The Only US Navy Warship Authorized to Fly a Foreign Flag at Sea

(U.S. Navy)

You might be thinking to yourself, "Didn't we fight a whole war to keep American sailors from working under a British flag?" Well, it's been a long time since the War of 1812, and relations between the United States and the United Kingdom have changed significantly since then. Not only is this warship the only vessel in the U.S. Navy's fleet to fly a foreign flag, but it's also the only ship with an officer from Britain's Royal Navy aboard as a permanent member of the ship's company to ensure proper navigation -- all meant to honor the "British Bulldog," Winston Churchill.

Commissioned in 2001, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill was named for the famous prime minister who led Britain through World War II and has been permitted to fly the Royal Navy's White Ensign -- a red St. George's Cross on a white field with a Union flag in the canton -- during special occasions. 

(U.S. Navy photo)

A ship's ensign is the largest flag flying aboard the vessel and denotes the nationality of the ship. When the USS Winston Churchill flies the Royal Navy's ensign, it's hoisted from the port side of the mast, with the American flag on the starboard side. During its normal operations, only the Stars and Stripes are raised.

At the time of its commissioning, the Winston Churchill cost $1 billion and was one of the most advanced destroyers in the fleet. Like the other 73 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, it's designed to be able to deliver a high-intensity ass-kicking to targets in the air, on land or at sea while defeating anti-ship missiles and torpedoes and jamming enemy radar -- an impressive armament worthy of the ship's namesake.

The Churchill is the fifth ship in the U.S. Navy to be named in honor of a Briton, though the former prime minister was made an honorary American citizen in 1963, two years before his death. It's also the first to be named for an Englishman since the end of the American Revolution. Churchill's daughter, Lady Mary Soames, was present at the ship's commissioning ceremony in Norfolk, Virginia, and served as an honorary sponsor for the United Kingdom. Its motto, "In war: Resolution. In peace: Good Will" is drawn from the epigraph of Churchill's book, "The Second World War."

Churchill's Royal Navy officer was originally part of an exchange. The United States kept one of its naval officers aboard the Royal Navy's HMS Marlborough, until that ship was decommissioned in 2005. The Type 23 frigate was named for John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, of which Winston Churchill is a descendant. The Marlborough had the distinction of being the first ship on the scene to assist the USS Cole after it was attacked in 2000. Today, Prime Minister Churchill's own descendants maintain close contact with the USS Winston Churchill and its crew.

Descendants of Winston S. Churchill pose for a photo in the chiefs mess aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Winston Churchill (DDG 81) during a reception ceremony and tour on March 25, 2015. (Danica Phillips/U.S. Navy photo)

Though it's one of the older Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the Churchill is likely to remain in service for years to come, having just completed a multimillion-dollar modernization effort in 2023. Although 19 more destroyers of its class are planned or under construction, it's likely to be the only one flying the Royal Navy's white ensign - - unless we can think of another Briton on par with Winston Churchill.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Facebook, X or on LinkedIn.

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