The International Signal Code flag designs did not spring suddenly from the head of some super-mariner, but were the result of developments over some several hundred years. Curiously enough, the designs finally adopted, and at present in use, are not the simplest that could be devised. In the construction of a code, or series of signal flags, certain factors have to be considered. The shapes of the flags are restricted by experience and custom to three main types, and both the designs on the flags and the colors used are restricted to those easily distinguishable. Accepting these restrictions as natural and necessary, it is still, at first, surprising to find that the designs in use arc not the simplest for the purpose. This is due to various factors that have influenced the development of code flags.
One would naturally assume that the earliest signal flags would be rectangular flags of plain colors, but this is not the case. It doubtless would have been the case if the signal codes had been designed on land, but the early signal codes were more or less emergency measures, hurriedly devised at sea where it was necessary to utilize what was readily at hand. At first the national flags of the ships were used, and later the flags of foreign countries, for both merchant vessels and war vessels have for centuries carried the flags of foreign countries, for use in emergencies, as a means of deception; sometimes for their own protection and sometimes for less creditable ends. This use of foreign flags, particularly in emergency codes adopted at sea, persisted long after official code flags had been adopted by the British Navy, and was in vogue both in the British Navy and in the American Navy during the American Revolution.
As naval maneuvers became more extensive and complex, signals and information began to be transmitted by means of flags. At first, the “codes” were very simple indeed, and contained only a few easily remembered signals.
The Black Book of the Admiralty, dating from about 1338, lists two English naval signals: a “banner of council” high in the middle of the mast, as the signal for a council, and a banner aloft as a warning that the enemy has been sighted. The “banner of council” was probably the royal standard, for its use in this signal persisted for centuries in English naval usage. In 1369 a special “gonfanon of council” was made, but it carried the royal arms as its central device, and might on that account be considered a variant or amplification of the royal standard, and in 1423 the banner of council contained the royal arms and the cross of St. George. As time went on, a differentiation was made between the inner council or council of war and the general council of captains. The royal standard was reserved for the council of war as early as 1596, at which time the flag of St. George (red cross on a white field) was used for the general council. The royal standard was used in these signals until about 1790, and is the earliest English naval signal flag. For a short time it was replaced as “the flag of council” by the “British” (or Union) flag in 1628. The design of the banner of warning, mentioned in the Black Book of 1338, unfortunately is not given.
Sir Walter Raleigh’s orders of 1617 contain these same two historic signals: the ensign in the maintop, if you discover many great ships, that is, a possible enemy, and a flag in the main shrouds, if a council is to be held. The former signal is one of the earliest recorded instances of the use of the ensign as a signal flag, and in the latter signal the design of the flag is not given. W. G. Perrin, Esq., the authority on the history of the British flag, suggests that any flag may have been used in this signal, but from the fact that the royal standard was generally thus employed its use in this case might follow naturally as naval tradition. It will be noted that in both cases the position of display was part of the signal, and for almost two centuries the position of display, as well as the design of the flag, continued to be an essential part of a signal. Nowadays the signal flags carry the entire message, and are displayed at the point of greatest visibility, although the importance of the position of display is still retained in regard to certain one-flag hoists. Throughout the greater part of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, guns and sails were used in connection with many of the flag signals.
In the gradual development of England’s naval signals, we find the white pennant used as a signal flag as early as 1596. It was, however, part of the English naval vessel’s equipment at this time, and was usually hung from the mizzen yards. Lord Wimbledon’s orders of 1625 contained three signal flags: the ensign in the maintop, with the same significance as in Raleigh’s orders; the arms of England (i.e., the royal standard), in the mizzen shrouds, as the signal for a council of war, and the St. George (i.e., St. George’s flag) in the mizzen shrouds, as the signal for a general council.
Lord Wimbledon’s orders divide the fleet into three squadrons, each to be distinguished by: red flags and red pennants at the main topmast-head of the admiral’s squadron; blue flags and blue pennants at the fore topmast-head of the vice-admiral’s squadron, and white flags and white pennants at the mizzen topmast head of the rear admiral’s squadron.
Sir Julian Corbett, the authority on naval fighting instructions, states that this is the first known occasion of red, white, and blue flags being used to distinguish squadrons, although the idea was apparently suggested in Elizabeth’s time.
The red flag, having been introduced as a designating flag, became a part of the ship’s equipment, so that it is not surprising to find it used as a signal flag in the Commonwealth instructions issued about 1650. A pennant was also used in signaling at this time. The “pennant” in use at this period was the so-called “Broad Pennant,” a swallow-tailed flag or burgee, considerably larger than the present day burgee of the International code.
Mr. Perrin calls attention to the fact that the red flag, as a signal for battle, was not of English origin, but was one of the unwritten customs of the sea, and that its use for this purpose probably was derived from the "scarlet cloak” signal, which the Greeks are said to have borrowed from the Phoenicians.
In the revised instructions of 1653, the weft makes its appearance in English signaling, one of the signals being “striking the general’s ensign and making a weft.” A weft or wheft is any flag or ensign stopped together at the head and middle position, slightly rolled up lengthwise. The weft of the jack or ensign signified “distress.” This signal, “the weft of the ensign on the ensign staff,” continued in subsequent codes as the distress signal, and is so given by Greenwood, and was so used until 1783. Jonathan Greenwood’s illustrated signal book was printed about 1714, and the signals shown therein were in use as late as 1783. If the few signals in use at this time cannot really be called a code, they at least constitute an embryo code that had started in its slow development years earlier.
Several new signals appear in the 1653 code: the pennant on the mizzen yard arm or ensign staff for an injury to the ship, as a leak, a signal that was changed in subsequent codes, and the red flag at the spritsail, topmast shrouds, forestay, or maintopmast, signifying to gain the wind of the enemy, which in the revision of 1654 was to be flown at the foretopmast stay and so appears in Greenwood with the same meaning.
The blue flag and the white flag both make their appearance in the signals of 1653, and in 1654 the jack appears as a signal flag. Corbett tells us that the earliest mention of the jack, in fact, the first known use of the word jack, signifying a flag, was in 1633 in an order of Sir John Pennington, in which he refers to the “jack at your boultsprit [bowsprit] end,” and to the pennant; as if the jack and the pennant were the then recognized insignia of naval vessels. As Boteler, writing about 1625 in regard to flags, makes no mention of the jack, it seems likely that the term may have originated between 1625 and 1633. "Jack” probably was used in its common diminutive sense, and “jack-flag” probably meant merely a small flag, such as is flown .at the bow. Some claim its derivation from King James I, who signed his name “Jacques,” and who was the first to use the union flag. McCandless states that the St. George flag was carried as a jack during the attack on the Spanish armada.
Perrin calls attention to the fact that the white flag was adopted at sea as a flag of truce about the end of the fifteenth century, and that it is said that the Spanish flag of battle in the West Indies was blue.
The union flag at the for-topmast-head for the van of the fleet to tack, and the red and white striped flag at the foretopmast- head for the admiral of the white to chase, continued in use for many years.
Apparently the flag striped red and white is the first flag to be designed and used as a signal flag by the English, as all the flags previously used as signals were actually part of the ship’s equipment, and already in use as distinguishing or national flags.
The instructions of 1673 specify the "red ensign” as a signal flag, doubtless merely a codification of previous usage, and add the blue ensign, the Dutch ensign (red, white and blue horizontal stripes), and a flag striped diagonally red and yellow, which certainly marks a new departure in the designs of signal flags. Some editions of these instructions, perhaps additional instructions dating from between 1673 and 1689, mention: a flag striped horizontally red and white, a flag striped diagonally red and white, a white flag with a diagonal red cross (white flag with red saltire), and a flag striped diagonally yellow and white, which is the “fireship” flag, being used primarily in signals relating to fireships.
The extensive code of 1691, known as Admiral Russell’s code, but possibly devised by Lord Torrington, was based on the instructions of 1673, and utilized the following additional flags as signals: the yellow flag, the red pennant (burgee), the white pennant (burgee), the blue pennant (burgee), the flag striped horizontally yellow and white, the Genoese ensign (the old St. George’s flag), and the weft in jack or ensign.
For convenience we are using the term "flag” in this list as equivalent to a rectangular flag. The word pennant is used in its contemporary sense, though it was really two-tailed, and would today be called a burgee, though longer than those of the international code. The flag striped red and white is later shown in Greenwood with a variation of from five to eleven stripes. The flag striped red, white and blue is shown in Greenwood with six stripes, and may well have been the Dutch flag known as the “Double Prince.” The Genoese flag is white with a red cross, similar to, if not identical with, the St. George flag of England of earlier days.
Russell’s code was modified and enlarged by Sir George Rooke in 1703 in the so- called "Permanent Instructions,” which continued in use for over ninety years. These fighting instructions of 1703, which have been reprinted in Volume XXIX of the Navy Record Society’s Publications, together with the sailing instructions of 1703, which have not been reprinted, serve as the basis for Greenwood’s book.
Sir George Rooke’s additional instructions of 1703 include a red and white flag, not striped, but divided horizontally, the upper half red.
About forty-five of the Russell-Rooke signals arc reproduced in Greenwood, but in addition a number of new signals appear. The new signal flags are: the blue and white flag (divided horizontally), the white cross on red flag, and the red cross on blue flag.
It will be remembered that the royal standard had been used as a signal in earlier codes, and it appears in Greenwood with similar significance.
The yellow and white flag with diagonal stripes varies in the illustrations from six to twelve yellow stripes and from seven to thirteen white stripes, sometimes with the yellow and sometimes with the white predominating, and occasionally with an equal number of stripes. All of these variations arc doubtless merely the personal error in reproducing the flags. There was probably only one diagonally striped yellow and white flag and only one red and white striped flag, hut for the present the number of stripes on the actual flags must remain a mystery. Flags differing merely in the number of stripes would be so difficult to identify at a distance that they would have been impractical for signaling.
The signals illustrated by Greenwood continued in use until 1783, but occasional additions were made to the flags used as signals. In the Louisburg expedition of 1745 Commodore Warren used a Dutch ensign as a signal flag, and in 1746 Admiral Lestock’s code for communicating with the American colonial naval vessels consisted in the use of three flags; the Union jack, the Dutch jack and the Spanish jack.
A signal book of about 1756 adds five new flags: the checkered blue and yellow flag, a new development in signal designs; the checkered red and white flag; the white and blue striped flag of five horizontal stripes; the blue flag with six white balls, and a blue and white checkered pennant. This marks the introduction of the checker pattern and the ball as designs on signal flags. The ball had previously appeared on the distinguishing flags of 1746.
Perrin notes that shortly after 1756 the white balls of the blue flag disappear, and a white square takes their place. The flag thus becomes the “Blue Peter’’ or "P” of the International code. The first four of these flags were used by Admiral Boscawen in 1759, but the blue flag is described as "pierced with white.” A flag is said to be "pierced” when it has a small square of another color in the center, a design which has been quite popular for signal flags.
It is interesting to note that in the Canadian expedition of 1746, the transports and guard sloops flew flags called "vanes” of special design showing from what districts they hailed. Of course, these flags were designating rather than signal flags. The English transports carried a red vane, the Massachusetts vessels a white vane with a blue ball, and those from Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire a blue vane with a white ball. The meaning of the word "vane,” as applied to flags, varies from time to time. In early nautical works, a vane is described as a piece of bunting extended on a wooden frame, which turns upon a spindle at the masthead, but at this time, 1746, it seems probable that it signified a rectangular flag, for it is so used in a signal book of 1801. In more modern times, the word vane is used as equivalent to fly, as we have already stated. The “vanes” of 1801 were designating flags, as were those of 1746, and are shown as rectangular flags with wavy edges, indicative of the effect of the wind, and hence certainly not mounted on wooden frames.
A manuscript signal book of 1762, which records the additional signals of Admiral Hawke, contains no new designs in signal flags, except in the arrangement of the colors. A red and blue checkered flag, a red flag with a blue cross, a white flag with a blue cross, and a red and white striped pennant appear as new color variations of designs already in use.
The customs, usages, and traditions of the United States Navy go back in reality, though perhaps unconsciously, to colonial days, to colonial privateers, coast-guard vessels and merchantmen. The early maritime development of England is the common heritage of both nations. We have traced the gradual development of the British naval signals down to the outbreak of the War of the American Revolution, when it became necessary for the commanders of the new American Navy to devise new signals for their own use.
The signal code adopted by the United States Navy in the early days of the Revolution is clearly based on the contemporary English naval code, with, of course, necessary variations. For instance, a white flag at the fore topmast-head in the English code signified to leave or give over the chase, while a white pennant at the fore topmast- head was the American signal. In 1776 Hopkins’ code utilized the following flags; the red pennant, the white pennant, the white flag, the Dutch flag, the standard, a weft (in ensign, jack and white flag), the broad pennant, the St. George ensign with stripes, and the striped jack. It will be observed that the first six signal flags were in use in the British Navy at this time, and that the three new signal flags were flags evidently carried by the American naval vessels in those days. The French jack and the Continental jack, the latter perhaps identical with the striped jack of 1776, are mentioned as signal flags in 1778.
Commodore Whipple’s signal flags of 1779 included: the continental ensign, the red ensign, the white ensign, the Dutch ensign, the continental jack, the Dutch jack, the white jack, and the striped flag. No new flags were incorporated into this code, which is scarcely more than a variant of the earlier American codes, as far as flags are concerned, and all of these American codes are clearly based on the English codes with which the American seamen were already acquainted.
Sometime in the latter part of the eighteenth century the old swallow-tailed burgee- type of pennant of the older signal codes became transformed into the long triangular pennant of modern times. This change may have been due to French influence, but in any case its beginnings can be seen in the early days of the Revolution, for the portrait of Hopkins, which was engraved and published in 1776, shows in the background a ship flying a long triangular red pennant.
In February, 1799, the signal flags in use on the U.S.S. George Washington were the Dutch ensign, the Portuguese ensign, the French ensign, the English ensign, the Spanish ensign, the American jack, the American ensign, a white flag and a red and white flag. The latter was probably divided horizontally and had been adopted from the British code. Later in the same year, April, 1799, we find that a more highly developed two-flag code had been prepared for the U.S.S. Baltimore. This code, which is reproduced in the September, 1912, issue of the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, utilizes: a red flag, a blue flag, a red and white flag divided horizontally, a blue and white flag divided horizontally, a red pennant, a white pennant, a blue and white pennant, a white and red pennant, a red and white pennant, (each divided vertically), the English jack, and the Dutch jack.
The red and white flag was used inverted in some signals. The pennants are drawn as “long pennants,” triangular flags twice as long as the rectangular flags, and the color at the staff end of the pennant extends only about a quarter of the pennant’s length, the color division being vertical.
Commodore Morris, when in command of the United States Mediterranean fleet, about 1803, adopted a numerical signal code of eighteen flags, which has served as the basis for the subsequent American codes, the flags of which are illustrated in G. H. Preble’s The flag of the United States.
This code, and most of the signal flags, are based in a general way upon the English code of those days, for the English had at that time recently developed and perfected the numerical signal code, which in both of its forms was apparently invented by the French.