Battle Honours

By John Perryman

Campaign and Battle Honours

The campaign and battle honours carried by units or the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) are a reflection, and public presentation, of the operational history of the Australian nation’s naval forces from colonial times to the present day. The names of significant actions and campaigns, prominently displayed on ornately carved-wooden battle honour boards, help build a sense of achievement and esprit de corps within individual units and the Service as a whole.


The tradition of awarding RAN units campaign and battle honours originates in the Royal Navy (RN). Following the granting of the ‘Royal’ title to Australia’s naval forces in 1911 the tradition was extended to RAN ships and in the opening months of World War I the cruiser HMAS Sydney (I) earned the RAN its first single ship battle honour following her defeat of the German raider SMS Emden at Cocos Island on 9 November 1914. Other Australian vessels in service at that time, such as HMAS Pioneer, which was transferred to the RAN from the RN, continued to carry RN awards, in her case ‘CHINA 1856-60’, even though no Australian naval personnel had taken part in that action. Such were the close ties between the two navies.

Formal policy concerning the award of battle honours to RN ships was not, however, instituted until 1954 when Admiralty Fleet Order (AFO) 256/54 promulgated a definitive list of approved RN battle honours. Prior to that order an ad-hoc arrangement was in existence that saw many ships determining their own entitlement to awards and acquiring locally manufactured battle honour boards in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Sailors clearing the decks of snow onboard HMAS Australia (I) during the First World War. Note the battle honour scroll mounted on the ship's superstructure recording Australia's early wartime service.

The Battle Honour Board carried by HMAS Sydney (III). Following the adoption of the 1954 policy in the RAN, efforts were made to standardise the appearance of battle honour boards which were henceforth made of teak.

The 1954 policy sought to rationalize the award process which was subsequently adopted by the RAN. However, it soon became apparent that some RN awards did not reflect the service rendered by all Australian units present in a number of notable actions.

Prior to the commissioning of the Fremantle Class Patrol Boats, all of which were to carry the names of World War II corvettes, a review of campaign/battle honours was undertaken by the then RAN Historian, Mr John MacKenzie, to address a number of award anomalies and omissions.  That review resulted in the approval of the award ‘PACIFIC 1941-45’ in recognition of the RAN’s service in that theatre during World War II. This saw many ships receive long overdue recognition for service rendered during the Second World War, highlighting a need for future reviews and for the Navy to henceforth assume responsibility for awards within the RAN.

A change in practice

The oldest Battle Honour in the RN is ‘ARMADA 1588’, an action that pre-dates the formation of the RN by some seventy two years, and European settlement in Australia by two hundred. Yet, many RAN ships carrying the names of famous RN vessels displayed ancient awards even though no Australians were present in those actions. Consequently, prior to the naming and commissioning of the Adelaide class guided missile frigate HMAS Newcastle, the then Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral MW Hudson, AC, RAN, determined that RAN units would no longer automatically carry forward honours won by their RN predecessors. This decision has since been progressively implemented under a sunset clause allowing those ships with RN battle honours to continue to display them until decommissioning or replacement of worn or weathered battle honour boards was deemed necessary.

Two examples of RAN battle honour boards carrying awards won by, and inherited from, Royal Navy ships of the same name. Left: The crew of HMAS Attack pose with the ship's battle honour board, circa 1985. Right: The board carried by the Ton class minesweeper HMAS Curlew.

In 2007 a significant review of RAN campaign awards and battle honours was undertaken by the RAN History Section. The review focused on examining campaigns and actions in which Australian naval forces had been involved to ensure that all eligible units received appropriate recognition. This review saw a number of RAN ships receive retrospective awards and a determination was made that further reviews would be conducted every five years from 2010. The most recent review, conducted in 2015, saw a number of contemporary awards approved for service in the Middle East Region and a small number of retrospective awards made.

Presently, the earliest Australian Navy campaign award is: NEW ZEALAND 1860-61, which recognises the contribution of the colonial ship HMVS Victoria in that expedition. The most recently approved contemporary award is MIDDLE EAST 2014.

Award criteria

Campaign and battle honours are not simply a record of where a unit has deployed or served. Awards are only made for successful war or warlike service  and the award criteria must be satisfied before approval of an award is given consideration. Current policy is that awards are granted to those commissioned units which have taken part in successful actions or campaigns categorised as follows:

a.        Fleet or Squadron Actions - Fleet or squadron actions consist of:

i.  the sinking of enemy merchant ships in an escorted convoy;

ii.  engagements with light enemy forces when both sides incur losses or heavy damage; and

iii.  operations which resulted in frustrating the enemy’s intention at the time, although no warship may have been sunk.

b.        Single Ship Actions - Single engagements of particular significance between two ships (eg HMAS Sydney and SMS Emden in 1914) which deserve to be highlighted may be eligible for a battle honour.

c.        Major Bombardments - Campaign/battle honours for major bombardments (naval gunfire support or air attacks) are granted only when there was appreciable opposition by the enemy.  Other bombardments, where the enemy reply was negligible, are to be included among the various minor affairs for which a separate battle honour will not be awarded and which are merged, when appropriate, with a campaign or area award.

d.        Joint Operations - The capture of a fortified area or a large island, in conjunction with other military units, may be recognised with the award of the battle honour. When the Navy has little to do beyond safe conveyance of troops to the point of attack, a naval battle honour will not be awarded, notwithstanding that a participating military unit may wear the honour on its colour.

e.        Campaign and Area Awards - Campaign/battle honours may be awarded for certain campaigns as a whole rather than for individual actions during those campaigns.

f.        Area Awards - Awarded for service in a specified area of operations.

In deciding which actions are to rank as campaign/battle honours the following guidelines are applied, although exceptional cases may require departure from rigid adherence to them:

a.        campaign/battle honours will be awarded for those actions which resulted in the defeat of the enemy or when the action was inconclusive but well fought and where outstanding efforts were made against overwhelming odds; and

b.        campaign/battle honours will not be awarded for a defeat or when the action was inconclusive or badly fought.

The qualification entitling a ship to a particular battle honour is that the ship was present during this action. The word ‘present’ is to be taken to mean presence at sea under the direct orders of the Service Officer controlling the operation even though some ships may not have opened fire on the enemy.

It should be noted that this criteria is derived primarily from 20th century experiences. A number of awards made for earlier service reflect what is today described as peacekeeping or peace enforcement operations and may not have involved significant combat operations.

Battle Honour Boards

Some ship names, such as Sydney, Stuart and Parramatta, have enjoyed an enduring presence in the RAN’s order of battle with 4th and 5th generation ships either in service or scheduled to enter service in the near future. These ships carry an impressive array of inherited battle honours and campaign awards and it has become necessary for some of them to display them on more than one battle honour board.

The two battle honour boards carried by HMAS Sydney (IV) displaying the awards made to all  RAN ships to have carried the name of Australia's largest city.

RAN battle honour boards normally comprise the official badge of the unit around which are placed ribbons, or scrolls, with the name of the authorised award emblazoned on it. In the case of submarines, smaller sized boards are used to enable them to be carried through smaller sized casing hatches and secured when at sea.

The early stages of the manufacture of HMAS Brisbane (III)'s new battle honour board.

Left: Progress being made on one of HMAS Hobart (III)'s battle honour boards by sculptor Mr Richard Yates. Right: A completed board ready for delivery prior to HMAS Hobart (III)'s commissioning.

Captain John Stavridis accepts HMAS Hobart (III)'s completed battle honour boards from Mr Yates.

When ships are alongside in harbour it is customary for battle honour boards to be prominently displayed adjacent to a ship’s gangway. Those ships that carry a Fleet Air Arm squadron, or a detached flight, may also display the embarked flight’s battle honour board alongside that of the parent ship should it wish to do so.

Although 851 Squadron is no longer active, her battle honour board is proudly displayed at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, NAS Nowra.

Ships or units that have not been awarded battle honours or campaign awards are not entitled to display blank battle honour boards.

Following the 2015 Battle Honour Review a comprehensive RAN battle honour board was also authorised and subsequently designed by the then RAN Badge Manager Mr Gary Kinkade. While no physical board has yet been produced, electronic versions have been used variously to reinforce the Navy’s contribution to the security of our Nation. It has since been updated by the incumbent RAN Badge Manager Mr Paul Burnett.

The RAN's Battle Honour Board listing all of the approved awards to Australia's Naval Forces.