Celebrities explore how the role of women in the armed forces has changed in the last 100 years. Actress June Brown relives her wartime experience.
Browse content similar to June Brown. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
It's 100 years since the first pioneering women
joined the British Armed Forces.
Today, women serve alongside men,
together in combat, on the front line.
If you can do it, and you want to do it, you should be able to.
To see how much things have changed...
-How do I look?
..five well-known faces revisit either their own...
-Morning, ma'am. I'm the captain...
-You called me ma'am, how sweet.
..or a family member's military past.
They just got stuck in.
It was exciting.
From defending land...
-I don't want to go that way.
These are the extraordinary stories
of a century of women at war.
She's one of our best-loved small-screen actresses,
but over 70 years ago,
June Brown took on a very different role,
as a recruit into the Women's Royal Naval Service, known as "the Wrens".
I'd want to lie down and have a rest after doing all that here,
let alone fight a fire.
As she relives some of the trials and highlights
of being a Wren during the Second World War...
I think I danced with you, once.
-You might have done.
..June gets a taste of modern life in the forces,
challenging her own views on women's roles in the military.
It's quite cool, seeing the captain as a professional.
It would be quite nice to get to that level
and be a proper, professional naval officer.
And after taking a turn navigating a warship...
Am I all right steering over here?
-I don't want to go that way.
..June's appreciation of how the Navy has been transformed...
I would've been perfectly capable of doing this when I was young.
..leads to a surprising change of heart.
It's helped me a lot, to accept that...
society has moved on.
EASTENDERS THEME TUNE
In 1985, June Brown took on the role that would make her a TV legend,
laundrette worker Dot Cotton in EastEnders.
You've got to see a doctor.
I mean, we can't do no more on our own.
-You've got to, Nick.
But before June's theatre and television career blossomed,
she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service,
during the last year of World War II and the year following victory.
I've got some photographs here of when I was in the Wrens.
Which one shall I show you first?
That is, the Wrennery is one side...
Er, that side...
The pub is the other,
and you could go out at the back door from the Wrennery
into the door of the pub.
Oh, well, this is one of my young men.
I'm hanging onto his right arm.
Well, you never did that,
because if they met a rating, they had to salute, you see...
So you shouldn't... I should've been on the other side.
You always wore your handbag here, so you were ready to salute.
young, single women began to be conscripted
for roles in the war effort.
Then, as more jobs needed to be filled,
all fit naval women up to the age of 60 were called up.
They worked in areas like farming,
industry and non-combat military roles in the forces.
But June had her own reasons for choosing to become a Wren.
I knew I'd be called up when I was 18,
so I thought to myself, well,
if I volunteer,
you know, then I can choose which service I go to.
I didn't fancy the uniform
of the WAF or the ATS, cos it wouldn't have suited my complexion.
the Wrens, well, that was the senior service, you see.
Here is a rather lovely poster
of the Wren.
In fact, has she got a beret on?
Because that's what I had.
But you see, really rather smart we were, weren't we?
With a different salute,
that salute, not your hand turned round like the Army, no...
Quite special, we were.
So, I upped and joined the Wrens.
You released the men to go to war, and so you were nurses,
you worked in the factories,
or you went into the forces.
It's very interesting to me, what is happening in the services now,
what's happening with the Wrens.
And I want to know the jobs they do,
because the jobs are going to be a great deal different
from the ones we did.
So it'll be very interesting to see how it's changed.
Not that I like change.
The Wrens was founded during World War I.
Following massive troop losses,
the War Office allowed uniformed women to take on naval support roles
for the first time.
They were disbanded soon after the war.
But when war in Europe broke out once more in 1939,
the Wrens were called upon again, to help free a man for the fleet.
June will be comparing her wartime experiences as a Wren
with those of women serving now.
And she's anticipating a very different landscape.
I'm off to Portsmouth to a training camp of Wrens.
Well, I think it is a training camp for Wrens,
they aren't called that these days, so I'm told,
and I do believe they might be training with the men.
June's come to HMS Excellent,
one of the Navy's oldest training establishments.
She is here to meet Junior Warfare Officer Sian English,
to share what she remembers of her first weeks with the Wrens.
So, here we have your war records...
-Do you remember how long your training was,
your basic training?
I thought it was six weeks, but it turned out to be three.
It just seemed an awful long time.
Seems like an eternity.
-Where was your training?
Up in... Well, at Loch Lomond,
on the banks of Loch Lomond.
It was called Balloch.
How did you find the training whilst you was up there?
Well, we did the normal things, we learned to march,
we learned to salute, we learned to... What's it called,
when you're shimmying up to each other and getting in line?
I forget what that's called. Route marches.
I didn't really like those, I wasn't a very energetic girl, really.
The thing I really hated
was I had to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning
and scrub floors,
or get up at five o'clock in the morning
and clean dirty, filthy, greasy tins.
Very big ones.
I wasn't used to that and I would've gone home, but I had too much pride
to put my tail...
I'd volunteered, you see.
If you volunteer, when you're 17-and-a-half,
you could leave, if you found it too much for you,
-Are you glad that you stuck it out?
Yes, it was only three weeks, but as I said, it felt like six.
In the century since women first took on roles in the forces,
plenty of other new recruits have found their basic training
something of an ordeal.
When I did basic training,
when I, in 1988, my basic training was six weeks long.
Suddenly, I'm there, didn't know anybody,
and it was just full-on,
from the minute you got there, until the minute you left.
We did, er... PT.
I wasn't very happy with that!
You're mucking in, and you're doing, you know,
duties, so yeah, it was a shock to the system.
But I knew it's something that I had to do.
We did... Learned how to march, cos none of us could march,
we were all just plain young girls,
we'd just joined,
we didn't know what we was letting ourselves in for, really.
But it was very good and very exciting.
Beds had to be made, so they were so perfect,
we spent hours polishing shoes.
I mean, for a 17-year-old, that was pretty intense.
I mean, we also had a lot of fun.
But, yeah, it was very intense.
At HMS Excellent,
the current training for female recruits
couldn't be more different from June's World War II experiences.
But as part of a generation of women
who joined up so they could support the men,
June's not entirely comfortable with how much things have changed.
First thing you've got to do,
turn it upside down, to get all the pressure released.
The Wrens merged with the Navy in 1993,
and women are now completely integrated into the service.
-A mixture of...
-They train side-by-side with the men,
and are expected to do the same jobs, to the same standard.
What we're going to do now is demonstrate what happens
when you turn on the hose incorrectly. OK?
Today, communication specialist Anna Fryer is among those
on a refresher course, learning how to fight fires at sea.
Now, I'm going to ask you,
er, why you wanted to join...
I don't believe it's called the Wrens any more, am I right?
It's just the Navy.
-Just the Navy.
-Yeah, it's the Navy now...
I never, ever really thought about joining the Navy,
I was at college doing travel and tourism,
and they came to an open day and I went.
They said, you'd be really good, so I went and did all my tests,
and no-one knew, not even my family knew, until my 18th birthday,
and I said, I'm joining the Navy.
And what did they say?
My mum and dad were a bit shocked. They only gave me like, four weeks,
they said, "You're not going to last that long",
because I like my home comforts and stuff,
but 17 years later, I'm still here.
What I want to know, Anna, is what your basic training was like.
I want to know if it was different from mine.
I did eight weeks up in HMS Raleigh,
in Torpoint, in Cornwall.
We do, erm,
NMT, which is Naval Military Training, so you have a rifle,
-and you do rifle drills and shoot and things like that.
You have to learn all the different slangs, like port and starboard
is left and right,
and you do obstacle courses, a fitness test.
You have to do a 2.4km run.
Oh, dreadful. I wouldn't have passed any of those, darling.
If I ran up a hockey field, I was exhausted, at school.
No, we just were tested before we came in, accepted,
our heart rate and everything, as long as we were reasonably healthy,
-we were in.
-So we did none of that at all.
You seem to have done so much!
-You've got two children.
-Yes, I have got two children.
-A seven-year-old and a three-year-old.
How do you feel about leaving them behind when you're on your ships?
It's hard, but at the end of the day, you've got a job to do.
-Why have you got a job to do?
Because I signed up for 20 years.
You prefer to do a job outside the home.
Yeah, I think nowadays, like, there was, erm...
-Females use to stay at home, didn't they?
-And look after the husbands and the children.
-Well, that was a job...
-That was a job, yes.
-Quite a hefty job.
-It is an important job,
but nowadays, I think that...
females want to be equal.
But we're not equal, are we?
Years ago, when you first joined up,
obviously the Wrens supported the males.
-But now, we are... hand in hand.
-I don't like the idea of that.
We're side-by-side, we work side-by-side with each other,
females can do the same job as what a male can do.
To prove it, Anna shows June the next part of her training,
tackling a blaze aboard ship.
So, what I'd like you to do now is take it off the hook,
place it on your back, tighten up your straps.
We have to be,
they only get two minutes to do this in a real incident at the start.
Place the mask chin-first onto your face,
take a deep breath and activate the set.
I'd want to lie down and have a rest after doing all that, dear,
let alone fight a fire!
Ooh, it's so complicated.
-They look like Daleks.
-All the noises.
-At least it matches your scarf.
June's placed in the safe hands of Warrant Officer Kath Wojciech.
So what happens now?
I'm coming with you?
-You're coming with me.
We're going to go to the top of the unit.
Next up, the exercise area, where fire simulations take place.
Everything they talked about...
they're going to put into practice with a real fire, in the units.
-You have to go down that hatch.
They go down, er, we'll have a fire.
-They close it off for them?
Quite frightening. It makes your heart go.
What's going to happen now...
Fires on ships spread at lightning speed,
so have to be dealt with very quickly.
They've got eight minutes to get dressed
in all their firefighting rig.
Although unheard of in June's day,
all of the Navy's 3,500 female personnel
must train in fire drills like this.
They're on their way down now.
And you'll see, Anna and that will come back up.
Whoa, whoa, whoa...
After ten minutes of intensive firefighting, Anna comes up for air.
It's all dark down there, and smoky, and you can see the flames.
-You can actually see the flames?
Was it frightening?
No, I mean, because...
Because this is a training environment anyway,
you get used to what it's going to be like, and eventually,
you go into a fire on a warship, so it's not frightening.
-You're learning all your skills...
-When there's a real fire...
100 years since women officially joined the military,
front line combat duties are now open to them.
But June remains to be convinced that this is a good thing.
Something that requires weight and strength...
Some woman have got it, but most women haven't.
I just don't know where the femininity has gone.
I think that's what disturbs me.
I like to know that there are men and women
and they're not equal and all the same.
I wouldn't like to be going down...
..down below, to fight a fire, not at all, dear.
No, I'd be looking for the nearest fire exit.
After completing basic training,
World War II Wrens were placed in different categories
according to their skills and experiences.
June became a cinema operator, playing training films to troops,
detailing what happens during military operations.
Navy veteran Eddie Gaines
watched the kind of films June showed during the war.
He joined up aged 18,
and worked on landing vessels used to take trips ashore during battle,
seeing action in Normandy and the Far East.
Yes, it's 16 mil, I think.
-It's different looking from what I did,
because we had much smaller reels, because our machines wouldn't
-take something that size.
Let's get it, sort of... Where's it gone?
It's in a right old mess, here, it's coming to pieces.
I showed these films to train the sailors.
-Guys like me.
Things like, how to survive at sea, how to survive in the jungle...
-I used to sit in my little box with a little window...
..training films like that,
and then they'd pass me through their tobacco and their papers,
and I'd make them ticklers.
-Yeah, roll-ups, you see. So, I never watched the films,
I was too busy making them cigarettes!
So they put me in the category of a cinema operator,
so I just showed the films.
I released a sailor to go and fight,
and not to waste his time showing other people training films.
And that's how it happened.
Where did you go after your training?
I went to HMS Armadillo...
-Never heard of it.
-..which was up in Scotland.
Mm-hm. Was it Dunoon?
-Yes, near Dunoon.
-I did training in Dunoon.
-In combined operations, yeah.
I used to go dancing in Dunoon.
I think I danced with you once.
-You might have done.
Yeah. What kind of time did you have there? Did you enjoy it?
I did enjoy it, because we were far away from the war,
and we used to go as a group,
we'd climb the mountain behind us and go down to Lochearnhead,
we'd put ten bob in the kitty,
then we'd have boiled egg and toast
and then we'd go and sit in the bar
and have whiskey and chaser, till the money ran out.
-Then we went very cheerfully home.
I feel very guilty about it, cos other people had a very nasty time
-in the war.
-Well, no, everybody...
You had to do what you had to at the time,
but it didn't mean to say you've got to be miserable.
Eddie and June are here to watch a rare surviving example
of the kind of World War II training film June used to show.
-The coastline is divided into sectors on the map.
I wonder where they made this film.
-..then begins to clear the exit.
Looks a bit like Studland Beach.
Films like these were designed to prepare recruits for combat
and help to standardise training across the military.
The loud-hailers are used to give orders to personnel on the beach,
which must be kept clear at all times.
It all sounds so easy, doesn't it?
-..used by the beach group commander.
-There's no defences at all shown, is there?
Our beaches were mined.
-No beach obstacles.
But they could never fully convey the chaos and horror
of a genuine war scenario...
..as Eddie was to discover,
during the real-life drama of the 1944 D-Day landings.
As you went out of the harbour,
you'd never see another sea like it,
-a great Armada was coming up the Channel, all heading east.
Because the rendezvous point was five miles due south of Ventnor.
-That's the Isle of Wight.
Yes, and the Ventnor...
There, there was a five-mile-wide channel,
-had been swept by minesweepers.
25 miles offshore.
There was... The ships all split to their respective beaches.
-And we had to go to the American beach of Omaha Beach.
Tasked with getting American troops onto Omaha Beach,
Eddie witnessed first-hand
the terrible losses that took place there.
Of course, many of the guys were sick, sea sick.
-We only had 17 guys, I think, on board, us GIs,
but the idea then was to remove the beach obstacles.
Most of the killing went on,
on the beach there.
-It was a killing zone.
We dropped our ramp.
A killing zone?
Killing zone. We dropped the ramp on,
It was terrible.
In fact, I...
At the time, I used to always think that...
..my whole life was a bonus, because I got away with it.
Yeah. I was thinking, Eddie,
was the part I played in it as a cine op
of any value to the war effort,
do you think?
It was fantastic.
Jobs like that, like you did,
-Well, like myself to go and...
Yeah, that was our function, really.
-Take the place of the men so they could fight.
And it was done well.
Meeting you like this and finding out all the things that you
and a great host of ladies,
they all came in and did all their effort toward the war effort.
No, it was nothing compared with what you did.
Every man appreciated the big effort
that the women made,
I'm quite sure that we all did.
Talking to Eddie has made me feel quite humble, in a way.
I'm glad that we were able to support them, but what we sent them
out to was not very pleasant.
It has affected me quite a lot, quite honestly.
I watched that film and, oh, it seemed so simple, didn't it?
It was all...painting by numbers, really.
This is what you do and this is what you do,
but it doesn't happen like that.
Plans go awry.
In World War II,
no women in any British forces were directly involved in combat,
so all naval war vessels at the time were exclusively male.
But the Wrens excelled in numerous support roles...
..and they were easily identified by their distinctive, highly coveted
uniform that June had found so attractive when she first signed up.
So she's come to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth to
see if an original outfit from the 1940s still has the same appeal.
This is an example of one of the Second World War uniforms that we've
got in the collection, and this is the sort of thing that would have
been worn by most ratings for when they're on parade
and things like that.
You know, the Wrens were particularly admired because they
did have a, sort of, more streamlined shape,
and were seen to be a little bit more fashionable
than some of the other service uniforms.
And on the table here, we've got the handbag.
This was something that was introduced after quite a campaign
by the Wrens themselves, who hadn't had a bag at the start of the war.
They had nothing. They were sticking all their lipsticks
and everything in their uniform pockets.
And there weren't many pockets either, darling. There was nothing.
As far as I know, there was nothing on the skirt,
but there were two pockets here.
-Here we are.
Which are not very deep.
No, absolutely not.
So that's why the Wrens were campaigning to get a handbag.
It's amazing they made a fuss like that.
Many girls did choose to purchase a sort of leather version,
but this is the cloth version.
Does the zip still work?
You need a bit of Vaseline on this one.
I'd have hardly got my cigarettes in that, would I?
As well as the outerwear,
Wrens were issued with underwear as well,
so you got a complete outfit.
Some of it was less glamorous than the outer uniform though
-and we've got an example.
-All of it was less glamorous!
The bra had a deep band and looked like an old lady's, you know,
sort of very stiff and nobody wore that.
And nobody wore these appalling drawers.
But, I mean, I wouldn't have put those on!
But they were like that.
They were called passion killers.
-What did you call them?
-Or blackouts, that was another.
No, we called them passion killers, which are not very nice
and mine were certainly not any bigger than that.
About...must have been about...
No, they came just above the knee, yeah, so.
Oh, they go right down there, darling, just above my kneecaps.
You could wear them as cycling shorts nowadays, couldn't you?
The reasons for Wrens wearing the uniform is to develop
that group identity, and in wartime as well it's a way of showing your
patriotic duty by saying that you are doing your bit for
the war effort as well, rather than just in a civilian role, too.
By the time June became a uniformed recruit,
Wrens worked in nearly 200 different roles.
They may not have fought on the front line,
but they covered almost every other aspect of naval life...
..including some truly pioneering positions.
Alongside traditional responsibilities as cooks
and clerics, Wrens became dispatch riders,
carrying vital messages through Blitz-hit cities...
..they also maintained and loaded torpedoes
and ran supplies to warships.
June may have doubts about the impact of her role in the war...
..but Wrens like Dorothy Runnacles saw themselves as trailblazers
in jobs previously considered only suitable for men.
Oh, you were a pretty woman.
I was just jolly looking, like you.
-I was beautiful, if you don't mind!
In 1943, aged 18, Dorothy was selected to train
as an air radio mechanic, looking after communications equipment
for planes in the Navy's fleet air arm.
They put me on this wonderful course that they made
a two-year course into a nine-month one.
Here we all are in this course in Chelsea, at Chelsea College,
and we did this air radio course which introduced us to radios.
That's because I studied physics and maths at school.
-Oh, oh, you were clever!
-Well, it was chance.
-In those days, not many girls did that, you see.
-No, I know.
-We were to check and absolutely make good, repair, fit...
-Test, air test.
-All the radio equipment?
The equipment for communication.
But when Dorothy took up her first position on the Isle of Man,
she encountered some resistance.
I reported to the air radio officer.
So I said, "I'm your air radio mechanic."
He looked at me, he said, "What?"
He was expecting a man.
-And I could see the disappointment.
-What year was this?
-1944 by now.
-And he said, "Can you type?
"I need a secretary." I said, "No, I can't type."
Anyway, he kindly allowed me to do the job by saying,
"Well, you'll start at once, because we've been waiting for you,
So eventually he forgave me for that, gave me a bicycle,
and he said, "You go straight to the air radio office."
Chap who was on duty looked absolutely exhausted,
and he said to me, "Oh, thank goodness someone's come."
He said, "I've just got to go and sleep."
He'd had to do two or three duties successively.
So I said, "Well, what do I do?"
He said, "Here's the book, it's all in there."
And so my very first job was a night duty, and so I thought,
"Well, I can do this."
Dorothy, how did it change your life, being in the Wrens?
It gave me opportunities to do things that I wouldn't
have had the chance to do. You saw women pilots, women mechanics,
women doing all sorts of jobs they weren't intended...
I never imagined I would be doing what I was doing in those years.
But there are still women going into the Navy, doing the jobs that
we did, so we did break through for them.
Many women, like Dorothy, would say their military service,
whether in the Navy, Army or the RAF, resulted in extraordinary
personal experiences which have shaped their entire lives.
It broadens your minds.
You stick up for yourself.
You start being independent,
and them sort of things.
I mean, the three years that I was in the forces,
I did everything I wanted.
And it was fantastic.
I enjoyed every single minute of it.
I just wanted to make something of myself.
I didn't want to just stay at home and, say, either,
just get a job in a factory.
I'd done that, you know, and I wanted to make something of myself.
I wanted adventure, and I wanted to do different things,
and anything that was offered to me, I would say yes to.
It was a marvellous experience for me, wonderful.
Best thing that ever happened.
To be away and to mix with other girls
and be independent, to give orders!
As a corporal, which... I was a bit laid-back,
but we got through it anyway.
The service of the Wrens proved vital over the course of World War II.
And the same was true of the female recruits to the Army and the Air Force,
demonstrating beyond doubt women's ability to
serve their country in support of the men.
Following the Allied victory in 1945,
they were celebrated for their contribution to Britain's defences.
And four years later, the Wrens were made a permanent part of the Navy.
But their ambitions didn't stop there.
Over the next decades, as their roles developed,
they wanted full equality,
and the opportunity to take on combat duties.
they were able to go to sea on operations for the very first time.
And three years later, the Wrens were disbanded
as its 4,500 women were fully integrated into the Navy.
Today, women are an essential part of ships' companies.
So June's been invited aboard HMS Mersey, moored on the Thames,
to see first-hand how men and women in the Navy now work side-by-side.
Sub Lieutenant Fran Howes is one of four women
on the mixed crew of this patrol vessel.
So we're in what part?
So this is called two deck.
So this is the main corridor that runs through the ship.
So there you go, if you come in here, this is my cabin.
It's double bunks, so you can have a visitor!
-It's a spacious loo and shower.
And a shower as well.
So on Mersey, you'll get the maximum of two people per cabin.
So you'll just have one cabin mate throughout your time on board,
and they all have ensuite bathrooms, as well.
So actually, it's quite a lot like a university cabin
or something like that, you know?
The crew patrol UK waters for at least four weeks at a time,
and up to 200 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.
How many decks are there, then?
So there's three decks essentially on board.
So this is the bridge.
So this is where day-to-day we navigate and drive the ship from.
This bit here is where you actually drive the ship.
Aha, the helmsman.
-Was the one who...
And now you drive ships, I don't know!
Might as well be in a car.
As an agile vessel of the Navy fleet,
it's also used to escort foreign warships passing through UK waters.
These are our navigation terminals.
From here you can zoom in and out.
And you can see from there, that dot there, that's where we are.
And all that bendy bit of the river.
Yeah, exactly. So it's called a WECDIS.
So Warship Electronic Chart Display and Information System.
-You confuse me with all these terms!
-I know, I'm sorry.
I confuse myself sometimes.
In the past, women were primarily recruited
to release men for front-line duties.
Now they serve alongside them.
Since joining the Navy two years ago,
Fran has worked her way up to become a junior warfare officer.
But she'd like to progress even further.
Now, this is an offshore patrol boat, isn't it?
So what is your life like on it?
What you do? How do you find it?
So, on an offshore patrol vessel,
we'll go out for sort of two weeks at a time,
come back in for a couple of days, refuel,
and then go back out for two weeks again.
For me, I'm in the watch rotation,
so I do bridge watches, so in 24 hours,
I'll be on the bridge for eight hours,
so that could be at four in the morning,
it could be at four in the evening.
Eight-hour, three eight-hours.
Are there many romances on board?
No, definitely not.
There, you see, that's amazing.
But it's almost as if you treat them as chaps,
and they treat you as chaps.
Just colleagues, really. We all treat each other, you know.
I don't mind if I'm on watch with a male officer or a female officer.
You know, it's just work at the end of the day, really.
Strange. Doesn't seem to matter any more, does it?
Yes. Which is nice, I think.
I suppose it is, yes.
How long do you think you'll stay?
It's a career, you know, I joined up for a career.
And I like, you know, it's quite cool seeing the captain
as a professional, his life's work. He knows exactly what he's doing.
It would be quite nice to get to that level and be, you know,
a proper professional naval officer.
For June, this is a world away from life as a Wren in the 1940s.
Drinking pink gin with officers aboard a moored submarine
was her only experience of a war vessel.
And even at the height of the war,
women and weapons rarely mixed.
-What's this, darling?
-This is the...our 20 mil.
So this is our 20 mil gun.
They'll fit their shoulders in there.
Shoulders? Both shoulders?
Yeah. And then you put your hands on there.
Just on there. And then from there, you can... It won't twist now,
-but you can twist it.
-What happens with this hand?
That's your squeeze.
-That will shoot it. It's the trigger.
It's very complicated.
And it's a very big gun.
The breakthrough moment when women first served at sea
came with the voyage of the frigate HMS Brilliant.
On 8th October, 1990, the ship set sail with 16 female recruits in its crew.
Lieutenant Commander Kate Welch was one of those pioneering women aboard.
And as June hears her story, she starts to reassess her own views
on what a woman's role in the Navy should be.
I have a photograph there,
of the original batch.
The first batch of girls that joined. There were 14 girls
that joined her in Plymouth Naval Base
in October of 1990.
Before we joined the ship, we did a seamanship course,
we did firefighting and basic sea survival courses,
first aid training as well, just to give us the basics that we needed.
And we sailed straight into a pretty intensive
operational sea training period, which was probably the best thing
that could have happened to us, and for us.
It was a landmark moment for the service, which thrust the group into the limelight.
Huge, huge amount of press attention.
-Of course, you were...
-We were the first. We were pioneers, I suppose.
Some were very supportive,
and other elements were not quite so supportive and
didn't think it would necessarily work, having women on board
a floating tin can a long way away from home.
I was like that. I didn't think it was a good idea at all.
But actually, for us, involved in it, we weren't there as women,
we were there as sailors on our ship, doing our job.
You know, part of the whole ship's company.
We felt very strongly about that as well, so we got quite grumpy
when we saw some of these reports of what we were supposedly doing,
and could and could not do.
You know, we were there in a professional capacity,
as part of the ship's company doing our...
-You've always got to have two sides.
-Yes, you have. Yes.
How did the men actually react to you coming on as... Well,
as equals, in some respects?
I think there was probably a degree of scepticism
to start off with.
And probably a little bit of doubt that we'd be able to do our job.
-Do the job, mmm.
-And do the whole ship tasks as well, in that sort of
very alien environment to us.
But I think the operational sea training that we went into early on
sorted us out pretty quickly, and it proved,
hopefully proved to the majority on board that we were up to the job,
-we could do it.
But before women could serve aboard a ship, there were
very practical issues that had to be addressed.
They needed separate sleeping quarters
and uniforms had to be redesigned,
and not all of that was ready when the ship set sail.
They didn't have the right kit for us, so...
..we ended up wearing men's uniform, and struggling to get boots to fit.
-I was fine...
-Good job you were tall.
It was a bit of a struggle.
So I spent, only spent ten months on board Brilliant,
but that included service out in the first Gulf War.
It's learning to not only form your professional role on board,
but also how you perform as a member of the ship's company.
Bathrooms were separate as well, so it just put a little bit
of pressure on domestic arrangements on board.
Did you have guards on the door?
No. We just scowled at them, it was fine.
It was fine, we wore very long dressing gowns with our flip flops
back and forth between the mess and the showers!
The ship's company quickly adapted to the change,
as they had to focus on the mission in hand.
They were heading to the Gulf to join 15,000 other British servicemen
and women who were actively involved in the Iraq conflict.
What was your port there?
-We were just sailing up and down the northern Persian Gulf.
So we were patrolling out there,
supporting the civilian or merchant shipping out there and providing...
So although it was a war situation, you weren't involved in...
We didn't come under direct fire.
Occasionally there was the threat of a Scud missile attack,
so we'd have to close the ship down and prepare, just in case.
We exercised all the time, just in case we did come under attack.
-Always in case, isn't it?
-Just in case. We'd got to be prepared.
It's clear to June that whether serving in the Gulf War
or providing aid to disaster-hit areas,
women are now an integral part of Britain's naval forces.
And 71 years after her own two years in uniform,
she's about to have an opportunity that would have been impossible
for any woman in her day - to steer a Royal Navy vessel.
Morning, ma'am. I'm Oliver Brown, I'm the captain of HMS Puncher.
You called me ma'am, how sweet.
-I'd rather be "mam", then I'd be the Queen.
-That is very true!
Captain Brown is keen to show June what she's been missing.
-Why are we swaying? Oh, of course, we're on a boat.
And here we are.
It's funny how you have a steering wheel, nowadays, isn't it?
Yes, a lot of people are surprised how large it is,
considering it's much the same as it always has been.
So, HMS Puncher, obviously, we're one of the smaller ships in the Navy.
There's 14 P200s, and it's open to everyone,
so we've currently got five female captains of the ships,
who do exactly the same jobs as us, and obviously in today's Navy,
they're pushing through
and we've got commanders of all sorts of ships,
and all different backgrounds and experiences.
But you have no opinion about that really, because you're young
and it just was as it is now, was as it was when you joined?
Yes. Very much so. So when you first were in the Navy,
it was a completely different environment.
-Now we work side by side.
Like every one of the Royal Navy's 70-plus commissioned ships
and submarines, this one has an essential role to play.
Ultimately, life in the Royal Navy is training for a "just in case",
and we all hope that we never actually end up doing our ultimate job.
But a lot is going on at the moment in the world.
Yes, well, at the moment we're just, we're sending HMS Ocean,
we've got the RFAs, and a Type 45 heading over to the Caribbean,
because obviously, on top of the war fighting, we also do
the humanitarian relief, so it's showing that global presence, yes.
Today it's June's job to navigate the River Thames,
and it's the ultimate example of just how women's roles
across all the Armed Forces have changed.
It's quite simple and easy.
We'll go around the lock, it's nice and open, and clear,
and everyone will be in safe hands whilst you're on the wheel.
-Do you want me to?
-It would be great to have you do it.
-I thought you did.
-Do you mind, Lt Beattie, if we change places?
-I don't mind.
So we've got the engines just here,
where we can control both of the engines.
So we've got the positions of Slow Astern and Slow Ahead.
That's now having the engines both going in a different direction,
-Slow Astern is backwards?
So you can see now the ship's head is turning slowly.
So we'll just let us come left of the buoys.
Am I all right steering over here?
-Yeah, that's absolutely fine.
-I don't want to go that way.
If you turn the wheel round to the right...
Yeah, just keep coming further round.
In a moment, I'm going to have to...
I don't think you say straighten up, I think it's to do with a car.
-Once we get to the end, we'll turn all the way round.
-Do a U-turn!
When I started this programme, I had a certain prejudice against the Navy
being one, that women and men were just the Navy.
I just couldn't see that it could happen.
I suppose, looking back, that being in the Wrens
did enrich my life in a way.
I never really realised it.
There was a freedom about it.
Comparing it with today, they also find that it enriches their lives,
these people who are no longer Wrens, who are just part of the Navy.
And I suppose, being offered a drive of this offshore patrol boat
made me realise that I would have been perfectly capable
of doing this when I was young.
I have changed.
And I have lost a lot of my prejudice.
And I can see that the Navy works very well
in its integrated form.
So it's helped me a lot to accept that society...
..has moved on.
And I've had a lovely day today.
EastEnders actress June Brown relives her wartime experience in the Wrens, when women were encouraged to join the war effort to 'free a man for the fleet', and takes the controls of a warship as she finds out what life is like for women serving in the Royal Navy today.
As she recalls her own work as a cinema operator showing training videos to troops, and gets a taste of the opportunities available today, June finds her own views on women's roles in the forces challenged, leading to a surprising change of heart.
June also meets a veteran of the D-Day landings and sees a dramatic training exercise, as recruits are taught how to tackle a blaze aboard a ship.