By Tom Anderson
One of the most recognisable symbols of modern militaries is the insignia displayed on aircraft. Just in the UK for example, the red-white-blue ‘roundel’ symbol of the Royal Air Force has become used far beyond its original context, such as forming the basis for the logo of the band The Who. Yet the choice of the symbols used by air forces in our timeline (OTL) is highly arbitrary and depends on the historical circumstances of the alliance structures of a century ago, as we will see.
In the First World War, the United Kingdom fielded what was originally dubbed the Royal Flying Corps, but became the Royal Air Force in the final year of the war. An identifying symbol was required both to satisfy the laws of war (a soldier not wearing a uniform, or driving a vehicle not identified as the military property of his government, could be shot as a spy) but also to avoid friendly-fire incidents. It was this latter requirement that led to the RAF symbol we know today.
Initially (and logically) the Royal Flying Corps adopted the Union Jack as the symbol for the wings of its early biplanes. However, at this time their German opponents, the Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Flying Corps, later the Deutsches Luftstreitkräfte) had chosen to adopt the symbol of the black tapering Eisernes kreuz (Iron Cross) or heraldic cross pattée (often mistakenly called a Maltese cross, which is different) associated with both Prussia and the old Holy Roman Empire.
In the final year of the war the Germans would switch to a more straightforward black on white cross, the so-called Balkenkreuz (Bar Cross). This was used until the mid-Fifties, when the Luftwaffe returned to a variant of the Heraldic Cross Pattee shown above. Regardless, the Union Jack was too easy to confuse for the German symbol, which could lead to British planes being shot at by their own comrades, or their French allies.
Britain therefore turned to those same French allies in designing a new symbol. The French Aéronautique Militaire(later renamed the Armée de l’Air) had been the first air force to choose a symbol, before the war broke out, in 1912. They had selected a symbol that had been used more than a century earlier in the French Revolution: the Revolutionary tricolour cockade.
The cockade is thought to predate the tricolour flag that uses its colours, but more on that in a future article. It was an appropriate connection, as Revolutionary France was technically the first country to operate an air force, the Compagnie d’Aérostiers, whose observation balloons played a key role in winning the Battle of Fleurus in 1794.
The past Britons who fought against Revolutionary France in those wars might have turned in their graves to know the republican symbol would be modified to grace Britain’s own aircraft!
The Royal Flying Corps reversed the order of the French colours, so that the British roundel (as it was dubbed) would be red-white-blue rather than blue-white-red. However, from a distance British and French aircraft could now be easily mistaken for one another at a glance—but not for those of the enemy.
This logic meant that similar symbols were adopted by other countries on both sides of the war.
On the Entente side, Imperial Russia used a white-blue-red roundel.
The Kingdom of Italy used a red-white-green or green-white-red one.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, the US Army Air Service planned to use a modified version of the British roundel with the white border turned into a star, but instead ended up using a white-blue-red one similar to Russia’s as the star version still proved too difficult to recognise from a distance.
It is ironic that at one point what became the two great adversaries of the Cold War were using the same air force symbol! After the war, America reverted to the red-white-blue version with a white star.
Meanwhile, things were rather simpler on the Central Powers side. Almost all the aircraft operated by Germany’s allies were built and supplied by Germany itself and often crewed by German pilots. For that reason, both the Austro-Hungarian Kaiserliche und Königliche Luftfahrtruppen (Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops) and Bulgaria’s Army Aeroplane Section simply used the same symbol as Germany itself. The Ottoman Empire’s Kuva-yı Havaiye Müfettiş-i Umumiliği (General Inspectorate of Air Forces) rejected the use of a Christian symbol, so altered the cross to be a simple black square. A few Ottoman-operated aircraft did bear the white crescent and star on red of the Ottoman (and modern Turkish) flag, but according to one story this did not see wide use simply because of a shortage of red paint.
The Entente won the First World War, and to an extent this determined the fact that the French-style roundel has become the most widely-copied design for other air forces around the world. Of course, it is also a very versatile design, allowing the colours of different flags to be neatly slotted in. Cast a glance at a list of air forces today and one will note the generic roundel, suitably modified with local colours and additional symbols where necessary, can be seen everywhere. This is also a consequence of Britain’s former Imperial Dominions and colonies also inheriting the roundel. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and formerly South Africa all use the British-derived roundel, but changing the central red circle to a an appropriate local symbol: a red maple leaf, a red kangaroo, a red kiwi, and an orange springbok respectively. Even the United States’ red circle on white star on blue circle fits into this family, perhaps leading passing visitors from other timelines to this era to assume the USA was still part of the British Empire as well! However, this design would not last, for World War II brought a new line of the same pragmatic reasons behind identifying friend and foe as World War I had.
In the 1920s and 30s, the line between ideology and nationhood began to blur. Russia had become the Soviet Union, and just as the Communist regime rejected the white-blue red tsarist flag, so too the USSR’s roundel became the red star of Communism. In Germany, the Nazi takeover meant that the Iron Cross of the new air force, the Luftwaffe, was left on the wings of aircraft but paired with a swastika on the tail, the so-called fin flash. (Oddly enough, Latvia had already adopted a swastika symbol in 1918 for reasons unrelated to Nazism—it is of course a much older symbol than that).
Fascist Italy swapped out its former French-style roundel for three fasces (axes) in a circle, but tellingly used a black-and-white colour scheme to blend in with the German insignia. The two air forces fought alongside each other in support of Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War, and naturally avoidance of friendly fire would once again have been desirable. Franco’s own planes also used black and white symbols such as a simplified Burgundian cross (which has survived to this day as the fin flash on modern Spanish military aircraft, although the wings have reverted to a French-style red and yellow roundel).
The same logic underpinned many aircraft insignia decisions made in the war. The Netherlands changed its pre-war air force logo, a modified roundel with red, white and blue segments around an orange centre, to being an orange inverted triangle to proclaim neutrality and avoid confusion with France, Britain and Belgium. (As we know, this neutrality did not prevent a German invasion, but the orange triangle could also be seen on Dutch planes fighting the Japanese invasion of the East Indies). Later, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union with support from Eastern European allies and vassals, the latter also adopted black and white air force symbols to avoid confusion with the Luftwaffe.
Hungary used a white cross on black...
Bulgaria used a black X in a box (looking ironically like a voting cross for an Axis nation opposed to democracy!)...
...and the Independent State of Croatia used a modified Iron Cross that looked strangely like a fascist version of a Canadian maple leaf!
Romania, hedging its bets, used a yellow symbol shaped vaguely like an Iron Cross but with its prewar roundel in the middle!
As the war turned against Germany and the Soviet tide rolled over Eastern Europe, many of these nations switched sides and adopted symbols similar to the Soviet red star, either immediately or following Communist takeovers in the aftermath of the war.
The new Socialist Republic of Romania now simply put its roundel in the middle of a red star, for example...
...As did Bulgaria with its pre-war roundel. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.
Meanwhile in the Pacific, the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and British Malaya led to an important historical consequence for roundel design. Both the British and American roundels at the time had a red spot in the centre, which was too easy to mistake from a distance for the Japanese Hinomaru or ‘sun-circle’ red sun symbol, disparagingly referred to as ‘the meatball’ by American pilots.
For that reason, both British (and Australian and other Commonwealth) planes and American ones ditched the red centre of their roundels for the duration of the Pacific War. In the former case, the red centre was restored after the war; but in America it was left off.
During the conflict the US Army Air Force and US Navy concluded that removing the red dot had not done enough to reduce friendly fire incidents and it was decided to modify the roundel away from being a circle altogether: blue, white and red bars were added on either side as a consequence. The result is still used today by the modern US Air Force—showing the long shadows on history laid by the relative happenstance of an alliance structure of the day.
As America and the USSR rose to become the dominant superpowers of the remainder of the twentieth century, their roundel designs naturally influenced others.
American allies like the Philippines, South Korea and Panama copied the barred roundel design now used by the US, as did then-allies like South Vietnam, Cuba and Venezuela.
Cuba later altered its roundel following its revolution and its withdrawal from alliance with the US, but Venezuela and united Vietnam still use a US-style roundel to this day.
Meanwhile, in addition to those mentioned above, the Soviet red star was also copied by Soviet allies elsewhere. Indeed, the red star may be the most enduring Soviet symbol, as it remains in use in an only slightly modified form by the modern air force of the Russian Federation to this day.
An interesting case of a design influenced by both the Soviet and American designs is that of China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force, a Communist star flanked by American-style bars!
Today, it is much less important for an air force to have a distinctive roundel. Air battles are typically fought at long distances, way beyond which a visual identifier would be useful. Indeed, many roundels are now available in low-visibility forms with washed-out colours or shades of grey (which started as early as the First World War), preserved only for the necessities of the laws of war. For this reason, it has become increasingly rare for a roundel to be changed for the sort of pragmatic reasons described above, though it may be done to make an ideological or nationalistic point. So decisions made for those highly pragmatic reasons during the World Wars can be preserved for decades or centuries after they have ceased to be relevant. The implications for alternate history writing is obvious: are you writing an alternate First World War where Britain is allied with Germany or Russia with Austria? Then come up with different air force symbols influenced by the need to avoid the sort of friendly fire incidents that would crop up under this different alliance structure!
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth