World of Warships

Achievements are finally not only just pretty pictures that vaguely remind you of your heroic deeds on the battlefield. In World of Warships, these badges of honor serve a higher purpose

Achievements are finally not only just pretty pictures that vaguely remind you of your heroic deeds on the battlefield. In World of Warships, these badges of honor serve a higher purpose and we talk about it extensively in our Spotlight feature on the portal. Here, we will have a look at signal flags from their historical perspective.

Purpose of Naval Signal Flags

The purpose of Naval signal flags are to provide Naval vessels a means of communication, as simply yelling at the other vessel probably isn’t all that efficient. The principle behind signal flags is pretty simple. You have a series of distinctive high visibility flags which can be displayed way up so you can relay a message to any vessel that happens to be nearby. Typically they’re to alert another vessel to your status, whether it be that you’re fueling, you have a man overboard, or that your ship is on fire and assistance is needed. Though, they also aren’t purely for the purposes of warnings or alerts, but also relaying orders, or any other message.

Signal reads ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’ It was flown by HMS Victory (pictured) during the Battle of Trafalgar

A Brief History of Signal Flags

Visual Signals are probably close to as old as sailing itself, due to the aforementioned difficulty and inefficiency of yelling at other ships as a method of communication. However, there have been more than a few different ‘official’ systems used over the years with the intent of created a standardized international system of signals. The first recorded system entered use in 1653 with the Royal Navy. However, it would be about 200 years until a semi-standardized system was adopted in 1855. It was developed by the British Board of Trade, and contained 70,000 different signals using 18 different flags. Strangely, it also lacked vowels. The system was further revised in 1887 but wound up not surviving use in WWI. Numerous shortcomings were uncovered and it was deemed that the whole system had to be redone.

The new system was designed in 1927, and was properly international. It made provisions for English, German, Italian, Japanese, French, Spanish, and Norwegian. The revised system entered use in 1932. Despite some revisions since the 1930s, it’s more or less the system we have in use today. However, individual Navies had their own system of signal flags for use within that service.

What do they mean? How do they work?

The system is pretty simple, even when you get past the ostensive ‘Flags mean things’. You’ve got a box somewhere on your ship, and in it are 40 flags. There is one for every letter of the International Alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, etc) There are also numerical flags for (1-9 and 0) as well as three repeat flags to designate that the preceding flag should be read over again. Specific Naval Systems also include various signals for giving orders, whether they are maneuvering orders or a signal for a predetermined order.

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A typical signal flag box, this one is aboard Mikasa

During the Battle of Tsushima, the Imperial Japanese Navy used the signal ‘Zulu’ for the predetermined message ‘The fate of the Empire rests on the outcome of this battle. Let each man do his utmost.’ Following the subsequent victory at Tsushima, the ‘Zulu’ signal became part of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s tradition. The Zulu flag was flown above the Akagi prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and again prior to the initial strike against the US base on Midway some seven months later.

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Battleship Mikasa was the Japanese Flagship during Tsushima

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She still flies a ‘Zulu’ to this day

To use an example, from the Battle of Jutland ‘Equal Speed, Charlie London’ would appear as an maneuvering pennant for ‘Equal Speed’. Charlie London was ‘C’ and ‘L’ in the phonetic alphabet used by the Royal Navy of the day and they referred to direction, ‘C’ was South East and ‘L’ completed the heading order as ‘South East by East’. This signal also became astonishingly famous among sailors of the Royal Navy as the order was the moment that Admiral Jellicoe maneuvered his force to engage the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland.

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 HMS Iron Duke; the vessel which flew the signal

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Admiral Sir John Jellicoe

To put a pin in it

Signal Flags are rooted in both tradition and practicality, and will likely remain as a system of communication for as long as we’re sailing. Their use has been the stuff of legend among the world’s navies. ‘Equal Speed, Charlie London’ and ‘Zulu’ are among the most famous signals in two of the most important naval battles in history. The systems are also spectacularly simple once understood, and certainly not some sort of mysterious cypher. That’s it for today, but stay tuned to this space in the future for more historical content by yours truly!

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