Women and the Navy

Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander Colette Green

SURGEON LIEUTENANT-COMMANDER COLLETTE CECELIA GREEN is fondly remembered by her daughter, Helen Potre. Helen was interviewed for the project by Olivia Davies, a pupil at Portsmouth High School.

Colette’s life story illustrates life in the Navy in the middle of the twentieth century. Colette was born in 1933 and became a doctor.

“She wanted to do medicine, had always know that from whenever she could think about what she wanted to do … so her senior school didn’t offer the A levels she needed, so she popped off down to the boy’s school and asked if she could do it there – and they let her. Well, they wouldn’t have said no to her to be honest.”

She served as the first female Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Navy. As a woman, she was not allowed on ships, although her daughter recalls her account of managing to smuggle herself onto a submarine. Colette also designed her own uniform as there was no provision for a female officer of her rank – and she could make dresses, amongst her many other skills.

“And she loved it. She got saluted, she outranked so many men – and there’s a really lovely story of Mum, when she had to go to a Mess Dress and the men didn’t have any protocol at all for a female officer. And Mum’s feet always struggled, so her shoes were hurting, so she got in, took her shoes off, sat on the floor and just laughed her head off ‘cos every single male officer did exactly the same, because they didn’t know how to react to a female officer – so at that point she just thought ‘OK.’”

There was also no precedent for the situation when Colette fell in love with a navy man of lower rank than her own. To solve the problem, she resigned and married him – she had always wanted a family. As her children grew older, Colette embarked on two new careers, first as a GP and then as the first full-time female Police Surgeon.

Helen describes Colette as inspirational and a “whirlwind”, but she also stresses the fact that her mother did not identify with feminism.

“She just did everything she did because she could, and she wanted to, and nothing was going to stop her. So I think that’s fed down to us as well – if you want to do something, just do it.”

LIZ WARMSLEY joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the WRNS, in 1978 as a rating aged 17 and a half. She went into the meteorology section as “a weather girl”.

Liz (left) in her meteorological role.
Note the black tights, black leather handbag and blue diamond insignia that were part of the WRNS uniform at that time

In the early 1990s the Ministry of Defence decided to integrate the three women’s services.  The WRNS were dissolved and women became sailors alongside the men on ships. Liz became the only woman on a ship alongside 180 men.

Liz Warmsley at sea. Her uniform epaulette insignia style is now identical to her fellow officers.

At sea women sailors quickly found that they had not had sufficient training for all the roles they were expected to take on. Also men and women at sea had no established code of conduct. In order to fit in women on board felt they had to act like the men, but of course this was not a comfortable way to be for many women.  There was a lot of sexist behaviour which the women felt they just had to put up with.

Liz recalls this was quite tough at the time.

Gradually things changed and women today in the Navy and aboard ship are seen much more as the professionals that they are. Liz herself, was promoted to Commander. She also took on the role of Equality and Diversity officer and worked hard to tackle the unconscious gender bias in the Navy, for example, Liz looked at the uniforms and noticed there were inequalities in the presentation of men’s and women’s uniforms so she changed women’s blue stripes to gold ones, to match the mens. 

Women in the Navy learnt that they had to stand up for themselves

In this and many other ways, Liz has been a role model for younger women in the Navy.

ANNETTE WHITE was a Navy wife.

ANNETTE WHITE married her husband George when she was 19. They moved to naval living quarters in Eastney, Portsmouth whilst Annette was also studying to become a teacher. However, Annette did not fully anticipate the implications of her husband’s service – that he would serve on HMS Coventry, which would be deployed in the Falklands War.

Annette felt part of a supportive naval community, but could only share her reservations about the Conflict – reservations that her husband shared – with her student friends. However, when HMS Coventry was sunk with loss of life, the whole community were involved – with the women providing vital support.

George survived and returned to the UK on the day that Annette completed her Finals.

By the 1980s, George had left the Navy and the couple had two children. Annette completed her teacher training and eventually became a Early Years Advisory Teacher.