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United Kingdom: Uses of the White Ensign

Last modified: 2012-01-20 by rob raeside
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Use as a distinguishing mark of a commanding officer with the royal commission

From the minutes of the 11th Meeting of the Committee for Imperial Defence held on the 26th May 1911, when the Canadian representatives were persuaded by some unusual arguments that their naval ships should fly the British White Ensign rather than the Canadian Blue Ensign.

Mr.Reginald McKenna. (First Lord of the Admiralty).
"There is one matter about which I think I ought to say something here, because it is a point, I think almost the only point, upon which we have not been able to come to a final agreement with the representatives of the Dominions in the matters relating to organisation, training and status - that is the question of the flag. I cannot help thinking that in the Dominions - in fact at home also - there is very considerable misunderstanding as to the meaning of our flags. Every ship of war in the British Navy carries two flags; it may carry more, but it always carries these two : it carries the Union Jack forward on what is called the jack-staff, and at the stern it carries the White Ensign. The meaning of the Union Jack is that that ship of war is a British ship of war, and I can trace back historically an unbroken record from 1634 that the flag carried upon the jack-staff is the flag that denotes nationality. The White Ensign on the other hand does not denote nationality at all. Its history is not so clear as the history of the Union Jack if you go back centuries. But for many years now it has had but one meaning. When a ship flies the White Ensign it means that the officer who commands that ship has received the King's commission. I know there is a single exception to that, with which I will deal in a moment, but in the British Navy, and all the world over, that is the meaning of the White Ensign and nothing else. So true is this that a number of vessels in the British Navy, such as harbour boats and others, which are not commanded by an officer carrying the King's commission, do not fly the White Ensign, but the Blue Ensign. The White Ensign is not a symbol of the British Admiralty nor necessarily of the British Navy. It is only a symbol of the King's commission. The single exception to which I referred is the Royal Yacht Squadron. In 1829, when the Duke of Clarence, subsequently William IV, was Lord High Admiral and a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, he secured as a privilege to that club the use of the White Ensign. They ought not to have had it; but I do not think at that time the meaning of flags was as well understood, or their distinctive use appreciated, as it is to-day. There is no doubt that the Admiralty took very stringent steps subsequent to that period to prevent what had become a common practice of flying illegal colours. Nobody has taken away the White Ensign from the Royal Yacht Squadron; it is traditional now, and this exception has been allowed to stand; but with that exception the White Ensign has only the meaning, that the officer commanding the ship carries the King's commission."

Asked if the White Ensign of the Royal Yacht Squadron carried any letters on it, McKenna continued.

"It does not carry any distinctive mark. I give that as the single exception. It is not an exception of any great extent. The yachts of the Royal Yacht Squadron are never likely to be confounded with men of war; but still it is an exception and dates back a very long time. There is no other exception and frequently since 1829 both clubs and individuals have been prevented by the Admiralty from flying the White Ensign. I understand that it is common ground between us that every officer in the Imperial Navy, whichever fleet he may be in, whether the British, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand Fleet (if she had one), or the Cape Fleet (if she had one), will receive the King's commission, and if the officer receives the King's commission, he ought to be entitled, when he goes on board his ship and takes command, to hoist the White Ensign. It is the symbol that he does carry the King's commission. If you say no, the Blue Ensign is enough for you, the Admiralty can give the right to hoist the Blue Ensign, it is not the King's commission and it would be doing the very thing which I have understood not to be desirable - giving to the British Admiralty the appearance of a power which they do not claim and do not desire. Nationality ought to be denoted by the flags on the jack-staff, and they will be different I assume in each fleet. But the White Ensign ought to be common to all as the symbol that the navy is the Royal Navy.

Mr.Malan (Minister of Education, South Africa). "What exactly is the difference of opinion now as regards the flying of the flag, between the Imperial authorities and the Dominion authorities ?"

McKenna. "As I understand - and Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Prime Minister of Canada) could perhaps help me here - his representative Mr.Smith, K.C., who came over here, gave us to understand that your desire was that you should not have the White Ensign but the Blue Ensign, with a difference."

Mr.Brodeur (Minister of Militia and Defence, Canada). "On the question of the Blue Ensign, although we are not very particular about the Blue Ensign, we thought under the King's Regulations which are now in force in Canada, the only flag we would be allowed to fly would be the Blue Ensign because in the King's Regulations it is formally stated that 'All vessels belonging to the Dominion and armed, are obliged to carry the Blue Ensign.' This is what Mr.Smith was instructed to state."

McKenna. "I was looking at the question more from the point of view of the future than the past. Of course we should have to pass an Act, but in passing an Act we should contemplate the White Ensign as in future being the badge of the King's commission throughout the Imperial Fleet."

Brodeur. "He was instructed also to suggest whether it would not be possible to have the White Ensign with the arms of Canada in the centre of the Cross like the maple leaf, for example, or the Canadian arms. Perhaps there might be some objection to the Canadian arms being used because they are somewhat complicated; but those Canadian arms might be changed I believe. As you have stated the White Ensign represents the King's commission. The commissions to be given by the Dominions are to be given by the representatives of His Majesty. Perhaps it might be advisable in those circumstances that there should be something distinctive on the White Ensign to show that the commission that the White Ensign is supposed to represent has been given by the Dominion."

McKenna. "That is a difficulty. It is a question of the officers themselves. Your officers will go in our ships and our officers will serve in your ships, and there ought
to be interchangeability. I think that is common ground between us."

Brodeur. "Yes."

McKenna. "The officer serving in every case will have received the King's commission, whether directly from the King's own hand or signed by the hand of the Governor-General."

Brodeur. "I suppose the officer's commissions in the Admiralty, even the lieutenant's are signed by the King himself."

McKenna. "Yes ; every one."

Brodeur. "In our case they will not be signed by the King, but by the Governor-General, and in that case, as the commissions which are going to our officers will not be absolutely the same as the ones given to your officers, would it not be just as well to have something distinctive upon the flag ?"

McKenna. "Legally, it has precisely the same effect, and very often it will happen that our battleships will be commanded by your captains and you ships by our captains."

Brodeur. "Yes ; but when there is a British officer on our ship, the ship of course will also have the Canadian flag on the jack-staff."

McKenna . "Yes."

Brodeur. "We are speaking of the Blue Ensign which is going to fly astern. Do not you think in such a case it would be better to have a distinction made between the two, because commissions will not be given by absolutely the same authority ? Theoretically it will be the same. but in fact it will not be the same, because in your case the commission will be signed by the King himself, and in our case it will be the commission signed by the Governor-General."

McKenna. "It may not be so ; it may be a commission to one of our officers signed by the King. I think you are really getting, if I may so, into the notion of the White Ensign something of nationality which does not exist in it. Nationality is determined by the flag on the jack-staff."

Brodeur. "I will take precisely what you say in that respect - that the White Ensign represents the commission."

McKenna. "It is one commission whoever signs it, whether the King himself or his representative."

Brodeur. "As in both cases the commissions are not to be issued by the same person, would it not be advisable to have a difference ?"

McKenna. "Legally they are by the same person ; they are precisely the same in effect."

Mr. Herbert Asquith (British Prime Minister). "Suppose this case, which would be quite possible: a Canadian officer who has received his commission under the signature of the Governor-General, commanding a British ship. Do you suggest he should bring with him an ensign marked with a Canadian distinction."

Brodeur. "No, I do not think so in that case."

Asquith "Then take the converse case of a British officer who has received his commission signed by the King himself commanding a Canadian ship, what ensign is he to fly ?"

Brodeur. "I think that is a commission that will be represented by the White Ensign as the nationality of the ship itself."

Asquith. "I am supposing a Canadian ship commanded for the time being by a British officer who has got his commission signed by the King; what ensign do you suggest should be flown ?"

Brodeur. "I see a difficulty in such a case."

Asquith. "You see, if there is interchangeability it becomes very difficult to work it out, whereas the flag on the jack-staff would always indicate what is the nationality of the vessel. I understand that is the proposal."

McKenna. "It is."

Asquith "The Union Jack shows that it is a British vessel. I do not know what is the precise symbol you propose to have on the Jack-staff. Would not that be a more convenient way of indicating the nationality of the ship than by this difficult question of the commission ? I only throw it out as a suggestion."

Provisional Agreement.
82.C.1. The United Kingdom, Australian and Canadian Fleets to be sister members of the King's Navy, hoisting a common ensign, the White Ensign, as the symbol of the authority of the Crown, and each flying in addition its own distinctive flag forward on the jack-staff.
[National Archives (PRO) CAB 38/18. On microfilm item 40]

David Prothero

Use as a courtesy ensign

Should a visiting warship display a "courtesy ensign" at all and, if so, in the case of British waters should this courtesy ensign be the White Ensign (by analogy with the rule governing the use of the Red Ensign as courtesy by merchant ships) or should it rather be the Union Flag?
Merrick Bryan-Kinns, 8 September 2004

The answer is that in British waters a foreign warship would fly a White Ensign if they were to fly a courtesy ensign at all - it's not required by law that they do, but is always appreciated. Similarly vessels in government service, but not in their navy, should fly a Blue Ensign as a courtesy ensign. All other vessels should fly the Red Ensign. Of course warships and government vessels could fly a Red Ensign if they didn't have the appropriate White or Blue Ensign. It is an offence under the Merchant Shipping Act to fly a Union Flag from a ship, other than a commissioned ship of Her Majesty's Royal Navy. An appropriate course of action for an RN officer who notes a foreign vessel flying a Union Flag is to first check that no Admiral of the Fleet is visiting (the only possible reason for a foreign ship to be flying a Union Flag), and then present the vessel in question with an appropriately sized White Ensign to replace their erroneous flag, and explain diplomatically that they should not be flying the Union Flag.

As for the opposite case, a British warship in foreign waters, Queen's Regulations state that RN ships do not fly courtesy ensigns, but in true British fashion they sometimes do! They fly the naval ensign of the country they are visiting. In fact British warships even fly courtesy ensigns in Britain! When a warship is visiting a port in Scotland or Wales it is quite common for the ship to fly a saltire or red dragon as a courtesy ensign.
Graham Bartram, 8 September 2004

Dunkirk Little Ships

The Dunkirk Little Ships were those vessels taken up and used during Operation Dynamo in 1940. They may fly the White Ensign at the jack when at anchor or in port but not at sea when the normal ensign applies.
Steven Vincent
, 10 September 2002

See also: Dunkirk Jack

Under sea use

The wreck of the 'Royal Oak' is now an official war grave and there is an annual commemoration service. Royal Navy divers go down to the ship and raise a White Ensign in memory of the 833 crew killed. Are there other examples of flags being 'raised' under water?
André Coutanche, 15 August 2005

Here is another example: Independent Television News (ITN) reported yesterday evening, 21 May 2007, on the raising of a White Ensign under the sea, in Falkland Sound above the wreck of Her Majesty's Ship Ardent and the placing of two plaques on the wreck:
during the landing of British forces on the islands in the Falklands War.
Colin Dobson, 22 May 2007