royal engineers transportation service | thunderbolt | arm | wings |
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Royal Engineers Ensign

[Submarine Mining/Royal Engineers, 1915] by Martin Grieve

The Royal Engineers, Ports Section, operated harbours and ports for the army and used mainly specialised vessels such as tugs and dredgers. Although the former Submarine Mining Service badge had been designated 'Royal Engineers' after Submarine Mining was transferred to the Admiralty in 1904, the badge was made obsolete in 1909. However at the beginning of the 1914-1918 War, Inland Water Transport (IWT), previously part of the War Department Fleet, was transferred to the Royal Engineers and in 1915 the old Submarine Mining/Royal Engineers badge was reintroduced with pattern again sealed (L of C 17226).

IWT ran barges on rivers and canals up to the front line in France. Later their responsibilities were extended, and by 1916 they were also operating ships and train ferries across the Channel. IWT vessels were also in East Africa, and Mesopotamia (Iraq) where they moved supplies on the Tigris and Euphrates from Basra to Baghdad; by 1918 over 1600 vessels were there, mainly chartered or requisitioned. IWT was disbanded in 1924, but revived in 1939. During the 1939-1945 War IWT was active in North Africa, India, Malaya, Burma, Iraq, Normandy, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

In November 1942 the Director of Transportation asked whether the flag issued to Royal Engineers small craft was correct. He seems to have been concerned with the form of the thunder-bolt. The original 1806 crest from which the badge was derived; "Out of a mural crown a dexter hand holding a thunderbolt all proper", had been changed in 1823 to "Out of a mural crown, argent, a dexter cubit arm the hand grasping a thunderbolt, winged and in flames, proper". Sir Gerald W. Wollaston, Inspector of Regimental Colours, wrote "thunderbolts are always subject to treatment", and in a later letter, "Wings and lightning should emanate from the body of the thunder-bolt of which they are a constituent part. In the badge the wings seem to float behind the hand. A thunder-bolt is a winged body (of no very definite formation perhaps) from which emanate flashes of lightning."
David Prothero, 26 September 2004

I would add that as late as 1976 it was worn in Berlin on the three boats used by 38 (Berlin) Squadron on the rivers and lakes of the city. I was the troop commander in the squadron at the time.
Tom Dobinson, 25 April 2008

1823 crest of the Ordnance Board arms

[Royal Engineers blue ensign] image by Martin Grieve
image based on photograph of flag

Badge detail

[1823 crest of the Ordnance Board arms
] image by Martin Grieve

Images are based on a photograph of an ensign.
David Prothero, 26 September 2004

[1823 crest of the Ordnance Board arms
] image by David Prothero, 26 September 2004

This is the 1823 crest of the Ordnance Board arms.
David Prothero, 26 September 2004

Ensigns with the revised badge were made in two sizes, 6' x 3' and 3' x 1.5', (183/ 91/ 46 cm). Small numbers were ordered in 1943 and early 1944, probably for training units, but in June orders were placed for 2,514 six feet ensigns and 1,982 three feet ensigns, for operational service.

After the war the army continued to have two separate water-borne transport organisations, Royal Engineers (Transport Services) operating ports and bulk movement in bases and on lines of communication, and Royal Army Service Corps responsible for intercommunication and distribution movements. In July 1965 the Royal Army Service Corps Fleet (civilian and military) and the Royal Engineers Fleet (Port Squadrons & Inland Water Transport) merged to form the Royal Corps of Transport Fleet.

The Royal Engineers ensign was later flown at the Royal Engineers Diving Training Wing at Gunwharf, Portsmouth. It presumably disappeared in 1996, when all Service diving moved to the Joint Service Defence Diving School on Hornsea Island, Portsmouth, though I think it made a brief reappearance on one of the landing- craft beached at Arromanches during the 60th anniversary of D-Day celebrations.
David Prothero, 26 September 2004

The post of Master General of Ordnance was abolished in 1855, but it was revived again in 1904, as a position on the Army Council, its holder responsible for the Directorates of Artillery, Fortifications and Works and the Royal Ordnance Factories, amongst other things. In 1927, the post also became responsible for the Directorate of Mechanization. The MGO was abolished in 1938, to be replaced by the Director General of Munitions Production. It was revived again in 1959 with responsibility for the artillery and ordnance services, to be abolished again in 1963.
Ian Sumner, 23 November 2005

I am a serving Royal Engineer and the Boats Officer at 62 Cyprus Support Squadron RE and have never before seen such an ensign. You mention that it was flown at the diving school and since that has become tri-service it is no longer flown. Does that mean it cannot be flown? The Royal Engineers still operate boats for training and operations but do not normal fly ensigns from them as they are deemed as to small. The Corps has boat sections in many units including 59 Independent Commando Squadron RE, 62 Cyprus Support Squadron RE, 25 Engineer Regiment (Northern Ireland), 28 Engineer Regiment (Hameln) and the Boat Ops Section of the Royal School of Military Engineering at Upnor Hard as well as on operations in Iraq. Could or should we be flying RE Ensigns from our larger craft (M3 Rigs, Combat Support Boat etc) and shore establishments?
Capt. Rob Ridley, 17 February 2006

The Blue Ensign of the Royal Engineers ceased to exist as a maritime ensign (I do not know if it was formally cancelled) in 1965 when the fleets of the Royal Army Service Corps and the Royal Engineers were merged to become the fleet of the Royal Corps of Transport. In general, maritime flags are heavily regulated, while land flags are almost totally unregulated, though no doubt there are restrictions on the flags that can be flown by Army units, and on MoD property. The flag at the diving school was probably flown as an historic flag. After the school became tri-service it would not have been considered proper to fly a specific Army flag unless there were equivalent Navy and Air Force flags. Photograph of the flag that was flown at Gunwarf attached.
   Do the larger craft fly any flag at present ? I am not sure if it is still the case, but the rule in the Navy was that the White Ensign was flown ashore only on those buildings that were considered to be extensions of H.M. Ships of War such as Naval Barracks, but not on other Naval Establishments such as dockyards or hospitals.
   I imagine that any rules for Army ensigns are in Army Regulations, or if not, in a Royal Logistic Corps Order.
David Prothero, 18 February 2006

I beg to differ with your statement that the RE Blue Ensign ceased to exist as a maritime ensign in 1965. Unless the organization that was granted the ensign (in this case the Royal Engineers) disappears there is no way that the ensign would officially disappear. Even when the organization does disappear (e.g., Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) its successor usually gets its ensigns without further paperwork (so the MAFF ensign is now used by Department for Food and Rural Affairs). We are very good at finding new homes for "defunct" ensigns, although it sometimes takes a few years :-)

It appears that although the majority of the RE fleet was combined with the RCT fleet, some small boats were retained for other operational reasons, and further vessels may have been added later, again to meet new operational requirements (it's a bit difficult to fix a bridge if you have no boats!) All these vessels were entitled to fly the RE ensign. Just because we were unaware that the RE still had vessels doesn't mean that they weren't entitled to their ensign. In fact the RE ensign was never deleted. It is still in the Army stock system and will be in BR20 2006 (even before I heard from Captain Ridley). The stocked flag is small (45cm at the hoist) so is probably for use on small boats. So it is perfectly possible that some RE units have been using it all this time.

So it is my opinion that Captain Ridley's unit, and indeed any other RE Boat Squadron, can fly the RE Blue Ensign from their boats, paint it on the sides if desired, fly it at their shore establishment and wear it as a shoulder flash (like the Royal Logistics Corp do with theirs).
Graham Bartram, 19 February 2006

An example of the RE flag that was worn on a landing craft at D-day and another used by my late father, Col GL Collard OBE, ERD, on his patrol vessel based at Duisburg on the Rhine in 1945 / 46 and made in Germany can be seen in this photograph.
William Collard, 10 October 2011

This flag has the fire and lightning yellow with red tips, where we have it a single shade of gold. A variation?
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 11 October 2011

The World Database ( image also shows the red tips.
Pete Loeser, 11 October 2011