THE RED, THE WHITE AND THE BLUE
Squadron colours were inaugurated during the reign of Elizabeth I to subdivide the English fleet into three squadrons. There were three classes of admirals using coloured flags. The Admiral’s squadron wore a red flag, the Vice-Admiral’s wore a white and the Rear-Admiral’s wore a blue.
As fleets grew in size during the seventeenth century, the squadrons became too large for one admiral to control the movements of his squadron efficiently and effectively. This led to three admirals being assigned to each squadron: a full Admiral in command, a Vice-Admiral as his second, and a Rear-Admiral as his third in command. Thus there was now an Admiral of the Blue, Vice-Admiral of the Blue and Rear-Admiral of the Blue, and so forth. The squadrons ranked in the order Red (as senior), White, Blue, and Admirals took rank according to the colour of their squadron.
Promotion of admirals also took place in this order - a Rear-Admiral of the Blue on promotion became a Rear-Admiral of the White as his first flag promotion. Once he had reached Rear-Admiral of the Red, he would then become a Vice-Admiral of the Blue on promotion and so until he finally became an Admiral of the White. It was only in the Red squadron that the hierarchy was not followed. There was no Admiral of the Red since this would be deemed as being in overall command of the whole fleet. However, this was the province of the Admiral of the Fleet and until 1862, there could only be one holder of this rank and it was an appointment held for life.
In 1805, after the battle of Trafalgar, the rank of Admiral of the Red was introduced to reward the most successful admirals and acted as a compliment to the Navy for the successes it had achieved during the Napoleonic Wars. It became the highest rank that an Admiral could attain until 1862, when an allowance was made for more than one Admiral of the Fleet to be appointed. The Admiralty then introduced new regulations in 1870 that ensured the retirement of the Admiral of the Fleet at the age of seventy. The rank was abolished in the late twentieth century and only current post-holders retained the rank.
In 1864 the organisation of the British fleet into coloured squadrons was discarded, mainly because it had no relevance in the age of steam warships. The Red Ensign was allocated to the merchant navy of Britain, the Royal Navy adopted the White Ensign, and the Blue Ensign was used by naval auxiliary vessels. Admirals of the Fleet flew the Union Flag, Admirals flew the St. George Flag, Vice-Admirals the St George Flag with a red sphere in the top left quarter, and Rear-Admirals flew the same but with a red sphere in the top and lower left quarters of the flag.
©Royal Naval Museum Library, 2000
The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available