Even in these days of satellite communications, the RCN still uses (but to a limited degree) the international alphabet flags, numeral pennants, numeral flags, and special flags and pennants for visual signaling. These signal flags are used to communicate with other ships while maintaining radio silence. NAVCOM signalmen transmit messages by hoisting a flag or a series of flags on a halyard. Each side of the ship has halyards and a storage compartment containing a full set of signal flags. Signals unique to the Navy are used when communicating with other navy ships. When communicating with all other vessels, the International Code of Signals is used. Flag signals, physically hoisted on the Signal or Flag Deck were controlled by the Chief Signalman or Yeoman of Signals from the bridge. Today, these terms are extinct..


It would have been so easy had there only been one flag system used by both naval ships and merchantmen. But that was not to be the case. Naval flag systems varied slightly from navy to navy and changed a bit over time. International signals used by merchantmen shared the alphabet flags but used numerical pennants instead of square numeral flags.

In the interest of brevity, only the alphabetic and numeral flags are posted below since there were a number of other flags in each of the systems which had special meanings. Listed is the RCN flag system circa 1937, the Royal Navy system used by the RCN in WWII  and the current system.

Names of the flag shapes. (Graphic courtesy RCN)


Alphabetical and Numeral Flags Used in Naval Signalling from the Manual of Seamanship, 1937. Government of Canada, Ottawa. This chart cannot be used to accurately decode pendants of RCN ships during WWII. See the RN flag system below.  (Image courtesy A&C Society web page)

In photos of RCN ships taken during WWII any flag hoist showing the ship's pendant can be decoded using the flag chart depicted directly below. This was the Royal Navy system which dates back to 1913. Duncan Mathieson indicates that  "we started with the RN system which developed into the Allied Naval Signal Book (ANSB).  When NATO was organized in 1949 the ANSB morphed into ATP1 Vol II which I was involved with amending about 1970. Much to everyone's surprise the USN wished to retain the signal for "Air Bedding" as they still used it!"

Jim McAlister comments. "Quite frankly, flag hoists were just something that was on the syllabus at the St.Hyacinthe Communications School.. With the exception of the one use of semaphore flags with the Yanks in New York City Harbour, I would say that the majority of my experience was with light signalling except when tied up at the jetty. Then the telephone was used. Coming into Halifax, the WRENS at the tower gave berthing instructions by light. In wartime, radio silence was always maintained except in cases of extreme emergency."

1939-1945 (possibly to 1949)
Above and bellow: This was the flag system used by the RCN during WWII and is the same as that of the Royal Navy. There were additional flags used for signalling which are not shown here in the interest of brevity. (Images courtesy WWI Document Archive page) 


This is the current system of alphabet and numeral signal flags . The square numeral flags are used by naval ships while the numeral pennants are used by merchantmen.  (Graphic courtesy Computer Science Now web page)

Don Wagner, provides this explanation for the use of square numeric flags versus numerical pennants. "International merchant vessels communicate with each other visually using a universal code book that all member countries print in their respective languages. Both the alphabet flags (A through Z) and numeral pennants (0-9) are universal in design.

Now, supposing the USS Neversail is sailing across the Atlantic and comes across a merchantman dead in the water with the flag signal AB1 flying from the merchantman's yardarm. The signalman on the Neversail breaks out the "International Code of Signals" (publication HO-87 for the US). Looking it up, the signalman finds that AB1 might mean "I am broken down and in need of pumping equipment". The Officer of the Deck on USS Neversail must reply using HO-87 International Code of Signals that the merchant vessel can understand, so he orders his signalman to hoist LC36 which could mean something like "Will send damage control party with pumps in small craft. Prepare to receive boat on your starboard side". In this case, numeral pennants must be used because the merchantman does not know the meaning of the Allied Naval Numeral Flags.

When Allied warships are communicating with each other and there are NO merchantmen from any nation involved, they use flaghoist signals contained in Allied Communications Publications (ACPs). Square, naval Numeral Flags are used instead of Numeral Pennants when signaling using ACPs.

When there were a mix of Allied merchantmen and Allied naval ships involved such as WWII convoys, visual communications codes were contained in the Convoy Operations Orders and distributed to each vessel involved both Naval and Merchant. These orders were usually at least up to level  "Confidential" and were routinely changed."

Keith Kennedy adds. "A ship's radio call sign was also displayed by flag hoist when entering or leaving harbour. Often this combination of flags was painted on the end of the signal flag pigeon hole box". 

In the case of HAIDA, the flags are painted on the cable trough cover attached to the port side of the lattice mast. It is not known if this was the original place or whether they were added there when the ship was repainted in 1982.  (Photo by Jerry Proc)

Dennis Stapleton, a radio operator from the 1950's era, describes some flag procedures from his time.  "When I was Sparker aboard HMCS Quinte, it was a Single Op vessel, meaning only one Sparker was assigned. There were different broadcast schedules for these ships  - meaning not as often.  Because Quinte was a training ship during my service aboard, a visual signalman was not assigned.  However, this was not the norm.

When Quinte was sweeping in a squadron (usually 4 or 5 sweepers), commands from the senior ship were to be given by flags raised and lowered by halyard  in order to observe radio silence. In the absence of a signals  rate I was always called to man the the flag locker to raise and lower
flags as instructed by the bridge.  Fortunately the Captain  (Lt. Cdr. Brownlow) was an ex sigs officer and he guided me when necessary.

The procedure was this. The lead ship would run up flags for executing a maneuver.  When the other ships in the squadron saw this, they ran up the same flags to acknowledge the command.  When the lead ship deemed it time to execute, he would sharply bring his flags down, the rest would
then bring their flags down and execute the order in unison Typically, this would have been a turn or adjustment  of speed. The procedure was much the same as it was in Nelson’s time. This was all a pain for me, as I could be getting some action in the radio room".

visual_cpf_ callsign_flags.jpg
On Halifax Class frigates, the call sign signal flags are painted near the vicinity of the chaff rocket launchers.  (Photo courtesy Mac's Naval Photography)

The flag locker is the location where the signal flags are stored. The following arrangement is documented in Signalman Trade Group 1 Manual (1963).

Useage of the flags is explained below.  (Image courtesy RCN) 

1st Row                         -  P1 through P0 are "International Code of Signals" numeral pennants.
                                         (Self explanatory)
2nd to part of 4th Row   - "International Code of Signals" alphabet flags. (Self explanatory)
Remainder of Row 4      -  Substitute flags.
Row 5 and 7                  -  Special Naval Flags and Pennants.
Row 6                            - Naval Numerical Flags, 1 through 0. ( Self explanatory)
Row 8                            - Special Distinguishing flags.

SUBSTITUTE FLAGS (labelled 1st, 2nd, 3rd , 4th)

The Substitute Flags in row 4 are used when a flag has to be repeated in a hoist. This makes it possible to have several hoists flying or ready to hoist at the same time without exhausting the available flags. In the 1960's, flag lockers only carried quantity four of each signal flag.

Substitute flags are known as the 1st , 2nd, 3rd and 4th substitutes because they repeat the first, second, third or fourth flags (or pennants) in any given hoist. This count is started from the top of a halyard with tacklines being disregarded.

visual_substit1.jpg visual_substit2.jpg visual_substit3.jpg visual_substit4.jpg
1st Sub 2nd Sub  3rd Sub 4th Sub
Substitute flags.  (Images courtesy RCN) 


The Special Naval Flags and Pennants in rows 5 and 7 have the following meanings:

CORPEN (COuRse PENnant) - is defined as a Course Command pennant and is used in connection with altering the course of a single ship or a formation of ships. (Requires additional flags to indicate course)
TURN - Used to signal a turn of a unit or vessel. It requires the use of numeral flags to indicate how many degrees to turn.
FORM (FORMation) - Used to signal which formation unit of ships are to assume line, abreast or column,  (Requires modifying flags).
STATION - Used to signal which station vessels addressed are to assume (requires modifying flags)
SPEED - Used to signal the speed increase or decrease vessels are to come to upon execution of hoist. (Requires modifying flags)
DESIG  (DESIGnation) - used to designate a person, place or object (Requires modifying flags)
SQUAD (SQUADron) - Used to address "this squadron" of naval ships or a specific squadron (Requires modifying flags)
FLOT (FLOTilla) -Used to address "this flotilla" of naval ships or a specific flotilla (Requires modifying flags)
DIV (DIVision) - Used to address "this division" of naval ships or a specific division (Requires modifying flags)
SUBDIV (SUB-DIVision) Used to address a specified sub-division of a formation (Requires modifying flags).

ANS - (ANSwer) This one has multiple meanings. It deals with answering, reports, semaphore messages, defining decimal points and signal modification.
INT - ( INTerrogative)  - Flag signals which cannot be read or understood or have errors may be responded to by using the INTerrogative pennant.
PREP - This  flag can have several meanings and is associated with replenishing, minelaying, evening colours ceremony depending on modifications.
NEGAT - ( NEGATive)   As a separate hoist, it  cancels all other signals that were hoisted on that yardarm.
PORT - When flown singly, turn to port by an unspecified amount.
STBD - When flown singly, turn to starboard by an unspecified amount.
CHURCH - A quote from "Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Navy" by Graeme Arbuckle indicates  the Church Pennant is hoisted in harbour at the peak if fitted and not occupied, or at the yardarm when ship's companies are holding divine services or at prayer". This pennant is treated with respect and moved with a slow steady motion.
EMERG - ( EMERGency) Has five variations. Signals preceded by the Emergency flag are to be acted upon as soon as understood. The originator of the message sounded six short blasts on the whistle to call  attention to the signal. When the emergency flag was used with several groups, it was separated by tackline  or hoisted on an adjacent superior halyard. Emergency signals made with flags are to be repeated by all ships with the call sign of the originator if other than the OTC (Officer in Tactical Command), the First Substitute. Substitute flags are defined further in the text.


The Special Distinguishing Flags in row  8 were used during exercises.

a) Large Black Flag to be hoisted:

* By all ships in convoy
* By all independently routed merchant ships which are taking part in an exercise.
b) Large Red Flag  to be flown by all Orange Forces which were the ships acting as the enemy.

c) Large Yellow Flag to he hoisted:

* By any ship which is temporarily in an out-of-action state.
* By warships not taking part but passing through the exercise area. Submarines were
   to flash the letters OA to opposing forces.
Black PT (Pennant).  Used singly and at the dip:  I am investigating a sonar contact. Close up (all the way up to the yard arm) : “Contact established, am attacking”. Hauled down: have lost sonar contact . The "Dip” means the flag or pennant is only half way up to the yardarm. This pennant is no longer used.
The Black PT pennant was 20 inches  at the widest point and 69 inches long.  (Graphic by Jerry Proc)
Bravo Large (Red Flag)  - it is flown to indicate "danger"  of any sort  e.g. fuelling, ammunitioning, practice firing, etc.

Flag locker aboard HMCS HAIDA, port side. For the special flags, the compartments are labelled slightly different than the standard layout above. (Photo by Jerry Proc)
A flag-hoisting team usually included two or three signalmen. Their job was to clip the flags together, attach them to the signal halyard and hoist them up the mast. This may sound simple but to achieve accuracy and speed it took lots of practice and teamwork.  Stowing the flags was almost as important as hoisting them. There was always competition among ships to see who could hoist flags the fastest. Normally these sailors would be in their work uniforms.  (Image courtesy RCN) 

USN flag bags circa 1958. Contrast this to the RCN flag locker. (Submitted by SM3 Don Wagner - left) 
Flag signals are executed when the Senior officer hauls down the hoist. This is the instant when all ships carry out the order conveyed by the flag hoist. Hoists are read in the order in which they are hoisted. Normally, this would be from top to bottom,  from outward in or from forward to aft. Signals are relayed along a chain of visual responsibility. Each ship was responsible to automatically relay any signal to the next ship on the side away from the originator.


Speed flags are numeral flags that were mounted on wooden staves and displayed on both sides of the bridge to indicate the speed at which the ship is actually travelling through the water. When changed, the old flag was removed from the bracket and the new one was waved overhead for a few seconds to attract the attention of other ships to the change. Speed flags might be used when entering and leaving harbour and occasionally at sea when transferring or manoeuvring in close company.

Speed flags. (Image courtesy RCN) 

Cable flags are small flags mounted on staves and in fact, could be the same as Speed Flags.  When coming to an anchorage or weighing anchor, a signalman would proceed to his designated sea duty station on the forecastle. He would lace his canvas wallet containing the flags to the guard rail and position himself where he can see the cable and the Cable Officer. The Cable Officer would then inform the Captain through the Signalman and his cable flags, the state of the cable and anchor. The alphabet and numeral flags had the following meanings:

Numerals 1 through 0         - Indicate the number of the shackle being worked through the hawse pipe.
Letter U held horizontally    - Anchor up and down
Letter U held vertically        - Anchor aweigh
Letter A held vertically        - Clear anchor
NEGAT flag held vertically  - Foul anchor
Letter C held horizontally     - Anchor secured
Letter C held vertically         - Anchor secured

The Signalman Trade Group 1 Manual indicates that for nighttime anchoring  a flashlight or radio was used to convey the same signals as the flags but doesn't go into any detail. It seems odd that if a radio was recommended and available for nighttime operation, why wouldn't the same radio be recommended for daytime operation?

visual_cable flags.jpg
Cable speed flags in their Ready-For-Use state. (Image courtesy RCN) 
Anchor flags were small hand flags mounted on staves. They were red and green with a white anchor design on them. These were used by the Captain to signal the Cable Officer as to which anchor to use and when to let it go. The Captain held the flag overhead and brought it down to indicate the instant when the anchor was to be let go. In response, the Cable Office would acknowledge the signal by repeating it by using an identical set of flags.


Screw flags consisted of one red and one white flag mounted on staves. They were used when coming alongside or leaving a jetty by informing the bridge whether they were securing or heaving lines which might get caught in the ships propellers. The red flag indicated there were lines in the water while the white flag indicated an all-clear condition. These flags were handled by seamen as directed by the Officer of the Quarterdeck. A Signalman immediately reported any change in the state of the flags to the Captain.


Transfer flags were used during transfers and replenishments to indicate the position in the ship to be used for securing the lines. Telephones were sometimes passed between ships to exchange information about the transfer but the flags, or alternately ping-pong like paddles, acted as a means of backup.   The flags were 3 foot square and were mounted on staves. Coloured paddles were the same shape as that of a ping-pong paddle. The colours had the following meaning:

Green   - Ammunition or stores
Red      - Fuel Oil
Blue     - Diesel Oil
Yellow - Avgas
White   - Water

With flags and paddles, the Officer-in-Charge at the transfer position could pass additional information to the other ship in different ways. The principle methods used were:

Green in circular motion  - Start pumping or delivery.
Green in sideways motion  - Stop pumping or delivery
White in circular motion  - Blow through
White in sideways motion - Stop blowing through.

On 2 September 2003, HMCS Glace Bay (inboard) and HMCS Shawinigan (outboard) are being refueled by the merchantman Hamilton Energy at Pier 9, Hamilton, Ont. Both ships were berthed in Hamilton as part of a Lake Ontario cruise and are being refueled prior to departure. Both vessels are flying  red Bravo flags indicating there is a fuel oil transfer in progress. Flag Bravo is recognized internationally by both merchantmen and navies as a danger signal and indicates a potentially dangerous procedure is taking place such as refueling or ammunition loading.   (Photo by Jerry Proc) 

When a ship was in port and between the hours of sunrise and sunset, Substitute flags could be used to indicate the absence of the Captain or other officers as follows:
FIRST SUBSTITUTE  at starboard main yardarm outboard Absence of Flag Officer or Unit Commander whose flag or pennant is flying on the ship.
SECOND SUBSTITUTE at port main yardarm. When displayed with 3rd Sub, it should be inboard  Absence of Chief of Staff
THIRD SUBSTITUTE at port main yardarm , outboard. Absence of Captain or Executive Officer is Captain is absent for a period exceeding 72 hours
FOURTH SUBSTITUTE at starboard main yardarm . When displayed with 1st Sub, it should be outboard. Absence of civil or military official whose flag is flying in this ship.


Substitute flags serve another purpose when they are used as a heading for a flag hoist.

FIRST sub over a call sign The originator of this signal is....intervening ships are to relay to the addressees.
SECOND sub over a signal  This signal is for general information . It is not addressed to anyone specifically and no one need answer.
THIRD sub over a call sign This signal is addressed to the call sign indicated for action and also addressed to all other ships for information. Signals preceded by a THIRD sub are relayed and answered in the normal manner.
FOURTH sub over a signal This signal was taken from ACP 148. Wartime Instructions To Maritime Ships.


In the 1960's period, the Signalmans Trade Group 1 manual indicates that signal halyards were made of sisal with some yarns reversed spun to obtain flexibility. They were supplied in coils of 122 fathoms in length and three sizes were used. The circumferences measured 7/8 inch , 1 1/8 inch and 1 1/4 inch in size. The small size was used for small craft and for ensign and jack halyards in larger ships. The medium size was the normal one for signalling.

Tackline is a length of halyard approximately the length of the roping on a flag . It is  used to separate flags or groups of flags that would be confusing if they were run together. As an example, If two groups CY and VN were hoisted without the separation provided by the tackline , then the message would read as CYVN which was the international call sign of HMCS Micmac.

Use of tackline to separate flags on a hoist. (Image courtesy RCN)

It is not clear when the practice started, but during WWII RCN ships entering and leaving harbour hoisted their pendant. After studying a number of photos, it was observed that these hoists could be either on the port or starboard sides. Sometime after the war the practice changed,  possibly in 1949. A number of photos indicate that ships then started to hoist their radio call sign on the port side when leaving or entering harbour.  Examples of this are seen in photos of Antigonish (1951), Lanark (1960) and St. Therese (1960). Photos of Stettler (1960) and Whitethroat (1963) show the call sign hoist on the starboard side. It is believed that the practice of hoisting a radio call sign changed from port to starboard sides sometime in 1960. (Can anyone confirm the photographic evidence?  Also, can anyone confirm if the practice of hoisting a ships radio call sign instead of a pendant changed in 1949 when the RCN changed the format of the pendant numbering system or alternately, when NATO was born and the Allied Naval Signal Book came into use? Write to:

To further define the procedure, the ship's radio call sign was hoisted on starboard outer when entering and leaving harbour. The hoist occurs on departure when last line is taken inboard and on entering harbour the hoist is taken down when the first line is secured ashore.

Cdr Bob Willson RCN (Ret'd) says" In my experience, 1952-1987, pendant numbers were only used as call signs or addresses in visual signalling procedures e.g flag hoists, semaphore and flashing light and served no other purpose".

Today, radio call signs continue to be hoisted on the starboard side.  Cdr. C.A.H. Darlington provides and extract from MANUAL OF CEREMONY FOR HMC SHIPS, SUBMARINES AND NAVAL RESERVE DIVISIONS 2004-11-11:

Call Signs Chapter 2, Section 7, para 10.

HMC Ships, when entering or leaving port shall:

a. hoist the ship’s call sign on the starboard inner / outer yardarm (if not occupied) or at direction of senior ship in company; or

b. when a senior officer is embarked, hoist his / her call sign on the starboard inner / outer yardarm (if not occupied) and the ship's call sign on the port inner / outer yardarm (if not occupied) or at the direction of the senior ship in company; and

c. operating within the harbour limits shall not hoist call signs.

Precedence Chapter 2, Section 2, para 5.

The protocol for flags worn by HMC Ships defines the “superior position” on the masts giving precedence to starboard over port.  The “superior position” means the precedence, in decreasing order, of the position of flags at the main, fore, mizzen, starboard yard and port yard.


Sometimes there is confusion between the words "Pendant" and  "Pennant". This extract  from Chapter Six of a forthcoming book by David J Freeman, "RCN Ship Badges & Insignia, 1910 to 1946" should set the record straight. [used with permission of the author.]

"The term pendant - pronounced pennant – is simply a tapering flag, just like a pennant.   In the world of naval communications, however, there were differences. The RN signal system contained not only alphabetical and special flags, but also “numeral flags” , "pennants" and “numbered pendants.”  The latter were a series of tapered pennants: ten were numbers (0 to 9) and 12 others had special meanings. These were the flags flown by a warship to indicate her assigned number. Early in 1914, just before the start of the First World War, British destroyers were ordered to paint their pendant numbers on their hulls.  Prior to this, these signal pendants were hard to see through the smoke and spray.  The word ‘pendant’ followed the numbers down to the ship’s side."

Signalman used the terms "Breaking a Flag" or "Broken at the Yard or Masthead". It  means that the flag is folded and rolled and tied off with small pieces of twine (also called marlin) and hoisted to the peak in a ball so the flag cannot be seen or identified from a distance. When it is "Broken", the signalman gives a quick, hard yank on the down-haul halyard breaking the twine (marlin) that held the flag in a ball, thus the flag is free to fly in the breeze.


Visual signals were sometimes encrypted just like radio signals. Suppose we have a group of warships in a circular formation around the Squadron Commander's flagship. If he wanted to send classified information to all the squadron's commanding officers and didn't want any unauthorized party from reading  the message he would encrypt the message and send it to all the commanding officers of his squadron on the yardarm blinkers. Ships in the squadron would acknowledge receipt by directional signal lamp. This method was especially useful during radio silence and to keep enemy submarines and aircraft from intercepting a plain language visual message.

Single flags, as well as multiple flags on a single hoist are considered a "code" and a one of the ACP publications  must be used to find the meaning of a single signal flag flying from a yardarm or a vessel's mast or truck.


Dipping a ship's Ensign or colors to other ships passing in close proximity while underway is referred to as "Dipping the Colours" and is considered a salute.

Warships do not dip their ensigns to other warships. They salute by piping, sounding the bugle, whistle or gun salutes, depending on the ship and the occasion. All hands that are on deck come to attention facing outboard.
The pipe is made "Attention on the upper deck - face starboard (or port). Only the Captain, XO, Officer of the Watch (OOW) or Officer of the Day (OOD) do the actual salute. If the ship is at sea, the salute is done from the bridge. If the ship is in harbour the salute will be done from the quarterdeck. Another blast on bugle or whistle, signals everyone to stop rendering the hand salute then "carry on" dismisses those on deck from the attention position.

Merchant ships passing close to a warship normally dip the colors to show respect to the nation that the warship represents. When a merchant ship dips her colors, it is only common courtesy to return the "salute".

Bob Willson expands on this. "When Britannia ruled the waves, the RN "demanded" that merchants ships of all countries dip their ensign to a British warship and in certain eras, would halt and board a merchant ship that failed to do so. The custom of merchantmen dipping ensigns still persists, although very few merchant ships actually do it any more.

The warship should always return the salute by dipping its ensign, but sometimes they are caught off guard and fail to do so, especially if the warship is alongside in harbour as there are so few people on the duty watch these days. In Halifax in the 50's and 60's, the Master of one of the gypsum carriers that regularly steamed past the dockyard going to and returning from the gypsum pier in Bedford Basin was a Brit. He always dipped to every warship in the harbour, both on entering and leaving, and if one of the ships did not return the salute he would send a telegram to the Admiral reporting the offending vessel and the Captain would get a nasty signal telling him to keep a better lookout  in the future. It was quite a game".

Keith Kennedy remembers. "On the ships doing pilotage training in the Gulf Islands, dipping the ensign got to be a pain (though probably good exercise racing between the bridge and mainmast for the signalmen) as every pleasure boat, no matter how small, insisted on dipping their ensign to us".

Don Wagner comments. "In USN, during the Cold War, naval vessels did not initiate Passing Honors (the USN term for Dipping the Colours) to Communist naval vessels. These countries included the USSR, Communist China (CHICOM), North Korea (KORCOM),  Albania, Bulgaria and Cuba. If the Communist vessel initiated the equivalent of Passing Honors, then the Honors would be returned".


1950: It is a long standing tradition in the Navy that a signalman who loses a halyard while flaghoisting will go "up the stick" to retrieve it. Here, Cadet David Richards, of Wolfville, N.S., clambers out on the yardarm to secure a lost halyard. Cadet Richards performed his acrobatics aboard HMCS La Hulloise during a summer training cruise. (RCN photo HS-11555)


During Christmas season, evergreen trees were hoisted to the masthead or yardarms. Sometimes they were decorated with coloured lights.


The flying of flags to celebrate an occasion or an event is one of the oldest customs in the navy. It probably stems from the days when flags and trophies captured from the enemy were displayed as a sign of victory. When a ship is dressed , she flies her ensign, jack, masthead ensigns and dressing lines. On certain occasions when it is not desirable to rig dressing lines, ships may dress with masthead ensigns only. Dressing lines are not used by ships which are underway.

Dressing ship instructions are in the Manual of Ceremony (MOC) for HMC Ships, Submarines and Naval Reserve Divisions. Flags size, method of dressing ships and order of flags on a dressing line for each class of ship is detailed in the MOC.

The order of flags was arranged according to Naval General Orders (Technical) G3. Today (2007), the exact order is found in the Manual of Ceremony. (Image courtesy RCN)

This was a green pennant with a white chalice in its centre. It was hoisted in a ship as an invitation to all officers to come aboard to assist in the celebration of some special occasion in the wardroom.

Gin pennant. (Courtesy Magellan Flags)


A paying-off pennant is a large version of the masthead pennant. It is flown in lieu of the masthead pennant on the day a ship pays off. The length of the paying-off pennant approximates the length of time that the ship has been in commission.

When  HMCS Huron paid off on April 27, 1963 to operational reserve, she flew a balloon supported paying off pendant such as this as she sailed into Halifax for the last time. (DND photo DNS-30685)


A wedding garland was a large wreath of evergreens with a white bow and trailing white ribbons. It was hoisted in a conspicuous place in a ship to indicate thatg the wedding of one of her crew is taking place.


A suite of flags, referred to as colours, are flown by a ship. This  includes the ensign , the jack and the masthead pennant or flag or rank. The size of the colours were traditionally measured in breadths a unit of measurement inherited from the Royal Navy. A breadth is approximately 9 inches. Today, flags are referred to by their metric size in the RCN.

Sizes of Ensigns worn by ships during the 1960's. The size was measured in breadths. AORs followed the same procedure as an aircraft carrier. (Image courtesy RCN) 
The table lists the different flag sizes and their dimensions circa 2007. (Manual of Ceremony extract provided  by CPO2 Derrick Shillington) 
This table (2007) relates the useage of flag size to flag type, location, time and class of ship. (Manual of Ceremony extract provided  by CPO2 Derrick Shillington) 

Flag signals were sometimes accompanied with sound signals made by a whistle or sirenette. The sound signals are defined in the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea. Six short blasts are used to draw attention to flag signals. A short blast is about one second duration while a prolonged blast is 4 to 6 seconds long.

While manoeuvring:

* One short blast - I am altering my course to starboard.
* Two short blasts - I am altering my course to port.
* Three shorts blasts - My engines are going astern
* Four short blasts - ?
* Five short blasts - What are your intentions?
* Six short blasts - are used to call attention to signals such as man overboard, break-down.

During fog:

* One prolonged blast every two minutes defines a vessel of over 20 tons making way through the water.
* Two prolonged blasts every two minutes indicates vessel under way but stopped.


The firing of gun salutes in honour of a royal or other personage is a very old custom. It was originally a sign of friendship. Ships emptied their guns to show they had no hostile intentions. Gun salutes consist of an odd number of rounds ranging from seven for Captains to twenty one for a royal or national salute. They are fired at five second intervals. For royal salutes and salutes to national flags, the appropriate standard or ensign is broken at the mainmast head. For other personal salutes, the flag is broken at the foremast head. The standard or flag is broken at the first gun of the salute and hauled down when the salute is completed.

In the vicinity of a harbour, between sunrise and sunset, naval ships salute one another when passing. This can be  a very formal type with guards and bands but is usually carried out with a boatswain's call or bugle. The bugle was reserved for ships flying standards or flags or rank or foreign warships when one of the ships was at anchor.


When signal flags were made from bunting, additional care was required to ensure that mould and mildew did not become a problem especially if the flags were damp. Sometimes the flags were washed  but most of the time if the bunting flags became wet, the signalmen would simply attach as many as they could get on a halyard and hoist them up and letting Mother Nature air dry them.  In the 60's, the Navy recommended that naphthalene be applied to dry  signal flags to discourage moths but it is not confirmed if this was common practice.

Don Wagner describes how they treated damp or wet flags in the USN in the 1950's. "USN flag-bags had canvas covers that were rolled up and stowed on a metal holder behind the bags. During inclement weather, the bags were covered with the waterproof covers and lashed down securely to prevent moisture (including salt spray taken over the bow and bridge). In good, sunny weather, the first thing we did during "Morning Sweepers" before breakfast, was to "clamp down" the signal bridge decks (swab up the dew that had settled during the night) and open up the flag bags to let them air out. If we detected mold or mildew, we would get a swab bucket and wash the flags in a mixture of salt water and liquid bleach and kill the mold/mildew and drape them over the handrails to completely dry before putting them back in the flag-bags.

Rod Stroud, PO1  HMCS Toronto, advises on current methods. "We now use flags made of nylon and there is no requirement to have the flags dried out like it was done 50 years ago. If they are wet, we shake them out and they pretty much are dry. If they are extremely wet we will hang them in the CCR for a bit before folding them for storage".


Signalmen were often referred to as the "Eyes and Ears of the Ship"because those involved in visual communications not only had to know flaghoist, semaphore, and flashing light, but they also had to know what the canvas balls hanging from a mast means; running lights and aircraft warning lights; ship's bell and steam whistle signals and the rules of road. Visual signalmen were also versed in aircraft and ship identification and more often than not, picked up air or surface contacts before the ship's lookouts spotted them.

Today (2007), the use of flag hoists continues to diminish as technology continues to advance.

Contributors and Credits:

1) James McAlister <themcalisters(at)>
2) Spud Roscoe <spudroscoe(at)>
3) Douglas Moore, Cornwallis Museum <cornwallismuseum(at)>
4) Signal Flags
5) Don Wagner, USN,  Signalman Ret'd <navwags(at)>
6) Keith Kennedy <a4a88300(at)>
7) Neil S. Bell [rcnr(at)]
8) Buck <buckbc2(at)>
9) Bob Willson <rawillson(at)>
10) Dictionary of Vexillology
11) WWI Document Archive page.  RN Flags
12) Archives and Collections Society, Picton Ontario. http:/
13) Duncan Mathieson <dmathieson(at)>
14) Cdr.CAH.Darlington <Cdr.CAH.Darlington(at)>
15) Signalman Trade Group One Manual BRCN 3038(63). Published by RCN, 1960; revised 1963.
16) Gin Pennant
17) PO1 JR Stroud, Senior Nav Comm, HMCS Toronto  <stroud.r(at)>
18) CPO2 Derrick Shillington. HMCS Toronto Combat /Training Chief   <shillington.c2(at)
19) Mac's Naval Photography
20) Dennis Stapleton <lor-den(at)>
21) Semaphore traing aids - Ted Orlowski <tborlowski(at)

Back to Visual Signalling

dec 8/20