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United Kingdom: Royal Air Force

Last modified: 2013-07-30 by rob raeside
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[RAF ensign] image by Martin Grieve


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Description and use of the flag

The British Royal Air Force Ensign is in light "Air Force" blue with the Union Jack in the canton and the Royal Air Force roundel, concentric rings of red-white-blue (from the inside out) in the middle of the fly.
Roy Stilling
, 18 December 1995

Before 1918 the Royal Naval Air Service used the White Ensign and I presume that the Royal Flying Corps used whatever flags were appropriate for a corps of the army, perhaps just the Union Jack? An interim flag was produced to represent the Royal Air Force at the armistice celebrations; a 'white ensign' with an overall dark blue St George's Cross, the Royal Air Force eagle in the centre of the cross, and a royal crown above it on the vertical arm of the cross. Rather more attractive than the roundel ensign, but not to the liking of the Admiralty who thought it looked too much like a naval flag. Between the armistice and 26 July 1920 when the present ensign was approved, the Royal Air Force was supposed to fly the Union Jack, but some former Royal Naval Air Service units flew the White Ensign, or the white ensign with a blue St George's Cross, but without the eagle and crown.

During World War II there was a Royal Air Force ensign with a black, yellow and red roundel - the ensign of the Belgian Section of the Royal Air Force.

David Prothero, 11 November 1998

Above the main entrance of the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall are three flagpoles with the Royal Navy's White Ensign, the British Army flag, and the Royal Air Force ensign flying in that order (from the observer's left to right).
Joseph McMillan, 23 September

The Royal Air Force Ensign was approved without difference as the ensign of the Royal Australian Air Force on 24 July 1922 (AIR 2/211), and was not changed until 1949; but Canada and New Zealand had their own Air Force ensigns during WW2. 
The Royal Canadian Air Force was granted the right to use the Royal Air Force Ensign on 12 October 1921 (AIR 2/211), but replaced the central red disc with a red maple leaf in March 1940 (AIR 2/6141).
The Royal New Zealand Air Force applied to change its ensign in August 1939. The new ensign was described as, "the Ensign of the Royal Air Force defaced by the addition of the letters N Z superimposed in white upon the red roundel of the ensign" (AIR 30/140).
References are Public Record Office documents at Kew.
David Prothero, 2 June 2002

This flag was introduced in 1918, and was concurrent with the founding of the Royal Air Force as a separate fighting unit.
Christopher Southworth, 4 December 2003

The RAF have always referred to their flag as the RAF Ensign. It may possibly be by analogy with the White Ensign, particularly as the RAF originally wanted to have a White Ensign without the cross as their flag (they also tried a White Ensign with a blue cross, which they referred to as a St. Michael's cross). The Admiralty, on the other hand, stubbornly referred to it as an RAF flag, refusing to admit that the RAF had any right to fly an ensign.

The RAF flag/Ensign was flown by the various launches and tenders that were part of seaplane squadrons in the 1920s and 1930s, and then by the vessels of the Air Sea Rescue Service, formed in 1939. Later renamed the Maritime Section, it was civilianised in 1986. The craft then flew a Blue Ensign, defaced by a badge of an RAF eagle above an anchor, all in yellow. That has since been wound up, and ASR services passed over to RAF helicopter squadrons (plus the RNLI and Coastguard).

It remains open to question whether they actually had permission to fly the RAF Ensign as an ensign, however. The original Order in Council gave permission for the flag to be used whenever and wherever the Air Council saw fit, but the Admiralty did not think that the Order superseded the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act. In 1947, an RAF vessel was seized at sea by Customs, on the grounds that it was flying an illegal ensign (the RAF one), instead of the Red Ensign. The ASR launches got round the problem by the flying the flag from the mast, and flying nothing at the stern. In any case, as high speed vessels, the stern almost disappeared under the water when travelling at speed, so the ensign might not have properly visible anyway.

Air bases have always been referred to as 'stations', and individually by name with the prefix 'RAF', e.g. RAF Finningley. The service would certainly have inherited a tradition of flying a flag at each station from the Royal Naval Air Service (which went to part form the RAF in 1918).

Sources: PRO ADM 1/19970, 1/21665.

Ian Sumner, 4 December 2003

The RAF flag is definitely an ensign. It's been labelled that way in BR20 for years. In Britain "ensign" is traditionally just another word for "flag", but has come to mean a flag with the national flag in the canton. And it will be called the RAF Ensign in the next edition of BR20 too, along with the rest of the RAF flags.

The official Pantone shade of the RAF Ensign is 549, which looks too dark when printed on paper but works in fabric. The illustrations in the printed BR20 used Pantone 292 as and alternative, but I'm not happy with it and am looking at alternatives, such as a tint of Pantone 549 to simulate the fabric flag. A grey pale blue is a good description.
Graham Bartram, 5 December 2003

The RAF ensign is flown from gaffs. Because of their descent from RNAS stations, RAF stations, like naval shore stations, are pseudo 'ships', flying their ensigns as if from the spankers of sailing ships.
Stephen Fletcher, 12 August 2004


Order in Council

The original Order in Council was made on 24th March 1921:

"24 March 1921. Buckingham Palace.
Present : The King's Most Excellent Majesty in Council.

Whereas it is expedient that the Royal Air Force shall use and employ a distinguishing ensign:
Now therefore, His Majesty is pleased, by and with the advice of his Privy Council, to Order, and it is hereby ordered as follows.

  1. The following ensign is hereby established and shall be recognized as the colours of the Royal Air Force that is to say; of light blue, in the dexter canton the Union, and in the centre of the fly of the flag three roundles [sic] superimposed red upon white upon blue; and the said ensign shall be flown in such manner and on such occasions only as may from time to time be ordered by the Air Council.
  2. This Order may be cited as the Royal Air Force Ensign Order 1921."

Curiously, it is dated after the Air Ministry Order (Weekly Order 1130 of 11th December 1920) that contains the flag-flying instructions.

Ian Sumner, 5 December 2003


Constructions details

Based on current practice (rings 0.714 x height):

[RAF ensign] values provided by Graham Bartram

BR20 (produced by the MoD) used to give Pantone equivalents for the "Shades of Naval Bunting and Nato Stock Colours". These were deleted in Change No. 2, however, the details given for the RAF Ensign are 'NATO stock no.8305-99-130-4578, Pantone 549C, which accords with my memory of the flag (having seen it flying over an RAF Station) being a slightly greyish light blue.
Christopher Southworth, 5 December 2003

That colour appears to be 26-179-179 (10%,70%,70%) in RGB, which I suspect is a problem. Closest are 0-153-153 (too dark) and 0-204-204 (too light).
Changing the 0 to 51 doesn't help. Certainly having the B value at 255 is way off-beam.
James Dignan, 5 December 2003

Based on official figures (rings 0.764 x height of flag):

[RAF ensign] by Martin Grieve

The construction details given on Martin Grieve's illustration are taken from an annotated drawing in Admiralty file ADM/12493, and are (in essence) confirmed by an illustration in the 1939 Edition of the German Admiralty flag book - the Flaggenbuch - and by that published by the Ministry of Defence in the current edition of BR20. The colour of the flag's field is officially described as "Air Force Blue", but is not otherwise defined. It is flown at RAF airfields, by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Attaches and Advisors, and also by the Heads OF RAF Missions abroad.
Christopher Southworth, 4 December 2003

Having been in contact with Graham I can confirm that the original specifications (shown here) are the only official specifications extant, and that the five-sevenths referred to by him (and used for the upper construction diagram here) is, in fact, based on 'custom and practice'.
Christopher Southworth, 29 January 2004


Derivation of the flag

The RAF website has a section on the RAF Ensign. In a nutshell, in 1920, the Air Council decided that it was to have its own flag. The Admiralty opposed the move at first, but later conceded, stating that the flag should be the Union Jack with a badge. The Air Council did not like the idea, suggesting a plain White Ensign without the cross. This infuriated the Admiralty, for the White Ensign was (is) reserved for the Royal Navy. King George V wanted the matter to be resolved by the cabinet, but nothing materialized. Meanwhile, the public were sending in their own designs. None was adopted, but there was one suggestion which impressed the parties concerned. This was to use the RAF roundel. Before the final decision was made, Air Vice Marshal Salmond added a Union Jack in the canton of the new flag, symbolizing British authority. The RAF Ensign was then adopted in December 1920, and authorized by the King's Order in Council on 24 March 1921.

Miles Li, 25 January 2002


Other Royal Air Force flags

Some extracts about flags from Air Ministry Orders.

Distinguishing Flags and Lamps were introduced by AMO 782/18 on 2 August 1918.
The flags, for use by day, were the same as the present flags, the lamps, for use by night, were square.
Air Vice Marshall. Dark Blue, over Light Blue, over Red.
Air Commodore. Dark Blue over Red.
Group Captain. Dark Blue to left of Red.
Wing Commander. Dark Blue over Red. Tilted to make a diamond shape.
Squadron Leader. Dark Blue.

AMO 10/20. Use of White Ensign. A22216. 1 January 1920.
1. The use of the White ensign is reserved exclusively for H.M.Ships. The White ensign is not to be flown at any Royal Air Force station or by any Royal Air Force unit.
2. The question of a special ensign for the Royal Air Force is still under consideration.

AMO 600/20. Signal Flags etc.. for Marine Craft. 154352/20. 1 July 1920.
For 50 foot Motor Boats and Power Driven Lighters.
International and Naval Code. No.6 size. Nos. 601 to 669. One Set.
Flags, Union. 3 breadth. 1.5 yards by 0.75 yards. One.

Seems surprising to include a Union Flag.

AMO 1130/20. R.A.F.Ensign.
Paras 1 - 3. Detail how it should be flown, and on what sort of flag staff. Para 4. Royal Air Force Ensign is to be hoisted daily at the Headquarters of the force, Headquarters of area and independent commands, from airships, and at stations and units given in the appendix to this Order.

Since it mentions airships, but not marine craft, it was presumably not used at sea at that time.

AMO 599/48. Designation of Royal Air Force Marine Craft. A909870/47/S7(a). 22 July 1948.
1. H.M. the King has approved the designation His Majesty's Air Force Vessel, for all ocean-going ships and sea-going craft of the 68 foot launch class commanded by a RAF officer and manned by RAF personnel in uniform.
2. This designation is to be used whenever reference is made to such vessels in official publications, correspondence etc.
3. His Majesty's Air Force Vessels will fly the RAF ensign in accordance with King's Regulations article 156(9).

David Prothero, 11 December 2003

Ocean Weather Ships
The badge of the Ocean Weather Ships displays the Royal Air Force eagle against the sun rising over the sea; this emblem, however, appears not on the Royal Air Force ensign but on the Blue Ensign.

Does anyone know if these services are still in existence and if these are still their flags?

Dave Martucci, 6 December 1997


Use of the US flag and RAF ensign at US Air Force bases in Britain

6 August 1965. Air Attaché, US Embassy, London, to Ministry of Defence.

In accordance with AFM 900-2, 1 August 1961, para 28, the following policy concerning the display of the United States flag and the Royal Air Force ensign at United States Air Force installations in Great Britain is established.

  1. The United States flag and the Royal Air Force ensign when flown side by side will be of approximately the same size.
  2. The flags are to be flown from flag staffs of precisely the same height and level.
  3. When both United States flag and the Royal Air Force ensign are flown at military installations, both will be raised and lowered simultaneously.
  4. The United States flag will be flown on the left hand side of the saluting base as seen from the parade ground.
  5. On ceremonial occasions with band and British dignitaries present, the British National Anthem will be played first with the raising of the Royal Air Force ensign.
  6. When a band is present for the lowering of flags, the United States flag will be lowered first.
  7. On ceremonial occasions when United States military forces only are involved the Royal Air Force ensign should be raised before the ceremony so that the United States National Anthem only is played while the United States flag is being raised or lowered.
  8. On occasions when it is appropriate to fly the United States flag at half staff the Royal Air Force ensign will be flown in a like manner. Similar courtesy will be accorded the Royal Air Force ensign under like circumstances.

[National Archives (PRO) AIR 2/18233]
David Prothero, 20 February 2004