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Signal Flags

Last modified: 2006-09-30 by phil nelson
Keywords: signal flags | international | signal code | quarantine | blue peter |
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Current uses of Signal Flags

There is an old naval expression to the effect that Eyeball Mark One remains the only reliable instrument of communication and navigation, while all these wonderful electronic gadgets have the nasty habit of leaving one in the lurch just when most needed. My old yeoman of signals instructor when doing my Long Signal Communications Course, used to say that they were all very nice and handy, but the moment the first shot is fired during the next war, electronic silence is immediately imposed by all parties and where would we be without flags then? (He also was of course prejudiced and that was before satellite communications). Although sometimes difficult to see, a colourful piece of bunting fluttering in the wind is much more reliable and attractive. Also, many of the IMO as well as local rules still require certain flags signals to be hoisted while approaching ports, despite the prearrangement of matters per radio - flag Quebec for instance requesting free pratique (health clearance), the pilot flag - flag Hotel, etc.
Andre Burgers, 26 May 2004

They are used quite regularly. Flags provide a continuous signal in a way that a radio transmission cannot. A ship that is disabled in some way, for example, can fly a signal flag continuously, but cannot tie up a radio operator saying over and over again "MV Neversail is disabled; MV Neversail is disabled; MV Neversail is disabled....." A ship flying the BRAVO flag can be seen visually to be handling explosives. Etc.

Upon entering and leaving port, the flying of call sign flags provides harbor authorities the ability to call the ship by call sign: not just "hey you!" but "Harbor police to ALFA YANKEE ONE TWO THREE..."

Navies use flag signals all the time, for example to communicate tactical instructions under radio silence.
Joe McMillan, 26 May 2004

Blue Peter

I have been searching for info on the origins of signaling flags - those used predominantly by the shipping/naval community, I assume the origin is British Royal Navy in the Napoleonic timeframe, but that is at best a guess.

There appears to be controversy over the source of the name 'Blue Peter' - some say its from 'Blue repeater' (but that is a different flag), and others say its from the French 'partir' - used when leaving harbour.
Rob Bedford, 1999 January 15 and 1999 January 18

Introduced into Royal Navy in the 1750's, as a blue flag with six white balls. Soon after 1756 the white balls were replaced by a white square. "By Rodney's time (c1780) this flag at the mainmast head had become the signal to recall everyone to his ship." Perrin, "British Flags". 1803. "She has had Blue Peter's flag flying at the fore as a signal for sailing." First entry in Oxford English Dictionary. 1862. "The Blue Peter at the foremast head was flying as a summons to the hands on shore to come aboard." Only other entry in OED.

"Blue Repeater"? Looks plausible, but the sense doesn't fit the use. In a signal by flag hoist, there is no such thing as a "repeater" is there? If you want to repeat a flag you use a substitute, and it is described by a number, not a colour.

French "partir"? Haven't heard that one before. I expect some one in France can tell us if they have a name for this flag; "P" in the International Code.

The explanation may lie as much as in the word "blue", as in the word "peter". It is not a blue flag. It is a blue and white flag. Why call it a "blue peter", when there are no "red peters", or "white peters"? I think that it is a corruption of the early official description of the flag, which was the heraldic term "blue pierced white".

The first public commercial code (there were earlier private semi-commercial codes, as used for instance by the East India Company) was the "Code of Signals for the Merchant Service". This was produced in 1817 by Captain Fredrick Marryat, R.N. as the result of problems experienced by ships of the Royal Navy trying to communicate with merchant ships in convoy. It was a numeric code for British ships only, based upon the "Signal Book for Ships of War", which had been introduced for all ships in the Royal Navy in 1799. It was modified with words more appropriate for commercial use.

Ships of other countries began using it, and in 1854, when the 12th edition was published, it was re-titled, "The Universal Code of Signals".

In 1855 the British "Board of Trade" decided that maritime signals needed to be regulated, and authorised the publication in 1857, of the "Commercial Code of Signals". This was an alphabetical code and a considerable improvement on Marryat's code.

It was re-named the "International Code" in about 1870, and revised in 1901 and 1934. There was another revision to the Code in 1969 but I think mainly to sections dealing with electronic communication.
David Prothero, 1999 January 20

It may have been derived from a plain blue flag that was commonly used in the early 1700's, by the Dutch, Danish and Swedish navies, as a signal that a ship was preparing to sail. It is unlikely to have been used by the Royal Navy, as a plain blue flag was a command flag flown by an admiral of the blue squadron. In the 19th century when the "blue flag with a white square in the centre" had been widely adopted as a signal of departure, it was commonly known as "Blue Peter" in north European languages, but not in French or Spanish.

Marryat (who was also a novelist and wrote "Mr Midshipman Easy") based his 1817 Merchant Service Code on Naval Codes that had been introduced in about the middle of the 18th century, and gradually improved over the following years. Before that time signals had been made with ordinary ensigns, jacks, pennants and standards, rather than flags designed specifically for the purpose. The position in the ship where the flag was hung, was as significant as the flag itself. The early codes were often two flag hoists, based on a table of messages set in a grid, the upper flag indicating the column of the grid and the lower flag the row. These were replaced by proper numeric codes with each one of ten flags, indicating one of the numbers 0 to9. Additional flags were used to indicate beginning and end of messages, substitutes, hundreds and thousands.

The flags could only indicate a number which related to a pre-determined message, and the next improvement was the vocabulary code. In this system numbers could indicate a single word or phrase, so that sentences could be built up from scratch. Finally the number of flags was increased so that most letters of the alphabet could be signaled separately in order to build-up uncommon words. The numeric code continued in use alongside the vocabulary code, as it was a more efficient way of signaling commonly used messages.

Marryat's code was numeric and used the Union Jack as one of the signal flags. This had the result that British merchant ships were able to fly the Union Jack as part of a signal hoist, but not as an ensign or jack. The Admiralty objected to this and in the fourth edition of Marryat's code published in 1826, a white bordered Union Jack replaced the Union Jack. Some interesting terms used in correspondence between Marryat and the Admiralty; "New Signal Jack" was the Union Jack with a white border; "His Majesty's Jack" was the Unon Jack; and "the National Red Ensign", was the plain Red Ensign, which at the time was still a naval flag as well as the merchant flag.


One peculiarity of the 1857 code introduced by the Board of Trade, was that although it had flags representing letters, there were only 18 of them, B to W and no vowels; so that objectionable three and four letter words could not be signaled by rude sailors.

The 1901 code introduced the full set of letters and the 1934 code added numbers.
David Prothero, 1999 February 03

I found a reference to the Blue Peter in the book Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions 4th Ed. by William P. Mack and Royal W. Connell. It reads:

BLUE PETER. A flag, "blue pierced with white," was used in the British Navy from 1777 as a general recall flag. In a quarter of a century the term "blue peter" was used by all to designate this flag. Civilians knew its significance, for merchant ships and convoys in the French wars would not sail until the escorting man-of-war hoisted the blue peter for passengers to come aboard.

There is on record a historic piece of doggerel, autographed "Emma," written when Nelson sailed in 1801:

Silent grief and sad forebodings
(Lest I ne'er should see him more)
Fill my heart when gallant Nelson
Hoists blue peter at the fore.

The "Blue Peter" was at the time of the War of 1812 flown at the fore preparatory to sailing.
Mike White, 22 October 1999

See also: Vexillology

German Signal Flags

I have that code in a book I bought in Hamburg during my vacation. There are 21 flag in it that differ from the "New International Signal system" depicted below it. (The set uses flags unique to both the 1867 version and the 1933 version, but not those of the 1901 version. It also uses flags not occurring in any of these. I wonder when it was created.) But even those flags that are familiar do not have the same meaning:

  • Anton: IC 1933 - V
  • Ä'rger: IC 1933 - A
  • Bruno: IC 1933 - F
  • Cä'sar: As IC 1933 - P, but red, rather then blue.
  • Dora: Three horizontal stripes blue and red, 3:2:3 along the hoist.
  • Emil: Three equal vertical stripes yellow and red.
  • Fritz: IC 1867 - D
  • Gustav: IC 1933 - Q
  • Heinz: IC 1933 - T
  • Ida: IC 1933 - W
  • Jot: IC 1933 - Y
  • Kurfürst: IC 1933 - X
  • Ludwig: IC 1933 - J
  • Marie: IC 1867 - L
  • Nordpol: Five horizontal stripes red, white green, white, red, approximately 1:1:2:1:1 along the hoist.
  • Otto: IC 1933 - H
  • Ö'se: IC 1933 - O
  • Paula: IC 1933 - M
  • Quelle: IC 1933 - N
  • Richard: IC 1933 - P
  • Siegfried: IC 1933 - S
  • Toni: Divided per saltire, white over red.
  • Ulrich: IC 1933 - K
  • Übel: IC 1933 - U
  • Viktor: IC 1867 - C
  • Wilhelm: IC 1933 - R
  • X or Xanthippe: IC 1867 - F
  • Ypern: As Fritz, but instead of the dot a yellow horizontal stripe, approximately 3:2:3 along the hoist.
  • Zet or Zeppelin: IC 1933 - B
  • Rot (Red): Red, a narrow black rising diagonal stripe
  • Grün (Green): Divided per falling diagoal, green over white
  • Gegensignal: A flag tapering to 5/8 the length along the hoist, with four equal vertical stripes of white and blue. Slightly shorter. (Where the other flags are drawn (8x11), this one is drawn 8x10.) This "gegensignal" (countersignal) is apparently some kind of answering pennant. Not exacctly so, however, as theat pennatn in the international code is described as "Signalbuch und Antwortwimpel".
All numerical pennants are of a shape similar to those of the international code. 4:12, tapering to 1. They are all depicted with their vertical division line at one third of the length. For the crosses this corresponds with the way the crossed pennants of the international code are depicted here.
  • 1: IC 1933 - answering pennant (but same size as other pennants
  • 2: Divided twice per falling diagonal, blue before white before red
  • 3: Yellow a cross blue
  • 4: Blue a cross white
  • 5: 7 rising diagonal stripes of green and yellow
  • 6: White before red
  • 7: Red before yellow
  • 8: Quartered black and white
  • 9: White before green
  • 0: IC 1933 - 8
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 16 August 2003


Archives & Collections Society of Picton, Ontario, Canada

Various signal flag plates are shown and can be enlarged by clicking:

  1. Codice Internazionale Dei Segnali, Tipografia Del Lloyd Austro-Ungarico, Trieste, 1882 Plate "xv del Codice internazionale dei segnali" no vowels or numerics; "X" "Y" "Z" absent
  2. Standard Seamanship for the Merchant Service, Riesenberg, Felix, C.E.D., Van Nostrand Company, 1922 "International Code Flags" p559. Changes include "F" and "L"
  3. Manual of Seamanship, Government of Canada, Ottawa, 1937 "Alphabetical and Numeral Flags Used in Naval Signaling", Plate 9
  4. Manual of Seamanship, Government of Canada, Ottawa, 1937 "Special Flags Used in Naval Signaling", Plate 10
  5. Manual of Seamanship, Government of Canada, Ottawa, 1937 "Numbered & Special Pendants Used in Naval Signaling", Plate 11
  6. Manual of Seamanship, Government of Canada, Ottawa, 1937 "Flags and Pendants Used in the International Code", facing p58. Changes include "C" "D" "E" "F" and "G"
  7. Manual of Seamanship, Government of Canada, Ottawa, 1937 "Numeral Pendants" "Substitutes" "Code and Answering Pendant", facing page 58
  8. Manual of Seamanship Volume II, Government of Canada, Ottawa, 1951 "Other Flags and Pennants Used in Naval Signaling", plate 3. All Naval numeral flags have changed.
  9. Piloting Seamanship & Small Boat Handling, Charles F Chapman, Motor Boating Magazine, 1956 "Special Navy Flags and Pennants", p. 384. Changes include "church" flag, and addition of "fourth sub" flag

Green as a colour in signal flags is, to my untrained eye, unusual.
Jan Mertens, 17 October 2004

Proposed Esperanto Extensions

On are proposed Esperanto Extensions to the International Code of Signals.

They are just like the normal C, G, H, J, S and U, but with Esperanto's colour green instead of the white parts to represent the same letters with circumflexes.
Gabriel Beecham, 14 April 2004