"They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep...He raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves...they reel to and fro and stagger like drunken sailors!" (psalm 107)

History of the Flags of the Royal Australian Navy

We may not like our history but we cannot change it!

Navy badge

The History of the Australian Flag begins with the Union Flag

The Union Flag, popularly known as the Union Jack, is the national flag of the United Kingdom. It is the British flag.

Union Flag 1801It is called the Union Flag because it symbolises the administrative union of the countries of the United Kingdom. It is made up of the individual Flags of three of the Kingdom's countries all united under one Sovereign - the countries of 'England', of 'Scotland' and of 'Northern Ireland' (since 1921 only Northern Ireland has been part of the United Kingdom). As Wales was not a Kingdom but a Principality it could not be included on the flag.
When King James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne, thereby becoming James I of England, the national flags of England and Scotland on land continued to be, respectively, the red St George's cross and the white St Andrew's cross. Confusion arose, however, as to what flag would be appropriate at sea. On 12 April 1606 a proclamation was issued: "All our subjects in this our isle and kingdom of Great Britain and the members thereof, shall bear in their main top the red cross commonly called St George's Cross and the white cross commonly called St. Andrew's Cross joined together according to a form made by our heralds and sent to our Admiral to be published to our said subjects."
This is the first known reference to the Union Flag. Although the original design referred to has been lost, it is presumed that it was the flag which, with the addition of the St Patrick's cross, forms the basic design of the British Union Flag today. A drawing of the Union Flag that was sent to the Office of Stores for the Navy Board, on 15 November 1800 was marked, 'Union Flag from 1st January 1801 (c)'. It has remained the Flag of the United Kingdom ever since.


The first records of European mariners sailing into "Australian waters" occured around 1606, and includes their observations of the land known as Terra Australis Incognita (unknown southern land). The first ship and crew to chart the Australian coast was the Duyfken captained by Dutchman, Willem Janszoon.
Between 1606 and 1770, an estimated 54 European ships from a range of nations visited Terra Australis Incognita. Many of these were merchant sailing ships from the Dutch East Indies Company and included the ships of Abel Tasman. Tasman charted parts of the north, west and south coasts of Australia which was then known as New Holland.
In 1770, Englishman Lieutenant James Cook charted the Australian east coast in his ship HM Barque Endeavour. Cook claimed the east coast under instruction from King George III of England on 22nd. August 1770 at Possession Island, naming eastern Australia "New South Wales". The coast of Australia, featuring Tasmania as a separate island, was mapped in detail by the English mariners and navigators Bass and Flinders, and the French mariner, Baudin. A nearly completed map of the coastline was published by Flinders in 1814.
Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet, comprising 11 ships and around 1,350 people, arrived at Botany Bay between 18th. and 20th. January 1788. However, this area was deemed to be unsuitable for settlement and they moved north to Port Jackson on 26th. January 1788, landing at Camp Cove.

Governor Phillip carried instructions to establish the first British Colony in Australia.

Australian Flag designed by Ivor William Evans

Ivor William Evans a 14 year old boy with his flag design

On 1st January 1901, six separate British colonies federated as a new and independent country.

Australian Federation FlagThe Commonwealth of Australia officially flew the flag of the British Empire as well as the popular but unofficial Australian Federation Flag until a nationwide competition to design a new flag was held. The prize money was two hundred pounds, which, today, is roughly equivalent to four years average wages - a great deal of money indeed. There were five finalists with identical designs. One of the designers was Ivor Evans, a fourteen year old schoolboy. Ivor had very clear ideas about what his flag meant and what he intended it to say about Australia and Australians. He believed that the Southern Cross, the brightest constellation in the Southern Hemisphere, was representative of Australia's bright future as a leading nation. However there was another reason for his choice of the Southern Cross. The poet, Dante, wrote about four bright stars which symbolised the four moral virtues of justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude - principles that Australians should live up to.
Componants of the Australian FlagThe Commonwealth Star was another significant symbol. Its six points represented the six newly federated states. In 1908 a seventh point was added to represent all the Federal Territories which, today, include the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory, The Cocos Islands and the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Ivor believed that the flag of the United Kingdom, Great Britain, had a place on Australia's flag because of the historical links between our island continent and the British Isles. Australia had been colonised by the British in 1788, and one of the first things they did on Australian soil was raise the Union Flag. The flag has been part of our history ever since. Ivor believed that its "honourable place" on the Australian flag recognised this fact - a new nation paying respect to its origins.

The British Union Flag in the canton is seen by the more conservative younger generations to stand for Australia's historical origins, its membership of the Commonwealth of Nations, as well as the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy since 1788. Although flag design protocol implies that Australia is subordinate to Britain, this is a view not held by Australians who see the Union Flag as "a reminder of that era of our history when six colonies were founded, grew to adulthood and were welded together to form the Commonwealth of Australia."

RAN Seaking flying the Australian Flag

The existing flag is important for emotional reasons and because of tradition. It has been used as a battle flag by Royal Australian Navy warships from World War I and by other branches of the Australian Defence Force one way or another since shortly after Federation.

The Union Flag is only called the Union Jack when worn on the jack staff, which is mounted atop the stem in the bow of a ship. When Australian Warships wear the Australian Flag on the jack staff it is called "The Jack".

Royal Navy White Ensign

The Ensign is flown on the ensign staff mounted at the stern of a vessel and represents the ship's Country of Origin.

Royal Navy White EnsignThe first recognisable White Ensign appears to have been in use during the 16th century, consisting of a white field with a broad St George's cross, and a second St. George's cross in the canton. By 1630 the white ensign consisted of simply a white field, with a small St George's cross in the canton, which was consistent with the red and blue ensigns of the time. In 1707, the St. George's cross was reintroduced to the flag as a whole, though not as broad as before, and the Union Flag was placed in the canton. There was also a version of this flag without the overall St George's cross, which appears to have been for use in home waters only, though this flag appears to have fallen out of use by 1720. In 1801, after the Act of Union 1800, the flag was updated to include the new Union Flag in the canton, and so took on the form as used today. The blue field of the Union Flag was darkened at this time at the request of the Admiralty, in the hope that the new flags would not require replacing as often as the previous design, due to fading of the blue.
Throughout this period, the Royal Navy used the White Ensign in conjunction with the Red and Blue, due to the rank structure employed at the time. Each grade of admiral (rear, vice and full) was sub-divided into levels of seniority: red, white, and blue. Ships attached to an admiral's squadron would then fly the ensign appropriate to that particular admiral. In 1864 the Admiralty decided to end the ambiguity caused by the Red Ensign being both a civil ensign and a naval ensign, and the White Ensign was reserved to the Royal Navy; the relevant Order in Council retained the option to use Red or Blue Ensigns in HM Ships if desired.

The Royal Australian Navy White Ensign

Australian Navy White Ensign

National Colonial Flag of AustraliaThe Australian White Ensign mirrors the design of the Australian National Flag with the field colour reversed to white and the stars rendered in blue. The distinctive naval design dates from 1st. March 1967. The tradition of Australian flags featuring the Southern Cross and Union Flag (Union Jack) dates from 1823 with the advent of the National Colonial Flag of Australia which was a white ensign featuring the naval cross of St George on which was displayed four stars representing the constellation of the Southern Cross.
From its inception in 1911 the Royal Australian Navy flew as its distinguishing flag the White Ensign featuring the red cross of St. George handed down to it by the Royal Navy where it had been flown since 1864. There had been proposals at the time that a distinctively Australian flag should be adopted but these were overruled by the Admiralty who considered it more appropriate that all Commonwealth navies should continue to fly a common ensign. In this regard it must be remembered that at its birth the RAN was realistically an offshoot of the RN, comprised of ships and equipment of exclusively British origin and with all senior positions filled by British officers on loan; indeed it was not until 1948 that the position of Chief of Naval Staff was filled by an Australian.

This flag arrangement was accepted for many years; our Navy had been founded upon the traditions, regulations, laws and procedures of the Royal Navy, our officers underwent much of their training in the UK and most RAN ships, aircraft and materiel continued to be of British origin or design.

Following World War II however the RAN in line with the rest of the Australian community began to develop more independent attitudes and a growing feeling that our policies, our ships and our personnel should be more readily identifiable as Australian.
Recognising this, in 1965 the First Naval Member, Vice Admiral Sir Alan McNicoll initiated action for change by soliciting views on the desirability of adopting a distinctively Australian White Ensign. He made the points that in overseas waters our ships needed to be readily identifiable if the national policy of projecting Australia as an independent nation was to be furthered and that in home ports our Navy needed to be seen as an Australian service totally independent of any form of overseas control. The involvement of RAN ships in the Invasion of Vietnam where they were flying a distinguishing ensign identical with that of another country not engaged in the war lent logic and urgency to his argument.

Vice Admiral McNicoll's proposal for change was warmly accepted throughout the Navy and proposed designs for an Australian White Ensign were called for. Several designs eventuated and on 21st January 1966 the Naval Board recommended to the Government that:-
1. The RAN should have a distinctive Australian White Ensign.
2. The Ensign should be a white flag with the Union Flag in the upper canton at the hoist with six blue stars positioned as in the Australian flag.

The design had been initially submitted by then Commander G.J.H. Woolrych RAN.

Following Government approval and that of Her Majesty the Queen, the introduction of the Australian White Ensign was promulgated on 23rd December 1966, and first flown on all ships and establishments on 1st March 1967.

Helicopter flying Australian White Ensign

Ship's Colours

The Ensign and the Jack are the Ship's "Colours" being ceremonially hoisted at 0800 and struck at Sunset when in Port. At sea the colours are flown from the main mast.

Masthead or Commissioning Pennant

Commissioning Pennant

The Masthead or Commissioning Pennant is flown from the truck of the gaff on the main mast. It is hoisted the day the ship is commissioned and not struck until the day the ship de-commissions - when it is replaced by the Paying Off or De-Commissioning Pennant, the length being equal to the length of the ship plus one foot for every year of service. The De-Commissioning Pennant traditionally needs balloons (red and white) to keep it aloft.

Paying off pennant

Flags of the Australian Defence Forces in order of Seniority

Royal Australian Navy White Ensign Royal Australian Air Force Flag Royal Australian Army Flag
Royal Australian Navy White Ensign Royal Australian Air Force Flag Royal Australian Army Flag - The Royal Australian Army is the custodian and protector of the Australian Flag, so it is fitting that the Australian Army is represented by it.

Australian Merchant Navy Ensigns

Australian Merchant Red Ensign Austrakian Merchant Blue Ensign
The traditional Australian Red Ensign, flown by all Australian registered merchant ships, indicating Australia as the Country of Registration. The Australian Merchant Blue Ensign, flown to indicate the Master is RANVR or at least a third of the crew are RANVR, plus Australia is the Country of Registration.

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