The Royal Signals .. Signalling with Flags

Recording Signalling Methods, Technology, Equipment & History for Posterity

The following is a compilation of many different sources and information by Petra (sadly now deceased), some she found from on-line web sites, some from books, some translations from German sources and a lot is simply written by herself, including the noticeably "odd" inclusion of her very twisted humour from which everyone distances themselves! (even Petra) That said you can hopefully still learn a lot and have fun.


Visual Signalling via Flags and other Methods

This Datasheet is the Third in a Series that covers the pre-Royal Signals period of the British Army (and Naval) Signalling. It will cover Visual Signalling with Flags which were for many centuries an important method of communications for both British ground and sea forces. Be Warned! It contains the occasional outburst of odd "Petra" humour.

Reminder of the story so far…

All of the visual signalling datasheets have an integral interface to the Royal Navy, for reasons that become clear later. Indeed up until WW1 the Navy and RE signallers used much the same systems and worked closely together. Here is why the Royal Engineers were so intertwined with the Navy.

The History of the Royal Signals and their Origin in the Royal Engineers is well known and documented on many on-line web resources. But what is not so diligently covered is the fact that the First School of Field Instruction (including Signalling) was a joint effort of the Admiralty and the Royal Engineers and established in Chatham Dockyards in 1812.

The Engineers had in many sieges and battles tunnelled under enemy forts, laid massive charges and were experts in Demolition and Fortification (including building forts to prevent the enemy doing the same to them!). In fact it is due to this Tunnelling that the good old land mine got its name "Mine" as did the sea mine. The Engineers for their part were entrusted with two Naval Functions. 1). Supplying the Corps of Submarine Miners, and 2). Supplying the knowledge and resources to build and run Forts along the British coast and Harbour entrances. Obviously it was important not to sink their own returning ships yet still be able to fire on approaching enemy ships long before their cannon became a risk to the moored up fleet in Harbour.

The ship to shore signalling including mechanical telegraphy, and nearer to shore Flag Waving, was thus firmly in the hands of the Royal Engineers by the mid 1800s.

Naturally it made sense that the Engineers and Navy used the same signalling systems, and also wherever possible learnt the same set of ordinance skills and defence tactics.

The History and Development of Flags

Although it may sound stupid, not many people today would stop to think about what is a Flag, where and how did it develop, and what power or magic a fluttering piece of cloth can have over humans.

Naturally to most people today if you ask them what is a flag, they will simply think of a Union Jack, or any other national symbol to identify a country, fluttering away at the top of a building. Few if any will think of how important these strips of cloth were and for some still are. Wars were fought over Flags, and many Armies today (such as the German Bundeswehr) swear allegiance to the Flag, not having a permanent head of state like the British Royal Family head.

The German Nazi Party was very clever in the use of symbolism and not only proved you could move a nation by an over use of Flags, but also made their soldiers take the Fahneneid, (Swear allegiance to the German Flag, which at the time was also the Political party of the National Socialist) and if they deserted they were accused of Fahnenflucht (Running from the Flag) a crime that was also applied to civilians of the former GDR who tried to escape to West Germany during the cold war.

Flags are powerful tools and can unite a nation, with the same effectiveness as they did for the NS party in the 1930s, for example see the patriotism of the United States after 9-11 (World Trade Centre attacks in New York.) or divide a nation, for example in Northern Ireland, the residents can "flag" their belonging to a side, or opposing another side, by simply flying (even painting on walls) either the Union Flag, or red hand of Ulster, or on the opposing side the Tricolour of the "Free State"

Basically a Flag is nothing more than a piece of cloth, usually with a picture or design on it, so why should it empower such emotional energy? Maybe because it is a piece of cloth, or mixture of cloths and colours, that actually stands for something? A flag may represent a nation, person, or organization; it may symbolize a belief or idea; or it may transmit information, and that is the function that this datasheet will discuss.

Flags and Gods

Ancient people like the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans carried flag-like objects thousands of years ago. These "flags" were initially in fact nothing more than the bare flagpole, which were at first devices called standards, and consisted of God like symbols or carvings attached to the tops of long poles. Soldiers carried these symbols into battle, hoping that their gods would help them win, and put them "up the pole" so that other members of their force could see their god was with them. As the armies got bigger they added strips of cloth to make them more visible to the soldiers furthest from the respective standard, and so it came to pass that the streamers eventually became just as important as the standard.

Flags became important to the soldiers during battles for a variety of reasons. Soldiers of the Egyptians and other ancient peoples often tied streamers to the poles they carried. The streamers-like later cloth flags-showed which way the wind blew, and helped the archers (before the BBC stopped their radio series) to see the direction to "Correct to", before aiming their arrows. Also the flags helped Speer throwing soldiers in the same way. And later when smoke and gas was used in battle to ensure it was going to go the right way for the desired effect.

Flags also stood for each side in a battle, and generals watched them to see where their soldiers currently were and in which direction they were moving. In the confusion of Battle the flags became rallying points, if the flag moved east, the force was to follow, West like wise. The generals on the hills could use identical flags and dip them one way or another to show how they wanted their forces to move. Drums and Bugles or Horns were used to attract the attention of the field agents carrying the flag, and so a basic form of command communication was soon established. Over time fighting often centred around the troop or regimental flag, with the enemy trying to disrupt the organised communication, and so "defending the flag" was regarded as the chief duty of all soldiers. If the soldier carrying the flag was killed or wounded, others would "rally round the flag" to prevent the enemy from capturing it. So powerful was the belief in the Flag, that if the flag was captured, many soldiers would simply give up the fight, even if that meant being executed by the victors. The signalling initially however comprised of Blowing horns, Trumpets, Beating Drums, and simply shouting, but with the increasing sound of battle, mainly due to over-orchestrated Hollywood "Rambo-style" Music being added, (look at any historic battle film to see I am right!) and the new sound of musket and cannon, making audio signalling less and less effective. Beating a drum, was therefore soon combined with raising the standard, or waving it side-to-side, and soon simple commands were effected by combining the visual and acoustic effects into simple "attention getters" which did not mean driving around in a souped-up car, with windows wound down and the music set to mega-blast level.

It did not take long before the advantages of signalling just by the flags alone, over distances the sounds could not clearly cover became understood, and with new code-signs more than simple moves became possible. And if the distance was too great, the size of the flag simply needed enlarging. The same was true for sea battles, when cannon became better and range of shot increased, the size of flags were simply increased.

In the days of Henry the Fifth and Elizabeth the First, etc., the Identification Pennants (That under sail would stream down the front of the sails, and so also showed up better against the sailcloth) on a ship could be forty to fifty feet long, and the Ensign at the back of the ship was also disproportionately long making identification from front and side easier.

There had been the earlier idea of painting the Red George Cross on the sails, but short of carrying two set of sails, there was no way to remove this quickly to sail in stealth if wanting to avoid enemy attraction. The advantage of the Pennants and flags were they could be added and removed quickly, and as was typical practice of the day, a set of enemy flags could be deployed to trick the enemy into letting the British ships get close enough to fire on their fleet.

Last and not least the Royal standard was placed on the top of the highest mast, and where possible made even higher, then ships had a habit of sinking, even if only over the horizon while sailing and ever foot higher increased the chances of being seen by our friends.

Royal Signals ... The mary Rose
Figure 1 The Mary Rose with typical Flags and Streamers compliments of the day

The British of the day also had a perchant for flying the Jolly roger to increase their sea power and wealth, and by August 1967 had put a tight enough ring of Pirate Radio station ships around the British coastline, and even along the Dutch and Belgium coast, to make Pop Music in the 1960's a British affair. Insulting the French, particularly with songs as diverse as "Up Je T'Aime" by Franky Howard and "Michelle" by the Beatles, as well as many other Pop songs singing French words wrongly was never so easy.

Royal Signals ... Radio Nordsee
Figure 2 Radio Nordsee International one of many 1960's-1980's Pop Pirates

In the figure above the ship remains relatively static, the Flagpole has become an Antenna mast, the colours are the Company logo, the sails became "sales" of advertising space, and the rallying Drums were now typically from "Dance with the Devil" (a record by Cozy Powel).

Obviously once Microsoft invented America and forcibly added it as an upgrade to the up till then happy "First World" the size of a flag, or indeed other operating systems or recognition signals no longer had any validly, then the also newly patented North American forces (who rely heavily on Hi-Tech), were trained to shoot at anything that moves. Thus the ability of ships from the Reign of Henry or Elizabeth to swap or remove British marking fast, proved also useful if wanting to avoid friendly fire from the recently established North American Air Force Interceptors (NAAFI) which had been set up twenty minutes after teatime (1620) by the British Colonialist to try to remove Geronimo and his airborne Indians from their Dakota aircraft, and stop them dropping in unexpectedly to tea. The British admiralty had also by 1620, in an emergency meeting at Portsmouth shown that they were concerned enough to not only call for more tea, but also to call upon their Boffins of the day to try to invent some Radio sets and Radar, which for the Royal Cannon-makers used only to casting things in Bronze, or carving bits of tackle out of oak, was no easy task… But never lose faith in British resourcefulness. Then for the mean time the Admiralty took to issuing "Chits in Lieu", instead of Radios, and Telescopes instead of radio-telephones, and putting men up in baskets on the mast-heads, instead of Radar, helped solve some of the problems of "seeing who was coming for dinner! Or preventing hostile continents and coastlines sneaking up on our ships"

Speaking of Microsoft, note how they chose the Windows "Flag" for their logo, then their marketing people also recognised the power of a Flag. (Wave your important data bye-bye!)

Remember also in pre-industrialised Britain, there was a general lack of high quality optical instruments, as well as a lack of a standardised ship form, shape or colour, which made it very difficult from any shore based defenders to tell which ships were actually approaching the harbour. i.e. friend or foe? So running up the correct colours could also prevent the home based shore defences sending the sailors some friendly-fire for their homecoming!

The Navy in best British tradition were also willing to experiment, and tried several methods of inter-ship communication. The captain of one ship would observe the other sailing a few hundred feet to his side, if this ship threw five crew members overboard, it meant "prepare for battle". Throwing off three meant "Turn about", more than forty in one go meant "abandon ship… We are sinking" (and is the only evidence of this secret code experiment still in use today), One often meant "we have run out of signallers (Men to throw overboard)" or "we are punishing this man for playing with the ships pulleys" and a bunch of Officers being thrown overboard meant "Under new Management!" Some slight reluctance from the crew to employ this method of signalling caused a rethink, and after they had considered and rejected in turn, using sheep instead of men, or elephants (for the greater signalling distance) and even some Welshmen (then they came free with the sheep!) the idea of throwing things overboard was dropped. Other experiments by the Irish part of the fleet, namely the writing of messages on Cannonballs and sending them back and forth, from which the idea for tennis came, were also considered and rejected, so they settled back on the use of flags and kept them as the main form of communication until well into living memory…

Incidentally Bus Companies also have a Naval Tradition. The origins of which are subtle and often unknown. In the days before "one-man operation" the companies needed conductors who could walk the upper deck of a double-decker bus, (ever wonder why they chose the name Deck?) these needed to be either permanently drunk, or ex-navy (and usually both) to cope with the swaying and pitching when the bus was in motion… The remnants of the earlier Signalling Code experiment was also occasionally used, where the conductor throwing people off signalled to waiting passengers, "we don't let people ride without a ticket!"

Off course the passengers waiting at a stop should also "Flag" the bus to show they want to ride, but why else would they be waiting there? And the last hidden clue to the Naval connection is that many a Bus in London rolls up a special honour display on its front and back, the words "Trafalgar Square!" Tourist however be warned, some bus drivers today behave like "Pirates" and either not let you on (Claiming "full") or looking at the legal tender you offer, claim "Exact change only!" and throw you off again!

Back to the Navy and their development of Flags…

In fourteenth century Europe, things were not much more advanced than of signalling during the time of the ancient Romans, Greeks and Athenians. Woods wrote…

Between 1337 and 1351 the British Navy lists two signals in their old ``Black Book of the Admiralty.'' The first was to hoist a flag of council high in the middle of the mast, to notify all captains to come aboard the admiral's flagship for a meeting. Hoisting another flag aloft reported the sighting of the enemy.

By the late seventeenth century things still had not progressed much. A code book issued for the British Navy in 1673 defined 15 different flags, each with a single predefined meaning, which was probably not too much different from what had been used since antiquity.

The first significant improvement was made in 1738, when the Frenchman de la Bourdonnais introduced a numerical code for flags. He proposed to use ten coloured flags to indicate the numbers from zero to nine. With three sets of such flags, all separately coloured, so in all a thousand code combinations could be made.

The Frenchman Ignace Chappe, brother of Claude Chappe (or that Chappy who invented the Mechanical Telegraph) wrote in 1824 that he considered it a regrettable mistake that the system of de la Bourdonnais had never been adopted by the French Navy.

Although they did get to see some pretty nifty flag work based on this code, when they tried to sail their fleet into the British Banking Centre and lost the battle of Trafalgar Square when their ships were first ticketed for using the bus only lanes, then for sailing on the wrong side of the road, and while they tried to change sides were then rammed and left to sink in the fountains, by the combined efforts of the 1805 No 17, No 22 Buses and the slightly early 1812 No. 26 Waterloo Bus… which all had drivers with an unusually strong dislike of French tourist!

Royal Signals ... The No 17 Bus

Fig. 3 The 17 Bus having no more cannon balls, prepares to ram the French ship.

"England expects all passengers to have the correct change, and be ready to man the guns on demand…"

Royal Signals ... The No 26 Bus

Fig. 4 The 26 Bus fires one last shot before sailing on to Waterloo for the next fight.

In 1763, another Frenchman, Sebastian Francisco de Bigot, (otherwise known as the Bigot of San Francisco!) the founder of the Marine Academy in Brest, published a new code book Tactique Navale ou Traite des Evolutions et des Signaux. Which if my French serves me as well as my understanding of Serbian Croatian does, (i.e. none) roughly translated means "Signs of the Tactical Development of Fluff in your Belly-button!" a problem that apparently still dogs the French Navy today!

The book, apart from giving sailors tips on avoiding catching "fluff in there navels" and "other things" from the girls in the ports, also for the first time ever, specified a true protocol for the use of coded flags.

De Bigot's book had three parts. The first, and largest, part listed 336 distinct flag signals for signalling predefined events or commands from ship to ship. It introduced some important protocol rules, such as the definition of a ``preparatory signal flag'' for synchronization, the requirement that a receiver acknowledge all signals received by repeating them, and the use of ``repeater vessels'' to allow for re-broadcasting signals to an entire fleet.

The second part of the book, Table de Manieres, ("Table manners" which gave the order of meal-courses to be ordered by the flags from the nearest shore based take-away) contained an alphabetical index of all signals listed in the first part. Each signal was given a number, allowing for a quick cross-referencing of related signals. No. 46 for example was Sweet and Sour Chicken.

The third part of the book gave standard manoeuvring diagrams for ships. As Woods noted:

Thus the book permitted a captain to look up an unknown signal in the index of part 2, locate the meaning from part 1, and study the evolution from the diagram in part 3. Cannon, flares, and lights were supplied for transmitting an identical code during night or fog. Then he could simply settle back and await the arrival of his take-away.

Although the book was translated and published in England in 1767, it took more then two decades before the British Navy developed a comparable system with numeric codes. Then at this time they were still discussing the much secret "signalmen overboard" code system, and the unexplainable reductions of crew sizes when the ships returned home…

By now due to the shortfall of crew the Navy Recruiting office had turned to giving "free cruises" under their marketing offensive "Press-Gang Crews", which is also a tradition still alive today and shown recently in the Iraq invasion under the more modern name "Embedded Journalist!"

Also another problem raised its head at this time, namely the decision by our American cousins to leave the "British" club, reputably due to some experiment in 1776 to see if the Americans could get an entry in the Guinness book of records (for the biggest cup of tea), which had failed when the British Judges declared that the water in their cup (a Boston Harbour model) was way too salty! Problems with this troublesome colony may well have delayed the Admiralty making any sensible or useable decisions for quite a while.

In 1790, the British admiral Lord Richard Howe became commander-in-chief of the British Channel Fleet, and introduced a new signal book, which became known as The Howe Code. (a co-publication to the "Howe Codebook", called "Which Magazine" was less popular as its subscribers were always being sought out and burnt at the stake…)

Howe's code used ten coloured flags to represent the numbers from zero to nine, (with the zero and Cipher flag being the same), and six additional flags to represent a small number of special control codes, e.g., for acknowledgements, and terminations. The numerical flags were used in combination with a small dictionary of 260 numbered entries, which was extended to 340 entries in 1799.

Royal Signals ... The Howe Code of 1795

Figure 5 The Howe Code of 1795 (and second copy that Petra colorized)

The range of the dictionary was extended considerably in 1800 by Admiral Sir Home Popham. Popham's new signal book, Telegraphic Signals of Marine Vocabulary, (see we have much better titles than the French!) was adopted officially by the British Royal Navy in 1803.

In Popham's code, the ten coloured flags from the Howe code were designated to represent either the numerals from zero to nine, or the letters A to K in a single flag hoist, the letters I and J sharing a flag. Fifteen combinations of two flags gave the remaining letters of the alphabet. The code also included an index of 3,000 numbered sentences and phrases, in three series. Each series had its own indicator flag; the signals in each series were made with combinations of three flags, hoisted together.

Fifty copies of Popham's code book were sold under the counter (in plain brown paper wrapping) to sailors of the British fleet at Cadiz in early September 1805 who thought they were getting something raunchy.

The battle of Trafalgar, which took place the next month, put the new code to its first test. Flag signalling codes were used extensively by both the French and the British, as indicated by the following description.

Accordingly the French admiral Villeneuve hoisted the signal to weigh anchor, and at six in the morning of 19 October the British frigate Sirius, waiting outside Cadiz, signalled to the fleet below the horizon ``Enemy have topsails hoisted.'' An hour later it hoisted signal no. 370, ``Enemy ships are coming out of port.'' The hoists were made to the next frigate in the signalling chain, Euryalus, which in turn signalled no. 370 to Phoebe with the accompanying admonition--superfluous in a service schooled to such discipline--``Repeat signals to lookout ships west.'' And so no. 370 travelled down the chain, from Phoebe to Naiad, Naiad to Defence (a line-of-battleship), Defence to Colossus and Colossus to Mars, standing in Nelson's line of battle itself, 48 miles from the mouth of Cadiz harbour. The news reached Nelson at 9:30. He immediately ordered ``General chase southeast'' and steered to place the fleet between Cadiz and the Straits of Gibraltar. The opening move of the battle of Trafalgar had begun.
Royal Signals ... HMS Victory

Figure 6 HMS Victory (in Portsmouth)

Just before the battle, Nelson signalled a final instruction that would become famous in Britain: ``England expects that every man will do his duty.'' Since it was not one of the predefined phrases, it had to be spelled out with individual flag hoists, and worse of the nine words, eight were in the code book and could be signalled with single hoists of three flags each. The word ``duty,'' however, was not in the code at all, and had to be spelled out with single- and double-flag hoists.

After the battle, Popham's code became known as the Trafalgar Code, an indication that it was considered a success. In 1813 Popham issued new signal books, extending the range to 6,000 predefined sentences and phrases, and 60,000 words.

Popham himself was honoured by the development of a special code amongst all true Englishmen, the so called "I am just Popham down to the Pub to Celebrate Nelson's Victory!" which over the years has been shortened and corrupted to "I'm just Pop

Flag-Waving and WIGWAG Flagging

All the flag signalling methods mentioned so far clearly dealt with ship-to-ship communications, and were not originally intended to be used on land, other than running up flags to call the crews back to ship before sailing.... Two British officers, Sir Francis Bolton and Vice Adm. Philip Colomb, independently developed a Flag-waving system at about the same time, one of which used the recently invented Morse-Code (Basic numeral code) and later was easily adapted to be used with the International "Vail Code" or Continental Morse Code as it became known.

The WigWag

In 1856 an American army doctor named Albert James Myer (1827-1880) introduced his own system, which he called wig-wag signalling. He proposed a method of signalling with either flags or torches, which allowed for two basic motions, that is, a wave of the flag or torch to the left or to the right. Myer's code also defined the acknowledgement of messages, using special codes for signalling ``not understood,'' or ``understood.''

Royal Signals ... WigWag Inventor Albetrt James Myer (1827 - 1880

Figure 7 Inventor of the WigWag, Albert James Myer (1827-1880)

Royal Signals ... Cought Wagging

Figure 8 Caught Wagging! The three basic WigWag Moves, Left, Right and Centre

The wig-wag method was adopted by the American Army in January 1860. Myer even obtained a U.S. patent, No. 252, for his system titled "An improved system of signalling". The patent being issued on 29 January 1861. Even though by now the simpler Morse code already existed, and disputes arose as to which was the better and more progressive. In fact the Morse code Flagging system did not totally replace Myer's code until 1912, some forty-two years later.

Royal Signals ... US Army Order To Adopt

Figure 9 The US Army Order to adopt the "English" Flag Waving system (1886).

The American Signal Service and Signal Corps differed upon which system was best, so consequently they taught both from 1886 onwards. As the above order shows. Also there were two kinds of Myer code, the original (as shown in Table below) and the "General Service Code" which instead of three signals per letter used either two or four.

Indeed there was another brief revival shortly after the official phase out in 1912, when American signallers routinely switched in and out of "Myers" during their participation in WW1 (1917 and 1918) to prevent easy reading by the Germans who also used the British (Continental Morse) system.

Albert Myer, (1829-1880), was in fact not tasked with Signalling. He was a U S. Army surgeon and in his spare time cryptographer. Then to finance his medical studies, Myer had worked as an operator for the New York, Albany, and Buffalo Telegraph Company. After entering the army, he developed his visual signalling method in 1856 and called it flag telegraphy. His attention to details such as Cryptographic code-wheels, night time signalling methods, etc., made him so well respected that he was eventually made chief signal officer. Though it was approved for use in 1860, the year Myer became chief signal officer, the system was not fully appreciated until the outbreak of the U.S. CIVIL WAR in 1861. Myer's technique then came to be known as "wigwag," from the motions of its hand-held flags or disks for daytime signalling and torches or lanterns for sending messages at night.

In this code, alphabet letters were equated with three positions of the flag, disk, or torch. The flags measured two, four, or six feet square and were generally either red or black banners with white square centres or white banners with red square centres. The disks were 12 to 18 inches in diameter and were made of metal or wood frames with canvas surfaces. Somewhat easier to handle than the flags, they provided a different method for daylight communications. Each torch was a metal canister filled with a flammable liquid attached to a staff. A second "foot torch" was placed on the ground at the feet of the signalman as a fixed point of reference, making it easier for the recipient to judge the torch's movements. Also made it easier for snipers to find his body.

Royal Signals ... The Us Of The Torch

Figure 10 The use of a Torch and a reference Foot Lamp to send Wig-Wag in the dark

Each letter consisted of a combination of three basic motions. All began with the flagman holding his device vertically and motionless above his head. The first motion was initiated by dipping the device downward on the signalman's right side and then quickly returning it to its upright position. Motion number 2 involved dipping the device down to the left side and then returning it to the starting position. The third motion required dipping the device straight in front of the signalman, then restoring it to its vertical position.

The chart below indicates how letters and directions were conveyed. For example, the Letter "G" (123) would be signalled by motion 1 (Left-dip), motion 2 (Right-dip), and motion 3 (Centre-dip) in rapid succession. The periods signified a written pause in a sequence of movements. In action, this was also a pause, unless concluding the message.

The original Myer's Alphabetical and word, sentence and message ending codes

 A 112  B 121  C 211  D 212
 E 221  F 122  G 123  H 312
 I 213  J 232  K 323  L 231
 M 132  N 322  O 223  P 313
 Q 131  R 331  S 332  T 133
 U 233 V 222  W 311  X 321
 Y 111  Z 113  End Of Word "3"
 End of a sentence "33"  End of a message "333"
Other Myer's signal administration codes -- Signal of concurrence: "I understand," or general affirmative Cease signalling -- (or BBB) = Repeat -- (or CCC) = Move a little to the right -- (or EEE) = Move a little to the left
 212121.3 -- (or DB) = Error

The method was first applied in real combat by the southern Confederacy. A former Myer trainee, one Lt. Alexander, sent flag signals at Bull Run to warn the South's Gen. Beauregard of a Union flanking movement. The down side was both sides were trained to the same strategy, the same tactics and same codes and Signalling.

Royal Signals ... The Us Of Two Flags

Figure 11 The use of two(different) Flags to send twice as much info at a time

Union forces successfully used Myer's flag signals in September 1862, when Gen. Burnside was alerted to an attack by Stonewall Jackson's cavalry at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland.

Royal Signals ... The Us Of Two Flags

Figure 12 The use of again two Flags to send twice as much info at a time

But at Chancellorsville, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker met disaster at the hands of Robert E. Lee in May 1863 due in part to very poor command links with his troops.

Another Union success, Adm. David Farragut's naval victory at Mobile Bay, Alabama, in August 1864, benefited from signals exchanged between Northern ships and land forces. However the Navy used the English code, so the shore based flagman must have also used it. Several reports indicate that a flagman conveyed Farragut's legendary command, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

Royal Signals ... The Story Of The Wig Wags

Figure 13 A copy of a 1950s Magazine Article on the Story of the Wig Wag

The general service code (shown in the reprint below) was an improvement on Myer's patent, then like in Morse code improved by Vail, the letters most used were kept shortest, one or two symbols, and the less frequently used were three or four. Another improvement was that the number three movement was no longer used in any letter so making it easier to read should the flagman not be standing true and square on to the target.

Also a lot more Signalling commands, such as send faster, change flag colour, etc. were added and so a fair degree of comfort could be achieved for both sender and reader. Indeed the system was getting pretty close to the system the UK had adopted, and so a change to the Continental Morse code was not so difficult as it might have been had the Original code been employed.

Royal Signals ... General Service Wig Wag Code

Figure 14 Note the modified "General Service" Wig-Wag code from the same 1950s reprint
Royal Signals ... Wig Wag Flag Kit

Figure 15 The contents of the Wig-Wag Flag Kit including Torch and Fuel can

By now the importance of efficient signalling both at sea, and in the field had made its mark, but in the US as in Britain, one important factor had appeared and was the reason for the US Army adopting the basics of the British system, namely the need to communicate from ship to shore.

The Last form of US Wig-Wag was a mixture of both British "Flag-wagging" and Myer's Wig-Wag and was used until well into the Korean War.

Royal Signals ... Attention
Royal Signals ... Ready
Royal Signals ... Dot
Royal Signals ... Dash
Royal Signals ... End (Side-View)
     Attention!       Ready                 Dot     Dash               End (Side-view)
Figure 16 The "Continental Morse" Modified US "General Service" Wig-Wag

However at the start of the 20th Century, another code was slowly becoming popular in Both the UK and USA. The two flag semaphore. But first we will look at the Single Flag British flag waving code, as practiced by the Royal Engineers and pre-WW2 Royal Signals.

The Communication via Flags using "Morse"

The following is taken from the Handbook of Signalling, 1913, produced by the British Admiralty (Chapter 3, page 14). But it is exactly the same procedure and instruction as that of provided by the Royal Engineers Signal Service…

Flag Waving

When to be Employed.

1. Flag Waving may be employed for passing coded and cipher messages from Flag to W/T Guard ships and vice versa; it may also be used for communicating with the Army and for private messages between ships.

2. When it is used for private messages between ships, the method laid down for communicating with the Army is to be followed as far as it can be applied. Ships are to be called up by their Distinguishing Pendants being made; Distinguishing Flags should only be hoisted to attract attention if the ship called delays in answering, and they are to be hauled down immediately she answers.

3. Private messages are never to be allowed to interfere with Service Signals.

Explanation of the System.

1. "Dots" are made by waving a flag through small arcs, "dashes" by waving it through large arcs.

2. There are flags of two sizes: the larger for greater distances or during lower visibility 3 ft square with a staff 5 ft 6 in long, and a 2 ft square on a staff of 3 ft 6 in long

and for each size they are available in two colours- white with a blue horizontal stripe, for use against a dark background, dark blue, for use against a light background.

Position of the Signalman.

1. The Signalman should stand square (either facing or with his back turned) onto the Station to which he is signalling, according to convenience and/or the direction of the wind. (Note: The advantage of the British system was it did not read wrong if read from the back or off centre. The Wig-wag and two-flag Semaphore however cannot be read correctly from behind)

2. The staff should be kept as upright as possible while in motion, the point never being allowed to droop to the front or rear.

3. The flag is to be held high enough for the Signalman to still see below it when it is in motion.

Royal Signals ... In The Above Figure

Figure 17 In the above figure (A) is the normal start position of the flag.

How to Signal.

1. To make a "dot": the flag is waved from (a) to (b), and without any pause back again to the normal position.

2. To make a "dash": the flag is waved from (a) to (c), and after a slight pause at (c), brought back to the normal position.

3. To signal a letter: the elements representing it should be made in one continuous wave of the flag, taking care that no pause is made when at the normal position.

Example: to make 'R' ( . - . ), wave the flag from (a) to (b), back to (a), and without any pause down to (c), making there a slight pause, back to (a), then without any pause to (b), and back to the normal position (a).

4. A pause, equal to the time taken to make a "dash", should be made at the normal position (a) between each letter of a word, or symbol in a group.

5. When a word or group is completed, the staff should be brought down diagonally in front of the body, and the flag gathered in with the left hand.

6. A slight pause (equal to the time occupied in making two dashes) should be made at the normal position before commencing another word or group.

7. In receiving a message, the flag should be kept down diagonally in front of the body, and gathered in until required for answering.

8. In order to keep the flag always exposed while in motion, the point of the staff should be made to describe an elongated figure of 8. (if the action were to be viewed from a birds eye view looking down the line of axis "B" in the Graphic above!)

The 1911 Encyclopaedia says;

Army Signalling.-Communication by visual signals between portions of an army is a comparatively recent development of military service. Actual signals were of course made in all ages of warfare, either specially agreed upon beforehand, such as a rocket or beacon, or of more general application, such as the old-fashioned wooden telegraph and the combinations of lights, etc., used by savages on the N.W. frontier of India. But it was not until the middle years of the 19th century that military signalling proper, as a special duty of soldiers, became at all general.

It was about the year 1865 that, owing to the initiative of Captain Philip Colomb, R.N., whose signal system had been adopted for his own service, the question of army signalling was seriously taken up by the British military authorities. A school of signalling was created at Chatham, and some time later all units of the line were directed to furnish men to be trained as signallers. At first a code book was used and the signals represented code words, but it was found better to revert to the telegraphic system of signalling by the Morse alphabet, amongst the undeniable advantages of which was the fact that it was already used both by the postal service and the telegraph units of Royal Engineers.

Thenceforward, in ever-increasing perfection, the work of signallers has been a feature of almost every campaign of the British army.

Semaphore Signalling with Two flags

Royal Signals ... The Semaphore Wheel

Figure 18 The Positions of the flags on the "Semaphore Wheel"(45 degree indents)

Royal Signals ... The Semaphore Wheel A to N

Figure 19 The Positions of the flags for the letters "A to N"

Royal Signals ... The Semaphore Wheel M to Z

Figure 20 The Positions of the flags for the letters "M to Z" and Admin

Flag signalling with a pair of "semaphore-flags" was named after the Mechanical Arm telegraph which the British had called the Semaphore. It remains in use today and of all the codes sent by flag(s) has proved the most popular.

The Set of flags hoisted up the Ships mast are also still in use today, but naturally are not as popular, then the Boy Scouts and amateur yacht sailors can learn to handle two flags relatively easily, but to obtain and train up "Hoisting signals" is beyond all but the Merchant or Military Navy.

The Popham flag system was standardized in 1857 with the publication of a first international code. It was last revised in 1934.

Below is a copy of the 1937 Signalling code Booklet, which besides showing the Flags, also explained the Semaphore, and mechanical Semaphore Mast Telegraph, Morse lamps, etc..

Royal Signals ... Royal Navy Signal Card

Figure 21 The 1937 Issue of the Royal Navy Signalling Card

Royal Signals ... Royal Navy Signal Card

Figure 22 The 1937 Issue of the Royal Navy Signalling Card

Royal Signals ... Royal Navy Signal Card

Figure 23 The 1937 Issue of the Royal Navy Signalling Card

Flag Signalling in Use

The number of flags in use in the naval code, comprising what is termed a " set," are 58, and consist of 26 alphabetical flags, 10 numeral flags, 16 pendants and 6 special flags. Flag signals are divided into three classes, to each of which is allotted a separate book. One class consists of two alphabetical flags; and refers to orders usual in the administration. of a squadron, such as, for example, the flags LE, which might signify" Captain repair on board flagship." Another class consist of three alphabetical flags, which refer to a coded dictionary, wherein are words and short sentences likely to be required. The remaining refers to evolutionary orders for manoeuvring, which have alphabetical and numeral flags combined.

The flags which constitute a signal are termed a "hoist." One or more hoists may be made at the same time. Although flag signalling is a slow method compared with others, a fair rate can be attained with practice. For example, a signal involving 162 separate hoists has been. repeated at sight by 13 ships in company in 76 minutes. Semaphore signals are made by the extension of a man's arms through a vertical plane, the different symbols being distinguished by the relative positions of the arms, which are never less than 45° apart. To render the signals more conspicuous the signaller usually holds a small flag on a stick in each hand, but all ships are fitted with mechanical semaphores, which can be worked by one man, and are visible several miles. Flag signalling being comparatively slow and laborious, the ordinary message work in a squadron is generally signalled by semaphore. The convenience of this method is enormous, and by way of example it may be of interest to mention a record message of 350 words which was signalled to 21 ships simultaneously at the rate of 17 words per minute.

Flags being limited in size, and only distinguishable by their colour, signals by this means are not altogether satisfactory at long distances, even when the wind is suitable. For signalling at long range the British navy employs a semaphore with arms from 9 to 12 ft. long mounted at the top of the mast and capable of being trained in any required direction, and worked from the deck. Its range depends upon the clearness of the atmosphere, but instances are on record where a message by this means has been read at 16 to 18 miles.

Above taken from the British Official Training Manuals: Signalling (1907)

From a 1920's News film (Pathe) the script for both the titles and spoken commentary was.

Full titles read: '"The Boys in Blue" - "Flagwagging"'. (new title blends in) 'Almost as important as the teeth of a Battleship (guns) are the ears and eyes (Signallers). Here are some of "the boys in blue", training at Portsmouth - ".

L/S (Long Shot Pictures) of numerous Naval and Royal Marine ratings standing on a parade ground, using semaphore and morse flags. Flags are raised and lowered on flagpoles; a man off-camera explains what they mean. M/S of ratings waving flags about furiously; the commentator gives more details. L/S of ratings being taught signals by marching about in pairs and obeying the signal orders given by flags rising up and down the poles behind them.

You can see the film at the British Pathe Website then search for Flagwagging

Army and Navy Signalling Standards of 1913

Based on info from the British Admiralty's Handbook of Signalling, 1913.

Royal Signals ... Combined Use Of Skills

Figure 24 The combined use of different Signalling Skills of the Navy (Flag, Flash & Read)

Royal Signals ... Combined Use Of Skills Zulu Wars

Figure 25 The same different Signalling Skills (Flag, Flash & Read) Zulu War (May 1879)

So since we started with the subject of Navy Signalling, I will let Jolly Jack Tar signal the close of this Third Datasheet in the Series of Visual Signalling with the Initials of our Homepage…

Royal Signals ... Navy Hand Semaphore

Figure 26 Navy Hand Semaphore Flagging "R S O" (on 1911 Issued Cigarette Cards)

If you have any comments about this Datasheet, inputs or events for the Newsletter, please Contact Brian, Keith or myself via the respective email addresses below.

Thank you for your interest.

The Website and Database Site

The Distribution and Archive Site ...

Please visit and check/update your data regularly To change your delivery of this newsletter visit above.