Diving belles: Navy’s first women submariners

Lieutenants Maxine Stiles, Alexandra Olsson and Penny Thackray. Picture: PA
Lieutenants Maxine Stiles, Alexandra Olsson and Penny Thackray. Picture: PA
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For more than 100 years it has been a “men only” preserve of the armed forces.

Now, three women have made history by becoming the first female submariners to serve in the Royal Navy.

Lieutenants Maxine Stiles, Alexandra Olsson and Penny Thackray have completed months of specialised training to earn their “Dolphins” – the clasp worn by qualified submariners – becoming the first women in the 110-year history of the navy’s Submarine Service.

For years females were unable to serve on submarines because of possible health risks but, following an independent review which found that only pregnant women should not serve, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond lifted the ban in December 2011.

Welcoming the three women, two of whom are based in Scotland, Mr Hammond said: “This is not only a huge personal achievement for these three outstanding officers, as they take up their new roles supporting the ultimate safeguard of our national security, but also an historic moment for the Royal Navy and our armed forces.”

The UK is the sixth country to allow women to serve on submarines. The first was Norway in 1985, though Denmark, Australia, Sweden, Germany and Canada also have female crew.

Following the arrival of woman officers, female ratings will start training with the Royal Navy later this year for what is known in navy circles as the Silent Service, with a view to serving on Vanguard submarines in 2015. Female personnel will also be able to serve on Astute-class submarines from around 2016.

The Vanguard class is a class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Each of the four submarines in the class is armed with up to 16 Trident nuclear missiles.

The Astute class is the latest design in the Royal Navy’s nuclear-powered fleet of submarines. When completed, the class will have seven boats which will set a new standard for the Royal Navy in terms of weapons load, communication facilities and stealth. Although heavily armed, its weapons are non-nuclear.

During their training, the three officers conducted operations on the Vanguard submarine HMS Vigilant, based at Faslane on the Clyde, and will now embark on careers in the Submarine Service.

Lt Stiles, who lives in Kilgrennan, Argyll, said: “I wanted to be able to say that I had made the most of every opportunity that I had been given in the navy.

“It’s very intense and very challenging but that’s what makes it so rewarding. At the end of it, when you get your Dolphins and are accepted into the submarine community, it’s great.”

Describing the reception from the 165 male members of the 168-member crew, the 29-year-old, who has been in the navy for four years, said: “As long as you can do your job and you’re good at what you do, I don’t think they cared whether you were male or female.”

Lt Olsson, 26, who lives in Glasgow, was inspired to volunteer to serve on submarines after childhood visits to see HMS Onyx at the Maritime Museum in Birkenhead.

She said: “I kept volunteering and volunteering until it came in.”

She admitted the three women might have “stuck out” on board, but said: “They were really receptive. Having a slower process of introducing a few females first in the officer cadre and then ratings has helped. We haven’t just knocked on the door of a submarine and said ‘Can we come to sea please?’

“I felt like a little sister to 165 brothers. You live as a very strange family. Once we got qualified they were glad for us the same way they had been glad for hundreds of submariners before.

“At the end of the day manpower is a big thing for the navy – as long as you can do the job, it doesn’t matter.”

She added: “We did a long patrol, we’ve come across most things people want to know about, like how you live and how the guys get on with you.

“I know there’s people who are interested but they haven’t been able to make an informed decision.

“Of course it’s been challenging, but women are absolutely capable of doing this job. I think that change can always be a bit of a shock, but I look forward to seeing more and more women getting on board.”

Describing the living conditions on board, she said: “It’s slightly more cramped that you would be used to. Actually you bring your perspective in so you don’t see the lack of space anymore – you see the space that’s there.

“It’s a bit of an odd place to live – everything smells the same, it all has this diesel oily smell which you have to get used to. But it’s not a horrible place to live.

“I managed to have a shower every day, we had laundry facilities, there was gym equipment. And food becomes a massive part of your day, it’s a routine you get into.”

Lt Thackray, 39, who lives in Yorkshire, said: “You limit your horizons. I found I just forgot about the existence of some things – someone asked me if I missed bananas. I hadn’t even noticed until they mentioned it. I just forgot the outside world, you get a whole new world.”

After their training, Lt Stiles will continue her logistics officer post on board; Lt Olsson is undertaking deputy weapons engineering officer training; and Lt Thackray will become an education officer.

HMS Vigilant’s commanding officer, Commander Matt Dennis, who oversaw their training, said: “I was impressed with how seamlessly the three women integrated on board.”

Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral David Steel said: “Women have been serving in ships at sea with the Royal Navy for more than 20 years.

“This is a proud day for the Royal Navy but equally a major personal achievement for these three officers.”