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United Kingdom: Royal Air Force rank flags

Last modified: 2012-01-20 by rob raeside
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Flags of rank

All Royal Air Force flags of rank are based on a theme of red stripes on an 'air force blue' background with dark blue borders at the top and bottom. Senior officers have rectangular flags, whereas junior officers' flags are either swallow-tailed or pennant shaped. 'Air force blue' is the distinctive shade of sky blue used by the RAF for its flags and uniforms since its formation in 1918 from the army's Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Contrary to popular belief, the colour was not chosen to represent the sky - the Royal Air Force was intended to wear khaki uniforms like the army - instead a large order of light-blue cloth for uniforms for the Tsar's bodyguard was on offer at a very reasonable price due to the 1917 revolutions in Russia and was snapped up for the new service (but see rumour note).
Roy Stilling, 9 February 1997

Royal Air Force rank flags are light blue with dark blue edges at the top and bottom, each equal to about 1/7 of the hoist, with combinations of wide and narrow red stripes on the light blue field indicating rank.
Joe McMillan
, 5 February 2003

In British RAF usage such flags are called (for reasons which remain obscure) "class flags".
Christopher Southworth, 13 August 2009

Marshal of the Royal Air Force:

[Marshal of the RAF] image by Miles Li, 9 August 2008

This is equivalent to admiral of the fleet in the navy and to field marshal in the army. A wide red stripe between two narrower ones

Air chief marshal:

[Air chief marshal] image by Miles Li, 9 August 2008

This is equivalent to admiral in the navy and to general in the army. Two wide red stripes evenly spaced.

Air marshal:

[Air marshal] image by Joe McMillan

This is equivalent to vice-admiral in the navy and to lieutenant-general in the army. One wide red stripe.

Air vice-marshal:

[Air vice-marshal] image by Joe McMillan

This is equivalent to rear-admiral in the navy and to major-general in the army. Two narrow red stripes.

Air commodore:

[Air commodore] image by Miles Li, 9 August 2008

This is equivalent to commodore in the navy and to brigadier-general in the army. Swallowtailed, one narrow red stripe.

Group captain:

[Group captain] image by Joe McMillan

This is equivalent to captain in the navy and to colonel in the army. Triangular, one wide red stripe.

Wing commander:

[Wing commander] image by Joe McMillan

This is equivalent to commander in the navy and to lieutenant-colonel in the army. Triangular, two narrow red stripes.
Roy Stilling
, 9-10 February 1997, Joe McMillan, 5 February 2003

Armoured Cars Commander:

[Armoured Cars commander] image by Miles Li, 22 November 2008

During the early 20th Century, armoured cars were attached to British aviation forces, at first the Royal Naval Air Service, then after 1918 the Royal Air Force. The cars and the aircraft worked in teams to police the vast areas of the Empire.

Source of the image: ABC of the RAF: handbook for all branches of the Air Force. Edited by Air John Hammerton. The Amalgamated Press Ltd, London, 1941.
Miles Li, 22 November 2008

Squadron Leader:

 [Squadron Leader]  image by Dean Thomas

This is equivalent to a Major in the Army and Marine Corps and a Lieutenant-Commander in the Navy.

One narrow red stripe (like that of Air Commodore), but with a depiction (in dark blue) of the RAF Eagle in the top left corner of the upper air force blue stripe.  If the Squadron Leader is in command of a squadron, the numeric designator of the squadron is also displayed on the flag (in dark blue) on the lower air force blue stripe directly beneath the eagle.  The eagle faces toward the hoist of the flag.

Roy Stilling, 9-10 February 1997, Joe McMillan, 5 February 2003, Dean Thomas, 26 January 2004

Royal Air Force rank flags are made in only one size - 2 feet by 3 feet (0.61 m by 0.91 m) - and are flown at the masthead to indicate the rank of a station commander. The Royal Air Force ensign is flown at the peak. At stations where more than one unit is located, the flag of a unit commander may be flown on a flagstaff at unit headquarters.

David Prothero, 30 January 2000

In May 1918, the CO of 2 (Northern) Aircraft Park asked the Air Ministry if he could use letters, e.g., ERS for Engine Repair Section, instead of numbers on what was then a Major's distinguishing flag, since numbers were inappropriate for an Aircraft Park. He was forcibly reminded by the Ministry that the flag was that of a commanding officer and not a unit flag. The Park's CO should fly a Lieutenant Colonel's flag; the sections, by implication, were to remain flagless.
Ian Sumner, 28 July 2009

Russian leftover cloth rumour

Incidentally, Roy's story about the cloth coming from uniforms for Russia is only a contemporary rumour. Also circulating at the same time was another rumour to the effect that the combination of light blue and gold braid was the favourite of the mistress of a high-ranking civil servant in the War Office!
Ian Sumner, 15 February 2005