squadronal colours

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An early method of subdividing the English fleet into squadrons. It is said to have been inaugurated in the reign of Elizabeth I; the earliest surviving instructions laying down the wearing of coloured flags to denote the three squadrons into which the fleet was divided are dated 1617. The admiral's squadron wore a red flag, the vice admiral's a white, and the rear admiral's a blue.

As fleets grew in size, and the three squadrons into which they were divided became correspondingly larger, it became impossible for one admiral to control the movements of his squadron efficiently from his position in the centre of it. In consequence, three admirals were, in theory, allocated to each squadron, a full admiral in command, a vice admiral as his second, and a rear admiral as his third in command. So the white squadron was commanded by an admiral of the White, with a vice admiral of the White and a rear admiral of the White as his second and third in command. The squadrons ranked in the order red, 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 becoming a rear admiral of the White as his first step in flag rank, and a rear admiral of the Red becoming a vice admiral of the Blue when he received promotion. Only in the Red, or senior, squadron was this hierarchy not followed. There was no admiral of the Red since he was in overall command of the whole fleet and was therefore, in theory, admiral of the fleet.

The rank of admiral of the Red was introduced after the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 as a compliment to the British Navy for its successes in the Napoleonic War (1803–15), and as a means of rewarding the most successful admirals. It was not possible then to make promotions to the rank of admiral of the fleet since there was only one holder of this rank and he retained it for life.

In 1864 the organization of the British fleet into coloured squadrons was discarded, mainly because it had no further relevance in the age of steam warships. The red, or senior, ensign was allocated to the British merchant navy, the Royal Navy adopted the white ensign, and the blue ensign was used by naval auxiliary vessels.

See also yellow admiral.

See also yellow admiral.

Subjects: Maritime History.

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