The Ensign of the RFA


Thomas A Adams MBE


The 2017 builder’s trials of our new man-of-war, the aircraft carrier QUEEN ELIZABETH have been undertaken with the ship sailing under a Blue Ensign defaced by a horizontal Yellow Anchor. A flag that will be frequently, but incorrectly, identified by old RFA hands and by eminent naval historians, as the old RFA Ensign.

The first suggestion that public ships which were not men of war should wear some distinctive flag comes from Samuel Pepys in his Sub Notes about Flags and Colours drawn up circa 1687. However, it was 1864 when the colour of Ensigns was settled to those we use today - white, blue and red. The Blue being described as: “A blue flag with union flag in upper canton to be used by ships of the RNR, or by merchantmen commanded by officers of the reserve who have been duly licensed, or by yacht clubs that have been granted special permission.” It also added the flag could be defaced with seal of the public office that they represent. One of these was the plain Yellow Anchor of the Transport Office – placed horizontally. This flag was recorded as the Transport Ensign, later to become known as the Admiralty Blue Ensign and was common to most naval auxiliaries.


New RFA Ensign

The Transport Ensign-cum-Admiralty Blue Ensign 1864 to 1974 when it became the Government Service Ensign. Although worn by RFAs this was never an ‘RFA Ensign’.

A few years later an Addenda to the Regulations specified that: “A Jack was to be of the same design, like the Ensign, the difference being that the Jack is smaller and Square”. At the end of the Victorian era the Royal Navy globally was supported by hundreds of auxiliary vessels and these fitted into two broad categories. First – those owned and crewed by the Crown and second – those owned and crewed by commercial companies and chartered ‘On His Majesty’s Service’. The Ensign they wore would appear to have been a challenge from shipmasters and equally today from researchers who endeavour to recognise and identify ships from photographic images.

Administratively, if a vessel was owned by the Crown and operated on behalf of the Admiralty – she could fly the Admiralty Blue Ensign. If her crew carried RNR officers and a proportion of her crew were RNR, and if duly warranted then she was entitled to wear the basic Blue Ensign*. Under The Merchant Shipping (Colours) Act 1889 all British Registered Ships were expected to wear the Red Ensign. Or were they? Because not all Crown owned ‘non-military ships’ were actually registered under the Merchant Shipping Acts. This was further complicated with some vessels on long term ‘transport charters’ appearing to have worn the ‘Transport Ensign’. Then there was those ‘sharp practice’ Masters who because they were ‘OHMS’ decided to wear the Admiralty Blue Ensign hoping to be except from fees, e.g., pilotage. A practice that the authorities periodically clamped down upon.

So where does the RFA Ensign come in? Well it simply does not until 1969. The term Royal Fleet Auxiliary was introduced in 1905 and while over time this changed the prefix to the ship’s name and the administration and paperwork applied to a ship – it did not change the flag. For example, in 1904 HMHS MAINE and SS PETROLEUM both flew the Admiralty Blue Ensign and in August 1905 RFA MAINE and RFA PETROLEUM continued under the same Ensign. During World War One the flying of Blue Ensigns was restricted and in many cases cancelled. By1918 an Admiralty Fleet Order clarified that Royal Fleet Auxiliaries should wear the Blue Ensign defaced with the Admiralty anchor (the Admiralty Blue Ensign) and Mercantile Fleet Auxiliaries (what today we know as STUFT) the Red Ensign. Because of inconsistent use by the Masters of RFAs, in 1922 the Head of Naval Law issued an order that all Admiralty-owned tankers, including those under commercial management, were to wear the Admiralty Blue Ensign. There was an exemption – “except when on charter to commercial concerns when the Red Ensign should be worn”. In 1939 the warrants for Blue Ensigns were cancelled, however, RFAs continued to wear the Admiralty Blue Ensign.

And here comes a significant difficulty for the photographic interpreter. Researchers and writers observe the Ensign worn and appear to have recorded those vessels with the Admiralty Blue Ensign as ‘RFA’. Consequently many vessels have been credited as RFA that simply were not. To confirm if she is RFA an interpreter really has to investigate elements, such as, the ship registration, management and crewing agreement of the individual ship. Sadly, in Colledge and Lenton’s exceptional work, there is a flaw when they quote “…the blue ensign of the RFA”. There was no such flag. Post-War and during the Cold War the role of the RFA changed significantly and a distinct service culture and identity emerged. Administrative steps were taken to obtain a distinct RFA Ensign.

In 1968 a new Blue Ensign with a plain upright Yellow Anchor was approved by HM The Queen for assignment to the RFA. This was introduced within the Fleet from 16 June 1969. A square version was adopted as the Jack.


Old RFA Ensign

The Ensign of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary introduced in 1969

The Admiralty Blue Ensign continued to be worn by all other Naval Auxiliaries until 1970. Then two yellow wavy

lines were added below the horizontal anchor for vessel of the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service. This ‘new’ service actually took over the handful of tugs and salvage vessels that were RFA.

The original Admiralty Blue Ensign was used by MoD operated vessels that were not were not part of a distinct service, such as the RFA or RMAS.

In 1974 it was renamed as the Government Service Ensign and use specified as “to be worn by vessels owned by the Ministry of Defence for which no other appropriate Ensign is available”. *Admiralty Warrant by the Registrar General of Seamen and Shipping. From 1903 it would transfer with the Master to his new ship provided it was within the same shipping company.

Sources: Order in Council 9 July 1864 New Flags for Ships; Regulations respecting the Blue Ensign (Admiralty/Board of Trade); The Merchant Shipping (Colours) Act 1889; AFO689/69; TNA Kew documents ADM1/8464/183, ADM1/8530/205, ADM1/8612/171; UK Flag Registry (The Flag Institute).

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

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