visual_semaphore_anim.gif This method of signaling is an old favorite of the Navy because it is the fastest way of sending messages by flags and is even faster than flashing light. It can be used only in the daytime and at distances of  less than 2 miles. It is even more secure than light signalling because there is less chance of interception by an adversary.

Semaphore requires little equipment - just hand flags either 15 or 18 inches square. Letters and numerals are formed by placing two flags at certain angles to each other. Each flag is held so that the staff is a continuation of the signaler's forearm. The arms need to be kept stiff.

The simplest method of memorizing the characters is to treat them as a series of circles. Please refer to the semaphore chart for the flag positions. The arms move in a manner akin to the minutes and hours hands on a clock. The letter A starts at around 06:40. There is no rule about which arm is to be used when forming each character. The sender can use whichever arm is convenient.

1st circle:    A to G ( single arm signals)
2nd circle:   H to N (omitting J)
3rd circle :  O to S
4th circle :   T, U and Y
5th circle : Numeral Sign, J and V
To complete: W, X and Z

Semaphore position circle. (Image courtesy RCN)
Here is a procedure to send a semaphore message. First, get the receiver's attention with the Attention signal, made by waving both flags repeatedly overhead in a scissor-like motion. When the receiver sends the letter K, you can go ahead.

Send the letters of each word by going directly from the position of one letter, without stopping, into the position of the next, pausing in each. If you have to think of the next letter, hold the letter you are making until the next one comes to mind.

To indicate the end of a word, give the front signal by bringing the flags down in front of you, with the staffs crossing each other. Whenever double letters appear in a word, use the front signal to separate them. Make the first letter, then front, and immediately, without pause, bring the flags again in position of the letter.

The receiver acknowledges each word by sending C. If he or she suddenly sends I-M-I, it means that he or she did not catch your last word. Repeat it and continue from there. If you have made an error yourself, send eight Es and start again from the beginning of that word. Finish the message with A-R and wait for the receiver to make the letter R. This means the receiver has your message.

Semaphore signalling positions.(Graphic courtesy Navy Memories Shop)

Sometime between 2007 and 2015, semaphore training was dropped at the RCN Fleet School. The NATO sending standard for Naval Communicators is 15 words per minute but it is rarely used as a means of official communication. Semaphore was most often used during replenishment at sea or as an unofficial chat line to converse with another ship. Many times the exchange of gifts or souvenirs between two ships were arranged via semaphore.

As of 2015, Navcom rates are trained in the following:

- Flashing light;
- Signal flag (hoists);
- Radio procedure;
- Satcom modes

No more semaphore.  When ships are close enough to use it, the preference would be flashing light, and the resulting time saved in the training syllabus has been shifted towards computers, secure email, satcoms and the like.

WREN sending the letter 'H' likely at the training facility at St. Hyacinthe. (DND Imaging Centre photo # 209239-1)
/visual_training_aid_1.jpg /visual_training_aid_2.jpg
Frost and rear views  of the semaphore flags while receiving the letter G. Click on image to enlarge. This training aid was issued by the RCN Director of Naval Education Training Aids (Provided by Ted Orlowski)

visual_fireworks.gifFireworks , flames  and smoke are normally used as a means of communication only in emergency. In the 1950's and 60's period, the night signal box kept on or near the bridge, contained 3 signal rockets, 1 tin of friction tubes, 1 pistol, 2 short lights and 18 one-inch signal cartridges. There were 6 cartridges in each colour of red, white and green.

Rockets could be fired from a laucher. Firing a rocket was a signal for "man overboard" or other emergencies.  Signal cartridges could be fired from a special pistol. This was used for signalling at night and at limited distances by day. When the cartridge is fired, a star shoots into the air. As it falls it burns with a red white or green colour. In the dark, cartridges could be easily identified by feeling the rim at the base of the cartridge.  Red was milled. Green was plain. White was half milled.  The signals that could be made with pyrotechnics are found in publication ACP 168.

Pyrotechnics are still carried by HMC ships in 2007 because they are mandated by COL REG (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions At Sea) as well as the International Code of Signals (INTERCO) and other military publications. Many different types of pyro are carried onboard and it is stored on the bridge locked up. The key is taken from the Officer of the Watch during certain evolutions (repetitive functions)  by a NAV COMM. Also carried are Vari-flares with a flare pistol in red, yellow and green along with para-flares and red flares.

This photo, taken on the bridge of HMCS HAIDA in the late 1940's, shows the position of the port side Schermuly signal rocket launcher. Signal rockets  would be fitted into the tubes when going to sea and stowed when in harbour.  The rocket would only be fired in an emergency using a Copper Friction tube that was fitted in a small opening with a breech closing to keep it in place. This duty was normally performed by the Gunners Yeoman as opposed to a "bunting tosser" Yeoman.  (Photo courtesy HMCS HAIDA Archives)
William Schermuly, seaman, inventor, reformer was born in 1857 and developed many simple, small,  yet successful life saving devices for ships at sea mainly centered on pyrotechnics. In 1926, he set up his own factory in Cheam UK. As business grew, more operating capital was needed. Together with financier H.A. Thompson,  Pistol Apparatus Ltd was borne. Today the Schermuly name lives on as part of Pains-Wessex, a world known manufacturer of marine signals and military pyrotechnics.

Various maritime nations published International Code of Signals books. Shown here are the US and UK covers from various periods. It is believed that the US 1969 was the last revision. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise.  The  International Code of Signals was very cumbersome and hard to use during World War I as evidenced by the 600 pages in the 1899 edition!

Click on image to enlarge
visual_uk1899s.jpg visual_uk1969s.jpg
UK- 1899  UK - 1969
visual_us1931s.jpg visual_us1969s.jpg
US - 1931 US - 1969
The 1931 US issue is nearly twice the size of the 1969 issue. (All images courtesy Spud Roscoe)

Years ago, when a naval ship entered a foreign, or a Canadian non-naval port, pendant numbers on the flag hoist would mean nothing to the Port Authority or pilot station. However, flying a radio call sign would provide immediate identification as they could reference a listing in an international publication known as Indicatifs D'Appel. In English, the book is titled "List of Call Signs and Numerical Identities (of stations used by the maritime  mobile and marine mobile-satellite service). Published by the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva Switzerland, it identifies stations based on their radio call signs. In the RCN,  the book became affectionately known as Green Apples as a result of its light green coloured cover and that 'Appel' sounds like 'Apples' in English. Surprisingly, Canadian warships have not been listed since the 1959 issue.

visual_green_apples_s.jpg This is the cover of the 1987 issue of Indicatifs D'Appel.  It has 419 pages of detailed listings. Click to enlarge. All merchant ships are listed but a few nations do not list their government ships. In 2007, Green Apples is no longer available under that title. It is now one of the ACP's.  (Image courtesy of Spud Roscoe)
visual_green_apples_sample_page_s.jpg A sample page from Indicatifs D'Appel showing the trailing end of the Russian call sign listings and the beginning of the Canadian stations. The two letters after the station are codes to denote the type of station. Click to enlarge. (Image courtesy of Spud Roscoe)


ACP(s) - Allied Communications Publication(s)

The Signalman Trade Group Manual BRCN 3038 lists numerous publications used in naval communications. The data shown below is valid for the 1963 period.


INTRA - This group includes those publications which are issued by the RCN for its own use only.

JOINT  - Publications issued for use between two or more services of the same country ( ie Army , Navy Air

COMBINED - These publications are issued for use between two or more countries.

This is a list of abbreviations used in the "Short Titles" of Communications Publications.

ACP     Allied Communication Publication
AFSAG   Armed Forces Security Agency (General)
AFSAK   Armed Forces Security Agency (Key List)
AFSAL   Armed Forces Security Agency (List)
AFSAM   Armed Forces Security Agency (Material)
AFO     Admiralty Fleet Order
ALRS    Admiralty List of Radio Stations
AMSP    Allied Military Security Publication
ATP     Allied Tactical Publication
AXP     Allied Exercise Publication
BR      Book of Reference
BRCN    Book of Reference Canadian Navy
CB      Confidential Book
CBCN    Confidential Book Canadian Navy
CGO     Confidential General Order
CSPM    Confidential Security Publication Memorandum
DNC     Director of Naval Communications (USN)
GO      General Order
JANAP   Joint Army Navy Air Force Publication
NACSIM  NATO Communication Security Information Memorandum
NCCP    NATO Commander's Communication Publication
QRCN    Queen's Regulations and Orders for the Royal Canadian Navy
SP      Signal Publication.

Adding a number to the above abbreviation denotes a specific publication


The following are some of the more common publications that a Signalman would encounter.

ACP 100   Allied Call Sign and Address
ACP 110   Tactical Call Signs
ACP 112   Task Organization Call Signs
ACP 113   Call Sign Book for Ships
ACP 118   Visual Call Signs
BRCN 1202 List of Ship Stations (International)
BRCN 1206 Alphabetical List of Call Signs (International)
BRCN 1208 Signal Letters of British Ships (International)
JANAP 117 Joint Routing Indicator Book
JANAP 119 Voice Call Signs


ACP 121 Communications Instructions, General
ACP 122 Communications Instructions, Security
ACP 124 Radio Telegraph Procedure
ACP 125 Radio Telephone Procedure
ACP 126 Teletype Procedure
ACP 127 Tape Relay Procedure
ACP 129 Visual Signalling Procedure
ACP 130 Direction Finding Procedure
ACP 135 Distress and Rescue Procedure
ACP 150 Recognition Instructions
ACP 167 Glossary of Communication-Electronic Terms
ACP 176 Allied Naval Communication Instructions
AXP 3   Allied Naval Communication Exercises
NDCSI   National Defence Communication System Instructions


ACP 131 Operating Signals
ACP 148 Wartime Instructions for Merchant Ships (Visual)
ACP 165 Operational Brevity Code
ACP 168 Pyrotechnic Signals
ATP 1 Vol II Allied Naval Signal Book (ANSB)
BR 98 Minor Landing Craft and Boats Signal Book
BRCN 1216(I) International Code of Signals (Visual)
BRCN 1216 (II) International Code of Signals (Radio)


ATP 1 Vol I Allied Naval and Manoeuvring Instructions
ATP 3       Anti-Submarine Evasive Steering
ATP 16 Replenishment At Sea
ATP 19 Allied Minesweeping Manoeuvring Instructions



DNC27 United States Naval Flags and Pennants
JANAP 195 Basic Armed Forces Communication Plan (BAFCOM)


BRCN 109 RCN Publications Manual
BRCN 1215 Brown's Flags and Funnels
BRCN 1228 Yacht Flags and Ensigns
CBCN 5101 RCN Security Manual


BR 20  Flags of All Nations
BR 1971 Visual Signalling and Equipment Handbook

Admiralty Fleet orders ( AFO) "S" Series:

S1/60 Royal Navy Communication Instruction
S2/61 Message Handling Instructions
S3/62 Commonwealth Naval Command Communication Organization
S7/61 Commonwealth Naval Ship-Shore Organization

In 2007, ACP's are distributed on CD-ROM. On Halifax class ships, they are printed out as needed and supplied to the bridge where they do not  have access to a laptop computer. There are also many country specific publications which detail the local methods of communication.


Command orders were promulgated by senior officers to cover local requirements. They supplemented instructions contained in publications by supplying specific details for existing requirements. The more common orders of this type which were applicable to a Signalman were:

LANTCOMO (Atlantic Command Communication Orders) - These orders were issued by CANFLAGANT and governed local communications in the Atlantic area. They contained such orders as watches to be kept in Halifax and other East Coast ports, local call signs, addresses of standard type messages, and radio organizations.

PACOM (Pacific Command Communication Orders) - Same as LANTCOMO except they were applicable to the Pacific Command.

SQUADRON COMMUNICATIONS ORDERS - These orders were issued by Squadron Commanders and applied to their individual squadrons only. They contained such instructions as when to make routine reports, signals used only within the squadron , guardship assignments etc...

LOCAL ORDERS - Were issued by the Senior Officers of  foreign ports and were available to ships visiting those ports. They contained information similar to that of LANTCOMO and PACOM.

OPERATION ORDERS - Operations and exercises involving ships have specific requirements that are promulgated by the Senior Officer of the ships which are participating in same. They contained the communication orders necessary for the ships and usually included frequency plans, publications to be used, reports required, manoeuvring instructions etc...

These orders were promulgated sufficiently in advance of an operation or exercise to allow the personnel concerned to become familiar with them.


Bob Willson details port information provided by the RCN. "Every naval port you entered had a set of "Port Orders". In Halifax it was ACSO's - Atlantic Command Standing Orders - and these would probably specify which side your radio call sign was to be hoisted. At one time we also hoisted the number of our destination berth on the opposite halyard from the call sign.

When you sailed from Halifax, you always took on board, the orders for the ports you were going to. In addition, we carried a "Port Information Book" which had numerous details about ports around the world, filed by ships that had previously visited. As well as official information about customs, protocol, and administrivia, they contained useful tidbits about the local "attractions" and suggested places that should be "out of bounds."


Vaults and strongboxes such as there were used for the storage of classified and confidential materials.  (Image courtesy RCN) 

Naval message form circa 1958. (Image courtesy RCN)


Today, there a few extra tools available to the Signalman which were not around in the 1960's. Basically not much has changed in 50 years. Some of these tools include computers, newer small signalling lanterns, Big Eyes (huge binoculars), Xenon searchlights used for night Man Overboards and  vessel illumination when being hailed. Modern VHF radios are now used to hail other ships, not flag hoists. Both naval and merchant ships fitted with the Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcast their name by radio so it is not necessary to contact them visually.


The Automatic Identification System (AIS) made by L-3 Communications  is a collision avoidance tool, mandated by IMO SOLAS  (International Maritime Organization , International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea), to improve the situational awareness of the bridge crew while facilitating communication between vessels. It also has a built-in GPS receiver. In this case, the ship is broadcasting its name "HMCS Halifax 330". Other ships similarly equipped will also broadcast their name and it will show up in the display. Note the coordinates of  N 43° 16.5560 , W 79°51.3560  are the western portion of Pier 9 in Hamilton. The photo was taken on May 4/07 when HMCS Halifax was berthed Hamilton during a Great Lakes tour. (Photo by Jerry Proc)


Binoculars have always been part of the Signalman's kit. Starting with the simple telescope in the days of sail, optical technology has made great strides over time. Today, HMC ships are fitted with high performance binoculars called Big Eye (20x120). The left most number signifies a magnification of 20 times while the right most number is the diameter of the objective lens in millimeters. It has an apparent field-of-view of approximately 70 degrees.

The binocular is mounted on a height adjustable carriage assembly which itself is adjustable through 70 degrees elevation ranging from -10 degrees depression to +60 degrees elevation with reference to the horizon. It is free to rotate through 360 degrees in azimuth. Variable density polarizing filters may be introduced into the optical path to reduce glare. Optical elements are anti-reflective coated to increase light transmission. Visors are provided on each barrel and may be extended to minimize reflections on the objective lenses. The most current model (in 2007) is the Mark III, Mod 5.

visual_bigeye1.jpg visual_bigeye2.jpg
Big Eye in action. The binocular assembly weights 22.7 Kg; carriage assembly is 39.5 Kg;  Pedestal assembly is  26.3 Kg. (DND photo) Principal parts of Big Eye. (Image courtesy of

Contributors and Credits:

1) Semaphore
2) Semaphore Signals
3) Signalman Trade Group One Manual BRCN 3038(63). Published by RCN, 1963
4) Spud Roscoe <spudroscoe(at)
5) Bob Willson <rawillson(at)>
6) Signalman Trade Group One Manual BRCN 3038(63). Published by RCN, 1960; revised 1963.
7) Pyro GIF!2july4.htm
8) Semaphore GIF
9) PO1 JR Stroud, Senior Nav Comm, HMCS Toronto  <stroud.r(at)>
10) CPO2 Derrick Shillington. HMCS Toronto Combat /Training Chief   <shillington.c2(at)>
11) Big Eye photo
12) Grumman Big Eye data sheet.
13) William Schermuly
14) Bud Flanagan Budflanagan(at)
15)  Elsa Lessard  <elsal(at)>
16) Glen Hodgins  <glen.hodgins(at)>
17) Semaphore traing aids - Ted Orlowski <tborlowski(at)

Back to Visual Signalling