The mother of a female soldier who was killed in action has spoken out against a former senior army man who said women shouldn’t be able to fight on the front line.
Former Colonel Richard Kemp, the commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, claimed that putting female soldiers on the front line is a “social engineering experiment” that will be paid for “in blood”.
He added that women – who are currently unable to join infantry battalions – would be a “weak link” if they are allowed to join front-line units.
In an article in a national newspaper, he blamed “politicians desperate to be seen as ‘progressive’, feminist zealots and ideologues hell-bent on equality of opportunity without exception” for pushing ahead with the planned move.
His comments followed reports that the army is amending its fitness tests to recognise the differences between men and women.
Elsie Manning, whose daughter Staff Sgt Sharron Elliott, 34, died when her boat was blown up near Basra in November 2006, says that women who want to fight on the front line have as much right as the men to do so, but that they should have to reach the same fitness level.
She says her daughter always felt women were just as capable as men.
The 70-year-old, of Marsden, South Shields, said: “Sharron used to talk about how women were just as capable as men. If the women want to be on the front line, they should prove that they’re just as capable through the training.
“If a certain level has to be reached by the men, then that should have to be reached by the women as well, and if the girls want to go for it then they should.”
She added: “Someone was telling me a story about Sharron the other day, about how she was doing an eight-mile course carrying the same weight as the men, and she was gripping the arms of the other girls telling them they had to stop using the fact that they’re a woman as an excuse for being slower.
“She didn’t give up and there are lots of women out there who would do the same and they need to be given the chance to prove themselves.
“If they’re old enough to be in the military, they’re old enough to make a decision about whether or not they want to be on the front line.”
She added: “I feel the way these people are talking, it is as if women are weak and feeble and that they can’t do it. It’s an insult to women to make that statement”.
General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the general staff, has said that there would be “no lowering of training or qualifying levels for soldiers in ground close combat roles”.
A review is currently under way to decide whether both sexes can fight together, and Penny Mordaunt, Britain’s first female Armed Forces Minister, has insisted that women can make the grade.
Col Kemp has also previously argued that women lack the “killer instinct” necessary to fight in close combat.
Remembering Sharron a decade on
This November will mark 10 years since Staff Sgt Sharron Elliott lost her life in Iraq.
The 34-year-old became the second British woman to be killed in action there when a boat she was travelling in was blown up by a makeshift bomb in Basra on November 12, 2006.
Staff Sgt Elliott, of the Army Intelligence Corps, had only been deployed to Iraq just over a week earlier after volunteering for a six-month tour.
The blast also claimed the lives of Warrant Officer Class 2 Lee Hopkins, 35, from Wellingborough, and Royal Marines Jason Hylton, 33, from Derby, and Corporal Ben Nowak, 27, from Liverpool.
Staff Sgt Elliott was born and brought up in Ipswich but moved to South Shields in 1998.
She joined the Army at 18 and spent her early career in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, where she became the first woman to qualify as an aircraft technician.
She had been transferred to the Army Intelligence Corps six years earlier, looking for a new challenge.
She served in the UK, Germany and Belize, as well as completing a number of operational tours.
The latter included service in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq.
She had recently been posted to Cyprus from the Defence College of Intelligence, where she had been an instructor.
She was deployed to Iraq to fill a temporary post but volunteered to serve a full six-month tour.