A woman is to command a frontline warship for the first time in the 500-year history of the Royal Navy.
For most of history, the Royal Navy saw fit to allow women to serve only as carved figureheads or by lending their names to military vessels. But now the navy is set to hand command of a major warship to a female officer.
Lieutenant-Commander Sarah West, 39 (left), is to take control of HMS Portland in April 2012, a 5,000-ton Type 23 frigate that is prepared for 'total warfare'.
To be selected to drive a front line operational Frigate is an honour for any Officer, and there is no doubt in my mind that Lt-Cdr West both deserves this opportunity and will be the first of many women to take on the challenge (comment of a female ex navy officer).Her appointment is a remarkable achievement because women were not even allowed to go to sea with the Navy until 1990. The fact is that all the jibes made in the early Nineties, when women were permitted to sign up for most areas of active service across the Forces, have proved unfounded. There hasn’t been a crisis over women’s loos and it seems they can also find reverse gear. The Senior Service now has 620 female officers, and Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service) make up ten per cent of an average warship's company.
Until now, women naval officers have only taken charge of small ‘non-fighting’ ships. Lt-Cdr West herself has captained four minehunters – including her current ship Pembroke – which only carry weapons for self-defence. Whereas the Portland (below) carries surface-to-surface missiles for tackling ships, surface-to-air missiles for shooting down aircraft and a helicopter for hunting and destroying submarines. It also carries a 4.5in gun, Stingray anti-submarine torpedoes and is bristling with radar and sonar devices to guide its weapons and help with navigation.
A spokesman for the Royal Navy dismissed suggestions that they had caved in to political correctness by appointing a woman to captain such a powerful ship.
Lt-Cdr West will have responsibility for potentially taking a crew of young sailors in a state-of-the-art warship costing hundreds of millions of pounds into a warzone, a senior source said. She is hardly going to be entrusted with that purely as a token gesture.Sarah West was born in Lincolnshire and studied mathematics (honours) at the University of Hertfordshire before entering Britannia Royal Naval College in 1995. She joined the Royal Navy as a warfare officer and also took a law degree while on active service in the Middle East. She is an expert in large-scale naval planning, mine clearance, weapons-systems and underwater warfare. Before you ask, Lt-Cdr West is unmarried. Undoubtedly, she's been occupied elsewhere. As a woman captain recently described her own experience of leading a ship: "It was like having a lot of brothers who are fun to be around but also can be really annoying at times."
Lt-Cdr West will be promoted Commander at the end of 2011 and will take over the Portland next April -- the first 'Mistress and Commander' of a warship in the Royal Navy's history.
Congratulations, Maam; fair winds and following seas to you!
My thanks to IntLawGrrls for first notice of Lt-Cdr West's appointment (with a warm nod to their foremother, the female pirate, Grace O’Malley) And a reminder of our post in March 2008 celebrating the first female 4-star general in the US Army: 'Thumbs Up for an Uppity Four-Star Woman, Sir!'
Sources for this post: Sarah West, Wikipedia; Martin Wainwright, 'Royal Navy appoints first female warship commander', Guardian.co.uk, 8 Aug. 2011; Rowan Pelling, 'Women pilots were not just a flight of fancy', Telegraph, 9 Aug. 2011; Ian Drury, 'On the bridge, first woman to command one of our warships', MailOnline, 8 Aug. 2011; John Kay, 'Woman to run a navy warship for 1st time ever', The Sun , 21 Aug. 2011.
Top left: Lt Cdr Sarah West. Photograph: Ben Sutton/PA (via MailOnline, above)
Centre: HMS Portland returning to its home port of Plymouth. BBC Devon 16 Nov. 2010