Deepcut: Allegations point to 'culture of cruelty' where sexual assaults and rape were widespread at army barracks

Almost 60 allegations of such incidents were made to police by former recruits but have hitherto escaped public attention

A culture of bullying, sexual assaults and rape was claimed to be widespread at Deepcut barracks in the year Cheryl James, an 18-year-old recruit, was found shot dead, The Independent can reveal. 

Almost 60 allegations of such incidents, said to have taken place in 1995, were made to Surrey Police by former recruits but have hitherto escaped public attention. 

The force investigated the death of Private James and three other recruits found shot dead at the army barracks in Camberley, Surrey, between 1995 and 2002. 

Details of the allegations  are included in a little-noticed appendix which Surrey Police provided to a review commissioned by the Ministry of Defence into the deaths. The disturbing themes are set to be examined during a new inquest into the death of Pte James, found dead with a bullet wound to her head in 1995. 

This week, a pre-inquest hearing was told there was new evidence she was being sexually exploited by senior ranks and could have been raped the night before she was found.

Last night her father, Des James, told The Independent: “I believe there was a serious problem with the culture in that camp. I think there was a culture that breached regulations, a culture of drug use, alcohol bingeing, bullying and sexual intimidation. There was very little respect for individual recruits.”

The inquest is due to begin at Woking Coroner’s Court next month and is expected to take at least two months, with more than 100 witnesses expected to give evidence.

It has taken Pte James’s parents 20 years to get to this point. The original inquest into her death, which lasted just one hour, recorded an open verdict.

Neither the bullet that killed her nor her clothing and rifle were forensically examined by the Royal Military Police, which initially investigated the death. Backed by Liberty, the parents of Pte James succeeded in getting High Court judges to order a new inquest in 2014 on the basis of new evidence discovered in documents obtained from Surrey Police. 

“There is no evidence that was collected that could prove that the rifle that was found by the side of her was the rifle that killed her, and there was no evidence that, even if it was, she was the person who fired it,” Mr James told The Independent. “We just want to know what happened to our daughter,” he added.

Mr James is keeping an open mind when it comes to how and why his daughter died: “I don’t know. It’s important to follow the evidence.” He would not elaborate on the nature of the evidence, but described it as “incredibly damning”. 

Pte James was one of four young recruits found shot dead at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002. In June 1995, Pte Sean Benton, 20, from Hastings, East Sussex, was discovered dead with five bullet wounds to his chest. Another young recruit, Pte Geoff Gray, 17, from Hackney, east London, was found with two gunshot wounds to his head in September 2001. And Pte James Collinson, 17, from Perth, was discovered with a bullet wound to the head in March 2002. 

The families of the four recruits have battled for years to get to the truth of what really happened at the army barracks. Previous investigations by military police and Surrey constabulary were criticised over failures to collect key evidence. It is alleged that the investigating authorities were too quick to conclude that the deaths must have been suicides.

A subsequent review by Devon and Cornwall Police revealed that potential suspects were not properly investigated by Surrey Police.

The Deepcut deaths are now coming under renewed scrutiny, with the families of the other recruits shot dead at various stages of seeking new inquests.

Allegations that Pte James may have been sexually abused at Deepcut are given credence by a series of accounts which were given to Surrey Police by dozens of former recruits at Deepcut during the investigation into her death. 

According to the dossier of allegations compiled by Surrey Police and submitted to the MoD investigation, detectives were told by one 18-year-old female that she “knew of at least one female recruit having been raped at Deepcut”. And a 21-year-old female told officers she “was aware of an incident where two female trainees while babysitting for an officer were both indecently assaulted by him”.

Another former recruit, a 16-year-old female, is listed as having stated “she was raped by a named NCO but refuses to make a formal allegation”.

And a 21-year-old female is described by Surrey Police as being an “alleged victim of multiple rape by unknown offenders at Deepcut”.

Officers also list the case of a 23-year-old female who “while in bed one night was attacked and assaulted by unknown offenders who placed something over her head to prevent her identifying anyone”. 

Another former recruit, a 19-year-old male, told officers that “incidents of bullying at Deepcut were too numerous to document. States that there was no point trying to report the incidents due the chain of command. This meant that if you were being bullied by an NCO you could only report it to another NCO who more often than not was a close colleague of the perpetrator.”

And a 17-year-old female informed police she had sex with a senior NCO “because she was too scared to refuse”.

A 19-year-old former male trainee described how he “witnessed female recruit being made to run naked wearing beret and mess tins around parade square”. 

Physical, as well as sexual abuse, repeatedly features in the allegations.

A 21-year-old former male recruit told officers how a non-commissioned officer “entered accommodation block in the early hours and made a group of recruits stand outside in their boxer shorts where he threw darts at them”.

Another recruit, an 18-year-old male, described his time at Deepcut as “hell”. 

The Blake review into the four deaths, commissioned by the MoD, and released in 2006, found there was “harassment, discrimination and oppressive behaviour” at the barracks, but concluded the deaths were probably self-inflicted and ruled out the need for a public inquiry. The bulk of its work was done before an inquest into James Collinson’s death had concluded, which meant it only dealt with the particular facts of three of the deaths. “The Blake work was a review of evidence that we weren’t allowed to see and neither were our lawyers; we had no right of reply,” commented Mr James. 

Mr James had to sit and listen this week as lawyers argued at a pre-inquest hearing that new evidence indicating his daughter was sexually exploited by senior officers and could have been raped should be considered. “It was a very emotional day and I left the court immediately afterwards and went for the train. It was very difficult,” he said. 

His described his daughter as a “very compassionate, caring young lady” who was “full of energy” and “constantly smiling and laughing”. 

And Mr James added: “After 20 years we finally have a proper inquest for Cheryl and understandably that is what the other three families want for Sean, Geoff and James. Once the inquest process has been exhausted for all four, let’s see if the evidence demands an inquiry.” 

Describing the toll of not knowing what happened to his daughter, he said: “It’s something that becomes your waking thought every single day... You always think of the police being on your side and it’s a shock to find out that is not the way it is.” 

He added: “I think the British public need to understand that four kids were shot and died at Deepcut and there has been no meaningful inquiry. No matter all we have been told, there has been no meaningful inquiry into those deaths.”

In a statement, an MoD spokesperson said: “Our thoughts remain with the family and friends of Pte Cheryl James. The inquest will now be a matter for the coroner, but we will of course continue to co-operate with and provide support to the coroner where needed.”

Timeline: Search for answers

1995: In June, Private Sean Benton is found dead with five bullet wounds to the chest. A coroner rules it a suicide. In November, Pte Cheryl James is found dead with a bullet wound to the head. An open verdict is recorded.

2001: Pte Geoff Gray is found dead with two bullet wounds to the head. An inquest records an open verdict.

2002: In March, Pte James Collinson is found dead with a bullet wound to the head. An open verdict is recorded. Surrey Police brought in to investigate all four deaths.

2003: Surrey Police asks Devon and Cornwall Police to review its investigations.

2004: Adam Ingram, armed forces minister, commissions Nicholas Blake QC to review the deaths.

2006: Blake review concludes that “on the balance of probabilities” the deaths of Ptes Benton, James and Gray were self-inflicted. It also says there is no evidence of foul play in the death of Pte Collinson. However, it finds some recruits at the Surrey barracks suffered “harassment, discrimination and oppressive behaviour”. 

2011: Devon and Cornwall Police report finds that possible suspects in the deaths were not properly investigated.

2014: New inquest ordered into the death of Pte James. The review concludes that “on the balance of probabilities” the deaths of Ptes Benton, James and Gray were self-inflicted. In the case of Pte Collinson, it offers no conclusion, but says there is no evidence of foul play.

Families had to fight for six years to get a redacted version of a review by Devon and Cornwall Police, called Operation Stanza, of the original Surrey Police investigation into the Deepcut deaths. The report, released in 2011, revealed how leads about potential suspects in the four deaths were not properly pursued.

1. Private Sean Benton, 20, from Hastings, East Sussex, found dead with five bullet wounds to his chest in June 1995. 

A theory that two individuals could have been responsible was not fully investigated by police, according to the review. It concluded: “xxx and xxx [names redacted] should have been considered for TIE [trace, implicate or eliminate] status either to eliminate them from or implicate them in the enquiry. A structured TIE policy would have enabled a more accountable and transparent elimination or implication process.”

2. Private Cheryl James, 18, from Froncysyllte, North Wales, found dead with a bullet wound to her head in November 1995. 

Regarding an individual who could have been responsible for her death, the review states that: “insufficient investigative work took place to identify this unknown male who could have potentially been a suspect”. It cites another individual who was not properly looked at, stating: “a further potential suspect reported to the RMP has not been identified”.

3. Private Geoff Gray, 17, from Hackney, east London, found dead with two gunshot wounds to his head in September 2001. 

“An investigative opportunity may have been missed to TI [trace and interview] xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx of Private Gray and with whom he was still in contact until the evening of his death. Documentation suggests there may have been antagonism between Private Gray and xxx. Operation Stanza believes a personal interview should have been conducted with xxx,” states the review.

Another theory about who may have killed Private Gray “does not appear to have been thoroughly examined. xxx should have been considered for TIE status to eliminate him from or implicate him in the enquiry as he  had argued with Private Gray shortly  before his death.”

4. Private James Collinson, 17, from Perth, Scotland, found dead with a single gunshot wound to the head in March 2002. 

A hypothesis that “xxx or xxx murdered Private Collinson” was not thoroughly examined, “with both individuals being treated as witnesses”, The review goes on: “They were not directly questioned concerning their potential involvement in Private Collinson’s death, although xxx was interviewed on at least four occasions. Operation Stanza believes they should have been considered for TIE status either to eliminate or implicate them from the enquiry.”

In the report’s overall conclusions, the authors say there was evidence to suggest “a prevailing mindset which may have caused the opportunity for gathering evidence to be ignored, missed or undermined”. The review adds that if a “murder in mind” approach [treating murder as at least a possible cause of the deaths] had been used, “Surrey Police would have been able to adopt a far more defensible position in relation to their investigative conclusions.”