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United Kingdom: Ministry of Defence and army

Last modified: 2009-02-21 by rob raeside
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Joint services flag

[Joint services flag] image by Eugene Ipavec, 6 March 2006

Recently I came across a picture of the badge of the British Ministry of Defence: it's a crowned 'combined services' emblem (crossed swords, eagle and anchor). Can anybody tell me if this badge is used on flags? I'm guessing that the Minister of Defence would have a Union Flag defaced with this badge, while defence establishments not service-specific would use a blue ensign with this badge in the fly.
Tom Gregg,
18 December 1996

Strictly speaking, the badge is termed the 'joint services' badge. A slightly similar badge for 'combined operations' was used in World War II, with a tommy gun representing the Army. I don't have a reference for the date the current badge was first designed, but I presume it was sometime after the war when things had settled down and the College of Arms could 'correct' the crude design adopted by the military.

A flag for the Chief of the Defence Staff was first approved in 1956 (H. Gresham Carr, Flags of the World, 1961, p. 133) - this was a horizontal tricolour of dark blue (Royal Navy) over red (Army) over air force (light) blue (Royal Air Force) - the order of seniority of the services - with the joint services badge overall. Originally the white circular background of the badge was surrounded by a gold cordon. The garter that is currently used was added when Lord Mountbatten was appointed Chief of the Defence Staff in 1965.

However, in 1964 when the unified Ministry of Defence was formed the 1956 flag was adopted as the joint services flag. It flies from the Ministry of Defence building along with the three services' flags, but I don't think it is the Ministry of Defence flag per se - it is meant to be flown wherever the three services have headquarters together. The Chief of the Defence Staff, having lost his flag, was given a new one - still the same tricolour and badge, but with a Union Flag in the canton and the badge shifted to the centre of the fly (William Crampton, Observer's Book of Flags, 1991, p. 33). As to the Secretary of State for Defence, I think he is entitled to fly the joint services flag from his car, but I don't have a reference to support this.

Roy Stilling, 19 December 1996

Ministry of Defence flag

[Joint services flag] image by Graham Bartram


In a question directed to the UK government it was determined that no Cabinet offices except the Ministry of Defence has its own specific flags.  However, I believe the Ministry of Defence flag is made only in miniature as a car flag, but even that is exceptional. In Britain it has never been considered necessary for ministerial cars to have flags. At Imperial Conferences in the 1930's, flags were supplied to the delegates of other participating governments, but not for the cars of British ministers. [National Archives (PRO) DO 35/132/3]

The provision of a car flag for the Minister of Defence was the result of a problem that arose when visiting military establishments with an accompanying officer who was entitled to a car flag. On these occasions the officer displayed his flag on the car, and it was argued that salutes given, on the arrival or passing of the car, were to the flag displayed, and not to the minister. After one Minister had improperly used the Combined Operations Flag on his car, a special flag was devised and approved by the Queen on 10 May 1957. [National Archives (PRO) DEFE 7/569]

Apart from the Admiralty, War Office, and Air Ministry, British Government Departments have not had land flags. A Public Office was entitled to a Blue Ensign, with its badge in the fly, for any boats or ships it operated, and did not need to obtain approval for it, although the Admiralty were often consulted in those cases where the design of the badge, or the right of a department to be classified as a Public Office, was in doubt. These Blue Ensigns were not flown on land, except by Customs and Excise who by tradition flew their Blue Ensign on Customs Houses.

In 1960 the Ministry of Transport asked if it could fly its ensign from its offices in London. It was told that the approval of the Lord Chamberlain would be required if they wanted to do it on other than appointed "flag flying days". On those days the Union Jack should be flown in addition to the Transport Ensign. Since this would have involved putting up additional flag poles the idea was abandoned. The Ministry was also told to stop flying its flag on the Sea Transport Offices in Aden and Singapore, but allowed it on Coastguard Stations, and colonial lighthouses. [National Archives (PRO) MT 45/580]
David Prothero, 16 April 2003

Since 1964 when the Ministry of Defence was created and the Board of Admiralty abolished, the old 17th century Navy Board flag (three vertical plain yellow anchors on maroon) has been used by both the Navy Board and the Admiralty Board (Navy Board plus Government Ministers), and often known as the Admiralty Board Flag. It was decided that the old Navy Board Flag should be used by only the new Navy Board, and that the Admiralty Board should have its own flag, a yellow vertical foul anchor on a maroon field. It was designed earlier this year by the College of Arms.
David Prothero, 1 October 2003

Field Marshal flag

A Union Flag is the rank flag of a Field Marshal in the British Army. It is the only rank flag in the British Army, the others being post or appointment flags, which also include the Union Flag as the flag of the Commander-in-Chief Forces in the Field. Incidentally if you want the source for this information, it was one of the corrections Field Marshal HRH The Duke of Edinburgh made to the draft of my book [British Flags and Emblems]! (See page 46).
Graham Bartram, 29 August 2005

During WWI era, it was common for general officers of the British Army to participate in parades (on horseback) with a tiny Union Jack (carried by an officer also on horseback) behind him. This of course was not a rank flag as such, but a distinguishing flag for the commander-in-chief in the field.
Miles Li, 30 August 2005

What does actually constitute a 'commander-in-in chief the field' in these circumstances? The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) in 1918 was (without looking it up) composed of five Armies (perhaps six), each composed of two or more Corps and each commanded by a full General, but these were not independent commands as I understand the term. If an order for an attack was passed by the C in C (Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig) to one of these officers, did that particular general then become the commander-in-chief in the field for the period of the resulting battle? As a matter of interest, I know of two instances (and there were almost certainly more) when the C in C had an escort of lancers whilst conducting a ceremonial inspection, and a fine sight it must have been.
Christopher Southworth, 30 August 2005

Haig was the C-in-C in the field. He commanded the British Expeditionary Force, and the various army commanders were his subordinates. Similarly, Montgomery was C-in-C in the field in 1944-45, with two armies under him. I'm not sure about the status of Alexander, as Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean at the same time. I assume he would also be entitled to the UJ. Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, had a UJ with a formation sign and inscription in the centre (but then he was always showy!). I guess you could describe the post as the one directly responsible to the chiefs of staff / government for the conduct of the campaign.
Ian Sumner, 30 August 2005

Police Ensign

[Ministry of Defence Police Ensign] image by Martin Grieve, 2 October 2006

Thames Powder Flags

Thames Powder Flags were red squares with either one crown, or two crowns side-by-side. They are shown in the Admiralty Flag Books of 1907 and 1915, and also George Philip's "Flags of all Nations" folded flag sheet of the late 1930s. The Mayor of Rochester was, by ancient Charter, Admiral of the Medway and may have instituted a similar flag for that river. It might be worth contacting Medway Council, or Kent County Council archivists.
David Prothero, 8 January 2007

In the 1960's. I served aboard a Naval Armament Vessel, carrying explosives between Royal Naval Armament Depots. While embarking or discharging cargo, we exhibited the International Code Flag 'Bravo', which of course was a red flag. However, before its closure in the 1960's, when we were on passage on the River Medway (Kent, England) to and from Upnor Armament Depot, we had to display a square red flag with three crowns (in a triangle) in the fly.
Peter Billing, 7 January 2007

Colour Party Format

Paragraph 55.4 of the Ceremonial manual of 1912 says:

'In line the Colours, each carried by an officer (as directed by the KRs), will be placed between the two centre companies; the King's Colour on the right, the Regimental Colour on the left, with a serjeant between them and two non-commissioned officers or selected privates, covering them in line with the rear rank. The officer carrying the King's Colour will command the party.

'If ranks are changed the Colour party will change flank on the orders of the senior officer of the Colour party, if the line is ordered to retire the Colour party will turn about, and the centre serjeant, stepping forward two paces, will align himself with the rear rank.'
The accompanying diagrams (Plate V 'A battalion in line' and Plate VI 'A battalion in column by the left') seem to show the serjeant placed between, and in line with, the two colours, with the two 'selected NCOs' directly behind the colour bearers, and presumably, two paces behind, if that is the distance the centre sergeant has to move to align himself with the rear rank.

I've a few photos (including one of the 1st East Anglians in 1963) which definitely show the 'centre sergeant' in line with the two colour bearers; the distance to the rear rank is often harder to judge because of the angle of the picture, but it could be two paces.

Ian Sumner, 16 March 2007

Senior office car pennants

Senior Officer Car pennants in WW1 were all rectangular, in the proportions 3:5. There were no actual regulations about size, other than to say 'small' - the ones I have seen in museums look to be about nine inches x fifteen inches (23 cm x 38 cm approx.). Having said that, senior naval officers serving at GHQ (the Principal Naval Transport Officer France was entitled to a rear-admiral's flag) may have used a flag in the naval proportions of 2:3. Liaison Officers serving at Allied HQs were entitled to a Red Ensign and this may have been in the conventional proportions of 1:2.
Ian Sumner, 16 June 2008