Senior officer killed while leading from the front

A commanding officer killed in hostile terrain in Afghanistan insisted on travelling in an exposed position in the lead vehicle of a routine patrol to inspire his men, an inquest heard today.

Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, the most senior British Army officer to be killed since the Falklands War, suffered fatal injuries when his Viking armoured vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device (IED).

Trooper Joshua Hammond, 18, of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, from Plymouth, also died in the explosion on July 1 last year, near Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.

A coroner recorded a verdict of unlawful killing for both soldiers at an inquest at Wiltshire Coroner's Court, sitting at Trowbridge Town Hall.



Following the inquest, Lt Col Thorneloe's father Major John Thorneloe paid tribute to his son.

In the gardens behind Trowbridge Town Hall, Maj Thorneloe said: "On behalf of my son's wife Sally, my wife Veronica and daughter Jessica, I'd like to record great appreciation for all the support we've had from the armed forces, but in particular my son's regiment The Welsh Guards.

"The support we've had from them from start to finish, up to this day, has been outstanding."

He went on: "If my son was killed, as he was, then one good thing might have come from it, and that was that it made the nation, but more importantly the Government, realise that it was war we were involved in, in Afghanistan.

"And you don't fight wars based on hope, you fight them based on the worst case - and have all the requisite equipment to manage it.

"I think that focused the attention enormously and as a result of that, the armed forces were better equipped."





The inquest heard Lt Col Thorneloe, 39, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was out on the patrol to "inspire" his men, the inquest heard.

Major Andrew Speed, Lt Col Thorneloe's second-in-command at the time of the incident, told the inquest: "Like all good leaders, Col Rupert wanted to get on the ground. Any good leader wants to get a good feel for what his troops were doing. He was a hands-on guy."



He added: "He wanted to demonstrate that, despite being a commanding officer, he wanted to show his troops he was prepared to do what they were doing, and by showing them that they can be inspired."



The coroner asked Maj Speed what he knew about a memo Lt Col Thorneloe, who lived in Aldershot, Hampshire, sent to the Ministry of Defence raising concerns about lack of helicopters in Afghanistan.



Maj Speed said: "I was aware he had sent an email, I was not aware of its contents.



"He had his own mind. He was bright and intelligent and wanted to share his views with someone else outside Afghanistan."



Asked if he was aware Lt Col Thorneloe was concerned about the lack of helicopters and the safety of his troops, Maj Speed replied: "Yes."



But Maj Speed added that he felt he had sufficient helicopter support to carry out his duties, and helicopters would not have been used on the fatal patrol.



Corporal Kevin Williams, of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, survived the blast - caused by a 20kg homemade bomb - in the lead Viking, and was the first to attend to Lt Col Thorneloe.



He told the inquest that on the day of the incident, Lt Col Thorneloe chose to take "top cover" position in the rear of the Viking, despite the role being handed to another soldier.



The coroner asked: "Was it Lt Col Thorneloe's decision to take top cover?"



Cpl Williams replied: "Yes. There was originally top cover tasked, however he told the guy to get down and he would take his place."



Lt Col Thorneloe remained on board the lead vehicle throughout the patrol - which comprised 10 Viking vehicles, tasked to escort four large "drops vehicles" to a check point.



Cpl Williams said the Viking had received an armour upgrade to its front section, but not to the rear cab - where the blast struck.



The inquest heard the Vikings would later go on to receive an armour upgrade to the rear section.



Cpl Williams said the convoy left Patrol Base Shawqat at 9am for a check point, along a known, well-travelled track dubbed "Route Cornwall".



At 3.15pm the vehicle hit the hidden pressure-plate IED - ripping a metre-deep crater in the ground and killing both men.



Dr Nicholas Hunt, a Home Office forensic pathologist, recorded the cause of death as blast injuries caused by an explosion.



Sergeant Peter Simmons, of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, was in the lead vehicle and responsible for conducting drills to search for explosives - known as "Op Barma".



He told the inquest Lt Col Thorneloe took the top sentry position - and even took part in the drills - to "inspire" the men and instil professionalism.



Sgt Simmons said the force of the explosion left a metre-deep crater.



It was previously reported that three weeks before his death, Lt Col Thorneloe complained bitterly in an email to his bosses that helicopter support for troops was "very clearly not fit for purpose".



In his email, Lt Col Thorneloe went on to detail how he had "virtually no" helicopters of the type which would allow him to move troops by air rather than road.



After the inquest, Major-General William Cubitt, Major-General commanding the Household Division, said: "Both Lt Col Thorneloe and Trooper Hammond were excellent soldiers. We as a nation can be proud and grateful that they were prepared to do their duty and, in doing so, made the ultimate sacrifice."

Tributes flooded in from the highest levels for Lt Col Thorneloe and Trooper Hammond.



The Prince of Wales, who is colonel-in-chief of Lt Col Thorneloe's regiment and knew the officer, said he was "mortified" when he heard of the deaths.



"I was horrified to say the least about both deaths, Trooper Hammond as well," he said.



"Having been to visit the Welsh Guards at Aldershot before they left to go to Afghanistan, having met the families and having met Col Rupert's wife, my heart is very much with them.



"It's completely heartbreaking. The whole battalion is suffering.



"To lose a commanding officer who was such an inspiring person is an awful tragedy."



Gordon Brown said: "They were very professional soldiers, they were serving in Afghanistan in the most difficult terrain.



"Lt Col Thorneloe was someone I know, someone I worked with, someone I admired."



Yesterday Sarah and Kevin Finnegan, Trooper Hammond's mother and step-father, who both attended the inquest, said their son died "doing what he loved".



Their statement said: "We were devastated by Josh's death and as a family his loss has left a gaping hole in our lives.



"But we are also very proud. Not only of what he achieved but of the way he chose to live his life."

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