More pain for mother of friendly-fire victim

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TROOPER DAVID Clarke would have been 21 next week and few doubt he would have marked the occasion in style.

A born showman, he bungee-jumped off Blackpool pier on his last trip out with his family before heading for Iraq. The invasion was five days old when the young tank driver died, at the age of 19. He perished when his 62-ton Challenger II tank was attacked while stationary in a desert ditch just outside Basra, so becoming the first victim of British-on- British "friendly fire" in the conflict.

Like many bereaved Army families, the dependants he left behind have received about pounds 55,000 - a quarter of that typically paid in the US. But it is his family's two-year struggle to establish why Trooper Clarke died that is proving a cause of distress, not the gap in pay-outs which has only come to light this week and is now under Ministry of Defence review.

Although the second anniversary of Trooper Clarke's death is approaching, his mother, Beverley Clarke, from Staffordshire, has just been informed that a Board of Inquiry (BoI) investigation into the fatality will not be concluded for months. It is the latest in a number of setbacks to befall her. She learned that her son's death was by friendly fire and not Iraqi fire from the media; then she had to wait 11 weeks for a body recovered from the scene to be repatriated - only to find through DNA testing that it belonged to the other victim of the Basra shelling - Corporal Stephen Allbutt. Her son's body has never been found and his funeral took place around an empty coffin.

"I want this settled now. I want to know the truth," she said this week, from a sitting-room adorned with her son's military portrait and medal from service in Kosovo.

Trooper Clarke, a Stafford Rugby Club player with plans to marry his long-term girlfriend on his return, was sent to Kosovo within six months of passing out from Harrogate Army Foundation College in 2002. He might never have found himself in Basra on the fateful night of 25 March had he not been asked to deputise for striking British firemen in November 2002. He told his family he hadn't joined the Army to fight fires, changed squadrons and left for Iraq days after his 19th birthday.

He was sitting in the tank on a break from duties when at least two shots were fired from an attacking tank of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, with about six minutes between each. One of the many unanswered questions is why friendly-fire alerts, which Mrs Clarke has been told were raised during the six intervening minutes, were not heeded.

The BoI's terms of reference hint at some profound communication failures. It will examine why the attacking 2nd Royal Tank Regiment was briefed that no "friendly forces" were within 3 to 5km of its position and why panels marking the tank as British were not recognised.

A letter last October to Mrs Clarke's MP, David Kidney, from Ivor Caplin, a parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Defence, states that the police investigation has led to a conclusion that there is no scope for disciplinary action. "Mrs Clarke has been fully appraised of the outcome of the investigation," Mr Caplin said.

In fact, Mrs Clarke had received no such findings - and Mr Caplin's reply is further undermined by the dead soldier's regimental secretary, Col David Simpson. "It is wrong to say [there is no scope for disciplinary action] because until the BoI has been ratified, any part of any inquiry can be overturned," he said.

Col Simpson conceded that the US death investigation system is more rapid than Britain's. "The British Army is so small now that we struggle to cope with these sorts of things," he said.