Officers' ranks and insignia

originally published in three parts (1999) Navy Today, the official newsletter of the Royal New Zealand Navy no 38 pp 16-17 to no 40 pp 18-19

Naval uniforms were first introduced in the Royal Navy in 1748. At first only for officers and midshipmen, from 1787 warrant officers also were required to wear a uniform. The actual rank held by an officer was shown by the so-called distinction lace, introduced 1783, and, for senior officers, by the presence of epaulettes, the embroidered gold shoulder straps which were introduced from 1795. Until 1812 captains of less than three years seniority wore only one epaulette.

In the modern navy the rank of officers is shown by the number of gold rings worn on the cuffs of the coat, and, in certain orders, on the shoulder. The uppermost ring include a curl. Until the Second World War an embroidered slash, which crossed the cuff rings, was worn on full dress uniform only. Additionally, embroidered shoulder boards, though no longer the elaborate gold cord epaulettes, are worn by flag officers on the greatcoat or coat.

From 1864 the gold cuff rings included a coloured distinguishing cloth between the rings. The Executive, seaman, or "Military" branch as it was known, wore no distinction cloth, so that the underlying blue cloth of the coat sleeve showed. Engineering officers wore purple cloth; Surgeon- scarlet (later pink for the medical service); dental- orange; paymaster (after 1944 supply and secretariat)- white; instructor- light blue (introduced 1879, and later white); shipwright and constructor- silver gray; electrical- dark green; ordnance- dark blue; wardmaster- maroon; and air branch- blue.

The use of this distinction cloth, and the parallel use of such ranks as Instructor-Lieutenant, Surgeon-Commander, Paymaster-Captain, or Lieutenant-Commander (E [for Engineering]), was generally abolished by 1956. However, it survived longer for some, such as Medical Officers, who still use both the distinctive rank and the distinction cloth, and by Instructors, who retained the distinction cloth after the others were abolished.

Some branches added symbols to the rank insignia. The curls of the distinction lace formerly surrounded an "A" for Air Branch (which became the Fleet Air Arm 1953, when the "A" was dropped), and an "R" for Royal Naval Reserve. This later was removed on mobilisation, and, in New Zealand, the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve lost the "R" in 1992.

The gold lace rings of the cuffs have always been straight for the regular navy. However, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve had wavy rings 1903-1951, the Royal Naval Reserve coiled ring till 1951.

Today, there is no distinction in uniform between officers of the regular navy and the reserves. But differences in rank are reflected, as they must be, in different rank insignia. The navy has a system which is both logical and simple to understand. Each of the officers' ranks, including some now defunct, had their own distinctive insignia. But the pattern which may be gleaned from the development of rank insignia, especially this century, is that simplicity and standardisation have prevailed. Distinctions based on specialisations have all but disappeared, so that today it is impossible to distinguish an officer's branch, or even whether he is a regular or rockie.

In addition to their rank insignia, some officers wear aiguillettes on the shoulder board. These are arrangements of gold wire cords with pointed metal ends, and now indicate that the wearer holds a special appointment. Aiguillettes of gold and crimson are worn on the left shoulder by members of the personal staff of flag officers. Similar aiguillettes are worn on the right shoulder by Aides de Camp to the Governor-General. Aiguillettes of gold wire are worn on the right shoulder by Aides de Camp to Her Majesty The Queen, by Admirals of the Fleet, and by equerries to members of the Royal Family- the equivalent to junior Aides de Camp.

Equerries also wear the appropriate royal cypher, the initial of the reigning Sovereign, and a Crown, all in dull silver metal. If serving more than one successive Sovereign an equerry may have a number of royal cyphers. Vice Admiral Sir Peter Ashmore, KCB KCVO DSC, Equerry to the Sovereign 1946-48, and an Extra Equerry since 1948, has the cyphers ER and GR, for Their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.

Personal Aides de Camp to The Queen, who normally are members of the Royal Family, are distinguished by royal cyphers in block letters 19mm high. These are worn only by Rear-Admiral HRH the Prince of Wales, Commander HRH the Duke of York, Field Marshal HRH the Duke of Kent, and Captain Mark Phillips, 1st Queen's Dragoon Guards (rtd).

Modern rank insignia- subordinate and junior officers and leading rates (Royal Navy)

Officers' ranks and insignia- Subordinate and Junior Officers


The ranks of officers in the navy have evolved over the centuries. The single most important influence however would appear to have been changes in training and technical demands upon officers. It is a common misconception that formally the only ranks used were those of captain and lieutenant, or that the ranks currently in use are a legacy of the Royal Navy and are not used beyond the reaches of imperial influence. In fact, the rank structure formally employed was in some ways more complex than the modern structure, and almost every navy uses an equivalent number of ranks, though the actual styles may vary somewhat.

The most junior modern rank in the Royal Navy, the now abolished rank of Naval Cadet, came into existence in 1843, when the Royal Navy introduced a new system of land-based officer training. They replaced the old volunteers and captain's servants, who become midshipmen after three years. The new rank of cadet fell victim to changes in training after little more than a century. The Royal Navy abolished the rank in 1972, the Royal New Zealand Navy some years before that. The insignia of a cadet was a button on the collar lapel.

The rank of Midshipman, a subordinate officer, dates from Elizabethan times, probably earlier. In about 1660 they were also known as a volunteer per order. They adopted their present title in 1729, then the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, was established. After six years service midshipmen could sit the examination for promotion to lieutenant, provided they were aged at least twenty. But some midshipmen could remain in this rank for the whole of their career, and others entered before the official minimum age of fourteen. The old rank of Navigating Midshipmen were known as Masters' Assistants until 1867.

The insignia of a midshipman was traditionally a white lapel flash (in the Royal Naval Reserve red, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve navy blue), with a gold brass or anodised naval button. In addition, the pre-World War Two full dress uniform had three gold buttons on the cuffs.

The rank of Ensign was introduced into the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1968, again as a consequence of changing training systems. In the United States Navy the rank of ensign had replaced that of midshipman in 1862, but the RNZN has kept both ranks. The rank of ensign derives from the old British Army infantry rank now more generally known as second lieutenant, who was responsible for carrying the unit colours or ensign. The insignia of Ensigns is a half-width gold ring.

Unlike the army and air force, the navy does not have ranks for chaplains. However, they have been commissioned since 1843, and have been in uniform since 1951.

The rank of Mate was introduced 1912 for officers commissioned from the ranks. In 1931 they were renamed Commissioned Officers. Later officers commissioned from the ranks used the ranks used by other officers. The insignia of a Commissioned Officer was a half-width gold ring on sleeve or shoulder flash, the same as that now used by Ensigns in the RNZN.

Masters' Mates, or Mates, were appointed temporary Sub-Lieutenants from 1804 to 1815 as a wartime expedient. Masters' mates were commissioned in 1840 and renamed Sub-Lieutenants 1861. In the United States Navy they are known as Lieutenant (Junior Grade). From 1867 Second Masters were renamed Navigating Sub-Lieutenants. No more were appointed after 1881. Senior Commissioned Officers ranked with Sub-Lieutenants. The Royal Navy introduced the rank of Acting Sub-Lieutenant in 1955. Unlike the (substantive) Sub-Lieutenant, they are regarded as subordinate officers, because they are not commissioned. The insignia of a Sub-Lieutenant is, like the former Senior Commissioned Officer, one gold ring on sleeve or shoulder flash.

The rank of Lieutenant dates from at least as early as the time of Queen Elizabeth I. In the early nineteenth century they were customarily given command of sloops or brigs. The officers were actually commissioned as 1st Lieutenant, 2nd Lieutenant, etc., a battleship having as many as eight Lieutenants, styled First to Eighth. Only the style First Lieutenant survives today, and it describes a post rather than a distinct rank, the First Lieutenant being frequently a Lieutenant-Commander.

Masters ranked with Lieutenants from 1808 to 1843, when they were commissioned. They later became simply lieutenants. Navigating Masters were commissioned 1807. In 1867 they became Navigating Lieutenant 1867. No more appointments were made to the navigating list after 1883, and the last retired 1892. The insignia of Lieutenants is two gold rings on sleeve or shoulder flash.

Modern rank insignia- senior officers to lieutenants

Officers' ranks and insignia- Senior Officers


Those officers of the rank of Lieutenant-Commander and above are what have generally been described as Senior Officers.

Lieutenants commanding ships were customarily called "Lieutenant and Commander". In 1864 lieutenants were divided between those of over eight years seniority and those of less than eight years. The former were given special insignia, two gold rings on sleeve or shoulder flash with a single thin ring between. In early 1914 the senior Lieutenants were formally named Lieutenant-Commander. The United States Navy made such a change in 1862, though both merely reflected long-standing practice. The insignia of a Lieutenant-Commander is two gold rings on sleeve or shoulder flash with a single thin ring between, the same as the old Lieutenants of eight years' seniority.

The rank of Commander, which dates from 1674, was originally called "Master and Commander". The Master was the officer entrusted with navigation, usually later called navigating officer. The Master of the Fleet was in charge of navigation training 1825-64. In 1689 one Master and Commander was carried on a 5th rate ship, the smallest of the "line of battle ships", or those capable of taking part in fleet actions. These officers were renamed Commander 1794. They once commanded all ships under 20 guns, sloops, bomb vessels, and were second in command of a large ship after 1827. As late as 1867 Commanders ranked only with army majors, as Lieutenant-Commanders do now.

The rank of Staff Commander existed 1863-1904. They were navigating officers. The insignia of a Commander is three gold rings on sleeve or shoulder flash.

The Captain was always the most senior regularly seagoing officer, and dates from the earliest days of seafaring. Those with three years seniority traditionally wore distinctive insignia, because they ranked with colonels, the junior only with lieutenant-colonels. All ranked with colonels from 1926, and those with six years seniority now rank with brigadiers. Staff Captain were navigating officers 1864-1913, and ranked with captains of under three years seniority. The insignia of a captains is four gold rings on sleeve or shoulder flash.

From its institution in 1697 the rank of Commodore was for centuries always a temporary rank. It was held by the senior Captain in command of a squadron, or group of ships smaller than the whole fleet. It was strictly an appointment or office rather than a rank, as no seniority was held as Commodore, the officers ranking as Captains amongst themselves. From 1824 to 1958 there were two grades of commodore, the senior of which was regarded as a Flag Officer.

The United States Navy rarely appoints Commodores, and the practice of other navies is varied as to whether to treat this as a permanent rank or not. On 18 December 1995 the Royal Navy announced that Commodore would in future be a permanent rank, bringing that service into line with British Army and Royal Air Force practice. The rank of Commodore is a permanent rank in the RNZN. The insignia of a commodore is a broad gold ring on sleeve or shoulder board.

The obsolete rank of Commodore Second Class was in command of his own ship, unlike a Flag Officer, who always had a flagship which was commanded by its own Captain. The insignia of a Commodore (2nd cl), like the modern Commodore was a broad gold ring on sleeve or shoulder board.

The rank of Commodore First Class ranked as a Rear Admiral. He had his own flagship Captain, and flew a flag rather than a pennant. The insignia of a Commodore 1st class was a broad gold ring and one quarter-width ring above, also as for a Rear Admiral. On the shoulder strap he wore either the broad gold ring and one quarter-width ring, or as an alternative (in full dress) a shoulder board which comprised a Crown, two pips, and an anchor.


Officers' ranks and insignia- Flag Officers


The most senior naval officers are the Flag Officers, those of the rank of Rear Admiral and above. In the Royal New Zealand Navy today there is of course normally only one flag officer, the Chief of Naval Staff. However, the Chief of the Defence Force, and other joint services appointments may be held by a naval officer, so there is the potential for several flag officers to be serving at any one time. In addition, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh is an Admiral of the Fleet.

The rank of Rear Admiral dates from at least as early as Sir Geoffrey Hawkins, who was described as holding this rank at the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. By 1660 Rear Admirals commanded the rear division of a squadron. Only from 1743 could there be more than one rear admiral in each of the three squadrons into which the Royal Navy was divided until 1864 (the red, white and blue).

The rank of Rear Admiral was first used in the United States Navy in 1862, for Captain David Farragut. The first officer of the Royal New Zealand Navy to be promoted Rear Admiral was Peter Phipps, in 1960, though a number of Royal Navy officers of this rank served in New Zealand. The insignia of a Rear Admiral is one broad gold ring and one quarter-width ring above. On the shoulder strap they may wear the same, or, as an alternative, a shoulder board which comprises a Crown over a crossed sword and baton, and one pip.

Sir Francis Drake was Vice Admiral in 1588. The Vice Admiral commanded the van (or leading part) of a squadron in 1660. The United States Navy has had a Vice Admiral since 1864 (also Farragut), although none were on strength 1899-1915. Sir Peter Phipps was the first officer to reach this rank in the RNZN, when he was appointed 1962. The insignia of a Vice Admiral is a broad gold ring with two quarter-width rings above. On the shoulder strap the same is worn, or, as an alternative, a Crown, crossed baton and sword, and two pips. Formerly, specialists, such as Engineers, Medical officers, Paymasters, and Instructors, wore coloured borders on the shoulder board.

The post of Admiral was more an appointment than a rank in the seventeenth century. He commanded the centre of a squadron in 1660. The name derives from the Arabic word amir al, or commander, and entered the principal Western European languages as a consequence of the Crusades against the Muslim power of the Holy Land from the twelfth century. The United States Navy had an Admiral 1866-99 (David Farragut again!), and since 1915. The insignia of an Admiral is a broad gold ring with three quarter-width rings above, or alternatively (on the shoulder strap only) a Crown, crossed baton and sword, and three pips.

The post of Admiral of the Fleet was first created 1642 by Parliament for Robert Rich Earl of Warwick. His rank was confirmed by King Charles II in 1660. Originally more of an office than a rank, it was made a rank 1718. Three were allowed after 1863. In 1940 the requirement to retire at 70 years (in force since 1870) was dropped. In common with its equivalents in the other services, an Admiral of the Fleet has the option of receiving half-pay, or active list retired pay. The United States Navy promoted George Dewey to the equivalent rank of Admiral of the Navy in 1899. On his death in 1917 the rank was abolished. William Daniel Leahy was promoted to the new equivalent of Fleet Admiral in 1944. The last wartime appointee, Chester Nimitz, died in 1966, since which time the rank has remained unfilled.

Apart from members of the Royal Family, from 1996 the rank of Admiral of the Fleet will only be conferred in the Royal Navy in wartime, or on a British Chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Military Committee, the Chief of the Defence Staff in the United Kingdom now being of the same rank as the single service chiefs of staff. His Royal Highness the. Duke of Edinburgh was appointed Admiral of the Fleet of the Royal New Zealand Navy on the 27th August 1958. There is unlikely to ever be any non-royal officer appointed to the rank in the Royal New Zealand Navy.

The insignia of an Admiral of the Fleet is a broad gold ring with four quarter-width rings above. On shoulder straps the alternative is the royal cypher, a Crown, and crossed batons within oak leaf wreaths. Admiral of the Fleet HRH the Duke of Edinburgh was Personal Aide de Camp to King George VI 1948-52, so has the royal cyphers GR and ER.

The ancient title of Lord High Admiral, now held by The Queen since 1964, is the last of the naval titles to remain principally an office rather than a rank. The Admiral was as much a judicial officer as a naval, being responsible for hearing all cases, both civil and criminal, belonging to the sea. The office was formalised in 1485. Although formerly primarily an administrative officer, in the early sixteenth century King Henry VIII gave the Admiral command at sea. From 1619 he had headed the Navy Board and had been in charge of ship maintenance. Until the Duke of Buckingham (1638) it was called Lord Admiral.

The office was usually in commission from the seventeenth century onwards, and the Lords, or Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, were responsible for the running of the navy. His legal responsibilities were delegated to the Court of Admiralty. As no judicial or administrative responsibilities remain with the office, it would be true to say that Lord High Admiral is now a rank rather than an office. However, the title is closely linked to the administrative history of the Royal Navy, and there is little likelihood however that any appointment of a Lord High Admiral of New Zealand will be made.

There has never been any insignia used to distinguish the Lord High Admiral, as the office was almost always in commission after the introduction of rank insignia. The Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, held the office 1827-28, but did not wear any distinctive insignia. He had already been Admiral of the Fleet, and continued to wear the appropriate insignia for this rank.

This brief survey of officers ranks and insignia may be said to show three things. Firstly, that the traditional rank structure for officers was much more complex than is widely appreciated. In comparison with the navy of Trafalgar, for example, it is a moot point that the modern navy has more officer ranks. Secondly, that graduations in rank is largely a product of operational and administrative necessity. For this reason, the general structure is common to almost all navies, whatever their history or origins. Thirdly, that ranks, especially at the lower end of the scale, continue to be affected by changes in approaches to officer training.




Counter 1