Paul Vallely: Flying the flag is a dangerous military mission

When I was a Boy Scout - in those far-off Startrite days of innocence and Enid Blyton ? they were most punctilious about the flag.
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The Scoutmaster was an ex-army type whom we were taught to address as Skip. It wasn't just a question of folding it properly. You had to make sure it was the right way up. That meant the broader bit of the white diagonal of the Union Jack had to be in the top right hand corner – the "dexter quadrant", I think he called it – and the narrow bit was to the bottom. Or was it the other way round? (Sorry, Skip!)

Anyway, what's clear is that your modern military recruit is about as refined in his knowledge of vexillology – that's flags to the rest of you – as I am after a four-decade interval.

Hence the red faces at the Royal Navy yesterday after it was forced to admit that sailors aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal ran up the wrong flag to welcome Rear Admiral Wu Fuchun, the commander of China's East Coast Fleet, who was leading a goodwill visit to Portsmouth.

It wasn't just any old wrong flag, either. Instead of the red ensign with five yellow stars that belongs to the Communist People's Republic of China, they had run up a red ensign with a white sun – the flag of the nation which styles itself the Republic of China but which the rest of the world knows as Taiwan, which has been on a war footing with mainland China for 50 years.

There is something delightfully British about the muddle. Behind the razor-keen SAS image of our military, there has always lurked a shambling Dad's Army pride in not worrying too much about the communications detail.

The two notions combined most dramatically in the infamous signal in which Lord Raglan announced that he "wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front" without specifying which front. The result was the legendary combination of courage and folly that became known as the Charge of the Light Brigade.

And yet it is not only the Brits who get their flags mixed up. Honduras reversed the indignity a few years back when it welcomed the Taiwanese Prime Minister with the Communist flag (and, to add insult to injury, portrayed the unhappy leader as being married to the wrong woman). Then there were the crowds of Australians at the last Olympic Games who proudly waved their flags for an entire week before someone pointed out they were New Zealand's ensigns.

In the United States, when reserve units were activated during the Gulf War, the American authorities issued the troops with a campaign emblem in which the Stars and Stripes was back-to-front.

And before one visit of the French Prime Minister, the Israeli authorities looked up his national flag and found it was red, white and blue – but then chose a flag with the stripes running the wrong way, making it the Dutch tricolour instead of the French one. The Israelis, naturally, blamed the French (for giving imprecise instructions).

Not that such confusion is solely the province of those in power. During the last election, the Tory leader William Hague tried to demonstrate his patriotism by running off 200,000 copies of the Conservative manifesto that purported to carry the Union Jack but in fact depicted the national flag of Iceland (which looks like the Union flag with the red diagonal of the flag of St Patrick missing). He even managed to pose for photographs in stylish silhouette against the backdrop of the phoney flag.

It may all, of course, be a cunning plot. After all it was the British who invented the strategy of flying their flag upside down as a covert signal that they were under attack and needed urgent assistance. Perhaps they were trying to tell the Chinese something, only subtly.