Commissioning pennant

From Academic Kids

The Commissioning pennant or Masthead pennant is a pennant (also spelt "pendant") flown from the masthead of a warship. The pennant reflects the fact that the ship is a ship of war, and is flown until the ship is decommissioned. It is generally taken to signify the commissioned status of the warship, although of course it is the captain of the ship who holds the commission, and not the ship. In some navies, the Commissioning Pennant is used in addition to represent the personal authority of the captain, although it is flown continuously aboard the ship whether the captain is aboard or not.

In the Royal Navy, the commissioning pennant has a white field with the red cross of St George in the hoist. The flag is typically 1m in length and only 10cm at the hoist, tapering to the point. The red horizontal and vertical stripes bisect the sides.


It is said that the custom of wearing a pennant at the masthead of men-of-war stems from Van Tromp’s broom and Blake’s whip. In the 1650s the Dutch Admiral Van Tromp lashed a broom to his masthead as a sign that he had swept the British off the seas. In reply the British Admiral Blake hoisted a whip to the masthead to signify that he would whip the Dutchman into subjection. However, records show that pennants were in use well before this period as the mark of a warship.

In the days of chivalry, knights and their squires carried pennons and penoncels on their lances, just as men-of-war fly pennants from their masts. Records show that pennants were in use in the 13th century, when merchant ships were commandeered during war and placed in command of military officers, who transferred their trail pendants from their lances to the mastheads of the ships they commanded.

Today the pennant is hoisted on the day a warship or establishment commissions and is never struck until the day of decommissioning. It is displaced by Royal Standards and the personal or distinguishing flags or pennants of commodores and admirals. In Navy ships the pennant is flown at the masthead, for which reason it is also commonly referred to as a masthead pennant.

Paying-off pennants

It is the custom in many navies for a ship which is "paying off" to wear an extremely long commissioning pennant, which is at normally at least the length of the ship, and whose length reflects the length of service. This is in contrast to the modern practice of using pennants of not more than one or one-and-a-half metres for convenience.

It should be noted that formerly a ship "paid off" each time she returned home after a commission overseas: the term refers to the fact that sailors were not paid until the ship returned home, to avoid desertion. The bible of Royal Navy traditions and slang, Covey Crump, emphasises:

"It should be borne in mind that the commission referred to is the length of time the ship's company has been abroad, not the ship herself: when a ship recommissions abroad a fresh commission is started; thus a commission of longer than 2¾ years is exceptional."

This custom is maintained in the United States Navy, where the paying-off pennant is known as the "homeward-bound pennant". Nevertheless, present usage in the Royal Navy has degenerated to using paying-off pennants only as part of a ship's decommissioning ceremony.

See also


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