Sunday, 4 May 2014

Women on British submarines, at last!

From the left: Lieutenants Maxine Stiles, Alex Olsson, and Penny Thackray raise their glasses for the traditional rum tot, with the silver dolphin badge which newly-qualified submariners have to catch in their teeth at this traditional ceremony. (Pic by Thomas McDonald, Sunday Times)

Yes, at last! The first three Royal Navy women to train for submarines have just completed their one-year training course. (And yes, there are still subs left in the fleet - 4 nuclear ones.

Now the lieutenants will serve in Vanguard-class submarines.They've just finished the final part of their training, on HMS Vigilant.

Their graduation will mean they can now go on duty for up to three months at a time, only emerging from deep sea in ports.

- Penny Thackray, 39, from Sheffield: will be training submariners
- Alex Olsson, 26, from Wirral, weapons engineer officer.
- Penny Stiles, 29, from Manchester, logistics officer

It's going to cost money to convert the subs. (Yes, it's the old 'Oh no, we're going to have to find space for segregated toilets' story.) £3 million. It does make you wonder why sensible people didn't design subs for any gender, in the first place. After all, Canadians have had women serving on subs for 14 years now.

Read more at and

When the news of these plans came out in December 2011 there was a lot of bigot-blogging about 'wasting public money' and 'Why aren't they at home having babies?' Well, why aren't idiotic reactionaries at home having new brains inserted?

I hope these women give lots of interviews this week so that they educate the public about how it actually is. You're a professional. You go to work. You do your job. End of.

Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond affirmed it as 'not only a huge personal achievement for these three outstanding officers ... but also an historic moment for the Royal Navy and our armed forces.'

Women and submarines in the past.

# WW1 and WW2,: women in shipyards helped make and repair subs and their equipment, including radios

# In WW1 Wrens were pictured standing triumphantly on a captured U-boat. The image was used to rub salt into the wound,: not just captured but stood on by women!

# In WW2 22 Wrens on the Aguila were attacked and killed by a U-boat in 1941. Many of the 20,00-plus servicewomen going on overseas assignments were menaced by U-boats.

# In WW2 women didn't sail on subs, or warships.

# In the Cold War wives of submariners endured sometimes months of radio silence. They include one woman I interviewed who had had a nervous breakdown because she just couldn't cope alone with her first baby being born without support. Her husband didn't surface for months.

# They work in the submarine museum at Gosport, so they know their sub history.

# British naval women have been pressing for this stage for over a decade. Some women overseas are still prevented from serving on subs. It's a last bastion of inequality, sometimes cloaked as gallantry
The best women-undersea story
British women passengers probably had more experience being on U-boats than on British subs. In both wars German U-boat crews behaved with gallantry towards the women they discovered they'd attacked.

When U-156 sunk the Laconia in 1942 extraordinarily commander Werner Hartenstein took five rescued woman on board. They were given officers’ bunks to sleep on, and plenty of food.

Blanche Allan was initially 'terrified ... it was stifling inside, a long oven-like corridor of winding pipes, wheels and dials....

'We were too scared to ...[sleep] alone [and so shared bunks] Anyway it was hard to sleep because of the noise and the heat.'

They were aboard the submarine for four days and were submerged for 'two of the most anxious hours I have ever spent ... [but when finally released] the U-boat captain, still a model of courtesy, again apologised for the inconvenience caused us, and wishes us a safe return.'

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