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United Kingdom: jacks

Last modified: 2012-01-20 by rob raeside
Keywords: jack | state jack | civil jack | pilot flag | cross: saint george | dunkirk jack |
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Naval jack

[Royal Navy jack'] image by Clay Moss, 16 December 2006

The Union Flag is the official jack of the Royal Navy - strictly speaking, this is the only time it should be called the 'Union Jack'.
Roy Stilling, 8 February 1996

Use of the Union Jack

The Union Jack is reserved at sea for the Royal Navy.
André Coutanche, 28 September 2000

The decision to allow vessels operated by the Royal Air Force the privilege of wearing the Union Flag as a jack was taken in 1947 [National Archives (PRO) ADM/121665], but it was not extended to the Army until 1966:
"Her Majesty the Queen has graciously permitted operational vessels of the Army flying the Army Ensign commanded by Army officers and manned by military personnel in uniform to be titled "Her Majesty's Army Vessels" and to fly the Union Flag at the fore when moored or dressed overall under way."
Royal Warrant October 1966. [The Army's Navy by D.Habesch]
David Prothero, 27 April 2007

The Army's sea-going vessels, which were part of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), were manned mainly by civilians; rather like the ships of the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service. The latter have a square version of their ensign as a jack, and I suppose the Army did the same (if they bothered with a jack). Changes occurred after 1965 when the RASC fleet and the fleet of the Royal Engineers were amalgamated into the Royal Corps of Transport. The warrant of October 1966 had no immediate effect because there was no Army Ensign, use of which was conditional on use of the Union Jack. The RASC and RE's had had different Corps Ensigns. An Army Blue Ensign with Royal Crest superimposed on crossed swords was produced and first used, presumably with a Union Jack when appropriate, on 17 May 1967.
David Prothero, 2 May 2007

Use of a Union Jack by the RAF was the result of a complaint in 1947 that "Bridport", an ex-minesweeper transfered from the Royal Navy to the RAF was flying the Union Flag as a jack. It was foreseen that the question could also arise with "Bridlington" and "Adastral" a 5,400 ton ship being transferred from the Ministry of Transport to the RAF for use as a seaplane depot ship in Singapore. It was decided that RAF ships could wear the Union Flag but could not call themselves HMS. An implementation date in June 1948 seems reasonable for a decision taken sometime in 1947?
David Prothero, 2 May 2007

A jack, a flag flown on a staff at the bow of a ship, is a relatively insignificant flag. Ensigns which indicate nationality are, I believe, regulated by international laws, but a jack would be subject only to the laws of the country in which the ship was registered. Thus, in very general terms as I understand it, Britain can prohibit ships registered in Britain from fly the Union Jack, but would not be able to enforce the prohibition against a ship not registered in Britain.
David Prothero, 29 September 2000

See civil jack (Pilot jack) for the civil jack.

Jacks are probably not used much because most public service vessels do not want to involve themselves in all the rigmarole of lowering the jack when getting under way, and raising it again when not underway. In any case many departments have only small launches, in which a jack is unnecessary. Judging by photographs, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service now seem to use them, though this was not always so.
David Prothero, 15 January 2003

Historical use of the Union Jack

A survey in 1922 found that of 66 RFA Oilers and Petrol Carriers only two carried jacks. It was pointed out at the time that, after the abolition of Squadron Colours, public service jacks served no useful purpose. They were introduced for public service vessels by the Royal Proclamation of 12 July 1694. At that time merchant ships flew the Red Ensign and no jack, while warships flew the Red, White or Blue Ensign and the Union Jack. Allocating a Red Jack to public service vessels, identified them as such, without allowing them to infringe the right of King's ships to be the only ships permitted to fly a Union Jack. In 1864 when Red Ensigns and Blue Ensigns ceased to be flown by ships of the Royal Navy, Blue Ensigns were allocated to ships in the service of any public office, the colour of the Jack was changed to Blue. But since warships flew the White Ensign, and merchant ships flew the Red Ensign, the Blue Ensign alone identified a departmental ship, making the jack redundant.
David Prothero, 15 January 2003

The St George was expressly laid down as being the jack to be used by English merchant ships in a Royal Proclamation of 1674, and continued so until the beginning of the 19th Century (by which time it was no longer possible to wear a Jack as sea anyway). The relevant part of the Proclamation of 1674 lays down the colours as:

"...those usually hithertofore worn on merchants' ships viz: the Flag and Jack white with a red cross (commonly called Saint George's Cross) passing through right through the same...".
Christopher Southworth, 18 August 2004

In the proclamation of 1674, from which Christopher quoted, "flag" was still being used in its original sense of "masthead colour". In "A Memorandum on Merchant Ensigns and Jacks" this note appears after a copy of the 1674 Proclamation.

"This Proclamation recognises the existence, in addition to the Ensign, of both a flag (in the sense of a masthead colour) and a jack for the Merchant Service, both identical in design ( White, with a Red Cross passing quite through the same), and it regularises their being flown on Merchant Ships."[National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/3566]
David Prothero 20 August 2004

For what it's worth, a model of the "Great Michael" in the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, has a square Scottish saltire in the bows. The real ship, built for King James IV in 1511, is said to have been, at 240 feet (probably over-all) (73m), the largest warship in the world. Photograph of the model is in 'The Story of the Scottish Flag' by McMillan and Stewart.
David Prothero, 19 August 2004

Give a sailor a mast and he'll generally stick a flag on it, but the English Royal Navy didn't actually begin to fly jacks on a regular basis until the 1630's (although there is at least one reference to the practice in the late 16th Century), but the Scots navy post-union and up to 1707 (if not previously) was miniscule and I would imagine that the Proclamation of 1634 reserving the Union Jack for ships in royal service applied equally to the Scots as well? It is perfectly possible that the Scottish navy were in advance of the English and flew a Saltire Jack prior to the Union of Crowns, but Perrin and Wilson are both silent on the matter so the answer is I don't know?
Christopher Southworth, 19 August 2004

It would appear, from what evidence we have, that the wearing of a flag on the bowsprit was a comparatively rare occurrence before the early-17th Century. The wording of the Proclamation of 1606 (which established the Union Flag) strongly suggests, however, that the Cross of St George was customarily worn at the main masthead prior to that date (at least by merchant vessels), whilst its new position was laid down as being the fore topmast.

It became impossible to fly a jack at sea - at least from a jack staff - because of a change to the design of headsails. The relatively inefficient square-sail rigged from a spar below the bowsprit (in use from at least Roman times) was abandoned for the far more effective triangular headsails rigged from the foremast to the bowsprit. We have visual, if only fragmentary documentary evidence that the Jack was flown from a jack staff at sea as a matter of course (at least when the Ensign was flown) during the 17th Century and into the 18th. As far as I know the wearing of the Union Jack is a privilege rather a requirement, but it wasn't unusual for a warship in the latter half of the 18th and early-19th Century to wear a Union from the foretopmast when underway.
Christopher Southworth, 20 August 2004

Wearing a jack at the jackstaff in harbour may have been written into King's Regulations & Admiralty Instructions (KR&AI) when they were reprinted in 1926. It had certainly become the subject of regulation by 1937, and may have been introduced before 1926 by Admiralty Fleet Order (AFO) and an amendment to the 1913 KR&AI. "The Union Flag is worn by HM ships of the Royal Navy at the Jackstaff in harbour between the hours of 0800 or 0900 and sunset unless the ship is refitting." [Manual of Seamanship, 1937]

Non-use of jacks during WW2

The practice was suspended during the 1939-45 war, probably in 1942 by AFO 6072/42. It had been hoped that wearing jacks in harbour would be resumed soon after the end of the war, the target date being 1 January 1946. However it was necessary that all ships in commission should resume at the same time, and some vessels built during the war had no jackstaffs (or even ensign staffs). It was not until 3 January 1947 that AFO 1/47 ordered resumption of normal procedures in accordance with KR&AI, article 117.
David Prothero, 27 February 2007


State jacks

[Jack of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary] by Graham Bartram

I enclose an example of a state jack, in this case the jack of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, to show the square Union.

Graham Bartram, 11 December 1999

In my limited experience of such documents, an Admiralty Warrant granting the right to fly a defaced blue ensign also specifically mentioned an accompanying defaced blue jack, and this is repeated in those more recently issued by the Ministry of Defence. A typical example is Jersey where the Admiralty Warrant of 2 March 1907 states that (in addition to the ensign) '...the said vessel (in this case the steam tug 'Duke of Normandy') shall be permitted to wear a small blue flag with a Union described in the canton at the upper corner next to the staff, as a jack, with the badge of Jersey in the fly thereof'. This right is repeated in the MoD Warrants granted on 15 June 1967 and in August 1997. Such jacks are, properly speaking and by convention square, and as such carry a square Union in the canton. On the other hand, as far as I can find out the right to use them is rarely, if ever, exercised (at least nowadays).

Christopher Southworth, 14 January 2003

It is possible that the reference to a jack in the Admiralty Warrant for the Blue Ensign is peculiar to Jersey, and was included only because a jack was specifically requested in addition to the ensign. The warrant for Jersey was unusual in that it could not be issued under the provisions of the Order in Council 9 July 1864 which abolished Squadron Colours, since the States of Jersey were not a Public Department, nor under the Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865, since Jersey was not a colony. It was therefore issued as a special case under Sec.73(i) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894; "any other ship or boat for the time being allowed to wear any other national colour (other than the Red Ensign) in pursuance of a warrant from His Majesty or from the Admiralty."

David Prothero, 15 January 2003

Yes the three warrants I referred to previously were all for Jersey, and upon checking I find that I have only one other (I thought I had two more). This is a copy of the MoD Warrant granting the right to fly a defaced blue ensign to Guernsey. It is undated (but was sent with an accompanying letter of 3 July 2000) and also confers the right to fly a defaced blue jack.

Of course the Admiralty and subsequent MoD Warrants under discussion were issued by virtue of the various Merchant Shipping Acts (the current wording is, it would appear, almost identical to that of the original), as, I presume, were those of the fleet auxiliary (since it forms part of the Merchant Marine)? What we need to know, and what I await information from the MoD on (if it ever arrives), is whether the granting of a defaced blue jack is general for Warrants issued to Government authorities, or, if the two cases in my possession are unique? According to the Admiralty librarian, sight of any Admiralty Warrants would require a visit to the Public Record Office.

The appearance of such a jack in the Flaggenbuch - considering the lengths gone to in ensuring the accuracy of that publication - seems to confirm that the practice had (at least in 1939 if not now) some sort of official sanction?

Christopher Southworth, 17 January 2003


Defaced jack from Flaggenbuch (1939)

[Defaced jack from Flaggenbuch (1939)] image by Martin Grieve, 26 October 2008

A defaced Blue Jack is shown in the 1939 Flaggenbuch, with certain irregularities:
1) The Blue Jack appears on a page devoted to colonial ensigns, which strongly indicates that such a jack was permitted, and in all probability used, with the appropriate defaced Blue Ensigns by Government vessels employed by these same colonial authorities?
Christopher Southworth, 26 October 2008

[Defaced jack from Flaggenbuch (1939)] image by Martin Grieve, 26 October 2008

2) The Union Flag shown in the jack's canton is of a different pattern than that used today (and from other Union Flags shown in the Flaggenbuch). A quick check indicates the Cross of St George to be 2/15 of flag width fimbriated 1/3 the cross (making it one-quarter of flag width overall as opposed to 1/3 for the standard Union), with the counter-changed saltire also a 2/15 (as opposed to 1/5) but the white-red-white being distributed 3-2-1 as is usual. The canton is not specified in the Flaggenbuch, none the less, this narrower St George and saltire are confirmed by an illustration of the Blue Jack in Campbell and Evans, and by that in the 1989 Edition of BR20, and the question must be "when did it change"? Well the original illustration in BR20 was replaced with one showing the new size of defacement and revised Union in Change No. 4, which means that it was synonymous with the general change in the size of defacements that is usually quoted as 1999.
Christopher Southworth, 26 October 2008

[Defaced jack from Flaggenbuch (1939)] image by Martin Grieve, 26 October 2008

3) The defacement in the centre-fly of the jack is a plain white disc ¼ of flag width across, and again does one infer that this was standard for a defaced Blue Jack in 1939, or should it have been 2/9 as has been suggested?
Christopher Southworth, 26 October 2008

It is quite possible that the only colonial vessels supplied with a square jack were those "provided and used under the 3rd Section of the Colonial Naval Defence Act" and entitled to wear a Blue Pennant. Those identified are:
- Hong Kong Naval Volunteer Force. Hong Kong badge
- Straits Settlements Naval Volunteer Force. Straits Settlements' badge
- Royal Malayan Navy. Singapore badge
- Royal East African Navy. Royal East African Navy badge.
- Nigerian Naval Force. Nigeria badge.
David Prothero, 26 October 2008


Dunkirk jack

[St George's Cross] by Vincent Morley

There is a special jack - the red St George's Cross on white - that is reserved for vessels which took part in the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in World War II.
Graham Bartram
, 1 June 1999

Does this mean the actual vessels? Or is it parallel to the French practice of a Free French honour jack, as mentioned by Ivan Sache on the Free French Forces page, "Nowadays, ships that have a name previously belonging to a ship that joined the FNFL (Forces Navales Françaises Libres) use the FNFL ensign as honour jack." If the practice is the first-mentioned, more restricted use, are there any vessels left today?
Ole Andersen, 24 September 2000

I thought that this was a squarish but perfectly ordinary St George's flag that could be flown as a jack by anyone. It was selected as a means of identifying those vessels that were used in the evacuation when they are taking part in ceremonies. One ship that took part in the anniversary commemorations last June is now registered in Malta and flew the Maltese Ensign and St George's Jack.
David Prothero, 24 September 2000

In Norie and Hobbs (1848) a flag of this design is referred to as the St. George's Jack.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 12 November 2001

Interesting background information can be found on this web page. "The term Little Ship applies to all craft that were originally privately owned and includes private yachts, barges, British, French, Belgian and Dutch fishing vessels and pleasure steamers, but the Association does include some ex-Service vessels, which are now privately owned, and ex-Lifeboats."

As to the flag shown on top of this page: "It was then (first Annual General Meeting, 13 Dec. 1967, jm) decided that we should have a House Flag. Permission was given by the Admiralty, the College of Heralds and the City of Dunkirk for the Cross of St. George (the flag of Admiralty) to be defaced with the Arms of Dunkirk for use as the Association's House Flag. This can be worn by Member Ships at any time when the owner is aboard. In addition, when in company, we fly the undefaced Cross of St. George at the bow. Again this is by Admiralty Warrant. To avoid any possible confusion with barges wearing an Admiral's flag, the Dunkirk Little Ships must wear the Red Ensign when flying the undefaced Flag of St. George at the bows."

A better view of the Dunkirk coat of arms (undoubtedly drawn by Jiri Louda) is offered by Ralf Hartemink's site, International Civic Heraldry: per fess: or a lion sable passant armed and langued gules, argent a dolphin azure naiant embowed finned and langued gules. In other words, picturing a (former) Flemish city and harbour.
Jan Mertens, 13 February 2004


Jacks in Wartime

The photograph of a warship with two ensign staffs, pointed out by Jan Mertens at http://www.belgianbadges4046.be/RNSB.htm reminded me that towards the end of the 1939 - 1945 war, British warships were completed without a jackstaff, and hoisting a jack in any ship of the Royal Navy was not resumed until late 1946 or early 1947. I have been unable to find out whether the use of jacks was suspended at the beginning of the war, or some time later. Did this happen in the 1914 - 1918 war, and was it common wartime practice in other navies?
David Prothero, 28 December 2003

I have a photograph of HMS Lion taken at Scapa Flow in 1916, and she is wearing a jack. Whether this was normal practice during the First War I simply don't know, but it does seem likely? What is certain, however, is that gun salutes were dropped for the duration.
Christopher Southworth, 28 December 2003

This photo of HMS Lion may well have actually been taken pre-war (a 'stock' photo if you like), and the same might well apply to your photograph of the Grand Fleet?
David Prothero, 30 December 2003

I've had a look at various books, including H.M. Le Fleming's 'Ships of World War One' (that covers the RN and the German Navy), and none of the pictures that can be definitely dated to 1914-18 shows ships wearing jacks (even though they have the jackstaff rigged), and this includes a shot across some crowded destroyer pens at Rosyth.
Ian Sumner, 30 December 2003

It seems that in a prolonged war there does come a time when a navy may decide that jacks are more trouble than they are worth.

1914 - 1918.
Ian pointed out there are photographs in H.M. Le Fleming's book 'Warships of World War 1' showing British warships not underway, but not flying a jack. Those photographs that do show a ship flying a jack are probably, in some cases definitely, post-war. The photograph of HMS Lion, mentioned by Chris, might have been 'stock', or she may have been an exception, as she was the flagship of Admiral Beatty's Battle-Cruiser Squadron.

1939 - 1945.
I found my notes about the resumption of the use of the Union Jack. [National Archives (PRO) ADM 1/18176]
5 July 1945. It was noted that Union Flags were not supplied to minor war vessels and certain major war vessels.
3 September 1945. Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet hoped that use of the Union Jack could be resumed without delay. 1 January 1946 was suggested as a possible date for resumption. However it was necessary that all ships in commission should resume at the same time, and some ships (e.g., landing ships) had been built without jack-staffs or even ensign staffs, and most were without rigging wires for dressing ship.
3 December 1946. Admiralty Fleet Order (AFO) 7028/46. Notice of resumption.
3 January 1947. AFO 1/47. Resumption of normal procedures in accordance with King's Regulations & Admiralty Instructions, article 117.

There was a reference to AFO 6072/42, which would have been issued late November or early December 1942. Perhaps it introduced the restriction effective 1 January 1943 ?
David Prothero, 31 December 2003

If so, the restriction was not reflected in the 1943 edition of King's Regulations & Admiralty Instructions. I checked it at the U.S. Navy Department Library yesterday, including updates effective through November 1943, and the portions concerning display of "Union Flag at the jackstaff" were the normal ones--always displayed when in harbor. (Note that the flag was nowhere referred to as "Union Jack", even when flown as a jack...how's that for pedantry?)
Joe McMillan, 31 December 2003

I can say with a fair degree of certainty that all the South African 'little ships' (minesweepers and escort vessels) that served in the Med, wore the RN's White Ensign and the SA national flag as a jack throughout the war. When the jackstaff was struck for the armament right forward in the bows (as was the case for all our converted whale catchers), the jack was hoisted at the starboard yardarm. As our ships strictly followed RN practice as ordered by the Admiral Commanding Mediterranean(?), I would have thought that the same applied to the RN as a whole. How certain are you that the RN ceased flying the jack later in the war?

As for WWI, I have a vague memory of seeing a photograph of the Grand Fleet anchored in Scapa Flow and as far as memory goes they were all flying their jacks. The absence thereof would have certainly made an impression.
Andre Burgers, 29 December 2003

I do not know if Admiralty Fleet Orders applied to all fleets or just the Home Fleet. However it seems that the South African ships did not follow RN practice entirely, as an RN vessel would not have hoisted the Union Jack at a yardarm ?
David Prothero, 31 December 2003

I did find a note in a copy of Mariner's Mirror, vol.23 (1937) pp.229-30, signed simply 'A.L.', which quoted Admiralty Interim Order No.62 of 14th September 1914, ordering the flying of the Union Flag on or near the foremast as an extra national device, in addition to the White Ensign, because of the similarity between the White Ensign and the German Naval Ensign.

This usage was cancelled on 16th November 1914 by the Admiralty by Interim Order S.55 (and repeated by S.266 of 26th November 1915), whereby the Union Flag was replaced by the Red Ensign. The Admiralty reversed themselves once more on 11th January 1916, which once more authorised the use of the Union at the foremast. This was cancelled again by S.13 of 1916.

Now, could it be the use of the Union as a jack was abandoned, either formally or informally, because of its explicit use at the masthead?

Ian Sumner, 31 December 2003

The Union Jack was withdrawn during the 1939 - 1945 War, but only from smaller vessels:
Admiralty Fleet Order 6072/42. 10 December 1942. Union Flag Allowances HM Ships.

  1. As a measure of economy the Union Flag is withdrawn from,
    (a) All minor war vessels except Coastal Forces.
    (b) Certain major war vessels; Submarines, Netlayers, Fleet Minesweepers, Corvettes and Surveying Ships.
  2. Coastal Forces should retain one Union Flag on board, and bases should maintain sufficient flags to provide one spare for each craft attached.
  3. All Union Flags in excess should be returned to stores.
This perhaps suggests that Coastal Forces (Motor Gun Boats, Motor Torpedo Boats and various Motor Launches) flew the Union Jack at sea, in the same way that it was used during the 1914 -1918 war? General use of Union Jacks was resumed in 1946.
Admiralty Fleet Order 3499/46. 16 May 1946. M4542/45.

Wearing of Union Flag at the jack staff and Ensign at the ensign staff by HM Ships in harbour is to be resumed as soon as practicable. The 3 December 1946 Admiralty Fleet Order 7028/46. Notice of Resumption, seems to have been a repeat of the May Order.

David Prothero, 20 January 2004