Customs and Traditions

Badges and Battle Honours

Down through the ages the mariner, regardless of the culture into which he happened to be born, fancied his ship to be possessed of a spirit or personality. To most she was almost a living entity, a being that given a certain set of circumstances could be expected to act in a certain way, and yet, like a woman, a creature of some mystery, for the nature of her response could not always be accurately forecast.

Similarly, through the centuries the sailor like other mortals has decorated his possessions, and more than that, has tended to adorn them in such a way as to give a distinctive individuality, a personality all its own. The sailor did this with his ship, sometimes as an expressian of art form, sometimes as a response to some deeply embedded superstition and sometimes in the hope of frightening the enemy.

No doubt the ferocious figures that rode the stems of Viking pirate ships struck terror into many a heart as they drove ashore from out the misty sea. And the war galleys of one civilization after another in the cradle of human endeavour, the Mediterranean, sallied forth to battle, their bold beaks high at the bows leading the way. These and the great eyes painted on the bows of Chinese junks are not far removed from the motivation that made sailors of the Second World War paint massive sets of shark’s teeth on the bows of submarines and motor torpedo boats and even on aircraft.

The mariner’s ancient practice of giving his ship a special, individualistic appearance, whether it was the cut of her sails or the colour of her hull, undoubtedly stemmed from the pride he had in her and, of course, his desire to make her identity readily known. This trend came closest to perfection in the woodcarver’s art, particularly as it was applied to the figurehead, that life-like form that graced the bows of countless numbers of ships. Sometimes it was a lion rampant or the griffin from mythology, sometimes a mighty warrior in armour, usually symbolizing the ship’s name. But often as not it was simply the figure of a beautiful woman.

The only ship having a figurehead that was commissioned in the Royal Canadian Navy was the sloop-of-war, HMCS Shearwater. Equipped with both sail and steam power, she served Canada from 1914 to 1919. Just below her bowsprit as part of her stem she displayed the carved figure of the seabird known as the shearwater.

With the disappearance of the bowsprit and jib-boom and the arrival of the straight-stemmed hull, figureheads gave way, particularly in steel ships, to another form of bow embellishment. This was gilded scroll-work and armorial devices, usually cast in iron. Two examples of this survived right through the Second World War on the bows of HMC Ships Acadia and Cartier (the latter being better known to some as HMCS Charny).

For many years now, ships of the Royal Canadian Navy, like those of other fleets, have been readily recognizable in harbour or at sea by officially designated name-plates or nameboards spelling out the ship’s name, by pennants hoisted at the signal halyards or by hull numbers painted on the stern and both sides below the bridge structure. But the sailor still delights in that little touch of difference; hence the evolution of the ship’s badge.

Badges arc simply symbols of identity and their first use is lost in the mists of antiquity. Like language, the badge is a means of communication of ideas and, whether it was borne aloft on the standard of a Roman legion or on the bonnet of a Highland Scot, its bearer took great pride in it, just as he did in his battle-cry or motto.

In the Middle Ages, the display of badge symbols identifying individual men developed into a fine art and, so that men could recognize the symbols or badges of others, a body of knowledge called heraldry evolved. To avoid duplication and the display of spurious arms, the granting of armorial bearings became a prerogative of the sovereign. By the latter part of the 19th century, when the ship’s badge, albeit unofficial, gradually came into use in the Royal Navy, it was only natural that the rich heritage of heraldry in British life should come to the fore in the design of badges for HM Ships. In 1918, the Admiralty officially assumed control of the badges displayed in the ships of the Royal Navy. In Canada, Naval Headquarters did not take this step until 1946, but unofficial badges were to be seen in HMC Ships as early as the 1920s.

Generally, the between-wars destroyers, like the Patrician and the Vancouver, conformed to Royal Navy practice in designing their badges and casting them in bronze or brass. Certainly, the badges of the first Skeena, a leaping salmon, and the first Saguenay, an Indian head, were creditable heraldic devices; in fact the same devices are used in the badges of the two ships bearing those names today. Even the old coalburning trawler Armentieres had a badge the design of which was based on the significance of the ancient French name.

When war boke out in 1939 all the River class destroyers had badges and in 1940 when the formerly American “four-stackers” joined the fleet, an effort was made within the ship’s companies to design good badges, notably in the St. Francis, St. Croix and Columbia. But when the first corvettes became operational early in 1941, a whole new dimension was added to the technique of ship identity in the Royal Canadian Navy. This was largely an expression of the officers and men of the “wavy navy”, the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, who manned those stout little ships and saw little point in standing on the dignity of the rules of heraldry. This was the arrival of the comic book character as the central device of the insignia invariably painted on the shield of the 4-inch gun on the forecastle.

The Queen of Hearts encountering a puddle of water was the unnoficial badge of HMCS Westaskiwin.

No doubt such characters in brilliant colour on an otherwise grey topside gave the ship an identity all its own, and gave, too, a light-hearted touch to the long, grim battle in the Atlantic. Many of these badges expressed a goodnatured contempt for the enemy: the head of a fierce Indian crunching a cigar-like U-boat (HMCS Napanee); a shotgun-wielding “Daisy Mae” (HMCS Mayflower); a smugly contented cat with a fish-like U-boat clutched in forepaw (HMCS Timmins); a snorting trophylike moosehead in close proximity to a rapidly retreating Hitler (HMCS Moose Jaw). Others were plays on the ships’ names: a phoenix-like devil beating a drum (HMCS Drumheller); a shapely damsel discreetly draped to form a “V” (HMCS Levis); the Queen of Hearts encountering a mud puddle without the benefit of the cloak of Sir Walter Raleigh, with dire results (HMCS Westaskiwin).

Though there were several pleas requesting machinery to institute officially designed and approved badges, Naval Headquarters firmly rejected the idea "until after the close of hostilities."

With the disposal of most of the wartime fleet and the demobilization of “hostilities only” personnel, the RCN gradually settled down to peace-time duties and in due coure, in 1946, a Ships’ Badges Committee was established to regulate insignia for HMC Ships. At first, an officer of the College of Arms in London was engaged to design the badges for the peace-time fleet, but soon the badges were being devised at Naval Headquarters.

In 1951 the present heraldic adviser, Lt.-Cdr. Alan B. Beddoe, OBE, RCNR (Ret), who had made substantial contributions to the development of ship’s badges since the days of the Second World War, was appointed. It was largely owing to the artistic skill and sense of dedication of Mr. Beddoe that the RCN enjoys possession of one of the finest collections of heraldic badges in the world today.

When the name of a new ship or establishment is known or the establishment of a new naval air squadron has been ordered, the Naval Historian does the necessary research and provides the information to the Ships’ Badges Cormmittee. On instruction by the chairman, a contract is drawn up with the heraldic adviser to design the badge for the ship or squadron. Often as not there are many trial sketches before the committee finally accepts a design and recommends it for the approval in turn of the Chief of Defence Staff and the Minister of National Defence.

Once the two hand-painted sealed patterns are signed by His Excellency the Governor General, the way is clear to let a contract for the casting of the badge in bronze, in both ship-size and boat-size. These, properly enamelled in colour according to the heraldic blazon or description, are displayed in a conspicuous place on the superstructure of HMC Ships and at the bows of the ship’s boats.

It is of interest to note that a ship’s official colours are derived from the ship’s badge, one being the colour of the field or background, and the other being that of the principal device used in the badge.

The ship’s motto, too, is subject to the approval of the Ships’ Badges Committee. It is the responsibility of the commanding officer of a ship to submit the desired motto, and it is the committee’s duty to see that the motto is appropriate and expressed accurately. In the Royal Canadian Navy, most ships’ mottoes are in Latin, but some are in English and French. A few, like those of HMCS iroquois and HMCS Micmac are in one of the Amerindian tongues. On board ships, the motto is displayed on the battle honour scroll or board; in naval air squadrons it is part of the squadron badge surround.

Originally, the motto was a short, sharp battle cry employed in ancient times by a commander to rally his followers, particularly by night when banners and shields could not be recognized. Gradually, however, a motto has come to be an exhortation urging greater effort, as in the Restigouche’s “Rester Droit” (Steer a Straight Course), or Gloucester’s “Knowledge Through Discipline”; or it expresses an aspiring to high ideals, as in the Sussexvale’s “Non Nobis Sed Omnibus” (Not for Ourselves Alone, But for All), or the Crescent, “In Virtue Cresco” (I Grow in Strength). Sometimes the ship’s function suggests a motto like the Fundy’s “We Sweep the Deep”, or the ship’s name itself provides inspiration as in the Yukon’s “Only the Fit Survive”. Wit and humour have largely disappeared from mottoes but there was once a corvette (HMCS Edmundston) which rejoiced in the faintly Latin-sounding “Seekem, Sightem, Sockem, Sinkem”.

Generations of seamen have taken great pride in the battle exploits of their own ships as well as earlier ships of the Fleet that have borne the same name. As a result the custom of displaying battle honours in some conspicuous place in the ship grew apace. It was only as late as 1954, however, that the Admiralty took control of this practice and, in order to prevent inaccuracy, set up rules for the award of battle honours. Like the rest of Her Majesty’s Fleets of the Commonwealth, the Royal Canadian Navy, in consultation with the Admiralty, subscribes to a common system of battle honours.

Battle honours are awarded to the ship’s name rather than to the hull itself, so that the honour lives on in future ships of the same name, long after the physical embodiment of the names lies several fathoms deep or has met its demise in the breaker’s yard. This is why HMCS Bonaventure is proud to display eight such honours, including Barfleur 1692, and HMCS Carleton to honour Lake Champlain 1776. Similarly, several ships and establishments of the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy proudly wear honours won in battle by HM Canadian Ships.

Like many of the cherished traditions of the Royal Canadian Navy, shared battle honours is one more symbol of the ties that bind the nations of the Commonwealth as free and equal realms under one sovereign. These and the ancient devices of badge and motto express the sailor’s pride in ship, pride in Service, pride in wearing the Queen’s uniform and satisfaction in a task well done.—E.C.R., Naval Historian

This article was originally published in Crowsnest Magazine - Vol. 17, No. 6 - June, 1965