September 13, 2019

Naval Ranks - Officers

Most military forces use approximately the same set of ranks, traditionally with enlisted men running from private through variations of sergeant while officers run from lieutenant through general.1 But navies depart from this, using their own ranks which overlap some with the more traditional terrestrial lists, but usually mean different things.2

We'll start at the top. Most English terms come from either Romance or Germanic languages, including military ranks. But Admiral is an Arabic word, derived from the Arabic term "amīr al-baḥr", meaning "Commander of the Seas". This passed through Sicily in the 11th century, eventually Latinized as Amiral, to which English added a "d" later on.

Initially, admirals operated alone, but as fleets grew, so did a need for a deputy, who usually commanded the fleet's van (leading portion) while the Admiral stayed in the middle with the main body. He was known as the Vice Admiral (as in Vice President). Later on, as fleets grew even more, they needed a third admiral, to command the rear portion of the fleet, hence Rear Admiral. All Admiral ranks are known as "Flag Officers" because they were officers that had a specific flag that they would fly to designate what ship they were commanding from (hence flagship). In the US, at least, the term Flag Officer has become generic across the services, and is used to include Generals as well as Admirals, but this isn't the case everywhere, and some countries restrict its use to Admirals.

Below the rank of Admiral is often found the rank of Commodore. This comes from French for a senior knight/area commander, and is sometimes a rank and sometimes a title given to a Captain in certain circumstances. During the Age of Sail, it was a title given to a senior Captain placed in command of a group of ships.3 During the Civil War, the USN formalized it as a rank, which lasted until 1899, when it was abolished, and the existing commodores promoted to Rear Admiral, which was a 2-star rank, equivalent to Major General. This caused great confusion everywhere, particularly when the lower half of the seniority list was paid the same as 1-star generals, not 2-star generals. To make matters worse, in WWII, the rank of Commodore was reintroduced to allow Captains to take on more responsibility without producing a glut of Admirals after the war. Postwar, most retired, and there matters rested until 1982, when dissatisfaction with the fact that the Navy lacked a one-star rank lead to the introduction of Commodore (initially Commodore Admiral, simplified in 1983) as a distinct 1-star rank. This was tremendously unpopular, particularly as Commodore had become the traditional title for senior Captains in seagoing commands, such as the commanders of destroyer and submarine squadrons. By late 1983, the name was changed to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), abbreviated RDML, as opposed to the two-star Rear Admiral (Upper Half), RADM. For some reason, this system persists today.4

Next up, we have Captain, which is by far the most confusing rank in military terms. For the Navy, it's an O-6, the highest non-flag rank and equivalent to an Army Colonel. For the other services5 a Captain is an O-3, a fairly junior officer. Weirdly, these two ranks share a common origin, but the British conspired to confuse everyone.

The problem dates back many centuries, to the days when the typical warship was a merchant vessel with a bunch of soldiers onboard, who would fight boarding actions with enemy vessels. There were two senior officers on each ship. The master, who was a professional seaman and probably the man who sailed the vessel in peacetime.6 And the army Captain who commanded the troops aboard the ship, and who, because he was actually a member of the military, had overall command, with the master advising him on specifically naval aspects of commanding the ship. As the professional naval officer corps developed, this structure remained largely in place, with the Captain remaining the ship's commander while the master eventually became a warrant officer7 responsible for the ship's navigation and handling, although these were skills the Captain himself had.

But as the size of ships rose, it seemed odd to make the captain of a small brig or sloop the same rank as the captain of the largest ship of the line. As the naval officer corps was now dedicated to its craft and could handle ships quite well on its own, it made sense on smaller vessels to combine both the master and the captain, and the resulting position (and rank) was known as Master Commanding, or Master and Commander. In 1794, the British shortened this to just Commander, where it has remained ever since. For a while, Commanders were in an awkward position because they were too senior to serve under another officer but not on the Captain's List for promotion, and there were many more Commanders than Commander slots. This was eventually mitigated by using Commanders as the senior Lieutenants on the biggest ships.

Next down we have Lieutenant Commander, a rank that was actually invented by the Americans. The nascent USN had many small gunboats and other vessels, and these were often commanded by Lieutenants (which we'll come to shortly). These Lieutenants, many quite senior, were given the title of Lieutenant Commanding, which in an entirely predictable process became Lieutenant Commander. Later on, this rank was copied by the British when they found themselves in need of another rank between Lieutenant and Captain.

Lieutenant is a French word meaning literally "holder in place of" ("lieu tenant"), and originally just meant the officer who held a position while the senior officer was away.8 It, like Captain, came to the Navy from the days when Army officers commanded warships, and by the age of sail, a ship would have a number of Lieutenants based on its size, with a strict numerical seniority among them, the First Lieutenant outranking the Second and so on. They were the most junior proper officers, and would stand watches and run the ship for the Captain.

But in that case, why is a naval Lieutenant an O-3, equivalent to an Army Captain, and not an Army Lieutenant (O-1 or O-2)? This dates back to how naval officers were trained in the age of sail. Boys, usually in their early teens, were taken to sea as midshipmen at the discretion of the Captain, and trained by the officers of the ship in seamanship, gunnery, navigation, and the other important skills of running the ship. In their late teens, Midshipmen would be examined by a board of Captains who would certify them for promotion to Lieutenant. The problem is that to be promoted, a potential Lieutenant needed a shipboard berth in that rank, and there was always a shortage of slots relative to the pool of both "passed midshipmen" and existing Lieutenants, as well as more need for leadership than could be provided by the establishment of Lieutenants. So many passed midshipmen stayed on the books, initially as ordinary midshipmen, and later on in a special rank of that name. Because the wait for a Lieutenancy could take years, some passed midshipmen gained enough experience to be placed in charge of a watch, and were given the rank of "Master's Mate"9 (RN) or "Master in line for promotion" (USN). Eventually, these awkward ranks were abolished. The RN called their Master's Mates "Sub-Lieutenant", while the USN chose Lieutenant (Junior Grade) for its Masters in line for Promotion. The RN had essentially abolished the Passed Midshipman rank,10 while the USN had not, and it chose the term Ensign for officers fresh out of the Naval Academy. On the surface, this was an odd choice, as Ensign is also the term for the national flag flown by ships. Again, the French are to blame. Originally, the ensign was the flag of a senior officer, essentially a general, and it fell to the most junior officer to carry said flag. This officer was titled "Ensign-bearer", later "Ensign". A few European armies retain the rank, along with the USN, which adopted it in 1862.

The term Midshipman is still used to refer to a trainee officer, and it also dates back to the days of sail. In that era, officers mostly lived and worked aft, while the common sailors were berthed forward. Midshipman began as experienced sailors who were halfway between the two, although somehow the term was appropriated for officer candidates instead.

Next time, I'll look at the history of the enlisted ranks, who do most of the actual work aboard ships.

For more detail on the history of these ranks, see this article, which was my main source for this post. Do note that it was written by a coast guardsman, and spends a great deal of time on the Revenue Cutter Service, the predecessor to that organization.

1 For those who aren't clear on the officer/enlisted distinction, officers traditionally came from the upper classes/aristocracy, and were given a commission by the king/head of state which gave them command authority over non-officers. Enlisted men made up the bulk of the force, and were simply "on the list" of a unit's strength. Today, officers usually go to college before being commissioned, while enlisted men enter directly.

2 This post will focus on the USN officer ranks, so far as they can be separated from the RN's heritage. I'm aware that there are other navies out there, and might circle back around and look at them later on.

3 This was often done because of the rather absurd British policy of promoting officers by strict seniority once they were on the Captain's List. This meant that if they wanted to promote a very talented man to Admiral, they had to promote everyone above him on the list, too. Often, it was easier for the RN to just call him a Commodore and give him an Admiral's billet, while still in command of his own ship. The USN didn't have any Admirals until 1862, due to some concern that the title reminded them of royalty, and so used Commodore for the same reason. To add to the confusion, the rank of "flag officer" was used from 1857 to 1862, to give senior Captains the diplomatic rank of Admiral without having to use the term.

4 If I ever become secretary of the Navy, everyone will be informed that the 1-star rank is to be renamed. It will be either Commodore, Lieutenant Admiral, Admiral (JG), or something even sillier. They get to vote.

5 Excepting the Coast Guard, NOAA Commissioned Corps and PHS Commissioned Corps, who all use naval ranks. Actually, that's a majority of the US Uniformed Services, which just proves that the naval ranks are right, and the other services are in the wrong.

6 Master is the traditional term for the commander of a merchant ship. I'm not quite sure when Captain replaced it, but it was sometime after the Napoleonic Wars.

7 A warrant officer is a specialist who falls between enlisted and commissioned officers. In the age of sail, these were people like the gunner, the bosun, the carpenter, the surgeon and so on. They were distinguished from the commissioned officers because they received warrants from the Admiralty instead of commissions from the king. Today, they're usually senior specialists in critical roles.

8 For some reason, it's pronounced "Leftenant" in Commonwealth countries. Seriously, I cannot explain this.

9 Masters were mostly midshipmen who had passed their exams but given up hope of promotion to Lieutenant, probably because of lack of patronage, and chosen to go for more pay at the cost of promotion prospects. Initially, the Master's Mate rank meant that a passed midshipman actually wanted to be a Master, but later on, it became a stepping-stone to Lieutenant's rank.

10 This results in the odd case where the RN has 9 officer ranks from "freshly commissioned" to "full Admiral" while the USN has 10.


  1. September 13, 2019Eric Rall said...

    For some reason, it’s pronounced “Leftenant” in Commonwealth countries. Seriously, I cannot explain this.

    There are several competing explanations. The one that strikes me as most plausible is that the English got the term from Middle or Norman French no later than the 14th century, not from modern Parisian French. There are some indications from nonstandardized spellings that at the time of borrowing, the French at the time pronounced "lieu" more like "loov" or "loof" than the modern "loo", with the "u" representing a "v" sounds as the u/v distinction in orthography was only just starting to form. So the British tradition maintained something close to the original pronunciation, while Americans adapted the word to the modern French pronunciation of the root word or to modern English orthography.

    If I ever become secretary of the Navy, everyone will be informed that the 1-star rank is to be renamed. It will be either Commodore, Lieutenant Admiral, Admiral (JG), or something even sillier.

    Right there with you. For the "something even sillier" category, I nominate Counter Admiral and Flotilla Admiral.

  2. September 13, 2019ec429 said...

    It gets even more confusing when you mix in RAF ranks. (The USAF pretty much just uses army ranks, presumably 'cos it was the USAAF for so long; but much of the Commonwealth uses the RAF system, although Canada went army in 1968.) For instance, modern-day Pilot Officers are never pilots (who skip straight from Officer Cadet to Flying Officer), all the flag ranks ("Air ranks" in RAF parlance) except Air Commodore have "Marshal" in them despite only the highest (MRAF, honorary only) being equivalent to field-marshal, and in WWII Bomber Command ranks were one step above appointments (two steps in Pathfinder Force) so a Squadron Leader led a bomber Flight while his squadron would be led by a Wing Commander. Oh, and there's no Captain rank, but the airman in command of an aircraft is its "captain", which when combined with the large number of non-commissioned aircrew in WWII meant that a heavy bomber (i.e. the biggest 'vessel' the RAF had) could be "captained" by a Flight Sergeant (equivalent to a chief petty officer).

    And to bring this back round to naval gazing, the RAF rank system came not from the RFC but from the RNAS.

  3. September 13, 2019ec429 said...

    while Americans adapted the word to the modern French pronunciation of the root word or to modern English orthography.

    Surely in modern English orthography the 'i' would be pronounced? As, indeed, some English speakers do in the word 'lieu', which comes out something like 'lyou'. The American 'loo' pronunciation sounds low-register to us (mumble mumble remnants of class system), and probably isn't helped by 'loo' being slang for what I believe Americans call a 'head'.

  4. September 13, 2019bean said...

    My theory on the RAF/USAF split is that the RAF needed to differentiate itself when it became independent because it was definitely the junior service in 1918, while the USAF became independent in an environment where it had the political upper hand over both the Navy and Army.

  5. September 13, 2019Ian Argent said...

    There are several words of french origin the british pronounce differently than the French or Americans. Lieutenant is one, valet is another. There's a third I ran across, but I forget right now. I think "to be different from the bloody french" is probably a perfectly acceptable reason.

  6. September 13, 2019Doctorpat said...

    The story I heard about leftenant/lootenant was as follows:

    As stated, lieutenant means, left in charge while the captain is away. From the French Lieu, meaning "remaining, or delegated". And the French word tenant meaning "person who manages something or takes care of something for somebody else".

    Now the English copied the French word Lieutenant. And at the time the upper class English, the officer class, all knew how to speak French, so they had no issue using the French word.

    But the enlisted men? They didn't speak French. So they were given an English translation of the word.

    The word tenant was common in English with much the same meaning e.g. "A tenant farmer" was someone who farmed the land for the absentee owner. Possibly because the French speaking norman aristocracy had owned the land and had English speaking tenant farmers.

    But "lieu" wasn't a familiar english word (though in 2019 we do say "X was done in lieu of Y") So the basic English translation was that this junior officer was "Left in charge" or "Left tenant".

    So we had the typically British situation of the Officers, who spoke French and could write, using the word lieutenant, especially when they wrote about it. And the regular men using left-tenant in speech. Boil for a couple of hundred years and it is pronounced left-tenant but spelled lieutenant.

    The American's took both the spelling and the pronunciation directly from the French and so skipped the silliness.

    As with many etymological derivations, it is perfectly possible for more than one explanation to be true at the same time.

  7. September 14, 2019Andrew Hunter said...

    I rather like commodores as a name, but mostly because I've read too much Weber. Ranks work pretty well there, with the notable exception of having a totally unnecessary Captain-JG. I'm not sure why he added that. (Is there historical president? I don't think so...)

  8. September 14, 2019Chris Bradshaw said...

    Captain JG somewhat corresponds to Frigate Captain, which is used in Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and many of their former colonies.

    I always like Grand Admiral, more for Zahn's Thrawn than Tirpitz.

  9. September 14, 2019bean said...

    Frigate captain is usually a rank equivalent to Commander in the angophone navies, basically dating back to when that was the typical rank for the captain of a frigate. But the RMN is resolutely a copy of the RN, and already uses Commander. Captain JG always struck me as weird, too.

    Grand Admiral is a good title, although my admiration to it also traces to Thrawn.

  10. September 14, 2019Matt Butch said...

    This is a great article on ranks and their history, and it offers a lot of historical background that answers questions I’ve always had.

    And I vote for Lieutenant Admiral just to go with Lieutenant Commander but maintain the Admiral star rank.

  11. September 15, 2019AlphaGamma said...

    On Lieutenant-Admiral, the Royal Dutch Navy uses that as its 4 star rank. The rank of full Admiral has historically been reserved for the King or members of the Royal Family, and hasn't been held by anyone since the 19th century. Even in the 17th century, de Ruyter and Tromp were promoted from Lieutenant-Admiral to the specially-created rank of "Lieutenant-Admiral-General" rather than to Admiral.

    The Dutch equivalent of (2-star) Rear-Admiral, meanwhile, is Schout-bij-nacht which translates as "watch-at-night", because he was originally the admiral's deputy who was in charge of the fleet while the admiral was asleep.

    On levels of captain, I think Continental European navies tend to use versions based on the ship the captain commands. The highest grade of Captain (equivalent to an Anglophone Captain O-6) is either "ship-of-the-line captain"- e.g. French Capitaine de vaisseau- or "captain at sea" - e.g. German Kapitän zur See. Lower ranks are usually "frigate captain" and "corvette captain". Canada, being Canada, uses the French ranks in French and British ranks in English, so the same Canadian officer can be a Lieutenant-Commander or a Capitaine de Corvette...

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