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Rising to the challenge

Wren Driver WW1

Women in the Royal Navy

Commander Jane Allen RNR, Navy Command HQ Representative WRNS100 Project, considers the key roles played by women in the Naval Service, from 1917 to the present day

As the Royal Navy prepares to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), it is time to look back over a century of achievement, and to take stock of the progress that has been made. In today’s Navy, are women on an equal footing with men? Is it still news when ‘the first woman’ is appointed to a role? Is the Royal Navy now a truly gender-neutral service?

The WRNS was established towards the end of the First World War, in November 1917. In the years leading up to the war, the Suffragette movement had been lobbying the government for greater powers for women, but it was only as the war progressed that the role of women really began to change. The country faced a rapidly deteriorating manpower situation, and this was felt nowhere more than in the ranks of the Royal Navy. By the end of the First World War there were over 5,000 female ratings and nearly 450 officers. The foundation of the WRNS made an essential contribution to the Navy in its hour of need – but it also represented a turning point in our nation’s social history.

Wherever the WRNS worked, camaraderie was strong, with women sharing unique and unforgettable experiences – and it was not long before they became known as ‘Wrens’. Close bonds were established, just as they were in the Second World War, during which 75,000 Wrens served. They had proved their worth in a unique supporting role to the Royal Navy and were held in the highest regard. The WRNS was predominantly a shore-based service, with the motto ‘Never at Sea’, although some women did find themselves serving afloat as Cypher Officers and Boat’s Crew Wrens.

A century of progress

In 2017 the Royal Navy will celebrate the centenary of the formation of the WRNS. It will also recognise the supporting role given by the WRNS to the naval service and acknowledge the transition made by women into the Royal Navy. Full integration was achieved in 1993, after the gold badges now worn by all sailors had replaced the blue ones previously worn by Wrens. However, in 1990 liability for sea service had already become a condition of entry for both men and women. Among those Wrens who were already serving, some opted to remain non-seagoing, but many seized the moment. In that same year the Reverend Caroline Eglin joined the Naval Chaplaincy Service as its first female chaplain.

Soon afterwards the Royal Marine Band Service accepted its first female recruits and the Fleet Air Arm opened up aviator roles to women; the first observer qualified in 1993. By this time women had gained the opportunity to combine a career with family life, rather than having to leave the Service on marriage. In addition, new legislation provided further assistance in the form of maternity-leave benefits. The Royal Navy became a modern employer and sought to introduce, amongst other things, crèches for naval mothers.

Women swiftly made their mark. In 1997 Lieutenant Commander Vanessa Spiller qualified as Principal Warfare Officer, Katherine Babbington won the Queen’s Sword at Dartmouth, and Muriel Hocking became the first woman to attain the rank of Commodore in the Royal Naval Reserve. A year later, a helicopter pilot gained her ‘wings’, and after taking command of their small Fast Patrol Craft, two female names appeared on the seagoing Bridge Card for the first time. The many new opportunities enabled an increasing number of women to begin rising through the ranks and achieving greater fulfilment.

Millennial success

The new millennium heralded further successes for naval women – successes that their Wren forebears would have been so proud to witness. Sixty years after the Boat Crews had earned such respect, women achieved command of larger ships: in 2004 a minehunter, and then in April 2012 Commander Sarah West became the first female officer to take command of a major warship, a frigate.

In the air, a female helicopter pilot was appointed to the Commando Helicopter Force, referred to as the ‘Junglies’ squadron; she soon found herself flying missions in Northern Ireland.

In 2007, Surgeon Lieutenant Lara Herbert, a doctor from the RN Medical Branch, became the first naval woman to pass the exceptionally tough All Arms Commando Course; she went on to provide combat support to frontline commandos. Two years later Kate Nesbitt, a medical assistant, was the first woman in the Royal Navy to be awarded a Military Cross for bravery during service in Afghanistan.

Ever-expanding roles for women

In 2010 the first woman qualified as a Minewarfare and Clearance Diving Officer, and in that same year a female pilot was appointed to lead and fly in the Navy’s Blackcats Helicopter Display Team. Another pilot became the Commander of the Maritime helicopter force, and a similar squadron accolade went to a seaman officer who, in 2012, became the first woman to command a squadron of fourteen minor war vessels.

In 2011, Lieutenant Commander Kay Burbidge, who had begun her career as a nonseagoing blue-badge Wren rating, found herself appointed as the RN’s first aircrew Senior Observer. More recently, she has returned to that same squadron as the Commanding Officer . The Fleet Air Arm has also welcomed its first frontline Air Engineering Officer, and in 2013 Sarah Christenson became the first fully qualified female aircrew to join the Search and Rescue Air Squadron.

Another former blue-badge Wren, Annette Penfold, was appointed as the RNR’s first female Command Warrant Officer in 2010, just as the Reserves Diving Branch welcomed its first qualified female diver.

By 2013 Naval servicewomen had established a professional network to inspire and empower women further throughout their careers. The network supports the Royal Navy as an inclusive organisation, attracting talented young people, men and women, to continue the best traditions of Service life.

The Submarine Service was created shortly before the WRNS came into being, and during both world wars Wrens worked closely with submariners: they performed tasks such as repairing torpedo nets, maintaining torpedoes, handling cyphers, and training submariners. It was in 2014 that the first three RN female officers entered the Submarine Service, having gained their ‘Dolphins’, and ratings have now followed their lead.

The role of women in today’s Navy

The past century has witnessed changes that the young women of 1917 could only ever have dreamed about. No longer in a supporting role, women in today’s Royal Navy serve alongside their male colleagues at sea, under the sea, in the air and on land. They have served in the First Gulf War, the Balkans, the 2003 Iraq War and, more recently, in Afghanistan and on humanitarian operations in the Philippines.

The fundamental role of the Royal Navy, to safeguard the freedom of the seas, remains much as it was in 1917, but the roles played by the women who serve in it have changed beyond all recognition. Since those early days, when women were ‘Never at Sea’, today’s Royal Navy relies equally on the contributions of both its men and its women to protect our nation’s interests.

Following the Government’s recent announcement that women may now serve in ground close combat roles, including the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy is currently preparing for this historic change. There is little doubt that women will again rise to the challenge.

For more information about WRNS100, visit