Women at War - 100 years of women on the front line

woman defence 1

by Chris Fawcett

In a year that sees combat roles within the UK military routinely opened to women, the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force (RAF) are celebrating the centenary of women serving at the forefront of conflict.

Female Army nurses set a precedent in 1917, deploying to France to provide critical front-line medical care and thus setting in motion the changes that finds female sailors, soldiers and air-women serving across the globe, in all roles, alongside their male counterparts.

This can be seen clearly on Exercise Ushtar Eagle in Albania, where more than 130 RAF part-time Reserve personnel joined Albanian soldiers from the Third Infantry Battalion to exchange skills, ideas and tactics as NATO partners.

Corporal Yvonne Sommerville is a member of the RAF Police Reserves who has been working closely with her Albanian equivalents. She explained how she has been sharing her knowledge of airfield security:

“As NATO allies this is an excellent opportunity for us to learn from them, and them to learn from us. It will make sure we are both singing off the same hymn sheet.” She added: “This is an incredi-ble thing to pull off, all of the Squadron’s coming together in a different country, but it is exactly as it would be on Operations.”

Corporal Sommerville, 49, joined the RAF Reserves in 2013. In her day job she works as a para-medic on the Scottish Ambulance Service Special Operations Team providing support to police and fire service operations. This can see her regularly operating in full breathing apparatus in addition to carrying her medical equipment and she credits her service with the RAF Reserves for keeping her fit: “Our fitness is assessed yearly, mainly through weight carrying and lifting assessments. The RAF Reserves and the camaraderie you have with your colleagues has really encouraged me to devel-op my fitness; I have to be able to keep up with the young ones.”

One of the RAF Regulars supporting the Exercise is Sergeant Kerry Bramley, 39, who is currently based with the Force Protection Headquarters at RAF Honington, Suffolk. Sergeant Bramley is the senior medic for Ushtar Eagle and is responsible for coordinating all medical support to the Exercise. Whilst this is nothing new for her, having worked as the senior medic for the RAF Regiment on Operation Herrick and overseeing their drawdown from Camp Bastion, Exercise Ushtar Eagle brings a different set of challenges: “I dealt with everything on tour from simple colds to triple amputations, but I still wouldn’t say the medical support to the Exercise is easy. Reserves have a different outlook; they often have ca-reers outside the military and are more willing to speak to a medic to deal with health problems be-fore they become serious.” 

Her experience of six tours and more than two years of operations in Afghanistan is key: “In Albania the troops have not had time to acclimatise to the heat and they do not have the same time to focus on fitness as the Regulars do, so training has to be much more controlled.”

Whilst the UK is taking an historic step by opening its full range of jobs to women, the Albanian Army already allows service across all branches. Ushtar (Private) Vangjeli Limallari, 20, completed her basic training only 12 months ago, and has already seen active service on operations in Af-ghanistan. One of two women serving in her 30-person infantry platoon she operated out of Herat undertaking reassurance and security patrols.

She feels that there has been no difficulty integrating into a male-dominated world and was sup-ported by her family throughout: “At the beginning, like every family, they were worried, but because I wanted to go to Afghanistan and it was a new experience for me, they accepted it.”

Although relatively new to the Army, Ushtar Limallari has her sights set high, and as the Albanian Army has recently promoted its first female General, the sky is the limit.

The appointment of Albania’s second female Defence Minister, Olta Xhaçka, demonstrates just how forward thinking the Albanian Ministry of Defence is in terms of gender equality and this is something that filters down from the ministerial level to the front line.

“It’s really important, even for us in the military, to have a female minister” says Second Lieutenant (2Lt) Klita Luga. “In general, the Army is male dominated, but there are a lot of women within the logistics trade, and I would say that the trade is female dominated.”

2Lt Luga, 26, has served as a logistics officer with the Albanian Army for three years and is cur-rently employed as a training officer for newly commissioned officers. She teaches a full range of skills from topography to tactics with a focus on using these skills to support front line operations.

Even the media team supporting the exercise with real-time reporting has an excellent representation of female personnel, with a third of its personnel made up of women. Whilst all are part-time Reservists, they are media professionals in their day to day lives whether working for the Ministry of Defence, local TV or Radio, or freelance.

Senior Aircraftwoman (SAC) Agnieszka Rudel, 35, is from Krakow, Poland, and is the first Polish recruit to pass through RAF Halton, the RAF’s recruit training school, since World War Two. A free-lance videographer and producer she has recently had a short film entered in to the Cannes film festival. SAC Cathy Sharples, 43, is a freelance commercial photographer from Wales. Her clients are mainly multi-national construction companies, a trade she understands from her previous job as a quantity surveyor within the construction industry.

The contribution made by women to Defence is clear; women are integral to the front line and have demonstrated they are as equally capable of carrying out traditionally male roles both within the UK and alongside the UK’s NATO partners.

UK Defence is moving into a new and progressive era, where terms such as ‘glass ceiling’ are a thing of the past. The British military has come a long way since the pioneering women climbed aboard their transport ships to cross from the safety of UK soil to Flanders’ fields, but they paved the way for women to truly move from the home front to the front line.



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