Remembrance Day 2023: Zoe's career in the Navy

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With Remembrance Day fast approaching, Cadent - which was confirmed as one of this year’s Defence Employer Recognition Scheme Gold Award holders – and its Military Community have been preparing events across its Network areas to honour those who serve to defend our democratic freedoms and way of life. Many Cadent employees have served in the armed forces while others continue to do so as reservists. Here is Zoe Hignett’s story about her time in the Navy. 

In February 1998 there was plenty going on. The Winter Olympics were taking place in Nagano, Japan, Robot Wars, presented by Jeremy Clarkson, debuted on BBC Two, and Aqua were topping the charts with Doctor Jones. But in Preston, 16-year-old Zoe Hignett was boarding a train heading for Plymouth as she prepared to join the Royal Navy – a career that she would enjoy for the next 15 years. 

“I always wanted to be a marine biologist,” said Zoe who now works as an Administrator for Cadent in Great Harwood. “But the long and the short of it was that my careers teacher said I was too thick and wouldn’t be able to do it. I was devastated, but then I spoke to my dad who told me about careers available in the Royal Navy, so I decided to look into it. I went along to the recruitment offices and there were two careers that really stood out to me, but I decided to go for Met/Oc - which is Meteorology and Oceanography – as it was the closest sounding one to marine biologist!” 

Having completed her medical and some tests, Zoe was on her way to Plymouth train station where she was put on a bus with 20 other new recruits and taken to HMS Raliegh for eight weeks of training. 

“I was the youngest one there,” added Zoe. “It didn’t matter though, as I just treated it like a big adventure which is exactly what it turned out to be.” 

Zoe progressed brilliantly through her training and was soon part of Fleet Air Arm which saw her supporting aircraft pilots at HMS Seahawk. Her job was an observer, which entailed her watching the weather and predicting what was going to happen. This ultimately had a knock-on effect as to whether trainee pilots would be able to take to the sky based on her analysis. 

“There was certainly a lot of pressure in the job as these young pilots wanted to be out in their planes, but I had a duty to ensure that it was safe. Some days it would be completely fogged out, but they would still want the thumbs up to get out. Other times, it was clear blue skies, so it was a bit dull for me.” 

Zoe’s skillset was soon utilised in conflict when she was drafted to the Gulf in 2003 aboard RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) Argus, a casualty receiving ship which acts as a floating hospital during times of crisis or war. A three-year stint aboard HMS Ark Royal followed, as well as time at Northwood bunker where she worked as a Forecast Assistant. 

Things changed for Zoe though in 2013 after she met her husband James, and they had their first child. She no longer wanted a life at sea and the pair returned to their northern roots and started careers which ultimately led to them both arriving at Cadent. 

Was it ever difficult being a woman in the Navy? 

“Not at all. It never really mattered. Yes, I may have been one of 20 or 30 on a ship of 300, and women were ‘outnumbered’, but we were there to do a job and that is what was respected by everyone on board.  

“I do miss the Navy. I do miss the camaraderie, but I will say that Cadent is the only place I’ve worked since leaving the Navy, that comes anywhere near as close to being a similar working environment. Again, there are more men than women that work here, but we are all pulling in the same direction, and everyone is respected for what they bring to the workplace. 

Proudest moment while serving? 

“It may sound strange, but my proudest moment was all thanks to my brother. He was only six when I headed off to training and I’d regularly call home and he was so excited to hear about what I had been doing, particularly when I told him that we’d been shooting guns. At the time, we had a competition to decide who would be carrying weapons when we passed out and I was lucky enough to be on the winning team, so when the time came and I marched out with my gun, I just heard my brother shouting out my name and it filled me with pride. When I headed up the steps at the end of the parade to meet my family and throw my hat in the air, I just burst into tears. It clearly had an effect as he went on to join the Navy in 2009 and he’s still serving today. 

So, what does Remembrance Day mean to those who have served in the forces? 

“It’s a massive deal. Before I was in the Royal Navy, I thought it was just about the poppy and two minutes silence, but that soon changed. When I was in training, I was fortunate enough to be selected to attend the Remembrance Day events in London at the Royal Albert Hall and at the Cenotaph. I got talking to a number of Chelsea Pensioners and it was awe inspiring to hear their stories and what they had been through to earn their medals. I had six months in the Gulf, got a tan and was given a medal, but it pales in comparison to what they did.  

“I didn’t have stories from my grandparents about what they did during the war. I did have two uncles who served in the army but they both left before I was born, so to hear the sacrifices others made really hit home. 

“On Remembrance Day, we take our children to the Cenotaph so that we can all pay our respects and just hope that there will never be a need for them to go through what others did in the past.” 

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Simon Hutchinson

07974 047450