The Royal Navy assigns badges to every ship, submarine, squadron and shore establishment. Prior to the age of steam ships, ships were identified by their figurehead. With the removal of the figurehead, ships badges and mottos were created to graphically represent the ships. The official process for creating the badge was initiated by Charles ffoulkes after World War One who was appointed as the Admiralty Advisor on Heraldry. Soon after his appointment The Ships’ Badges Committee was established. This was amalgamated in 1983 with the Ships’ Names Committee (founded in 1913) to create the Ships’ Names and Badges Committee. The Naval Crown adorns the top of all the badges. The frame is gold rope. Originally, different classes of ships had different shapes, but currently all ships and submarines have a circular design. Shore establishments have an offset square design.
During the Age of Sail, ships were identified by figureheads and gilded carvings. However, the extravagance of these decorations began to reach the point of flamboyance, and an Admiralty directive in the early 18th century restricted the amount that could be spent, and eventually banned it outright.
Ships’ badges first appeared in the 1850s, as identification markings on the stationery used by some Royal Navy ships. These marks were quickly used to mark the boats assigned to a ship, to aid crew in finding their boat at a dark or crowded wharf. The creation of badges was haphazard, and eventually came into use for the ships themselves.
Testing was carried out to ensure that the badges were designed appropriately to identify ships. Cardboard mockups were created, gilded, and installed on a police launch, which was observed on patrol of the Thames by a captured German submarine moored outside Westminster Palace. It was decided to use different shapes to identify different types of vessel: circles for battleships, pentagons for cruisers, ‘U’-shaped shields for destroyers, and diamonds for auxiliary units, including depot ships, small war vessels, and aircraft carriers.
In 1940, the designs for all ships were standardised to a circular design. The standardisation was primarily due to wartime shortages, although another factor was to eliminate difficulties caused when a ship was commissioned with a previously-used name, but was of a different type to the previous ship, requiring the badge to be redesigned for the new shape. At the same time, the use of scaled-down badges for a ship’s boats was suspended, and as of yet has not been resumed.
After the war, the pentagonal badge shape was assigned to Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, and the diamond to commissioned shore bases. Before World War Two, the design of badges for ships in other Commonwealth navies was the responsibility of the Royal Navy Ships’ Badge Committee, but this responsibility was assigned to the relevant nations after the war.
Ships’ badges are reused along with the ship name. When the Queen approves the name of a new ship she will also approve the new ship’s badge, which may have changed if the shape needs to change.