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Women

30 Years Of Women At Sea – BFBS Interviews Women In The Senior Service

A glimpse into the lives of a few women who have served with the Royal Navy over the last 30 years.

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It has been 30 years since the first admittance of women to seafaring roles within the Royal Navy.

To mark the occasion, BFBS conducted interviews with a number of women serving in the Navy.

One was Commander Lucy Ottley, who also spoke to us on Forces News.

COMMANDER LUCY OTTLEY

Commander Ottley also told BFBS’s Jess Bracey that she has enjoyed the challenges her military career has given her, saying at one point that the Navy, like all the services, is very good at giving people challenges and opportunities. In her case, for example, one of the things she was able to learn to do that she might not have otherwise was to learn to speak Arabic.

Opportunities have continued to widen for women within the Royal Navy. Commander Ottley told BFBS that it is right that other roles such as service on submarines, within the Royal Marines and as mine clearance divers are also open to women now.

British military uniforms at Ascot racecourse
Military personnel at Royal Ascot in 2018 – another aspect of her service Commander Ottley says she has enjoyed (image MoD)

While these newer roles for women were not available when she first joined up, Commander Ottley said much about the Navy has still remained consistent: 

“I think the thing that has remained the same from my experience is you’re here to do a job, and the opportunities are out there – you just have to capitalise on them.”

She added:

“ … I think that if you’re doing a good job and you’re working hard people will respect you for that.”

Royal Navy Op Teric
The deck of HMS Ark Royal during Op Telic (right) and at sea (images: MoD)

One of the highlights of Commander Ottley’s career was, she says, serving on HMS Ark Royal.

As part of her service, this involved helping to deploy troops to Iraq during Operation Telic, the British portion of the war in Iraq.

Ark Royal was a light aircraft carrier that was decommissioned in 2011. It was the fifth Royal Navy ship to bear that name, with another one having served up until the late 1970s. (A report on a model of that Ark Royal can be seen here).

ABLE RATE JESSICA MASON

Going from an experienced naval officer to one still early in her military career, Amy Casey spoke to 18-year-old Able Rate Jessica Mason about her experiences in the Navy so far.

Able Rate Mason serves on HMS Albion, an amphibious assault vessel that transports Royal Marines, and the ninth ship to bear that name historically. She spoke about having performed a number of roles aboard the ship, including being a quartermaster, a boatswain’s mate, getting involved with helping the ship to enter and leave harbour and driving, or steering, HMS Albion.

When Amy Casey asked Jessica what she thought of how things compare now when women are permitted to serve aboard ships to the days when this was prohibited, she said the comparison seemed crazy:

“ … I can never think of it just all being men … “

She also discussed how being one of a small percentage of women in the Royal Navy has helped make her conscious of being a bit of a role model for other women who may follow in her footsteps:

“ … I have four younger sisters, and I feel like being in the Navy is just showing them what more (there is to life) … I know it was a man’s world … but now it’s a mixed world … we’re all equal.”

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The Aurora Borealis, visible in this case from the deck of HMS Ocean, the highlight of Able Rate Mason’s naval career (image: MoD)

Amy Casey observed that Jessica’s family must be proud of her and asked what they said when she first went to sea. 

Being only 17 at the time, Jessica said that they were petrified at first to let her go. She later pointed out that she has learnt to steer a warship before learning to drive a car, something she has not done yet. Though taking on such challenges at such a young age has clearly helped Jessica to grow. She said at one point in the interview:

“ … Oh My God, I can do this … there’s people … twice my age on here, and they’re doing the same as me … it is crazy.”

Able Rate Mason also said that being aboard a ship encourages a special kind of camaraderie and that it feels like she has a family aboard HMS Albion. Referring to this aspect of a Naval career, when asked about giving advice to other women thinking of joining, she said:

“I’d just say do it. You get to … meet so many amazing people, you form bonds you never thought you would have, or imagine you would have. You literally make a second family.”

ABLE RATE WHITNEY AMBRITON

Able Rate Whitney Ambriton also serves on HMS Albion and told Amy Casey that, since it is such a large vessel, one of the challenges of the work aboard it has been getting used to finding her way around!

Though, like Jessica Mason, Able Rate Ambriton has also found serving aboard Albion to have been a terrific experience for her so far.

Her primary role is that of a human resource administrator, which seas her deal with personnel matters - though she also said it is normal to take on secondary roles and to practice dealing with emergencies like fires and floods.

Although she has been enjoying her career in the Navy so far, Whitney admitted that it was not something she ever planned to do:

“ … it just happened, I would say … I was looking for a job back home, and my friend just told me about the Navy and … I looked at the opportunities that it offered such as educational qualifications … the ability to travel to other countries (while working) and I (decided to) give that a go.”

Whitney said that that highlight of her career so far has been participating in the ceremonial guard on the deck of HMS Albion during sunset. 

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The USS Iwo Jima with Royal Marines aboard shown in 2018 – Able Rate Ambriton said her favourite time so far in her career has been being on deck during sunset

Whitney explained that she had friends who were already in the Royal Navy before she joined and who had encouraged her to do so, and that, once she did, there was a sense of togetherness to help her through the challenges: 

“… everyone helped me to get … my fitness up to the standard that it was required to be, and everyone was just … there for me.”

When Amy Casey asked about the 30-year anniversary of women being allowed into roles where they go to sea, and if she thinks about the issue of promoting inclusivity, she responded:

“ … I really do (think) about it, because … at some point … women weren’t able to join the military, let alone go to sea. I honestly completely agree with what’s going on in the world where we’re able to go to sea, do the same jobs that men are doing and that we’re basically treated equally.”

Whitney said that she is due to be at sea until December, when she will get Christmas leave, at which point she will go home and get some good takeaway food!

COMMANDER CAROLYN JONES

Commander Carolyn Jones was a Wren when she first joined the Navy in 1986, which meant she had taken on a supporting role. 

Officially, the first women to serve at sea with the Royal Navy did so in 1990, during the period of the first phase of the Gulf War, Operation Desert Shield. 

However, the history of official service by women in the Royal Navy goes back further than that. 

Women served with the Royal Navy as WRNS (the Women’s Royal Naval Service), or Wrens, from 1917 until they were first disbanded in 1919 following the cessation of the First World War. Although women were not in combat roles, Wrens were sometimes exposed to danger simply by being aboard a ship that was targeted by the enemy. The first Wren to be killed in service was Josephine Carr who died along with more than 500 others when the ship she was aboard, RMS Leinster, was torpedoed by a German U-boat while it crossed the Irish Sea. 

RMS means Royal Mail Ship and Leinster was being used to take post between Ireland and Wales during the First World War.

The Wrens were re-established in 1939 when the Second World War broke out. Women continued to serve the Royal Navy through the organisation until it was officially disbanded in 1993 and women began to serve within the Royal Navy more generally as men did.

As the video below from 1950 shows, WRNS (or ‘Wrens’) performed non-combat roles such as wireless telegraphists, cooks, dental assistants, aircraft mechanics, and working in stores.

Commander Jones told Amy Casey that things have certainly changed a lot over the course of her career, beginning in a support role.

Despite not being able to go to sea, Carolyn still had a lot of good opportunities, she said

“The Radar branch was quite diverse in its employment. We did a lot of work … in mock ops rooms and bridges of ships where we would train the ships company when they came ashore … ”

She also said:

“One of the most exciting opportunities I had was very early on in my career, in 1986 (or) 87, and I worked in the submarine attack teacher, which is where …. all the submarine command teams were trained … “

She explained that the women would be allowed onboard submarines in this capacity, including while they dived, because it was merely a training exercise and did not involve them actually being deployed at sea.

Carolyn said she also later volunteered to go to sea outside of just a training exercise when the opportunity came up later, and was trained for this at HMS Dryad in Portsmouth. (HMS Dryad is pictured as the cover to the first part of Carolyn’s interview, the image coming from the MoD).

She said it was an exciting time for her and that, “it was like entering this world we didn’t know … “

Once at sea, Carolyn said it became clear immediately just how much the danger of the situation encourages people aboard a ship to become a very close-knit team. She told Amy Casey:

“ ... it’s also the camaraderie, the humour, it’s that Naval sense of humour – it’s also tiring … not everybody has the sea legs, not everybody is able to cope in rough weather. I find that quite exciting … but it’s not for everybody, but you just pull together … “

She also said that the Royal Naval Reserve have given her a fantastic second career with many more opportunities. 

SUBMARINER JESS METCALFE

“It started once I completed two years at college and realised the uni life wasn’t for me … “

That was Submariner Jess Metcalfe’s way into the Royal Navy, looking for something that would fit her personality better than the academic path she had been on.

She want on the join the ‘Silent Service’, the Submarine Service, in 2015. 

Like Able Rate Jessica Mason, Submariner Metcalfe has gone on to perform a variety of roles within her submarine, up to and including steering it.

She too told Amy Casey how being within a sub helps engender a sense of being part of an extended family, and for her Jess said her best moment so far has been qualifying as a submariner. 

Jess too encourages other women to give the Navy a try, as long as they are willing to put in the hard work. She told Amy that she hopes to continue progressing. She is currently a petty officer and medical assistant and hopes to continue rising up the ranks in the future.

For more on women in the Armed Forces, click here.

Click here for more on Commander Ottley’s career, and click here for an in-depth look at the career of another woman in the Royal Navy, Commodore Mel Robinson can be heard elsewhere.

the silent service
HMS Audacious (image: MoD)