By James Tapsfield, Political Editor, & Kate Ferguson, Senior Political Correspondent
Mail Online – 25 October 2018
All roles in the military are now open to women, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced. The historic day was marked at a land power demonstration on Salisbury Plain, involving some of the first women to join the Royal Armoured Corps.
Mr Williamson announced that, as of today, women already serving in the Army are able to transfer into infantry roles, including the Special Forces. Those not currently serving will be able to apply for infantry roles in December of this year, with new recruits starting basic training in April 2019. The Defence Secretary also confirmed that women are now able to apply to join the Royal Marines, with selection starting before the end of this year. Mr Williamson said:
"Women have led the way with exemplary service in the armed forces for over 100 years, working in a variety of specialist and vital roles. So I am delighted that from today, for the first time in its history, our armed forces will be determined by ability alone and not gender.
Opening all combat roles to women will not only make the armed forces a more modern employer but will ensure we recruit the right person for the right role."
Training courses will begin at Royal Marines Commando training centre in Lympstone in early 2019.
While women have for many years given exemplary service, including in combat-facing roles, females were unable to serve in ground close combat roles until the ban was lifted in 2016. Tory MP Bob Stewart, 69, a former British Army officer who served in Northern Ireland and rose to become United Nations Commander during the Bosnian war, said the announcement is a "great idea".
He said he served with two women on the front line in Northern Ireland – but some of their male comrades were reluctant to let them be 'on point' – when they lead an expedition and take the most exposed position – in case they hit a landmine and were killed. He said:
"I think it is a great idea – if women can do it, so be it. I had two female soldiers in my company in Northern Ireland in 1982 and 1983 all the time. They went on patrol with us. They looked like us, they were like us. But sometimes the men did not like them to be on point, because they didn't like the idea they might be hurt."
Asked if he thinks male soldiers today have changed their attitude, he added:
"I think they have largely got over that. But we still have some of that with us. Thank God that we still have some of that in us – that women are special. Yes, they are equal and can do the job, but many men consider women are on a higher level than men. I think women are equal, absolutely 100 per cent, but they have a special place in society."
Tory MP Julian Lewis, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said:
"We must never forget that some of the most courageous fighters in WW2 were the Special Operations Executive women who were dropped into Occupied Europe on the most perilous of missions. They undertook this work in full knowledge that they were unprotected by the Geneva Convention and faced torture and execution if captured.
Women who volunteer for the Armed Forces and who meet the physical standards required should certainly be allowed to serve."
Labour MP Ruth Smeeth, who sits on the defence select committee, said it is a "welcome move but not the end of the journey". She said:
"I think this is a very very welcome action by the Ministry of Defence, although I don't understand why we had to wait so long in order to do it. But now it is about making sure this is more than just a change in policy – that we are putting the right support behind it so that everybody can apply for whatever job they are best suited for."
The Royal Armoured Corps was the first ground close combat branch to open its doors in November 2016 to female soldiers and officers, followed by the RAF Regiment in September 2017. Since November 2016 the Army has about 35 women either serving or being trained to join the Royal Armoured Corps, with a number of personnel already being deployed in their new role to Estonia and Oman. A Ministry of Defence spokesman said:
"While the military does not necessarily expect large numbers of women to apply for ground close combat roles, the changes are aimed at creating opportunities for individuals from all backgrounds and making the most of their talents. By making all branches and trades of the military open to everyone, regardless of their gender, the armed forces are building on their reputation of being a leading equal opportunities employer."