The once mighty Australian red ensign


Notwithstanding executive branch proclamations in 1903 and 1908 as to the respective roles of the two red, white and blue Australian ensigns and also under Australian Army Military Order 414 which stated that by "Warrant under our hands dated the fourth day of June, 1903, vessels registered in the Commonwealth of Australia were authorized to fly the Red Ensign", there is certainly evidence of the civilian and military use of this merchant shipping flag that is also part and parcel of the Anzac tradition, being simply a variant of the Australian national flag set on a blood red ground, that most commanding colour of them all.

From 1901 to 1924 the Australian red ensign was used as the national flag by state and local governments. In the decades following federation the red ensign was also the preeminent flag in use by private citizens on land. This was largely due to the Commonwealth government and flag suppliers restricting sales of the blue ensign to the general public. By traditional British understanding, the blue ensign was reserved for Commonwealth government use although the red ensign was nevertheless still being employed by the Australian Army until after the 1953 legislation, meaning that the 1st and 2nd Australian Imperial Forces served under both the blue and red versions. State and local governments, private organisations and individuals were expected to use the red ensign. In the 1920s there was debate over whether the blue ensign was reserved for Commonwealth buildings only, culminating in a 1924 agreement that the Union Jack should take precedence as the national flag and that state and local governments were henceforth able to use the blue ensign. In 1940 the Victorian government passed legislation allowing schools to purchase blue ensigns. The following year prime minister Robert Menzies issued a media release recommending that the blue ensign be flown at schools, government buildings and by private citizens and continued use of the red ensign by merchant ships, providing it was done so respectfully. Prime Minister Ben Chifley issued a similar statement in 1947.



This fundraising badge produced to commemorate Gallipoli Day features the red ensign and Union Jack and was sold in trams, buses, railways stations and rallies to raise money for the stated cause.

Department of Munitions recruitment poster dating from around 1942 during the second world war.


There remained confusion among the general public until the Flags Act 1953 (Cth) declared the blue ensign to be the Australian national flag and the Australian red ensign to be the flag of the mercantile marine. It has been claimed that this choice was made on the basis that the predominately red version carried too many communist overtones for the government of the day to legislated for as the chief national symbol although no cabinet documents yet released to the public including the more detailed minutes have ever been adduced in support of this theory. One of the most recent instances where the old popular favourite was officially used as the national flag on land was when it was flown in honour of Australia’s international racecar sensation Sir Jack Brabham during his final world championship year of 1966.


During his high flying career Sir Jack Brabham would start in 126 grand prix races winning 14 and the seasons 1959, 1960 and 1966. The latter triumph would see this legend of motor sport become the only man to achieve the feat of winning the Formula One title competing in one of his own racecars demonstrating to the world true Australian ingenuity and his all around champion qualities.

It has always baffled this author as to exactly why the early popularity of the red ensign outside of maritime circles in the first half of Australia's history as a federated nation, which is only for keen students of history and vexillology, is said to somehow affect the continuity of the blue Australian national flag and hence its present standing within the Anzac tradition. Especially when looking at black and white photographs and film evidence of the red ensign being used on land in many cases it is impossible for even the trained eye to discern any different between the two, sharing as they do a common construction sheet and hence being identical in their essential symbolism. Since the position of the two red, white and blue Australian ensigns was reaffirmed upon passage of the Flags Act, which over time has had the effect of confining each to the usages for which they were both originally devised, there is almost a complete lack of awareness among present day Australians not of a nautical bent that the once mighty red ensign even exists. However the reasons why it makes good sense to fly red ensigns at sea against the backdrop of the ocean and sky which are naturally blue still hold true and it should be retained for use afloat for this reason as much as for its rich history in war and peace. Indeed an attempt in the early 1980’s the phase out the ‘red duster’ as it is affectionately known met with sufficient opposition from merchant mariners that the proposed amendment to the Flags Act never eventuated, with one gentleman wearing an eye patch dying suddenly whilst giving an impassioned speech in favour of its ongoing use at a demonstration.


This poster dating from the second world war reminds the British public of the risks taken by merchant mariners on unarmed vessels in war zones to sustain the war effort.

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Newton MBE was the guest of honour at the official centenary of federation event in Canberra for Australian National Flag Day in 2001, which according to former long serving awards and national symbols officer of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Kerry Morcombe, was the first formal flag raising ceremony to be held on the grounds of Government House at Yarralumla. As a member of the 2nd AIF he served with the legendary 2/17th Battalion whose honours include the siege of Tobruk and the battle of El Alamein. Their motto was "What we have, we hold!" When this author had the great experience of meeting Lieutenant Colonel Newton at this time five years before his death at the age of 91, he was still a most reliable witness, who had already helped to compile a history of his unit as their researcher attached to the Australian War Memorial, being acknowledged by the editors "for his detailed, painstaking work in extracting the material from the official records in Canberra." After qualifying as a Rat of Tobruk he also served in Syria and Borneo. Lieutenant Colonel Newton also attested that he attended the funeral of Sir John Monash, where he would have seen the Great War hero's coffin draped in the Union Jack. When asked about the wartime use of the Australian flags, he could recall the days of interchangeable use of either ensign according to preference, replying with his own enquiry "It [the Australian flag] was red years ago wasn't it?"

The tradition of the red ensign being used in Anzac Day marches alongside other flags that the Australian military has used still continues. During the second world war seventy-six ships were attacked in Australian waters. Australia’s four marked hospital ships were all manned by merchant mariners and AHS Manunda would be seriously damaged on 19 February 1942 with 12 lives lost, while AHS Centaur was sunk on 14 May 1943 with the loss of 268 lives. Since 2008, 3 September has been officially commemorated as both Australian National Flag/Merchant Navy Day which allows the red ensign to be flown on land for the occasion as a matter of protocol. Such displays have occurred over the Sydney Harbour Bridge as well as at the long running Flag Day event in Martin Place.



Seen here are the British and Australian red ensigns during the annual Anzac Day parade in Brisbane.


The Australian national flag and red ensign fly over Sydney Harbour Bridge for Australian National Flag/Merchant Navy Day, 3 September.

The Australian national flag and red ensign are both flown at Martin Place in Sydney to mark Australian National Flag/Merchant Navy Day, 3 September.

There is a photograph of a flag covering the grave of Breaker Morant in Pretoria, South Africa during the Boer War in 1901 that is believed to have been the predominately red ensign. There was an Australian red ensign found at the Tenterfield garbage tip in a hessian bag that yielded other Breaker Morant memorabilia. It is now held by the Tenterfield School of Arts and is also candidate for the oldest Australian style flag still under preservation.



Major James Francis Thomas standing behind the grave of Breaker Morant in Pretoria's Church Street cemetery.


According to Imperial reservist Corporal Edward Dawson Watson, the first Australian flag to fly in France during the first world war was a red ensign. Being a British army veteran living in Australia, he was recalled to serve with his former East Lancashire regiment upon the declaration of war in 1914. The red ensign was handed over to Watson as a gift to his departing formation by wartime prime minister W.M. Hughes.

This relic of the Great War was present at the Battle of Mons, where stories of mysterious other worldly sightings of three shining figures in the sky were being told. Although the Australian War Memorial has concluded that “nothing remotely approaching proof has been offered,” their report complied in 1951 states “that still a number of people living firmly believe that divine intervention saved the British Army from being destroyed when they were fighting the desperate rearguard action against enormous masses of invaders”. The apparitions were said to have miraculously appeared in the sky before the advancing Germans, who as it happened for one reason or another “abruptly checked their advance and recoiled in some disorder toward the right flank,” allowing the British retreat to continue. According to German sources, reports had reached Berlin that “horses [had] turned sharply around and fled like the wind and nothing could stop them”. It continued to serve with Watson, who was wounded during the German offensive in March 1918, before being brought back to Australia. The flag was loaned to the war memorial in 1925 on the condition that it be returned to Watson each Anzac Day until he died in 1934.


This flag was given to Corporal Edward Watson as a parting gift by prime minister Billy Hughes and is believed to be the first Australian flag to be flown on the western front during the great war.

Another notable red ensign is the Kitchener flag which began as an initiative of a Melbourne businessman, Pearson William Tewksbury, as a vehicle for raising funds to benefit wounded Australian soldiers. It was raffled after being signed by various dignitaries and famous men. The flag was sent on a journey around the world to obtain the autographs with 20,000 pounds eventually being raised. The flag was won by a retired seaman who then sold it to Edward 'Teddy' Solomon. This philanthropist and collector from Melbourne had already purchased other such autographed flags as part of similar fund raising efforts during world war one. Solomon would later donate his entire autographed flag collection to the Australian War Memorial. During the second world war, Tewkesbury was still an active fundraiser for wounded soldiers, this time raffling another autographed specimen known as the 'Churchill Flag', which eventually raised 28,000 pounds.


The world famous Kitchener red ensign was signed by many dignitaries to raise money for wounded soldiers including US president Woodrow Wilson.

There was a red ensign on display at the now closed Adamstown RSL that is believed to have been taken by a local solider to Gallipoli where he was mortally wounded, whereupon Private Gordon MacDonald also from Adamstown who acted as the company flag bearer took possession. After signing the still soiled specimen in ink he would entrust it to a Scottish girl for safe keeping while on leave and subsequently never returned for it before being shipped to the western front where he was killed in action. The lady known as Margaret would eventually emigrate to Australia after the war. In 1993 she donated this historic red ensign to the Adamstown RSL club <>.



Doug Wallace displays an red ensign that was carried at Gallipoli by a solider from Adamstown.


There is a small printed cotton red ensign in the Australian War Memorial collection that was taken to Gallipoli by Sergeant Percy Earnest Virgoe who served in the 4th Light Horse regiment. The specimen is bordered in white ink and contains the words written in ink "This flag was carried by me from Australia to / Egypt, Gallipoli, Lemnos, Embros thence to Malta, / England, South Africa & back to Australia. It was flown on the front line trenches at Courtney's Post, / Lone Pine, Holly's Ridge & many other Trenches at Anzac."



This red ensign would be taken to Gallipoli by Sergeant Percy Virgoe.


In the collection of the the Bega Pioneers Museum are two red ensigns that were at Gallipoli and the siege of Tobruk. The latter has been signed by over 200 personnel and it is thought that these ceremonies took place aboard a troop ship <>.


The Bega Pioneers Museum Tobruk garrison flag.


One of the most chronicled Changi POW flags is said to be the specimen that has been on display at the national headquarters of the Returned and Services League in Canberra which contains signatures including one left by Countess Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Earl Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander in South East Asia. The glass case has an inscription saying:


"This important artifact was concealed by Captain Strawbridge MBE, from 1942-1945. It was raised over the gates of the prison, the day the of formal liberation in September 1945."

It was reported in 1989 that the president of the Victorian branch of the RSL, Bruce Ruxton, had authorised his agent to purchase this red ensign, which went for $25,000 when auctioned by Sotherby's in London. The value of the specimen had previously been estimated at between $1700 - $2100.

However according to the Australian War Memorial, there is little empirical evidence to support the assertion that the history of the flag as indicated in the news report and the accompanying plaque. The information in Romen Bose's The End of the War: Singapore's Liberation and the Aftermath of the Second World War appears to have originated from these sources. The condition of the flag and their own research conducted at the time it was auctioned, indicates that the flag was, in all probability, a post-captivity flag brought to Changi around the time of Lady Mountbatten's visit.


The Ruxton red ensign may or may not have been used as a POW flag at Changi prison during the second world war.


During World War II, Sergeant Thomas Derrick participated in an Iwo Jima like moment in Australian military history, where on 25 November 1943 using Japanese signal wire he hoisted a red ensign on a shell shattered tree on mount Sattelberg in New Guinea, after an incredible action where he launched a grenade attack against a strongly held Japanese position, scaling a cliff whilst heavily engaged before silencing seven machine gun posts, then as platoon leader ordering a charge that resulted in the destruction of another three. In the process Derrick earned the highest citation for valour the Victoria Cross. As another Rat of Tobruk, he had already seen service in the middle east with the 2/48th battalion, where he was recommended for the Military Medal and raised to corporal. At the battle of El Alamein he won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for being involved in capturing one hundred prisoners after destroying two armoured units and taking out three German machine gun posts. Upon returning to Australia he was posted to an officer training unit being commissioned as a lieutenant in November 1945. On 1 May that year he participated in the landing at Tarakan, Borneo. After leading his platoon against some heights occupied by the Japanese in an action where they succeeded in capturing all but one objective, there followed an enemy machine gun attack that night, where upon being roused to investigate, Derrick was hit five times, with one of Australia's most celebrated combat veterans eventually succumbing to his mortal wounds on 24 May 1945.


The hero of the battle of Sattelberg Tom Derrick VC had the honour of hoisting the red ensign over the mount in 1943.



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

Australian Red Ensign <>.

Australian War Memorial <>.

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

Last updated 8 July 2018