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St. George Guards India’s Fleet Once More

In a return to tradition, the old Indian naval ensign is reinstated.

AFTER AN EXPERIMENT with an allegedly more ‘indigenous’ design, India’s traditional naval ensign has been restored, and so the Cross of St George once again snaps from the sterns of the Union’s warships. The old Indian Naval Ensign dated to 1950, when the Indian Union became a republic, three years after achieving dominion status as a wholly self-governing member of the British Commonwealth. The Royal Indian Navy had flown the unaltered White Ensign but with the changeover to a republic it was decided to simply exchange the Union jack in the canton with the national flag of India, retaining the red St. George’s cross on a white field.

Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all continued to use the unchanged White Ensign until they came up with their own designs in the 1960s, with the dominions down under retaining the Union Jack canton but ditching the red cross. South Africa, meanwhile, had changed their cross from red to green, and featured their own national flag in the canton of the naval ensign.

The enemies of tradition in India claimed the Naval Ensign was a “colonial hangover”, though they curiously neglected to attack the civil service, constitutional government, nor the famous Indian Railways, as “colonial hangovers”. In 2001, it was decided to replace the traditional ensign with a new design featuring an heraldically-stylized anchor and without the traditional red cross.

As well as changing the Naval Ensign, the rank flags of the Indian Navy (which also mirrored those of the Royal Navy) were also changed.

The old rank flags of the Indian Navy, 1950-2001: Admiral of the Fleet, Admiral, Vice Admiral, Rear Admiral, and Commodore.

The second round of rank flags, 2001-2004: Admiral of the Fleet, Admiral, Vice Admiral, Rear Admiral, and Commodore.

The new ensign was not adopted with unanimous approval. “National flags and naval ensigns change under special circumstances like changes in history of concerned nations,” wrote Vice Admiral Subimal Mukherjee (Ret’d). “Milestones in Indian naval development since independence … have all taken place under the current Ensign. It has been a cementing symbol. To dump it into the dustbin of naval history is, to my mind, a mistaken historical step.”

The attempt to attack the Cross of Saint George as a “colonial hangover” was also attacked by Vice Admiral Mukherjee as “jingoism”:

“St. George was born in Asia Minor and was a very revered martyr whom many countries and institutions adopted as their patron saint. Examples are Georgia (named after St George), Moscow, Syrian Orthodox Church, Catalonia, Portugal (until 18th century), Boy Scouts et alia. … To any educated mind, to consider St. George’s Cross as a symbol of British colonialism is unworthy of even rebuttal.”

The new flags, had they remained, would have finally put an end to some of the slightly-lewd humour of the Indian Navy. As Admiral J. G. Nadkarni (Ret’d) explains:

“The red balls in the quadrants of flags denoted the Admiral’s rank. ‘The Admiral has lost one of his balls’ was a common way of announcing a promotion. A Chief of Naval Staff was commonly referred to as ‘the Admiral with no balls.’ Alas, no more. Now the balls have been replaced by stars and instead of losing them you gain them as you are promoted. Two, three and four stars will henceforth denote a Rear, Vice and full Admiral. And one can hardly joke about that. The new personal flags look suspiciously close to those which the U.S. Navy flies. Perhaps it is symbolic of our newfound camaraderie with that navy.

When an Admiral relinquishes a particular appointment, his flag is hauled down on the last day and handed over to him as a memento. Thank God, this tradition is still alive. On completion of my command of the Western Fleet, my flag, the one with the two red balls, was presented to me and is encased in a glass and wooden box. It sits proudly on the mantelpiece. Let the new Navy have its new flags. I will always cherish my balls.”

The President’s Colour of the Indian Navy features the golden elephant from the presidential standard, and reflects the Sovereign’s Colour granted to the Royal Navy.

The blue flags were a complete flop, as sailors complained the blue and white blended too easily into the sea and sky and resulted in decreased visibility. Happily, the Indian Navy has dumped the blue flags for a third series of designs which are both a return to tradition and an aesthetic improvement on the past.

Third time’s the charm. The Indian Navy rank flags, 2004-present: Admiral of the Fleet, Admiral, Vice Admiral, Rear Admiral, and Commodore.

The current designs are basically the same as the 1950 designs, but the Ashoka chakra has been enlarged so that it no longer hides inconsequentially at the meeting point of the cross. The new Naval Ensign (seen at the top of the article, and below) is much the same as before, only the proportions have been set at 1:2, and an Ashoka lion on the cross.

Oh, and about that cross. While the traditional design has returned, according to the Indian Navy, it is not officially a Cross of Saint George, but rather “a single horizontal red line and a single vertical red line on a white background”. As you can see, political correctness is not a purely Western disease!

This post was published on Tuesday, January 1st, 2008 8:24 am. It has been categorised under Design Flags Military and been tagged under , , .
  1. 1 January 2008
    11:42 am

    As a former naval officer who served in the ‘Royal’ Canadian Navy, this is very dear to my heart. The modern Canadian naval ensign is simply abominable, with its national flag in the canton and a similarly experimental naval anchor in the fly.

    I am currently leading a petition to Parliament to have the royal designation returned to Her Majesty’s Canadian Navy in time for the naval centennial in 2010. A return to some form of the traditional White Ensign would also improve esprit de corps, as well as reinstatement of the Elliott’s Eye and a fourth row of buttons on the naval tunic. Repairing the wreckage is not easy, but it can be done, as the Indian Navy shows the way.

  2. 1 January 2008
    1:18 pm

    Pursuant to your thoughts, here are a few suggested designs for a Canadian naval ensign I just slapped together:

    Which do you prefer? Or perhaps just bring back the old white ensign?

    (The first, second, and third are my preferences, in order, and the rest are just some ideas thrown out there for the heck of it).

  3. 2 January 2008
    12:13 am

    Those would be my top three preferences as well, although the third possibility would be a distant third. It is extremely difficult to render the national flag heraldically pleasing, but I think you have a done a good job with number 2.

    Number 7 is out for me, number 6 has merit as a white remake of the old Canadian blue and red ensigns, but the Cross of St. George is a must, so it too is out. Incidentally, the Blue Ensign was worn as the traditional jack of the navy for most of the RCN’s history, which I would also like to see returned for dressing ship (at the bow) alongside. The naval variations on the Governor General emblem is something altogether new, but is moderately appealing.

    While I would be overly joyed at the idea of a return to the White Ensign, it would never fly politically. It’s whole undoing was the fact that RN ships were indistinguishable from RCN ships during the Suez Crisis, when both countries took on different roles. Nasser played a significant part in ending the British Empire, but also in rupturing Canada from its heraldic roots because of the perceived need for a completely separate national identity. Thanks to Nasser, it was so long to the white, red and blue.

    By the way, I do like the Australian and New Zealand naval ensigns. I think adding St. George would be the icing on the naval cake.

  4. minden1759
    2 January 2008
    10:29 am

    Happy new year in the first place. On St. George’s Cross and the Indian Navy, a brilliant post, great sources and visual material, thanks very much, Andrew. The restoration of the traditional flag with the add-on in the centre was good to see. The in-beetween version with the anchor and crest looked the way things look that are designed by committee. It looked Disneyesque and certainly not Indian. From a practical point I welcome India’s return to good-old 1 by 2 proportions. 2 by 3 tends to look silly and barely recognisable even with moderate wind, 3 by 5, or better still, 1 by 2 works better.

    Andrew Cusack’ suggestions regarding Canada are great to look at, certainly better than the present one. A return of the Cross – whatever its designation – will always be welcome. Of these I tend to favour No. 3 for clarity and practicability (Maple leaf flag in canton and St. George’s Cross), even though I fully appreciate and somehow share The Monarchist’s view regarding the return of the “senior” White Ensign…

  5. 3 January 2008
    1:37 pm

    This is a splendid post. Thank you for the flag lesson, and for the beautiful flag illustrations.

    Good luck putting the “Royal” back into the Canadian Navy.

  6. John Christian VAUGHAN
    9 February 2008
    1:33 am

    No.3 is my choice thank you Andrew.
    Also the name Royal Canadian Navy should be reused on adoption of the Canadian St Georges Ensign.
    Check out
    think you will like it.

  7. 13 April 2008
    5:28 am

    May I thank you for this informative site, I am helping organise a celebration of St.George in Wembley, London, England. The Indian naval flag will help generate further interest in the day.

  8. 26 August 2009
    9:00 pm

    As the ‘motto FEAR GOD &HONOUR THE KING/QUEEN.’ FOR THE R.N. & DOMINION NAVIES irrespective of politics which all sailors will agree the white ensign really get you to rally round the flag when you have a common enemy as in ww1&2 let us never forget our hero’s who died for that ensign yours ready aye ready SHIP MATES OF H.M.S.& COMMONWEALTH NAVIES. JACK.

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