A Woman in Command

12/08/2011 23:29 | Updated 12 October 2011

Congratulations to Lieutenant Commander Sarah West (no relation) on achieving selection for her first major warship command. She will be the first woman to command a major warship in the history of the Royal Navy. With an exemplary career to date she has commanded four other smaller ships which is a considerable achievement in itself.

When I was asked to study the feasibility and benefits to the Navy of allowing women to serve at sea in the late 80s it was viewed in most quarters as an almost inconceivable step. There was considerable entrenched opposition much of which was based on emotion and myth. My research and study showed me quite clearly that there was no objective reason for women not serving at sea and indeed to be just as capable as men in that environment. The concerns were societal and were reflected in the way I was asked, for example, to investigate - shock horror! - increased numbers of lesbians coming out of the bulwarks. After interviews with approximately 200 women in the UK, US and a number of other countries I found no cause for concern.

I was also asked to investigate the impact of a woman's period on performance particularly in view of entrainment (when women's menstrual cycles tend to synchronise with others in close quarters). At that time female RAF aircraft controllers had to indicate this matter in their logs. Interestingly, I discovered that it was not an issue whereas young men with a hangover had their performance dramatically reduced. My study outcome was not what many had hoped but I knew that if the worst came to the worst for my career, I was well equipped to leave and run a Well Woman clinic.

Admiral Sir Julian Oswald as First Sea Lord drove the issue forward with the intention of using women at sea in the full range of naval roles. He asked me privately whether I was certain it would work without affecting operational capability. I said it would work and that our ability to fight and win would not be adversely affected. As a consequence, the Womens Royal Naval Service (Wrens) was disbanded and women became full members of the RN. Their insignia changed from blue to gold.

It was a good decision and in the years since those who first embarked on HMS BRILLIANT in1990, women have proved how capable they are. There is no doubt that our Navy better reflects the society which it serves and the quality of female recruits is exceptionally high.

Concerns about women's ability to perform well in combat have been firmly proved wrong by, for example, a naval female paramedic earning the Military Cross for bravery under fire in Afghanistan. None of this surprises me as one only needs to look at the bravery of women SOE agents in the World War II to see that women can act as courageously as men; and this has been the case since time immemorial.

So we as a Navy and a Nation should celebrate this milestone of a woman in command of a warship. It will only be a matter of time before we have our first woman Flag Officer. It has taken time to 'grow' one into this role as there has been no positive discrimination in the career structure. In a hundred years time people will wonder why the prospect of women at sea and commanding ships caused such consternation in some quarters.

Well done Sarah! You are a trail blazer and I wish you good sailing and following seas in your new command.