Who were the first women in the British armed forces?

The first women in the British armed forces were a few nurses and laundresses who were employed on the hospital ships of the Royal Navy in the late seventeenth century. Although they were paid the same as an able seaman the practice was not without controversy and a hundred years later the roles had been phased out. However, women were brought back into the Royal Navy with the formation in 1884 of the Naval Nursing Service.

In 1902 this became the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service which remains operational to this day. Women became active in the British Army, also in 1902, with the founding of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps.

Then in 1918 the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service was formed.

In 1917, the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed; 47,000 women served until it was disbanded in 1921. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was formed in 1917 but disbanded in 1919.

During the Second World War, in addition to the nursing services, three women’s auxiliary services were also active: the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

About 600,000 women served in all the different branches during WW2 and from 1949 to 1992, thousands more served in the Women’s Royal Army Corps, the Women’s Royal Air Force and the Women’s Royal Naval Service. After 1992 the women’s units were integrated into regular units and women now account for around 9% of the British armed forces.

Who was the first British woman RAF pilot?


After studying Air Transport Engineering at London’s City University, Julie Gibson became the first female pilot in the Royal Air Force. Julie gained her wings at No. 6 Flying Training School at RAF Finningley on 14th June 1991.

Who was the first British woman Royal Navy warship commander?


Sarah West commenced training at the Britannia Royal Naval College, colloquially known as ‘Dartmouth’, in 1995. After a wide ranging naval career she was appointed commander of HMS Portland, the first woman appointed to command a major warship of the Royal Navy.

Who was the first British woman Army general?


A qualified solicitor, Susan Ridge joined the British Army in 1992 as a Captain in the Army Legal Services Branch of the Adjutant General’s Corps. 

The AGC was formed in April 1992 to be responsible for army administrative services. In addition to Army Legal Services, the AGC amalgamated the Royal Military Police; the Military Provost Staff Corps; the Royal Army Educational Corps; the Royal Army Pay Corps; the Women’s Royal Army Corps; clerks from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps; and clerks from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

Susan Ridge was promoted to the rank of major in 1996; six years later to lieutenant colonel; colonel in 2008 and brigadier four years later.

In 2015, Susan was appointed as the Director-General of the Army Legal Services Branch and promoted to the rank of major-general, the first woman in the British Army to hold the rank.

Photo credit: Corporal Paul Shaw, OGL 3 http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3, via Wikimedia Commons

Who was the first British woman in an army parachute display team?


The Parachute Regiment of the British Army was formed in 1942 with the distinctive maroon beret included in the uniform.

The regiment became known to its adversaries as “The Red Devils” and when a parachute display team was formed in 1964 it took the soubriquet as its name.

The role of the display team was and remains to promote the British Army and the Regiment both at home and abroad.

The first woman to join the team was Jackie Smith.

She was an army sergeant who had learned parachuting for recreation. She found that she had a marked aptitude for the sport and began to win national and international competitions.

In 1972, after gaining permission from the head of the Parachute Regiment, the Ministry of Defence and the Women’s Royal Army Corps, the team leader of The Red Devils invited Jackie to become the first woman to join the team.