Flag codes: another type of Hong Kong resistance writing

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This photograph is from a little over a year ago, when the former Hong Kong UK consulate worker Simon Cheng was kidnapped by the CCP government and taken to China where he was tortured and forced to make a "confession":

Recently, this photograph has begun to circulate again, and people have been asking me how to interpret the symbols.

I immediately took the symbols to be based on the International Code of Signals, but couldn't readily interpret the message with the list of international flags and pennants available here.  Some of the flags in the photograph do not appear in that list, such as the white and blue one divided on a diagonal.  (I suppose it means "end of message", but why is it repeated?  For emphasis?)  So there must be some other list of extended symbols, or …?  It should be noted that there are single-letter signals and multiple-letter signals up to five-letter codes for every prominent maritime location in the world.  Even the single-letter signals may have complex meanings.  For instance, the flag for "A" is:

That is pronounced "Alfa [ˈal.fa]".  As a single flag it means "I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed."  As a numeric complement, it signifies azimuth or bearing.

The composition and interpretation of messages using the International Code of Signals is extremely complicated.  I learned Morse code as a Boy Scout, but that was much simpler than this type of flag code.

Here is a closeup that shows what is printed in English underneath (click to embiggen):


The symbols need to be read as columns of numbers, producing mainly 3-digit numbers that represent words.

One column on the right is only one symbol, the number 4, which stands for “D”, the 4th letter of the alphabet, then there are a couple of double symbols for “U” (21) and “T” (20) and “Y” (25).

I’m not sure where the match between 3-digit numbers and words comes from.

Be that as it may, the message is:  "England expects that every man will do his duty".  That was the immortal "signal sent by Vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson from his flagship HMS Victory as the Battle of Trafalgar was about to commence on 21 October 1805".  (source)

Think about it.


Selected readings

[h.t. June Teufel Dreyer; thanks to Bob Bauer, to Chris Fraser, and thanks to James St. André and his friend Howard, the code sleuth]


  1. Vilinthril said,

    October 6, 2020 @ 2:18 am

    The numeric code is from the Telegraphic Signals of Marine Vocabulary.


  2. Victor Mair said,

    October 6, 2020 @ 6:55 am

    From James St. André:

    I tracked down a copy of Popham’s Telegraphic Signals; Or Marine Vocabulary (1803) on the internet archive, where you can see what words he thought were essential.


  3. Vilinthril said,

    October 6, 2020 @ 9:38 am

    Oh, interesting that the title seems to be almost universally wrong in many sources. Or is there some variation on that in the released editions of the book?

  4. ajay said,

    October 7, 2020 @ 4:49 am

    Keep an eye out for people waving a white flag with a blue cross, and a horizontal tricolour blue-white-red. This does not mean the protesters support Finland and the Netherlands; it is Nelson's last signal, "16", or "engage the enemy more closely".

  5. ajay said,

    October 7, 2020 @ 5:00 am

    The ICOS is fascinating, especially in the detail it gives to medical signals. In theory a (for example) Brazilian ship with a monoglot Brazilian crew could request and receive medical advice from a similarly monoglot Russian ship, simply by hoisting flags (or sending Morse signals) along the lines of:

    MAA I request urgent medical advice
    MAJ27 I have a male aged 27 years
    MDL Severe pain..
    MBG22 …in right lower abdomen…
    MDO …increased by hand pressure…
    MEM …with vomiting. (An easy one to remember – EMesis)

    To which the Russian might reply:
    MQF8 My probable diagnosis is appendicitis
    MVA The condition is serious
    MVP You should land your patient at the earliest opportunity

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    October 7, 2020 @ 5:51 am

    Whilst the patient would probably devoutly hope that the Russian did not respond with 2059 — "I can cut them out without any assistance".

  7. ajay said,

    October 7, 2020 @ 10:07 am

    Some friends and I spent a little time a few years ago devising a list of "ICOS Messages Which Could Be Useful In A Nightclub"

    FO1: "I will stay close to you during the night"
    Q: "I am free of infectious disease"
    X: "Stop carrying out your intentions and wait for my signal"
    TE: "I am engaged in trawling"
    LS: "The bar is dangerous here"
    MCX MLE: "Patient is delirious and has consumed much alcohol"
    CL: "I offered assistance but it was declined"
    BB2: "You may alight on my deck: I am ready to receive you amidships"

    and various others which now escape my memory.

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