Battle ensigns of the Royal Australian Navy

 

 

HMCS Protector off Port Adelaide circa 1901.

 

 

In the collection of the Australian War Memorial is the above rare photograph taken in the vicinity of Port Adelaide circa 1901 showing the HMCS Protector, a gunboat in the South Australian navy which had served in China during the Boxer rebellion, flying the Australian flag from the stern during its earliest days after the Federal Flag Design Competition, before the formation of the Royal Australian Navy. At the time its inauguration in 1911 the Argus newspaper, 29 July edition, would notify readers that the RAN “orders that the Australian flag is to be the saluting flag at all reviews and ceremonial parades on shore”, with it also being required that the Union Jack is flown at the saluting point “when representatives of His Majesty the King review the Commonwealth forces.” Naval Order 78/1911 would direct all RAN vessels to fly the flag of the 'Australian Commonwealth' at the jack staff along with the Royal Navy white ensign from the stern to symbolise the authority of the Crown. The Australian flag was also to be flown as an additional flag flown from the bow while in port. There was discontent among members of the Australian Natives Association in 1913 when during a naval review in Fremantle the captain of HMAS Melbourne would fly the Union Jack instead, which led to the federal government taking action to phase in the 1911 naval regulations.

 

 

Extract of The Argus, 29 July 1911 edition.


Starboard view of the gunboat Gayundah with the Royal Navy white ensign flying from the stern and the Australian flag from the bow during world war one.

 

It was not an uncommon practice for captains to fly the Australian flag from the foremast of single masted ships and the mainmast of two masted ships as the battle flag when at action stations instead of the Royal Navy white ensign. The Banjo Patterson poem “We're all Australians now” first published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1915 as an open letter to the fighting men was inspired by the first naval clash of the war between HMAS Sydney and the German cruiser SMS Emden, with the words of three of the verses reading:


“Our six-stared flag that used to fly
Half shyly to the breeze,
Unknown where older nations ply
Their trade on foreign seas.


Flies out to meet the morning blue
With Victory at the prow;
For that's the flag the Sydney flew,
The wide seas know it now!
 

And with Australia's flag shall fly
A spray of wattle bow,
To symbolise our unity,
We're all Australians now.”

 

 

Postcard commemorating the victory of the HMAS Sydney over the SMS Emden at the battle of the Cocos during world war one.
 

 

A photograph showing the two 12 inch guns of the front turret of HMAS Australia and the Australian flag flying, on the Firth of Forth, Scotland, December 1918.

 

The Australian War Memorial also holds the first Australian flag damaged by enemy fire on home soil being the bullet ridden specimen that was flown outside the residence of the Administrator of the Northern Territory during the bombing of Darwin in 1942 by the Japanese. It would be taken south for preservation then reappear for the peace treaty ceremonies in 1946, flanked by the blue ensigns which had flown at Villers-Bretonneux in 1917 and onboard HMAS Sydney during her victory over the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni in 1940.
 

 

A scene showing the HMAS Sydney flying the Australian flag in the Mediterranean during her victory over the Bartolomeo Colleoni in 1940.


In the second world war HMAS Waterhen would be taken to port in tow listing to one side after seeing action in the Mediterranean, later sinking at Tobruk. Waterhen left Alexandria in Egypt laden with troops enroute to Tobruk on 28 June 1941. During the evening of 29 June both Waterhen and her 10th Flotilla companion, HMS Defender, were attacked by German dive bombers. Waterhen was crippled and holed but without the crew sustaining casualties and Defender was able to go alongside and evacuate the ships' company. Despite attempts to save 'the old chook' as she was known, Waterhen rolled over and sank on 30 June becoming the first RAN warship lost due to enemy fire in the conflict.
 


 

Vale Waterhen, Frank Norton, 1942.
 

During the invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, August 1942, HMAS Hobart flew a blue Australian battle flag, which was broken out when the first guns were fired. According to a handwritten eyewitness statement of the rating involved "I was a signalman on "Hobart" at the time we invaded the Solomons and the ship photographer took this snap after I came back down from securing the flag. The guns kept firing while I was still up there, and that mast shook like crazy."



The Australian flag is raised onboard HMAS Hobart during the invasion of Guadalcanal in 1942.
 

One well documented example of the Royal Navy white ensign, which would eventually be replaced in 1967 by a distinctively Australian version, being raised as the battle flag was during the engagement at the Sunda Strait, when HMAS Perth was alongside the USS Houston fighting against superior Japanese forces. Lieutenant Hamlin, USN, a survivor of the Houston described Perth's appearance as follows:
 

“there was Perth, a beautiful white bone in her teeth ... three battle flags streaming ... smoke pouring ... firing all the time ... rapid salvoes ... shells firing all around her ... It was one of the finest sights I have ever seen.”
 

The reverse colours of the Royal Australian Navy are a derivative of the national flag in the form of a white field with the stars rendered in blue. They were raised for the first time in Australia onboard HMS Boonaroo, an auxiliary vessel chartered to ship supplies to the Australian forces engaged in the Vietnam war. The circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Australian white ensign has been recorded by the herein mentioned naval commander, who may be credited with being the vexillographer responsible for devising this design concept, as follows:
 

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 Vietnam War 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:-

  • The RAN should have a distinctive Australian White Ensign.

  • 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 by signal from the Naval Board stating inter alia:
 

“this change has been made on the recommendation of the Naval Board which is confident that the new ensign will be welcomed by the majority of officers and sailors. We are all proud to have served under the White Ensign but it is now appropriate that an unmistakable indication of the RAN's position as an independent service of an independent nation of the British Commonwealth should be displayed in Her Majesty’s Australian ships and establishments.
 

...In deciding on the design of the new ensign the Naval Board was influenced by it’s desire to preserve traditional links with the Royal Navy which helped to found, foster and develop our service...”


The Australian White Ensign was introduced into service on 1st March 1967, was popularly received within the RAN and the Australian community and has been flown proudly since that time.
 

 

The Royal Australian Navy white ensign is raised at HMAS Watson as the British Royal Navy white ensign is retired from service.
 

SOURCES
 

Australian flags, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Awards and Culture Branch. (3rd ed.), 2006.
 

Australian War Memorial <www.awm.gov.au>.
 

Elizabeth Kwan, Flag and Nation, University of New South Wales publishing, 2006.
 

Flag of Australia <www.wikipedia.org>
 

George Odgers, Navy Australia: An Illustrated History, Child and Associates, 1989.
 

Rupert Goodman, Don't change our flag: An exposure of false and misleading arguments, Boolorong Press, 1998.
 

Last updated 5 July 2018