Leading from the Start

Retired Colonel Audrey Smith, now approaching 80, has always been a trailblazer, especially for women in the military. Here is her story.

Audrey always actively pursued the life she wanted, which often meant rejecting the social norms at the time. She went to Nottingham University in the 1950s, when few women went onto higher education, studying economics, a subject considered more typical for men. While at University, she joined the Officer Training Corps (OTC), which led to her joining the Regular Army in 1962.

In the early 1960s, Audrey attended the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) Training Centre, when the syllabus included what were considered ‘female pastimes’ such as sewing and flower arranging. However, Audrey wanted to “get stuck into the action” and the WRAC also offered the promise of adventure, travel and independence.

Women had very limited roles in the Armed Forces for most of Audrey’s military career. For example, in the Royal Navy a submarine could not dive while a woman was aboard as it was considered unlucky, and women could not serve on ships until 1990.

Audrey refused to let superstitions or rigid belief systems thwart her career. In 1962, when she left the WRAC Training Centre, Audrey said: “I’m not coming back here unless I’m the Commandant.”  She returned in 1984 as the Colonel Commandant of the Centre. This determination led Audrey to achieve a series of incredible firsts, making her a role model for other women in the Armed Forces.

From 1967-69, Audrey was posted to Singapore as the first non medical female officer. She served for two years as a Major in Cyprus, before becoming one of the first female officers to attend the National Defence College in Latimer. Audrey was also the first female British Army Officer to serve in Rome at the NATO Defence College, prior to taking up a post at the NATO HQ in Brussels.

As well as developing her own career, Audrey pushed to improve opportunities for other women in the Armed Forces. She played a leading role in the debate on whether or not women should be armed and trained in combat, achieving an agreement for female Provost to be armed when accompanying their male armed counterparts in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) in the 1980s. Otherwise, although women worked alongside men, it was always in clerical or staffing roles. Indeed, the WRAC remained a strictly non-combatant unit until 1980, when women could train with small arms for self-defence.

Many of the issues Audrey championed only led to changes after she left the Armed Forces. The WRAC disbanded in 1992, with the formation of the Adjutant General’s Corps and some other women transferring to the corps they served with. In July 2016, the ban on women serving in close combat ground roles was lifted. For the first time, women in the British Armed Forces can fulfil close combat roles. Audrey said: “Not all women necessarily want to fight in the infantry, just as not all men want to fight in the infantry, but it’s important that the opportunity is there if they want to.”

Audrey retired from the Army in 1992 and, although she did not benefit from many of the new opportunities for women, she looks back at her time in the WRAC with fondness. She said: “I had an incredibly fulfilling time in the Army. I was able to travel and live a very independent lifestyle.” However, Audrey hopes she helped to challenge and change perceptions regarding female roles in the military.

In 1997, Audrey visited the OA for a career consultation, and then secured her first civilian role as an administrator for the Pottery & Glass Trades Benevolent Fund. She juggled this job with her various trustee and Chair responsibilities.

Ever since the OA first helped her, Audrey has maintained a close relationship with the organisation, because “once you’re on the books, you always feel looked after.” She added: “The OA encourages people to fulfil their potential, outside of the Services, as they continue on a different journey.”

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