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The article is organised as follows:


3.0     Introduction

A two-star officer, with a NATO code of OF-7, is a senior commander within the armed forces of a nation, although exact seniority is country specific.

Typically termed ‘Major General’, it usually ranks above a Brigadier (OF-6) and below a Lieutenant General (OF-8), although sometimes it can be the equivalent of either of these two ranks. It is typically either the first or second grade of general officer.

In some countries a Major General is known as a General of Division or simply Divisional General but, when translated to English, is typically termed Major General for convenience.

3.1     History of the Rank and Formation

The term General comes from the Latin Generalis, meaning of a particular kind. One derivative, when used as a pre-nominal or immediate post-positive, is to have a superior or extended authority or rank; for example, General Manager.

With this in mind, the term ‘general’ is used in two ways: as the generic title for all grades of general officer and as a specific rank. It originates in the 1500s, as a shortening of captain-general, a rank which was taken from Middle French ‘Capitaine Général’. The adjective general had been affixed to officer designations since the late medieval period to indicate relative superiority or an extended jurisdiction.

In the 1500 and 1600s there were three levels of general:

  • Captain-General: senior General in command of the Army.
  • Lieutenant-General: in command of the Cavalry, senior to;
  • Serjeant-Major: in command of the Infantry (could also act as a sort of Chief of Staff to the Army commander).

The distinction of Serjeant-Major-General only applied after Serjeant-Majors’ were introduced as a rank of field officer in the 1600s. These field officers, third in command of their regiments (after their Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels), had a role similar to the older, Army-level Serjeant-Majors’ (albeit on a much smaller scale). The original position of Serjeant-Major was retitled Serjeant-Major-General to distinguish it from the field officer position.

Comerford (2003) suggests that the term Serjeant-Major was first used around 1680, with ‘Major’ meaning ‘greater than’, and was applied to the senior Sergeant in the Colonel’s company of an Infantry regiment. However, Comerford (2003) goes on to state that it was not formalised until 1797 when the Serjeant-Major was added to the battalion or regimental staff. When chevrons were introduced as badges of rank, the rank holder wore four, later under a crown.

The term Serjeant was eventually dropped from both titles, giving rise to the modern ranks of Major and Major General (explaining the anomaly of a Major General being junior in rank to a Lieutenant General).

The full title of Serjeant-Major fell out of use until the latter part of the 1700s, when it began to be applied to the senior NCO of an Infantry battalion or Cavalry regiment. Dawnay (1949) suggests the Serjeant-Major as a non-commissioned rank was introduced in the early 1700s, and Quartermaster-Serjeants first mentioned in 1793. In 1881, these Sergeant-Majors’ heading non-commissioned officers, were issued with a warrant to serve, thus becoming warrant officers.

A brief history outlining British admirals can be found in the next section.

Walton (1894, p.825) notes an English Major General R. Montgomerie in 1660, a rank which would go on to command a division.

Between 1714 and 1722, the Surveyor General of the Ordnance in the UK was a Major-General (Beatson, 1788, p.393).

The first western mention of a division is credited to Maurice de Saxe (1696 to 1750), Marshal General of France, in his book ‘Mes Rêveres’, published posthumously in 1757. Victor-Francois de Broglie (1718 to 1804), a Marshal of France, put the ideas into practice, conducting several practical experiments of the divisional system during the Seven Year’s War (1756 to 1763). However, Corvisier & Childs (1994) argue that Broglie was building on work initiated by Lieutenant General Pierre Joseph de Bourcet (1700-1780), a French engineer and artillery officer, and credited with using the all arms division as a tactical formation and on pioneering work in the creation of a true general staff.

Beatson (1788, p.344) notes a “Rear-Admiral of Great Britain” from 1763 to 1781, the naval version of a major general.

The French Revolutionary War saw the first systematic use of the divisional system, which made the army more flexible and easy to manoeuvre, with Napoleon later organising them into corps. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, all armies in Europe had adopted the divisional and corps system developed by France.

In 1798, the US President was authorised to enlist 10,000 troops and “That the President be, and he is hereby authorized to organize, with a suitable number of major-generals, and conformably to the military establishment of the United States, the said troops into corps of artillery, cavalry and infantry, as the exigencies of the service may require; and in the recess of the Senate, alone to appoint the commissioned officers.” (US Congress, 1799, p.558). In 1798, a US Major General was entitled to “one hundred and sixty-four dollars monthly pay…” (US Congress, 1799, p.604), in 1799 it was raised to “one hundred and sixty-six dollars per month…” (US Congress, 1799, p.750).

In March 1799, the US Congress stated that “…two regiments of infantry or cavalry shall constitute a brigade, and shall be commanded by a brigadier-general; two brigades, a division, and shall be commanded by a major-general.” (US Congress, 1799, p.752).

Prior to the French Revolution, a Maréchal de Camp (translated to Field Marshal or Major General for convenience) in the French army of the monarchy was the first substantive rank of general. The Maréchal de Camp wore a special uniform, blue and red, with a single bar of gold lace, and in the late 1700s also received two stars on the shoulder straps. With the abolition of the French rank of Brigadier des Armées in 1788, it became the lowest general officer rank, but its insignia of two stars remained unchanged. The rank was re-designated Général de Brigade (Brigade General) in 1793, retaining the two star insignia – this explains why French generals’ insignia starts with two stars.

In 1814, the French rank of Général de Brigade reverted to Maréchal de Camp but was returned, once again, to Général de Brigade in 1848.

During the 1880s, the French rank of Major General was reorganised to Général de Division, wearing three stars. This appointment became the position and style (rang et appellation) of Général de Corps D’armée in 1936.

An Act of 03 March 1899 stated that the US Navy shall be composed of 18 rear-admirals, and that each rear-admiral embraced in the nine lower numbers of that grade shall receive the same pay and allowance as are now allowed a brigadier-general in the Army. This gave rise to the US Navy grades, Rear Admiral (Upper Half) and Rear Admiral (Lower Half).

With the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911, the navy inherited the same ranks as its Royal Navy predecessor. However, the rank of admiral of the fleet (discussed below) has only been once used in its history so far, with the highest ranks remaining the traditional reserve as a wartime rank and did not take on the regular honorary appointments that its British counterpart did until 1996. The current and so far only holder of this rank is HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, prince consort to the Queen of Australia, Elizabeth II.

The rank of Air Vice-Marshal was created in the Royal Air Force on 01 August 1919, with nine British officers being appointed to the rank. The rank is utilised by a number of commonwealth countries and is sometimes used when translating equivalent foreign ranks into English.

In 1920, the newly established Canadian Air Force appointed its first officer to the rank and, also in 1920, the Australian Air Corps (and successor Royal Australian Air Force) adopted the RAF rank structure. However, no Australian officer was promoted to the rank until 1935. It was not until 1943 that the Royal New Zealand Air Force promoted its first officer to the rank. The first Indian Air Force officer was promoted to the rank on 27 September 1948.

3.2     Admirals and the Royal Navy

One of the earliest mentions of an English admiral is by Thoyras (1747, p.270) when he lists Richard de Lucy as an admiral in 1224. By 1294, as the English Navy expanded, Thoyras (1747, p.270) lists admirals with geographic areas of responsibility such as “Of the North”, “Of the South” and “Of the Weft” (or West). In 1360, Thoyras (1747, p.270) notes that one John Beauchamp effectively became admiral of all the English fleets, with this appointment being a predecessor to the future post of Admiral of the Fleet. From approximately the 1290s to 1400, admirals are listed as either “Admirals of the North” or “Admirals of the Weft”. (Thoyras, 1747, p.270-271).

From 1406, Thoyras (1747, p.271) notes the posts are combined into the new title of “Admirals of England”. The first post-holder, John Beaufort, greatly expanded the jurisdiction of the Admiralty taking “…cognizance of criminal as well as civil matters”. (Thoyras, 1747, p.271). In 1345, John Holland purchased for himself and his son, a lifetime grant in the post of Admiral of England, Ireland and Aquitain, thereby again increasing the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. The first mention of Lord High Admiral is made in 1485 (Thoyras, 1747). Initially, the Admiral of England (later known as the Lord High-Admiral) was the only admiral with captains operating the ships and royal officers (aka nobility) commanding the ships via a commission from the monarch.

“The office of Lord High Admiral dates from the 14th century, when the English Navy consolidated into one force. Originally responsible for aspects of Navy policy, the position of Lord High Admiral was held on commission by various peers of the realm.” (The Royal Family, 2011).

Over time the post of Lord High-Admiral evolved and the need for more than one admiral was required due to the size of the navy, plus the captain and royal officer posts eventually merged into one post. In modern times, the office of Admiral of England (or Lord High Admiral) has nominal overall responsibility for the navy. It is now a titular title reserved for members of the royal family; HRH Prince Phillip at September 2017.

By the time of his death in 1547, King Henry VIII of England had grown his fleet to 58 vessels, however, by the time of Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558 the fleet consisted of 27 vessels.

In 1549, John Dudley is noted as the “Lord High-Admiral of England, Ireland, Wales, Calais, Bologne, and the marches thereof, of Normandy, Gascogne, and Aquitain, and commander in chief of his Majesty’s fleet, and seas.” (Thoyras, 1747, p.271). At some point after the 1550s, the English navy started using the grades of Vice-Admiral and Rear-Admiral. For example, Sir Francis Drake, who defended England from the Spanish Armada, is listed as a “Vice-Admiral” in 1588 and Sir John Hawkins “Rear-Admiral” in 1589 (Thoyras, 1747, p.272).

During the reign of Elizabeth I (1533 to 1603) squadron colours were inaugurated to subdivide the English (and successor Royal) Navy into three squadrons: red ensign (senior), white ensign and blue ensign (junior). The senior admiral of each squadron was known as the Admiral of the White or Blue. There was no Admiral of the Red, with overall command of the whole fleet the being the province of the Admiral of the Fleet (The National Museum, 2000). The flags flown by the ships these officers were aboard gives us the term ‘flag officer’ and ‘flagship’. The squadrons and officers ranked in order:

  • Admiral of the Fleet (only one holder, at a time, of this rank until 1862).
  • Admiral of the White.
  • Admiral of the Blue.
  • Vice-Admiral of the Red.
  • Vice-Admiral of the White.
  • Vice-Admiral of the Blue.
  • Rear-Admiral of the Red.
  • Rear-Admiral of the White.
  • Rear-Admiral of the Blue.

In 1546, a ‘Council of the Marine’ was established to administrate with storehouses and dockyards, later becoming the Navy Board.

In 1633, the English Navy consisted of 50 vessels, but financial problems and poor administration reduced this to 42 by 1642. When civil war ensued (1642 to 1651) the fleet, starved of money, declared for Parliament. The Parliamentarians created a powerful and effective fleet which, by 1652, was composed of 102 vessels and cost the hefty sum of £4 million per year to maintain. Thoyras (1747, p.271) notes two Colonels appointed as “…Generals of the fleet.” during the civil war.

“By 1628, following the death of the Duke of Buckingham, the position [of Lord High Admiral] became entirely honorary with the duties of running the Navy delegated to a Board of Commissioners. Control of the Navy was passed to and from the Board and the Lord High Admiral until 1709 when the powers of the Lord High Admiral were finally vested in the Board.” (The Royal Family, 2011).

When Charles I (1630 to 1685) ascended to the throne in 1660, he inherited a fleet of 154 vessels. This had risen to approximately 270 vessels by 1700.

In 1690, the English Admiralty gave the title of commodore to the senior captain of a small squadron or a commander-in-chief of a small station when no flag officer was present and therefore involved extra responsibilities. It was considered as a temporary rank which, once the circumstances had passed, meant reversion to captain – although officers retained their seniority position in the captain’s list (the official record of every post-captain’s seniority).

In 1707, due to the union of England and Scotland, the post of Admiral of England became “…High-Admiral of Great Britain…” (Thoyras, 1747, p.272).

During the early 1700s, promotion was in accordance with seniority in the rank (from the captain’s list) and was held for life, therefore the only way to be promoted was for the person above to be promoted, to die or resign their commission (Millar, 2008).

In 1747, the Admiralty introduced the concept of ‘Yellow Admirals’, more formally ‘Rear-Admiral without distinction of squadron’. Captains could be promoted to ‘flag rank’ on the understanding that they would immediately retire on half-pay (Rodger, 1986; Millar, 2008).

Also in 1747, the first list of “equivalent ranks” between the army and navy was produced and the Admiralty proposed that commodores should rank with brigadiers. This was accepted although in reality the ‘rank’ of Commodore did not formally exist.

Millar (2008) notes that in 1769 there were 7 admirals, 10 vice-admirals and 11 rear-admirals (plus a further 22 rear-admirals who were pensioned).

By 1793, the Royal Navy had approximately 500 vessels.

“In 1805, after the battle of Trafalgar, the rank of Admiral of the Red was introduced to reward the most successful admirals and acted as a compliment to the Navy for the successes it had achieved during the Napoleonic Wars. It became the highest rank that an Admiral could attain until 1862, when an allowance was made for more than one Admiral of the Fleet to be appointed.” (The National Museum, 2000).

By 1805, the Royal Navy had approximately 950 vessels. During the early 1700s, the Royal Navy had a strength of approximately 40,000 rising to approximately 150,000 during the peak of the Napoleonic Wars. For the century following the Battle of Waterloo, the Royal Navy reigned supreme upon the oceans of the world. Although not unrivalled, all naval challenges were effectively dealt with.

The Royal Navy rank of commodore, the status of which had remained murky throughout the 1700s, was legally established by regulations of 1806. The anomaly of commodore was redressed by creating first class commodores ranked and paid as a Rear-Admiral if of sufficient importance to have a separate captain under him and second class commodores if he commanded the ship himself and did not have a separate captain. 2nd class commodores did not receive the same pay as a rear-admiral and, if a more senior captain visited his ship, he was to strike his broad pennant until that captain left the ship.

Millar (2008) notes that by 1812 the number of admirals had grown to 61 admirals (including 21 Admirals of the Red), 65 vice-admirals and 64 rear-admirals (plus a further 31 rear-admirals who were pensioned).

In 1828, the professional head of the Royal Navy was given the title of First Naval Lord, the grade of Admiral of the Fleet became an honorary promotion for retiring First Naval Lord’s.

The Navy Board was in charge of administration until 1832 when it was combined with the Board of the Admiralty, whose functions at this time were in the hands of single officer, the Lord Admiral, who commanded the monarch’s ships at sea.

In 1864, the organisation of the Royal Navy into coloured squadrons was abandoned. The Royal Navy kept the white ensign, the Merchant Navy adopted the red ensign and the blue ensign was adopted by naval auxiliary vessels. Admirals of the Fleet flew the Union Flag, Admirals flew the St. George Flag, Vice-Admirals the St George Flag with a red sphere in the top left quarter, and Rear-Admirals flew the same but with a red sphere in the top and lower left quarters of the flag.

In 1870, the Admiralty introduced regulations which stated a retirement age of 70 for the post of Admiral of the Fleet (The National Museum, 2000).

In 1904, the post of First Naval Lord was renamed First Sea Lord.

From at least 1826 to 1957, the Royal Navy maintained two classes of Commodore (King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions, 1913; Royal Navy, 1942; 1957):

  • Commodore, 1st Class: “who shall have a Captain of the same ship under him” (1913, p.47).
  • Commodore, 2nd Class: “When without a Captain of the same ship under him” (1913, p.47).

In 1913, the rank of commodore was temporary and in the presence of other captains, their rank and command was according to their seniority as captains (King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions, 1913, p.47). Commodores, 2nd Class, received full pay as a Captain (Royal Navy, 1957).

During the First World War, the Royal Navy lost approximately 20,000 personnel. The Royal Navy entered the Second World War with the world’s largest fleet. By 1945, the Royal Navy had approximately 900 major warships and 866,000 personnel. However, approximately 1,525 vessels of all types had been lost (including 224 large warships) and over 50,000 personnel by the end of the war.

In 1958, the rank of commodore 1st class was placed in abeyance with commodore 2nd class becoming commodore, and from 2001 it officially became a flag officer and one-star rank (DCI (Joint Service) 125/2001). However, a Royal Navy publication, BRd 2 dated April 2015, makes reference to the two classes of commodore (Royal Navy, 2015, p.46A-2).

The post of Admiral of the Fleet was placed in abeyance in 1996 (The National Museum, 2000), except for members of the royal family. Admiral Michael Cecil Boyce, Baron Boyce, KG GCB OBE DL (1943 to present) was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet (honorary) in 2014.

Prior to 2001, the shoulder boards of admirals had three stars for an admiral, two stars for a vice admiral and one star for a rear admiral. DCI (Joint Service) 125/2001 noted that admirals would have an extra star on their shoulder boards to align them with other NATO officer ranks and reduce confusion.

In 2011, HRH Prince Phillip was conferred “the title and office of Lord High Admiral”, the “titular head of the Navy”, which had previously been held by the Queen since 1964. (The Royal Family, 2011).

3.3     Country-Specific Examples

Table 8 provides examples of country-specific titles for the rank and grade of Major General (OF-7).

Table 8: Country-specific titles for Major General
Rank/Grade Title Countries Using Title
Major General UK, Australia, India, Pakistan, Philippines, US, New Zealand and Portugal [Note 1]
General de Birgada Brazil [Note 2]
Generalmajor Germany [Note 3], Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Norway
Major-general (генерал-майор) Russia [Note 4]
General de División Spain
Général de Division France [Note 5]
General Dywizji Poland
General-de-divisão Brazil [Note 6]
Generale di Divisione Italy
Divisionär Switzerland [Note 7]
Kindralmajor Estonia
Kenraalimajuri Finland
Vezérőrnagy Magyar Honvédség (Hungarian Defence Force)
Sarlashkar Iran
Mayjen Indonesia
rikushōho (陸将補) Japanese Self-Defence Force [Note 8]
Aluf Israel
Sojang South Korea and North Korea [Note 9]
Pon-tree (พลตรี) Royal Thai Army
Tümgeneral Turkey [Note 10]


  1. As a rank, Major General had been utilised in the Portuguese Army for only a short period (1862 to 1864). In 1999, it was reintroduced to the Portuguese Army (and Air Force and National Republican Guard) replacing the former rank of Brigadier in the role of brigade commander. In 2015, the rank of Major General was moved up one level, with the role of brigade commander being assumed by the lower rank of Brigadier General. From the early 1800s to 1950, Major General was not used as a rank in the Portuguese military, but as an appointment title conferred on the general officer that acted as the head of a branch of military service. In 1950, the roles of Major-General of the Navy (Major-General da Armada) and Major-General of the Army (Major-General do Exército) were replaced by the position of Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces.
  2. For Brazil, Honduras and Peru the rank of General de Brigada is equivalent to a Major General (OF-7), as there is no OF-6 equivalent rank.
  3. Not to be confused with Generalmajor [and Vizeadmiral] (one-star ranks, OF-6) of the Wehrmacht until 1945 or the National People’s Army (East Germany) until 1990. With the remilitarisation of Germany in 1955, on West Germany’s admission to NATO, the Heer (Army) adopted the rank structure of the US, with the authority of the three lower ranks being moved up one level, and the rank of Brigadegeneral (Brigadier General, OF-6) added below them. The rank of Generaloberst (Colonel General, OF-9) was no longer used.
  4. In the Russian and Soviet armies, the rank wearing two stars is lieutenant-general (Russian: Генерал-лейтенант), however the general in charge of a unit equivalent to the one led by a NATO two-star general (a division) is major-general (генерал-майор). This also applies to the air force, MVD, police, FSB and some others, and is caused by a Russian brigades being commanded by colonel, with the smallest unit commanded by a general being a division.
  5. A French Army général de division translates as a general of division. The French Air Force equivalent is général de division aérienne (general of air division). The rank insignia is three (3) white stars on the epaulette, sleeve mark or shoulder board. As well as commanding a division, a général de division may be appointed as général de corps d’armée (a corps general) commanding an army corps, or as a général d’armée (a general of an army), commanding a field army. These are not ranks, but appointments of the same rank. The insignia of a général de corps d’armée is four stars in a diamond formation, and that of a général d’armée is five stars in a cross-shaped arrangement.
  6. For countries such as Brazil and Chile, a General of Division is equivalent to Lieutenant General (see Part Four).
  7. The Swiss military use 4 languages, German, French, Romansh and Italian. The names of the OF-7 rank are divisionär (German); divisionnaire (French); divisiunari (Romansh); divisionario (Italian). In all cases, these are abbreviated as ‘Div’, and in all cases represent the head of a division, and hence can be translated as ‘divisional general’.
  8. There is no equivalent of Brigadier in the Taiwanese or Japanese Armies, these countries use the rank of Major General and Colonel-General in place of Brigadier and General. For these countries the rank of Lieutenant General is equivalent to Major General or Divisional General.
  9. In North Korea, the rank of sojang is the lowest general/flag officer rank and is equivalent to a one-star general (OF-6). The North Korean equivalent to a two-star general (OF-7) is jungjang, which roughly translates as Lieutenant General.
  10. Tümgeneral is derived from tümen, the Turkish word for a military division (tümen is an older Turkish word meaning ‘10,000’).

3.4     Service Equivalents

Within NATO, an army Major General is typically equivalent to:

  • Naval services:
    • Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy.
    • Rear Admiral (Upper Half) in the US Navy.
    • Divisional Admiral.
    • Contre-amiral.
    • Konteraadmiral in the German Navy.
    • Kontreadmiral in the Norwegian Navy.
    • Contraalmirante in the Portuguese Navy.
    • Daryābān in the Iranian Navy.
    • Counter Admiral (can be equivalent to Rear Admiral (OF-7) or Commodore (OF-6)).
  • Air Forces:
    • Air Vice-Marshal in the RAF. The rank originated with the RAF, but was preceded by the rank of Major-General from 01 April 1918 to 31 July 1919. The predecessor of the RAF was a branch of the British Army.
    • Major General in the Royal Canadian Air Force (prior to 1968 utilised the rank of Air Vice-Marshal).
    • Major General in the US and Canadian air forces.
    • General de División (General of Division) in the Spanish air force.
    • Generale di Divisione (General of Air Division) in the Italian air force.
    • Général de Division Aérienne (General of Air Division) in the French air force.
    • Major-brigadeiro (Major-Brigadier) in the Brazilian air force.
  • Marines:
    • Major General in the Royal Marines and US Marine Corps.

All of the above, regardless of their actual title, are typically considered equal in rank and status.

3.5     Level of Formation Commanded

Typically, an OF-7 level officer will command:

  • In the army and marines:
    • A division consisting of two (2) to five (5) brigades, or approximately 7,000 to 25,000 personnel.
    • Usually a mix of fighting and support elements.
    • Two or more divisions may constitute a corps.
  • In the navy:
    • A task or battle group of four to ten (4 to 10) ships.
    • Can denote units into which a ship’s company is divided for administrative purposes, a system the Royal Navy uses.
  • In the air force:
    • o An air division consisting of two (2) or more wings organised to perform an operational mission such as bombardment, fighter interception, reconnaissance, or airlift.

OF-7 level officers may also be appointed as Director’s-General of a service, for example Director-General of Training and Recruitment, or senior directors on service-specific or joint staffs.

Due to downsizing in many Western armies, the brigade is once again becoming the operational formation of choice with the division and corps becoming largely administrative in nature. A division may be commanded by an officer in the rank range of Brigadier (OF-6) up to a Lieutenant General (OF-8), and be assisted by a Chief of Staff in the rank of Colonel (OF-5) or Brigadier.

Although the exact structure of a division will vary between countries, a contemporary division will have between two and five brigades, a HQ unit, armoured cavalry (typically for reconnaissance), engineers, direct field support artillery and air defence, and a support unit (consisting of administration, medical, logistics etc.).

In a number of modern armies, regiments and/or battalions are placed together into brigades/divisions with a geographical footprint, i.e. for administrative and training purposes rather than warfighting/operations.

An army division is typically considered the smallest formation that comprises a balanced team of all the arms and services needed for the independent conduct of operations. Divisions, together with additional supporting combat service (CS) and combat service support (CSS) personnel, are formed into corps and field armies for the conduct of military campaigns. Divisions are typically organised as either infantry or armoured divisions, but specialised divisions also exist such as airborne (parachute) or mountain (alpine) divisions.

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