Women are finally going into close-combat roles in the British armed forces. About time? Or political correctness gone mad? Katie Glass reports.
The female warrior has always had a mixed reception. GI Jane is both a heroine and joke. In the Middle Ages, Matilda of England commanded armies, but, rather than celebrate her, people complained about her wilfulness. Eleanor of Aquitaine joined the Crusades with her husband, Louis, reputedly leading her women bare-breasted, dressed as Amazons, so chroniclers wrote her off as a slut. Elizabeth I, wise to the problems of being a female commander, pandered to her troops, assuring them she might “have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king”.
Now, for the first time, women in the British armed forces will have the opportunity to fight in close quarters with the enemy. And as usual, opinions are divided. David Cameron lifted the ban on women serving in close-combat ground roles last July, after a two-year review by the Ministry of Defence. The report focused on three risk factors: muscular injury, psychological health and impaired reproductive health. Now, women will be able to serve in positions from which they were once excluded: in the infantry, the Royal Marines, the Royal Armoured Corps and the RAF Regiment.
Last November, the Royal Armoured Corps began admitting women interested in the new roles. The first female officer graduated from Sandhurst 10 days ago and will go on to train as an RAC troop leader. All other ground, close-combat roles will be open to women by the end of 2018.
In other countries, women have been fully integrated into the armed forces for years. Norway has had women in all combat roles since the mid-1980s, Denmark since 1988, Canada since 1989, and the United States since 2013. Yet in the UK the move remains controversial.
Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded British troops in Afghanistan, was among those angry at the decision, which he called “dangerous PC meddling” and a “foolish move” that will be “paid for in blood”. “The infantry is no place for a woman,” said Colonel Tim Collins, a former SAS officer who commanded the Royal Irish Regiment during the invasion of Iraq. “Pure politically correct extravagance. No one pretends that allowing women onto the front line enhances the army’s capabilities. [This] inevitably will cost lives on the battlefield.” But what do women currently serving in the armed forces think?
The corridors of the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton, Somerset, are decorated with endless pictures of men. There are blown-up photographs of Our Boys in action, crouched beneath helicopters, wielding enormous guns. Posters show sweaty chaps pummelling weights, advertising the Royal Marines Ultra-Fit Championships. There are lads in rugby kit promoting the Royal Navy Rugby Union. There are also jokey photos of men wearing dresses or hula skirts on nights out. Down one corridor, frame after frame shows male soldiers assembled proudly in their squadrons.
“I guess it does affect you,” says Lieutenant Natalie Grainger, 28, a pilot in the elite Commando Helicopter Force. “Because you think: why aren’t there more senior women around? I want to change it.
“What annoys me is when people say, ‘Women are being allowed on the front line,’ ” she continues, sweeping back her blonde fringe (women are not compelled to have short back and sides). “When people were shooting at me in Afghanistan, wasn’t that me on the front line? We have been there a long time.” She has served with 846 Naval Air Squadron through two tours of Afghanistan, providing aviation combat support to the Royal Marines.
About 10% (15,280) of the British armed forces are women. Hundreds have served in front-line roles in Afghanistan and Iraq — as fighter pilots, in submarines, and in ground-support roles as medics and bomb-disposal experts. Four women received the Military Cross for their bravery on those battlefields. Nine lost their lives.
The new positions open to women differ because their primary purpose is to close in on and kill the enemy over short range on the ground. Entry requirements will be the same as for men, which Grainger approves of: “I can pass the boys’ level, so why can’t everyone else?” It is estimated that only 5% of women currently serving in the British Army could meet the basic infantry fitness test, which requires a soldier to march eight miles in under two hours, carrying 25kg of kit.
I shadowed Grainger through a day of exercises, flying her Merlin helicopter around Somerset. As we pulled on our uniforms, she was pragmatic about the one-size-fits-all male kit. “It’s all money at the end of the day,” Grainger shrugs. For women that means ballistic underwear with a flap at the front, waterproof suits with a front-to-back zip underneath — no good if you need to pull down your pants — and specially ordered combat boots, because the standard sizes are too big.