17 April 2023
Graham Caldwell outlines the cultural changes and equal opportunities that opened up for women in the Royal Navy from November 1993.
In an interview for Navy News in October 1993, the last Director of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) Commandant Anne Spencer said: ‘In 1917, when the WRNS were first formed, we weren’t allowed gold lace because the Treasury thought it was wasted on women. It was decreed that gold lace badges and insignia were the prerogative of the men. We’ve got it now though!’ The date of 1 November 1993 was a watershed moment for women then serving, because that was the official date when the WRNS were fully integrated with the rest of the Royal Navy, but it took a long time coming.
The Women’s Royal Naval Service was founded in November 1917 under the slogan Free a Man for the Fleet. The first Director WRNS was Dame Katherine Furse who had previously held a senior role with the British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD) until November 1917, when she was offered the post and rank of Director of the newly established WRNS, the equivalent of a Rear Admiral. In fact the Royal Navy was the first of the armed forces to recruit women, who took over the role of Navy cooks, clerks, wireless telephonists, electricians and code-breaking experts. By 1918 the WRNS had grown to 5,500 members, of which 500 were officers, but after only 19 months in existence the authorities disbanded the WRNS at the end of the war.
Right: Dame Katharine Furse, the first Director of the WRNS, who served from 1917 to 1919
After a 20-year hiatus the WRNS were re-constituted on the outbreak of World War II to release men from shore duties to boost the numbers available to serve afloat. The new Director was Dame Vera Matthews CBE, in post from 11 April 1939 to 1946, who had previously served in 1918, receiving an MBE for her work at HMS Victory VI, the basic training base at Crystal Palace in South London. During WWII Dame Vera was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1942 for her training work with the Free Dutch Women’s Volunteer Marine. By 1944 women were undertaking over 200 different jobs, including catering, secretarial, telegraphists, radar plotters, weapons analysts, range assessors, mechanics, despatch riders, piloting transport aircraft and most famously employed as code and cypher breakers at Bletchley Park, working on the world’s first large-scale computer called Colossus. At its peak 75,000 women were serving by 1944 and when Dame Vera retired, over 100,000 women had served under her leadership, of which 303 were killed during the hostilities.
Left: This 1940s WRNS re-enactor wears the uniform of a Third Officer. In her lapel she spots a (non-regulation) Fleet Air Arm pilot’s sweetheart brooch
Rank and uniform discrimination
From the outset examples of prejudice were evident, deliberately designed to differentiate the servicewomen from their male counterparts. Wrens wore the same rank insignia as the men, but in blue instead of gold, which faded terribly, plus the curl atop male officers rank stripes was replaced by a diamond. WRNS officers were not allowed to use the Royal Navy’s traditional rank titles, but instead given unique classifications. For example, Third Officer instead of Sub-Lieutenant, Chief Officer for Commander; Superintendent, being equal to a Captain and for the lower deck, Section Leader instead of Petty Officer, although the Petty Officer title was eventually allowed from 1939.
Right: A torpedo being moved by a squad of Wrens at Portsmouth in 1943 in preparation for it to be loaded into a submarine
Commandant Jocelyn Woollcombe, Director from 1946 to 1950, expounded her view of WRNS’ officer ranks as: ‘Rather an unhappy blend of the Merchant Navy, the Railway and the Asylum!’ The top WRNS rank of Director, comparable to a Rear Admiral, was used until 1951, but thereafter Commandant was substituted as the most senior rank in the WRNS. The term Director was henceforth used as the job title for the most senior Wren, thus the Director’s status was overnight reduced in rank to that of a male Commodore. What didn’t change was the rule that women were not allowed to serve on warships, even those of a non-combatant nature, such as survey vessels. However, since amalgamation with the Royal Navy in 1993, several women officers have achieved the 1-star rank of Royal Navy Commodore (rated NATO OF-6) their gold insignia and shoulder-boards now identical to those worn by their male counterparts.
Left: Ranks 1940-1993, except Deputy Director became Commandant from 1946 and from 1951 Director became Hon. Chief Commandant reserved for royalty. WWII Female naval doctors (top left) wore the same insignia as their RNVR male counterparts
Amalgamating the WRNS into the Royal Navy
The WRNS continued as a separate organisation to the male-dominated Royal Navy with only minor changes until the 1970s, when it became obvious that equal pay for women and the need to remove sexual discrimination meant that the WRNS and the Royal Navy would need to become a single organisation. The first key change came in in 1977 when women were made subject to the Naval Discipline Act and given longer terms of service in a wide range of technical support roles in operational areas. In 1981 the new-entry training establishment, HMS Dauntless, closed after 35 years having trained over 30,000 WRNS, thus allowing initial training to take place alongside male ratings at HMS Raleigh. As a prelude to complete integration into the Royal Navy, the female officer rank titles became the same as those of the men’s on 1 December 1990, at which time female ratings lost the prefix Wren. For example Leading Wren became Leading Rate; but they had to wait until 1 April 1992 before gold braid replaced blue for rank insignia and badges, which had the benefit of visually stating that women now had the same authority of rank as men, particularly important when operating at sea. Commandant Anne Christine Spencer was the last Director of the Woman’s Royal Naval Service, serving from 1991 to 1993. Born in Yorkshire on 15 December 1938, when aged 21 she failed the interview stage to become a Stewardess with BOAC, which was certainly their loss!
Right: Commandant Anne Spencer CBE, who served as the last Director WRNS from 1991 to 1993
Commissioned in 1963 into the WRNS Catering & Supply Division, Spencer served as a member of the MOD Intelligence & Naval Services Conditions Committee; NATO headquarters Brussels; Deputy Director WRNS, Naval Director NAFFI Board of Management 1983 in the rank of Superintendent, followed by Chief of Staff (Admin) to Flag Officer Plymouth. Commandant Spencer spent her last three years as Director preparing for transition of the WRNS into the Royal Navy and overseeing the experiment of three Wren officers and 16 female ratings allowed to go to sea in the Type 22 Frigate HMS Brilliant during the Gulf War in October 1990. Upon retirement Anne Spencer was appointed an Aide-de-Camp to the Queen and made a CBE in 1994.
Left: Women from different shore establishments come together for the Remembrance Day parade at HMS Collinwood in Fareham, Hampshire on 11 November 2016
Unlimited opportunities for women
The Woman’s Royal Naval Service was disbanded on 1 November 1993, at which time 4,535 women of all ranks were merged into the Royal Navy. It was now open for women to serve in a multitude of male roles, such as ship’s crew, pilots, observers, aircrew, as divers and commanding officers of HM ships and shore establishments, even including the Royal Marines Band. The first woman to command a warship occurred in 1998 when Lieutenant Commander Samantha Moore captained the patrol vessel HMS Dasher, followed by promotion to Commander and command of the 1st Patrol Boat Squadron, comprising 16 P2000 Archer Class operational/training patrol boats based around the UK, plus added responsibility for a further 14 (Royal Naval) university small training vessels. In November 2009, Medical Assistant (since promoted Chief Petty Officer) Kate Nesbitt’s bravery in Afghanistan was rewarded at Buckingham Palace when she became the Navy’s first woman to be invested with the Military Cross. Her citation read: ‘Nesbitt's actions throughout a series of offensive operations were exemplary; under fire and under pressure her commitment and courage were inspirational and made the difference between life and death. She performed in the highest traditions of her service.’
Right: Commander Samantha Moore, the first female commander of a naval surface vessel, HMS Dasher and the first female to command a squadron of Royal Navy vessels, the 1st Patrol Boat Squadron
Lieutenant Commander Kay Burbidge made history in 2011 by becoming the Fleet Air Arm’s first female Senior Observer when posted to 829 Naval Air Squadron based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall, after completing a Flight Commander’s appointment on the Type 23 Frigate HMS Monmouth. She joined the Royal Navy in 1988 as a Wren Air Engineering (Weapons Electrical) Mechanic and was commissioned in 1995. Burbidge returned to command 829 NAS with its Sea King helicopters in 2016. Burbidge said, “Joining up as a non-seagoing, blue-badge-wearing Wren, my recent appointment is a true reflection as to the advances in the opportunities available to females in the Armed Forces today.” A very important first for women occurred in May 2012, when Commander Sarah West was the first female to actually command a major warship, the Type 23 Frigate HMS Portland, and since 2019 women have been eligible to join the Royal Marine Commandos.
Ballistic missile nuclear submarines
The problems of sharing living space between the sexes on surface warships after 1993 was overcome due principally to the experiments three years earlier on warships Brilliant, Juno and Invincible during the Gulf War. Warships were quickly converted so that accommodation was divided into single sex mess decks and ablutions, but experiments carried out on submarines in 1998 revealed unique issues that set the timetable back over two decades before accepting female submariners. Firstly, the Trident-missile Trafalgar and Vanguard class submarines were so often short of sleeping spaces that they operated on the hot-bunk system, whereby two men shared a bunk, but were active on different shifts. If women were assigned separate mess and bathroom facilities as currently configured, there would be insufficient bunks. Shared accommodation, as is the case on Norwegian submarines, was quickly discounted. Secondly, submarine service is more demanding than on surface ships due to the need to stay submerged for up to three-months at a time, which raised the question that psychological risk to women might differ to men when kept in long-term isolation. Thirdly, the unique close confinement between men and women for long period’s risked relationships being formed more easily, or unwelcome sexual advances, with no opportunity to surface and divert to the nearest port. Finally, concern was expressed if the low-level (but acceptable) radiation levels tolerated by men, plus if pollutants, such as carbon-dioxide found in recycled air, might have a different effect than with men on woman’s health, particularly if in the early stages of pregnancy. However, after health concerns were eventually overturned by the Institute of Naval Medicine and £3 million was authorised to be spent on hospital grade air-conditioning and converting areas into separate female-friendly break-out spaces, bunks and showers, 2011 saw the ban lifted on women being allowed to serve on nuclear submarines. This led to the first female officers undergoing training on board HMS Vigilant in 2014 for service on Trident ballistic missile submarine classes, followed by female ratings serving on Astute-class Hunter-Killer nuclear submarines two years later, which are larger internally than the Trident’s.
Pioneering submariners Lieutenants Maxine Stiles, Alex Olsson and Penny Thackray became the first women to serve on a submarine in the 110-year history of the Silent Service. Following months of specialised training, the three women each earned their dolphin’s badge, the hard-won and much-prized symbol of a submariner. The then Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, said, “Our armed forces offer an enormous range of opportunities and careers, no matter what your gender. This is another important step forward as we strive to make sure our armed forces better represent the society we serve.”
Women can now serve in all of the Royal Navy’s seagoing branches, demonstrating the service’s commitment to making sure all its personnel have the same opportunities. The lifting of the submarine ban ended one of the last all-male bastions of the armed forces after pressure to introduce equal opportunities throughout the military.
Collecting WRNS badges and insignia
Some 27 years have passed since the last issue of WRNS blue-coloured badges and insignia, even longer when collecting genuine WWI and WWII examples. Nevertheless, these rare items still come up for sale from time to time. Rank and rate badges can be found on eBay starting from as little as £2.50 each and officer and NCO hat badges can still be found for under £20. A WWII period WRNS officer tricorn hat with embroidered badge is currently available from PcClick.uk in Yorkshire for £75.
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