Female captian of Navy warship axed over ‘affair’

The navy has said that Commander West is to be reappointed after her removal.  Picture: PA
The navy has said that Commander West is to be reappointed after her removal. Picture: PA
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THE first female captain of a Royal Navy warship has been stripped of her command over claims she had an affair with a fellow officer.

Commander Sarah West, 41, was sacked as skipper of HMS Portland but will remain in the service and be reappointed.

It follows claims that she had a relationship with her married third-in-command.

Commander West recently described herself as single, having been married to former Royal Navy pilot Andrew Whitlum. The pair separated in 2006.

A spokesman for the Royal Navy said: “This is an internal matter between the individual and her senior officers and we will not give further details of the removal.

“Commander West will continue to serve in the Royal Navy and she will be reappointed to a post where her skills and experience can be used to best effect.”

Under the armed forces’ code of social conduct, personal relationships between servicemen and women are forbidden if they compromise “operational effectiveness”.

At the time of her appointment, the Commander described her new role as “the highlight of my 16 years in the navy”.

She said: “I’m looking forward to taking HMS Portland on operations with a professional and focused team.”

However, in a later interview, she spoke of the difficulty in maintaining relationships with those left at home during long periods at sea.

“I’m really proud to be the first woman but I’m not reinventing the wheel,” she said. “Lots of women in the services have challenging roles. It’s just that I happen to be newsworthy at the moment.

“There are drawbacks, though. Years at sea probably explains why I’m single. But every person in the military makes sacrifices.”

Relationships between servicemen and women are allowed in the military as long as they do not undermine “trust and cohesion”.

Possible punishments for not meeting the high standards include a formal warning and reassignment. A particularly serious breach of the code could result in dismissal.

Last week, HMS Portland and her 185 crew returned home from a seven-month deployment covering Europe, Africa, South and North America.

She arrived in Plymouth to a greeting from friends and family but the media was excluded.

Commander West, who was born in Lincolnshire, studied maths at the University of Hertfordshire before joining Britannia Royal Naval College in 1995. She was selected as a navigator and joined HMS Cottesmore in 1997. Subsequent appointments included officer of the watch of HMS Sheffield and navigating officer of HMS Somerset.

In 2007, she joined the permanent joint headquarters and was responsible for co-ordinating the UK contribution to operations in the Balkans, which included the period that saw Kosovo’s declaration of 

Selected for sea command in 2008, she commanded minesweepers HMS Ramsey, HMS Penzance, HMS Pembroke and HMS Shoreham between 2009 and 2011.

She was promoted to commander in January 2012 and assumed command of HMS Portland in May that year.