Some of Britain's elite warriors believe they are above the law and smuggle deadly weapons – from handguns to rocket launchers – into the UK as part of the spoils of war, senior military sources warned yesterday.
A culture of "entitlement" among SAS veterans means they have no qualms about bringing back anything from bazookas to quad bikes stolen from the US military in combat regions such as Afghanistan. Some appear not even to have considered that what they are doing is illegal, according to army officers.
This weekend they called for action, saying procedures to prevent weapon smuggling are failing. They backed a plan by the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, to bring in an amnesty across the Army, encouraging soldiers to hand in unauthorised weapons. SAS sources revealed that an amnesty at the regiment's Hereford base, shortly after the arrest of SAS sniper Sgt Danny Nightingale in 2011, revealed a shocking amount of heavy weaponry and stolen US army hardware. In addition to rocket-propelled grenades, a grenade launcher, 66mm rocket launcher and machine guns were among the items turned in by soldiers wanting to avoid punishment. Some, unable to dump their trophies in a skip, opted to throw the weapons into a local river.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a well-placed SAS officer said: "In theory, the men and their shipping containers are supposed to be checked by military police, but in reality many aren't really subjected to much scrutiny. There's a feeling that the rules don't apply to them and that they are entitled to bring stuff back.
"A lot of our guys came back from Iraq having nicked loads of gear from the Americans. Some men like to bring an AK-47 back just to hang on the wall. There is no intent to smuggle as such, but the whole thing is badly administered. We need to get a grip on this."
Simon McKay, the lawyer for Sgt Nightingale, whose conviction for illegally possessing a pistol and ammunition was quashed by the Court of Appeal last week, said: "I heard from one soldier in Hereford that he knew of someone who had discarded his unlawful material in the river in Hereford, and he wasn't the only one. We are talking about both firearms and ammunition. They could not fit their contraband ordnance into the locked skip because it was so full." A national amnesty is overdue, Mr McKay added: "The prospect of an amnesty is of particular importance to someone like Sgt Nightingale, who – his case having prompted it – doesn't get the benefit of it."
Sgt Nightingale, 38, from Crewe, Cheshire, was sentenced to 18 months at a court martial last November after admitting he should not have kept a Glock 9mm pistol and more than 300 rounds of ammunition at his home.
One military source, who would not be named, said: "There's a lot of sympathy for Danny. All he had was a bit of stuff: he wasn't a danger. It was almost like memorabilia. The lads have been told not to speak to him but they are ignoring the order and still getting the message through that they support him."
In a statement, a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman said: "The allegations being made are completely unfounded. Service personnel are subject to the law and are not permitted to possess illegal firearms. There are honesty boxes on all military bases for personnel to place weapons or ammunition. The Defence Secretary has made it clear he thought an amnesty should be looked at. The department is looking into it."
Concern at the number of soldiers bringing back weapons has led the MoD to mount regular checks, under Operation Plunder, where military police check freight and baggage being sent back to Britain by soldiers.