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Royal Air Force flag: timeline for introduction

Last modified: 2017-11-11 by rob raeside
Keywords: royal air force | raf |
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Detailed timeline for adoption of RAF flag

The sequence of events went something like this:

  • 11th May 1918. The Director of Air Quartermaster Services wrote to the Director of Naval Stores asking whether there was any objection on the part of the Naval Authorities to the Royal Air Force flying flags of one of two designs :--
    (1) The ordinary Naval White Ensign omitting the St George's Cross ;
    (2) The ordinary Blue Ensign with the colour pale Air Force Blue instead of Navy Blue.
  • 24th May 1918. The War Office wrote to the Air Ministry that they had no objection to either or both flags.
  • 10 June 1918. The Admiralty informed the Air Ministry that the use of the Ensigns, with or without modifications, was to be deprecated, and suggested that, subject to the King's approval, the Union Flag with some appropriate added device might be found suitable for use as the Flag of the Royal Air Force.
  • 30th July 1918. Lord Weir, Secretary of State for Air replied that he would certainly not press the request for the use of the White Ensign, as the Royal Air Force flag, any further. The Naval Secretary, Sir Allan Everett, was instructed by the First Lord to associate himself with Sir Godfrey Paine in bringing out a design that would be acceptable to the Air Ministry without being objectionable to the Navy.
    New proposals:
    A. RAF pilot's wings on an oval in the centre of a white-bordered Union Jack.
    B. Same, but wings replaced by an eagle on a blue circle surrounded by white garter, ensigned by crown. Same as the badge 1st April on
  • 16th August 1918. Comments in Admiralty Memo that the new proposal looked like the King's Harbour Master's flag, and without the badge, like letter D in the Naval Code (white-bordered Union Jack), also known as the Pilot jack. "KHM flag is not much used, and could be changed. Abolition of the Pilot Jack, a flag hard to distinguish and expensive to make, would be welcomed."
  • 27th August 1918. Air Council indicated that they wanted the white bordered Union Flag without any defacement. The Board of Trade would not agree to this, so the Air Council return to the original White Ensign proposal, which was still opposed by the Admiralty.
  • 30th September 1918. Air Ministry told the Admiralty that they proposed submitting their request to HM the King for his approval.
  • 12th October 1918. Rear-Admiral Sir Hugh Tothill, 4th Sea Lord, and Lord Wester Wemyss, 1st Sea Lord, were entirely opposed the use of the White Ensign, defaced or otherwise, and the Air Ministry were informed that the Admiralty were unable to assent.
  • 25th October 1918. Air Ministry investigated the legal position. In the opinion of the Treasury Solicitor it was not a legal question. Except for use on ships, the only offence would be if the RAF flag contravened Defence of Realm Regulation 25c. [This, I understand, was a regulation in force only in war time.]
  • 23rd December 1918. The King asked for the matter to be referred to the War Cabinet. A sub-committee consisting of Mr. Long (?), Lord Wester Wemyss (1st Sea Lord), Mr. Churchill (Secretary of State for War and the Royal Air Force), General Wilson (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), General Seely, and General Trenchard (formerly, and also later, Chief of Air Staff), was asked to put 'a flag for the RAF' on their agenda.
  • 17th April 1919. A proposed ensign, designed by General Seely and approved by the Air Council, was flown from an airship, which circled Windsor Castle. It was reported in The Times newspaper on the 19th April:
    "On Thursday afternoon an airship flew very low around the Castle and quite close to the Round Tower. This airship was flown by Major-General J.E.B. Seely to display before the King, the General-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force, the new flag of the force. This occasion was the first on which the flag had been flown on an aircraft. The design has received the approval of the Air Council. The appearance of the flag is similar to the White Ensign of the Royal Navy, the two points of difference being that a blue cross takes the place of the Red St George's cross in the normal emblem, and that the centre of the flag bears in gold the Crown and Bird of the Royal Air Force."
    However the King's Private Secretary had, on 17th April, informed the 1st Sea Lord that HM the King considered it not appropriate to have the RAF flag resembling an ensign.

    [RAF proposal] by Martin Grieve

    The flag, as described by The Times, is similar to this image which is based on a photograph in a book in the Eyewitness Guides Series; "Flag" by William Crampton (page 47). The photograph is acknowledged to the Imperial War Museum, and is captioned, "This special ensign was produced for the Royal Air Force at the time of the Armistice celebrations in 1918." However the flag as described by General Seely in a letter to Lord Cromer is slightly different. "As compared with a drawing seen a fortnight earlier, the cross was twice as broad as on the White Ensign. Crown and wings in centre on blue cross, not on white diamond." [See note.]
  • 4th October 1919. A schoolboy, one Master D.A.G. Smith of Blundell's School, Tiverton, sends four suggested flags to the Air Ministry. One is white with a Union Jack canton and the RAF roundel on the lower fly. They are rejected.
  • January 1920. E. McKnight Kauffer, an American artist working in London (he later drew some outstanding posters for London Transport) is asked to submit four designs for an RAF flag. The designs were rejected, and the Ministry quibbled over his bill.
  • February 1920. Senior RAF officers asked to choose between a number of designs for an RAF flag. One is light blue with an RAF roundel in the centre, but the officers prefer a white version. Air Vice Marshal Salmond (Air Officer Commanding, Southern Area, at the time, and later Chief of Air Staff 1930-33) suggested adding a Union Jack canton (making it the same as one of Master Smith's suggestions). But the choice falls on what is the present flag.
  • 10th June 1920. King provisionally approved blue flag with Union Jack canton and large target.
  • 29th June 1920. Admiralty received a letter from the Air Ministry informing them that the Air Council had selected the design shown in the specimen flag accompanying the letter [Current RAF Ensign]. The letter ended; "It should be added that this design has been submitted with others to His Majesty the King, who has been pleased to signify that it has His provisional approval."
    The Admiralty did not like the flag, but accept, saying, stiff-necked to the end, that since the King has already approved the flag, 'Their Lordships find themselves precluded from pressing their view, of the soundness of which they remain convinced.'
  • 7th July 1920. V.W. Baddeley (Secretary to the Admiralty?) wrote that the College of Arms had been consulted informally. "It seems that heraldically there cannot be two shades of blue, so that it is the ordinary blue Ensign that is being proposed by the Air Ministry with the target defacement. Chester Herald suggests, although the College of Arms are not directly concerned, it would be better for the Air Ministry flag, if they have one, to be red and blue divided in quarters, with the Union jack in the upper dexter quarter. This would be heraldically correct. The College of Arms dislike the proposed target defacement though they cannot say that it is wrong."
  • 8th July 1920. The Minutes show that a Board of Admiralty meeting agreed that the RAF should, like other departments of state, use the Union Flag ashore, and on aircraft use the Union Flag with the target. A letter setting-out this view was prepared for dispatch to the Air Ministry on 24th July 1920, but it may not have been sent.
    Their Lordships were behind the times. The Union Jack had been rejected as a national symbol on service aircraft (including those of the Royal Naval Air Service) at the end of 1914, because it was too similar to German markings for safety.
  • 9th September 1920. Drawing of flag sent to Norry King of Arms, Inspector of Regimental Colours, for registration.
  • 31st December 1920. Royal Air Force Ensign. Air Ministry Press Communiqué 634.
  • 31st December 1920. Air Ministry Weekly Order 1130. Royal Standard and Royal Air Force Ensign.
  • Late December 1920 / early January 1921. Master Smith writes to the Air Ministry asking since his flag designs were rejected, why is the chosen flag so like one of them. The Air Ministry reply, acknowledging his contribution to the design process, but not giving him any money.
  • 24th March 1921. Royal Air Force Ensign Order 1921. Light Blue, in the dexter canton the Union and in the centre of the fly of the flag three roundels superimposed red upon white upon blue.
David Prothero and Ian Sumner, 6,7 October 2004

17 April 1919 report

What is strange is that Seeley (in a letter in AIR 2/155) also says that the original alterations were made at the suggestion of the King. I suppose if you're King, you can change your mind whenever you want... I also note that the RAF were referring to the (blue) cross as a St. Michael's cross, to try and differentiate between the proposed flag and the White Ensign, with its (red) St. George's cross.

There is an example of the flag in the Imperial War Museum. The story that it was flown from the Air Ministry building on Armistice Day 1918 comes from Ray Allen in an article in Flag Bulletin vol.26 (1-3) pp.6-12. I suspect that the information will have appeared on the item's record card at the Museum, so someone, at some time, at the IWM must have believed it to be true, even though the chronology appears at odds with the archive record. I couldn't find any orders or invoices for this flag at the PRO, however, even though there was material on some of the other suggested designs.
Ian Sumner
, 7 October 2004

I am a little puzzled about the 1919 ensign with the blue cross and crown & eagle – in that the eagle is shown as looking to the left. Is this correct? Somewhere I have seen a drawing of this flag with the eagle facing to the right, as it is in the RAF badge, and the RAF Blue ensign from 1986 for Marine Craft, the RAF Sailing Association and the RAF Yacht Club.
Scott Williamson, 14 September 2007

The original ensign is in the Imperial War Museum collection, and the eagle's head does indeed face the left, even though the eagle in the RAF badge, introduced in 1918, faces the other way.
Ian Sumner, 15 September 2007

The reason the unofficial 1919 RAF Ensign had the eagle looking to the "left" is that, traditionally, an animal is portrayed on a flag facing the hoist / flagpole, so that it "looks towards the enemy" when the flag is carried forward.
Miles Li, 15 September 2007

Two shades of blue?

This is no longer the case. Thomas Woodcock, Somerset Herald, stated in 'The Oxford Guide to Heraldry' (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988) p.198, that the tincture bleu celeste was introduced into English heraldry by the College of Arms after the Second World War specifically because of badges and awards to RAF units and personnel.
Ian Sumner, 7 October 2004

See also: