Former female trainee in Royal Marines says sexual assault was dismissed as ‘high jinks’

<span>Isabel, an 18-year-old band trainee, was ostracised to the point of feeling suicidal.</span><span>Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian</span>
Isabel, an 18-year-old band trainee, was ostracised to the point of feeling suicidal.Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

When Isabel became a trainee for the Royal Marines band, she thought she was fulfilling a childhood dream. But within a few weeks the 18-year-old found herself subject to what she describes as a sexual assault, an incident that was rapidly dismissed by her commanding officers as “high jinks” – and subsequently felt ostracised to the point where she became suicidal.

Isabel, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, eventually simply walked off the base, feeling overwhelmed and unable to continue. Though it is about a decade since the original episode and several years since she received compensation, it is only now she feels confident enough to describe what happened.

“I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I’d obviously gone years just thinking I was a liar. It took a long time to actually recognise that what happened constitutes sexual assault and to deal with the level of cover-up that happened,” Isabel said.

It is a story that also raises uncomfortable questions for the Royal Marines, an elite unit whose titular head, or captain general, is the king, though the Royal Navy insists that it has done “a great deal of work” in the years since to provide better support for victims of sexual harassment or abuse.

At the time Isabel began training, women were only allowed to join the Royal Marines band. In 2018, however, women were allowed to train to become green beret commandos – except since then none have passed out, completing the exacting training course, which ends with a 30-mile run and hike over Dartmoor.

Isabel’s training began in the autumn, at the Commando Training Centre in Lympstone, Devon, where band recruits learn military and medical skills alongside would-be full marines. There were less than 20 female recruits on the base, with their own quarters, and about 750 men.

It was an environment where Isabel says sexualised comments, wolf whistling and ogling were not uncommon. “People would push up against you in the queue,” she added. “We had our troop commanders say, ‘It’s a man’s world, you’re just going to have to suck up some of this behaviour’.”

Ministry of Defence figures show the marines remain exceptionally male-dominated today. Of the 7,680 marines, 98.7% are male, with just 100 women. All 840 officers in the marines are male. Across the British military the proportion of women is 9.7%, of officers 12.4%.

Unfortunately, once training started, things quickly went wrong. Although Isabel did not know it at the time, she had an undiagnosed heart arrhythmia, which when combined with the intense initial training, led to weight loss and made her condition considerably more serious. Within a few days of starting, Isabel began to faint, and was in and out of the medical ward, after suffering a dozen or so “cardiac collapses”.

There was no segregation on the ward, and the environment on the facility, where she was the only female patient, was “very sexualised and very uncomfortable”, more so than on the training ground, she felt.

After another medical episode, Isabel ended up staying there over a weekend. One of the soldiers repeatedly propositioned her, she said, asking her to “get round him,” a crude reference to sexual intercourse, in the toilet or in the treatment room.

Then on Sunday evening, as Isabel was going to bed, another recruit on the ward, “completely randomly decided to – he kind of, like, pushed his crotch up against my face”. The man “simulated ejaculation on my face”, she said, and, having put alcohol gel into his hands, “rubbed this gel on to my face” to mimic ejaculating on her, with two other injured recruits looking on.

Disgusted, Isabel got up to wash herself off. “When I came back, he was in my bed, and it took a lot of persuading to get him out,” she continued. It was obviously unacceptable behaviour, although it was years later that she concluded she was the victim of sexual assault. “This guy had entered my space to touch my body. I was quite scared, I was only 18, and I knew that was wrong.”

Isolated and unsure what to do, Isabel called her mother from the ward, asking for help. The incident was in turn reported to a duty officer. Over the next couple of days, she recalls, “everything snowballed”. Initial statements were taken from her and the men on the ward, and then she was pulled into meetings with course commanders.

One officer, Isabel said, pressured her into dropping any call for a formal inquiry.

“The officer said he’s read the statements written by the boys and he’s read my statement, and mine is the only one that stands out. It’s very clear I initiated any sexual behaviour. He said: ‘If you don’t admit to high jinks, we will report this to the military police and you are more likely to get into trouble than the boys are.’”

Stunned, Isabel asked the officer to explain what he meant by high jinks. “He said: ‘It means you gave as good as you get’.” Later she says she was told that one of the male recruits was invited by the same officer to agree with the statement “You’re basically sat there with your legs wide open and saying, ‘Jump right in, boys’.”

Some years later, an appeal panel, considering a complaint made by Isabel, agreed that key parts of her account were accurate. There had been a “rubbing of hand gel on [Isabel’s] face”, an ombudsman’s appeal report said, and that she was a victim of “sexual harassment”. The officer had “tried to dissuade her” from pursuing a formal complaint, it added.

Police say a sexual assault is when someone touches you sexually without your permission, with an object or body part – including groping or kissing someone without consent. The definition of “sexual” depends on whether a reasonable person would consider the action as such.

Isabel agreed to writing off the episode as “high jinks”, as she still hoped to complete training despite her health problems. Neither the marines nor Isabel referred the incident to police.

Soon after, Royal Marines commanders sent Isabel home for about six weeks, citing her health problems. However, she did return to Lympstone, hoping to complete the second phase of her training and return to the first in due course.

By now, Isabel’s morale was increasingly fragile and she felt the base had turned against her. At the end of phase one, as other trainees were going to a passing out party, to which Isabel wasn’t invited, she overheard an officer tell another trainee: “There’s a female recruit upstairs, don’t go near her, she’s a fucking nightmare.”

Young male trainees, strong healthy individuals, had been told to be careful around Isabel and were advised to remain in pairs around her, she added.

The 18-year-old quickly felt isolated and even took to hiding in her large kit locker, but eventually it became too much. “There was one night where I started thinking about suicide. I’d never suffered mental health issues before, but I knew I needed to get out,” she said, and within a few days she simply walked off.

It was, in effect, the end of a short and unhappy military career. Isabel was later discharged. The former trainee made a complaint to the forces’ ombudsman and in relation to the incident, the appeal panel ultimately concluded that, had the three men on the ward still been in the marines, they would have been subject to “administrative action”. That is corrective action below formal disciplinary proceedings.

The former trainee was initially awarded a small sum in compensation and later received a slightly larger settlement from the MoD, although it did not admit liability.

Presented with Isabel’s account, the Royal Navy said any activity that fell short of the highest of standards was “totally unacceptable” – but argued that the complaints process had improved significantly today.

A Royal Navy spokesperson added: “While we acknowledge these events may have had a significant impact on anyone involved, this case was some time ago and since then we have done a great deal of work to provide specialist support to victims and witnesses of serious crime, independently from the military chain of command.”

Isabel, however, said she believes what happened to her could have happened to any other woman hoping to join the elite unit: “I know women who are still in the Royal Marines and say, ‘Oh, I’ve never experienced sexism.’ That’s fine, but you’re only one small incident away from having what happened to me happen to them.

“Because if they get groped on a night out or at work, and if they decide to report it, it’s going to blow up in their face. They want to protect the chain of command. They don’t want to protect women.”

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email or In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at