A record number of teenage girls under the age of 18 serving in the British military have reported being sexually assaulted and raped while training in the last year, VICE World News can reveal.
The revelations come as the British Armed Forces actively seeks to recruit more women into its ranks, advertising enticing careers in the Navy and talking about gender equality in its ranks, despite ignoring the key recommendations of a report into abuse against women serving in the military.
Now, after years of silence, servicewomen and men aged between 20 and 70 have come forward to share exclusively with VICE World News their experiences of being abused while serving their country.
Detailing devastating failures in military leadership, the military police and military prosecuting authorities in the aftermath of attacks, they say they are finally speaking out on behalf of young people who are currently serving in the Armed Forces.
VICE World News can also exclusively reveal that three members of staff at the UK’s Army training college for under 18s, Army Foundation College (AFC) Harrogate, have been accused of carrying out sex crimes against students this past year.
The experiences of the people who have chosen to share their stories for the first time are consistent with the limited data made available by the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Most of the attacks took place when the teens were new recruits or in their first few years in the military, and very few led to any kind of prosecution. The UK is the only major military power – and one of only 16 countries in the world – to enlist from age 16, with the youngest people the most vulnerable to abuse.
There was a tenfold rise in the number of reports of minors being subjected to sexual assaults and rape, from 1 in 2015 to 10 last year, Freedom of Information requests from think tank Child Rights International Network (CRIN) show. Over the past year, this number increased almost fivefold. In this year’s figures, 47 teenagers under 18 have been identified by military police as victims of sexual assault and rape, including 37 girls and 10 boys, UK Defence Minister Leo Docherty told Parliament. There are only 240 girls of this age currently signed up - there were 290 during the period of the attacks - meaning more than 1 in 10 girls enlisted has said they have been assaulted.
Service members, including minors, are bound by a gagging order that stops them from speaking to the media. Although veterans aren’t formally gagged, the culture of keeping state secrets persists.
A parliamentary inquiry, a judicial review, this year’s abysmal stats and research produced by the MoD all demonstrate the scale of a sexual assault crisis that’s only getting worse for the youngest, most vulnerable recruits.
Army Corporal R, 39, a veteran who completed two tours of Afghanistan, is a survivor of military abuse. She joined the cadets at 13 and went straight from there into the Army at 17. It started with harassment; taunts of “big tits” from her commanding officer that she was encouraged to dismiss as “just banter”, which progressed into a two-year campaign of sexual assault and harassment.
“I would say 75 percent of it was always done in front of people. He was the sergeant, so it's not like anyone could say anything.” She began drinking heavily, and at one point she took an overdose of painkillers and very nearly died.
She was eventually forced to report her commanding officer, after she “flipped out” at him when he refused her holiday request, and another senior officer became involved. He was investigated and court-martialled. Her documents show the initial charges of indecent assault and sexual harassment were downgraded into one sexual harassment charge. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a reduction of rank and a six-month detention in military prison.
Despite a lot of zero-tolerance promises to crack down on the problem from leaders across the Royal Navy, RAF and the Army, this year in the Army more enlisted women than ever before reported being victims of what is described as a “particularly upsetting experience”. This can mean bullying, unwanted dick pics, sexual touching or an attack. Thirty-five percent of women in the Army’s Sexual Harassment Survey, conducted by the MoD and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, reported being subjected to abuse of this nature. This is up 20 percent from the last time women were surveyed, in 2018.
Over 4,700 female service personnel out of the 20,000 women surveyed in the research responded and its large scale gives some useful indication of how common assaults are, but the language used can be imprecise, says Emma Norton, lawyer and founder of the Centre for Military Justice. “When you look at what a number of those upsetting experiences were, another word for that would be sexual assaults.” In the UK civilian population last year, 3.2 percent of women were sexually assaulted.
“They said we were ‘Wracs’ - which stood for ‘weekly ration of army cunt’.”
Twenty-two of the 47 victims of abuse were attending AFC Harrogate, a hybrid boarding school and training centre for underage recruits, when the attacks took place. Of the 22 reports of assault at AFC Harrogate, three of those accused are staff at the facility, Docherty revealed.
In a statement to VICE World News, a Ministry of Defence spokesperson said they did not comment on individual cases: “The Armed Forces take any allegation of rape or sexual assault very seriously. Serving today is a very different experience to how it was 20 years ago, but we continue to make important changes to stamp out all unacceptable behaviours”.
Assault is a “clear and present danger” for those who enlist, says Norton, but what happens next is often more traumatising. “The young women that contact us describe being demonised, ostracised and treated as if they are the problem,” she told VICE World News. Norton claims military police have proven themselves unfit to prosecute any kind of sexual assault crime, and should therefore have no place working with underage victims. “A lack of expertise in how to respond to allegations of sexual assaults at all causes very serious harm and more trauma,” she said.
Perversely, teenage girls and young women are exactly the demographics the MoD are targeting for recruitment, after an alarming inquiry into women’s experience of military life last year.
The MoD told VICE World News: “In November 2021, we set out a comprehensive set of measures to improve the experience of women in the Armed Forces. This included ensuring that complaints of bullying, harassment or discrimination are now dealt with by someone outside an individual’s chain of command, and strengthening the levers available to dismiss or discharge anyone who has committed a sexual offence.”
Among these measures is the plan to double the number of women joining the Armed Forces over the next eight years, so that women will make up 30 percent of personnel by 2030. Currently, women make up just over 11 percent.
The inquiry was the first time in UK parliamentary history that serving soldiers, sailors and airwomen were ungagged and permitted to testify. An unprecedented number took part: 4,200 serving and veteran women, mostly anonymously. Sixty-four percent of veterans and 58 percent of women currently serving said they experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination. Six in ten said they did not report what happened. Of those who did, a third said the experience was “extremely poor”.
The report by Sarah Atherton MP, who was parliamentary private secretary to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and led the inquiry, recommended that military police be stripped of the responsibility for policing sexual assault and rape and that it should be handed to the civilian police, given their relative levels of expertise. The fact that it’s been another record-breakingly bad year for UK civilian police and prosecuting authorities, with just 1.3 percent of recorded rapes resulting in a charge, highlights how bad the situation is. The government ignored Atherton’s advice.
“I was once locked up in a wagon, tie-wrapped to a metal pallet and ended up at another military base in Yorkshire in the back of a curtain-sided lorry.”
In 2020, an independent judicial review led by Lord Justice Lyons described the rate of prosecutions of sexual assaults by military police as “astonishingly low”. Among the many shortcomings identified, he found the Royal Navy ships he inspected – an unknown number of which are currently mobilised in NATO exercises in response to the war in Ukraine – have no capacity to investigate reports of rape or sexual assault. He found no rape kits on board, and no one medically trained in how to take evidence in a manner that would meet prosecution standards of proof.
Lyons also put on the public record that as of 2020, there were seven men on the UK sex offenders register who continue to serve across the RAF, Army and Navy. For safeguarding reasons, in the civilian world there are strict rules on how convicted sex offenders can interact with under 18s. In the Army, almost a quarter of recruits are of this age. But the bigger problem for victims, as well as anyone considering joining, is the unknown number of unregistered sex offenders currently operating within the ranks and the military culture that allows them to thrive.
Jean Macdonald enlisted in 1977 and was part one of the first battalion of female Army fitness instructors permitted to train with the men, a proud member of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. It’s taken her 40 years to begin to talk openly about what happened to her. “They said we were ‘Wracs’ - which stood for ‘weekly ration of army cunt’.”
Though women have served in the Army from World War II – with Queen Elizabeth II enlisting as an 18-year-old princess – Macdonald’s experiences from this period are eye-popping. She was first sexually assaulted during her first Army medical when she was 19.
Recently, reading the doctor’s fawning obituary, she learned he lived to the age of 100 and his “illustrious career” lasted a lot longer than hers. “How many girls would he have had over those 16 years?” she said. “For so long I just couldn’t stop thinking of all those young girls going to him for their medical when they first joined.”
Women started speaking more openly about their experiences in the military a few years ago, after the publication of Former Lieutenant Colonel Diane Allen’s 2018 book, Forewarned. But by opening the Atherton inquiry, allowing and inviting their participation by lifting the gagging order that normally prevents members of the Armed Forces giving evidence of this nature, and then failing to actually implement its recommendations, servicewomen feel very let down by the MoD.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was slow to respond, and the key recommendations were ignored, Lt. Col. Allen said.
Things came to a head when Atherton resigned her ministerial position as she couldn’t vote with the government on the Armed Forces Bill in December last year, because it ignored the recommendations of the Defence Committee inquiry she led and kept the responsibility for policing sexual crime with military police instead of handing it over to the civilian police. “I felt a duty to the women who had put their faith in me and the Defence Committee, to stand by the recommendation that murder, manslaughter and rape cases should be primarily heard in civilian courts,” Atherton told VICE World News. “Given the evidence I received, my resignation was a matter of principle.”
LP, a senior aircraftswoman who is now 45 but joined the RAF when she was just 16, was one of the thousands of people who contributed to the inquiry. On her second internal posting, she was assaulted along with the only other woman on her base in a remote part of England. “We were tied up with tie wraps on wrists and put in a cage which was used to store signed-for goods. We had bags of water thrown at us. I was also once locked up in a wagon, tie-wrapped to a metal pallet and ended up at another military base in Yorkshire in the back of a curtain-sided lorry,” she told VICE World News.
She recently received £3,000 in compensation after a war pension tribunal case for injuries received while serving, which she said validated her experience as a victim for the first time.
She has connected with other veterans with similar experiences through a group called Salute Her, an advice and advocacy organisation that supports hundreds of victims of what’s known as military sexual trauma (MST). The term, which has been codified by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, describes the particular type a sexual assault that is often followed by bullying, harassment, and the trauma and humiliation having to work with or under the command of the perpetrator. The term is beginning to be used here in the UK, but not, so far, by the MoD. “Military sexual trauma – just three words the MoD will not say. Why are they so afraid of those three words? Because the MoD knows that they owe so many of us so much compensation we could bankrupt them,” she said.
“This sergeant comes up to me. He says, ‘I want you to imagine that your girlfriend is over there. She is being sexually assaulted, she is being raped.’”
The MoD claimed the reason it doesn't use the term is that it can find no evidence of its use by defence, the medical profession or the UK government more broadly. However, there is research into MST funded by other government departments as well as the National Health Service. They did not answer questions about compensation, nor did they say whether an estimate of the potential costs had been made.
Royal Navy Lt. J, 29, who goes by her first initial, also suffered military sexual trauma while serving. But instead of being compensated, she was fined more than £1,000 for breaching the Code of Social Conduct for being drunk the night she was raped and sexually assaulted by two junior colleagues. The men were not arrested despite there being several witnesses to the attack and severe bruising consistent with assault. Harassment and assault, she says, are the endpoint of a culture imbued from training. “It starts with misogyny and banter, it develops into discrimination, microaggressions and bullying, then the harassment and assault,” J says. “The MoD’s continual dismissal of MST is proof that they continue to bury their heads in the sand.”
Serious questions have been raised about the modest levels of schooling – the academic qualifications gained there are not generally recognised by employers in the UK – as well as the level of care at AFC Harrogate, which is inspected by UK’s schools regulator, Ofsted. Three members of staff have been accused of violently sexually assaulting students this past year.
The MoD told VICE World News that there were multiple safeguarding mechanisms in place to support junior soldiers, including a helpline. In particular, at AFC Harrogate, the Royal Military Police (the military police who serve the Army) established a three-person detachment consisting of a sergeant, corporal and lance corporal, who have been there for about 18 months or so. The detachment was established in response to the volume of investigations.
Between 2014 and 2020, 62 minors made complaints of violent behaviour against staff, including for assault and battery. Eleven members of staff were found guilty of wrongdoing, of which a small number continued to be employed at the college after the verdicts. AFC Harrogate was rated “outstanding” in its latest Ofsted inspection, in May 2021, the highest rating possible.
Joseph Turton, now 27, applied to AFC Harrogate when he was 15 years and 7 months old back in 2013 and only needed his father’s signature to sign up. “In the Army, women are to be considered ‘bikes or dykes’, and that was the attitude of most of the recruits and the instructors who endorse it,” he said. Trainees were taught to be the “grey man”, he told VICE World News; Just fit in, do your duty, keep your head down. He endured and witnessed a number of humiliating abusive experiences: being forced to strip almost naked, then being bullied and teased about his young body by commanders.
“Battle camp,” an intense orientation exercise where basic weaponry is examined at the end of term in the summer of 2014, marked just one incident of the extreme misogyny and violence on the curriculum at Harrogate, but it was the final straw for Turton. The events of this week became notorious and the subject of a collapsed bullying trial in 2018, when 28 trainees claimed they were abused and assaulted by 16 instructors. Turton was not part of the trial; though he did offer to be involved, he said they never got back to him. The Royal Military Police investigation was criticised by the court-martial judge due to “unacceptable delays” and “serious flaws”. At the time the MoD said the military prosecution service and police would be conducting a review to ensure that lessons were learned.
“This sergeant comes up to me. He says, ‘I want you to imagine that your girlfriend is over there. She is being sexually assaulted, she is being raped,’” Turton says. “And so he goes into this really intimate detail about the fantasy, tells me she’s being attacked by a group of men – it’s a gang rape now – and shouts, ‘Are you going to do something about it?’”
Turton was released before turning 18 under what’s called Discharge As A Right (DAOR) because of the bullying, but not until he was at the point of a breakdown and his father was forced to employ a military lawyer to help get him out. DAOR is the obligation the MoD has to release a soldier under 18 after they have signed up, as you don’t just quit the Armed Forces like you would a normal job. You could be jailed for going AWOL.
“It remains an unsafe place for women to work, if you are unlucky enough to come across one of these toxic predators in uniform.”
Child Rights International Network (CRIN) is calling for AFC Harrogate to be shut down. "The Army Foundation College's record of abuse and general disregard for the welfare of the young recruits in its care is appalling. The institution must be closed down, as any civilian college with this record surely would be”, Charlotte Cooper, Campaigns Co-ordinator at CRIN, told VICE World News.
Senior Airman J, now 41, left the RAF after refusing to conform to this “grey man” figure his superiors demanded.
He was told that someone in his group was communicating with multiple young girls online, but he told VWN he hesitated to report it, as he had already unsuccessfully complained about witnessing sexual abuse. “[He was talking to them] on his computer. It was really distressing. He wasn’t just going after anyone; it was a targeted thing. Like, the girls were very, very young, or they looked it anyway, almost pre-pubescent.” He claims military police reviewed the “deeply traumatic” explicit pictures, then said they didn’t have enough information about the girls to investigate further.
Fear of repercussions and the negative impact it could have on their careers were among the main reasons servicewomen told the Atherton Inquiry that they did not report assaults. “When things go wrong for servicewomen, they go dramatically wrong,” the report said.
Corporal R, who was sexually harassed by her senior commanding officer, has been left disillusioned and distressed by how her abuser was treated by the Army. After the commander was allowed to leave the Army on his full pension, Corporal R says, she was told that he had been moved home to England from his posting overseas due to similar complaints of sexual harassment. Had there been proper processes in place, or more importantly, a culture where procedures were actually followed, he would never have been her commander and her life would be very different right now.
This man is now in his 50s and still boasts about his military career on social media. To their mutual acquaintances on Facebook he refers to Corporal R, the woman he sexually abused without consequence for two years, as “that ugly bitch who got me sent down.”
Court-martialled only for harassment, he appears remorseless, but at least there are no longer any women serving under his command.
“It remains an unsafe place for women to work, if you are unlucky enough to come across one of these toxic predators in uniform,” Lt. Col. Allen said. But it’s the operating environment that remains the biggest challenge; the culture of the “grey man” that allows sexual violence to run wild. A culture the military leadership and the MoD appear unable, or as veterans insist, unwilling to address.
“The wider problem is the large group who turn their heads away when things go wrong, who turn a blind eye to wrongdoing in uniform,” says Allen “This larger group is allowing the predators to thrive.”
Some details have been changed to protect victims’ anonymity rights
Correction 21/07/2022: AFC Harrogate was mistakenly called ‘ATC Harrogate’. This has been amended and updated.