Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Australian White Ensign

Petty Officer Boatswain Antony Kirk holding the Australian White Ensign during Exercise Bersama Lima, off Western Australia. Photo: ABIS Evan Murphy. Courtesy RAN Imagery Unit.

Lindsey Shaw, The Australian White Ensign and its connection with HMAS Vampire, ANMM Blog, 27 March 2017

Flags are everywhere. We see them flying from government and corporate buildings, from ships and cars, at sporting events, and during festivals. They all mean something whether it be identifying a country or business, or marking the end of a marathon. This month marked the anniversary of one of Australia’s most significant flags – the Australian White Ensign (AWE), first flown on 1 March 1967.

With the coming of Federation in 1901, the existing naval forces of the various Australian states became one Commonwealth Naval Force until 1911, when King George V conferred the title of Royal Australian Navy (RAN) upon our fleet of warships and shore based establishments. You might think that there was an opportunity then to further identify the Australian ships with an Australian ensign but it didn’t happen. The Commonwealth countries discussed at the 1909 Imperial Conference what their navies should fly as their ensign – the national flag flown by a vessel to show its nationality – with both Australia and Canada advocating change.

But no decision was made and the fleets of the Commonwealth continued to fly the British White Ensign (BWE) at the stern and their national flag at the bow. For a number of years, discussions and requests for change continued, however, the British Admiralty resolved that all Commonwealth navies would fly the BWE. So the RAN flew the BWE – a red St George’s Cross on a white field with the Union Flag in the upper left corner. RAN ships continued to often be mistaken as ships of the British Royal Navy (RN).

With Australia’s entry into the Vietnam War in 1962, discussion once more turned to the RAN having its own white ensign rather than flying the BWE – which was argued as flying the ensign of another country. During WW2, the RAN was under the command of the RN but from the 1950s had increasingly sought independence from the RN and was allying itself more closely with the USA.

Such a seemingly simple task as changing a flag took a year of discussion until all parties agreed and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II granted royal assent on 7 November 1966. The introduction of the new Australian White Ensign was slated for 1 March 1967 when all ships and shore establishments of the RAN – no matter where they were in the world – would lower the BWE and raise the AWE.

What does the AWE look like? Quite simply it’s a white version of the blue Australian national flag. It has a white background, the Union Jack in the upper left corner, the Federation Star beneath that, and the five stars of the Southern Cross to the right.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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