Pomp's and Circumstance

Tradition in Her Majesty's Navy

Authored by: The Royal Navy

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A while back I ran across the seamanship manual for the Royal Navy. Below, from the manual, are some of the protocol involved in flags (colours) and salutes. - Martin


Most ceremonies are an expression of respect, courtesy, rejoicing or sorrow, and so their form varies and must also be adapted to suit local circumstances. Ceremonial plays an important part in the life of a sailor of the Royal Navy, and he must therefore have a good knowledge of its naval forms and of the customs and traditions upon which these are founded.

Nothing in this chapter should be read as specifically authorising any particular procedure or conduct, and where any doubt as to the correct procedure may arise, BR 3 1, The Queen's Regulations for the Royal Navy should always be consulted and obeyed. When interpreting the regulations it should be borne in mind that offence may be given by not according some recognised mark of respect, and on the other hand marks of respect will be depreciated if they are used indiscriminately in the interest of flattery or ingratiation; the only way to avoid both is strictly to observe the regulations.

Wearing of colours

Strictly speaking, a suit of colours worn by any of HM ships in commission comprises the White Ensign, the Union Flag flown as a jack, and the masthead pennant, but if the ship is a flagship the distinguishing flag of her Flag Officer replaces this pennant. In general, however, the term 'colours' is understood to mean the ensign and jack only. Particular care must always be taken to ensure that these colours are hoisted close up and not foul of the mast, staff, or rigging; also that the halyards are taut. The manner in which a ship wears her colours is an indication of her smartness.

The ensign and jack are worn during the prescribed hours by HM ships at anchor, secured to a buoy or berthed alongside; but when the ship gets under way (i.e. when the last anchor is aweigh, the sliprope slipped from the buoy, or the last hawser let go) the jack is lowered and it is not rehoisted until the ship again anchors, secures to a buoy or berths alongside (i.e. until the first anchor is let go, the picking-up rope brought to the capstan or the first hawser secured).

There are, however, certain exceptions to these rules. A ship under way wears her ensign whenever there is sufficient light for it to be seen. Ships in harbour, whenever another ship is under way, hoist their ensigns if there is sufficient light for them to be seen. The only two occasions when a jack is worn by one of HM ships under way are: when she is under way in harbour and ships not under way are dressed overall; and when she is wearing the Royal Standard or escorting a ship in which the Sovereign is embarked. For reasons of economy the jack is not worn by ships in dock or by ships undergoing a dockyard refit.

Ensigns are half -masted to indicate a death. They are usually half -masted on the day of the funeral only, from the time the body leaves the ship or place where it has been lying to the time when it is interred.

Gun Salutes

Some examples of when used...

bulletWhen HM ships meet with the Sovereign or with any member of the Royal Family or the heads of foreign states at sea. bulletOn arrival of one of HM ships at a foreign port as a national salute, and also in honour of the senior foreign Flag Officer present (if any). bulletWhen any of HM ships meets a foreign Flag Officer at sea (unless HM ship is flying the flag of an officer senior to him). bulletBy the next senior officer present when a Flag Officer hoists his flag on assuming command. bulletBy a ship, or by the senior of two or more ships, when first meeting a Flag Officer at sea or in harbour after the latter has assumed his command. bulletWhen HM ships are visited on official occasions by British or foreign personages, or by Military or Air Force officers who are entitled to a salute. bulletAt the funerals of high-ranking officers.

It used to be the custom when at sea for the saluting ship to turn and head towards the ship being saluted. This originated in the days when ships were armed with broadside guns only and the salutes were fired with shotted rounds; by heading towards the other ship the salute could not be mistaken for an act of aggression. This custom, however, is not observed nowadays.

Royal and national salutes are of 21 guns. The number of guns for other salutes varies from 21 (e.g. for a Governor-General) to 7 (e.g. for a Consul). (Some Middle Eastern authorities are entitled to a smaller number of guns.) A salute to a national flag, or to the flag of a foreign Flag Officer, is returned gun for gun. A salute by one of HM ships to the flag of a British Flag Officer is returned by the number of guns to which the officer initiating the salute is entitled; although officers of the rank of Captain and Commander are not entitled to a gun salute, they are in this respect entitled to a return salute of 7 guns. No other gun salutes are returned.

On occasions of visits to ships by royalty, heads of states and naval boards of the Commonwealth, salutes are fired when they go on board and again when they leave the ship. Salutes to personages other than those mentioned above are fired once only, either when they go on board or when they leave the ship.

Salutes at funerals

Minute-guns are fired at the funeral of an officer entitled to a gun salute, between the time his body leaves the ship or place where it has been lying and the time it is interred; in the case of royalty the guns are fired at three-minute intervals. A salute is also fired after the interment, and in each case the number of guns is limited to that to which the officer was entitled when alive.

At the funeral of a Captain or Commander in command of a ship seven minute-guns and a salute of seven guns are allowed from the ship the officer commanded.

At the funeral of all officers and men three volleys of musketry are fired over the grave (or over the body when committed to the sea) and the 'Last Post' is sounded.