Troop training and equipment inadequate, says coroner

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Training of troops involved in an operation which led to the death of the first female British soldier in Afghanistan was inadequate, a coroner said today.

Wiltshire and Swindon Coroner David Masters also highlighted equipment shortages and pledged to raise his concerns with the Ministry of Defence.

He was speaking as he recorded unlawful killing verdicts at the end of an inquest into the deaths of Corporal Sarah Bryant, 26, and special forces reservists Corporal Sean Robert Reeve, 28, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin, 39, and Private Paul Stout, 31, when their Snatch Land Rover was hit by a roadside bomb in June 2008.

The six-day inquest into the deaths, held at Trowbridge Town Hall in Wiltshire, heard a string of criticisms of their equipment and training.

The coroner heard evidence that soldiers had not been shown how to use metal detectors in the UK due to an equipment shortage.

Troops were forced to hunt out an expert on base in Afghanistan who passed on his knowledge.

An Ebex metal detector became available only four months into the deployment, until which point the soldiers had to scan the ground for improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Summing up today, Mr Masters also highlighted the limitations of Snatch Land Rovers.

The inquest heard that the commander of the four soldiers had requested a replacement for their Snatch Land Rover but was refused due to equipment shortages.

The vehicles could not cover soft ground and became stuck in a little water, which restricted the unit to driving along dangerous tracks.

Giving his verdict, Mr Masters said today: "I intend to submit a report to the Ministry of Defence which will take up a number of these issues which this inquest has quite properly canvassed."

Referring to the Ebex metal detectors, Mr Masters said: "There was a theatre-wide shortage of that piece of vital equipment."

Soldiers said they had only received a 20-minute briefing on using the metal detector.

One witness, Staff Sergeant O, whose full identity was not revealed for security reasons, complained "he didn't feel he had been sufficiently trained on Ebex", the coroner said.

Another, identified as Corporal J, said he was given a 10 to 15 minute demonstration on using the piece of equipment but had to learn how to use it himself.

He told the inquest: "We worked it out ourselves with the use of the manual."

The coroner added: "He did not believe he had had enough training on it. He wanted further training and had been refused."

Issues that had not been covered in their briefings included the distance above the ground the Ebex had to be held in order to be effective, Mr Masters said.

Others complained they had not been taught how far below the ground metal could be detected.

The inquest heard that troops were forced to hunt out an expert on base who passed on his knowledge of metal detectors.

An Ebex only became available four months into the deployment, from December 2007, until which point the soldiers had to scan the ground for IEDs.

The lack of Ebex meant delays in progressing along the route.

Mr Masters said: "You would be at risk of enemy engagement the longer you are in a fixed position."

When you "dig a little deeper" into pre-deployment training there were "deficiencies", he said.

He added: "In my judgment there was an inadequacy in training for this unit and its members."

There was a "substantial threat" of an IED that day, he said.

They were in the Land Rover with a fifth soldier, the sole survivor, known as Soldier E.

Their patrol was instructed to provide vehicle checkpoints to help the Afghan police disrupt enemy lines of communication and recapture prisoners who had escaped from a prison in Kandahar.

They were then ordered to join another unit and deal with an enemy casualty.

Post-mortem examinations showed that L/Cpl Larkin, from Kidderminster, Worcs, died of injuries to the chest and abdomen following an explosion.

Cpl Bryant, from Chicksands, Bedfordshire, Cpl Reeve, from Brighton, and Pte Stout, from Liverpool, died of blast wounds caused by an explosion.

Referring to Snatch Land Rovers, Mr Masters said: "We heard about, in comparison their disadvantages, that they had limited manoeuvrability being heavy in soft ground and rural areas, that they were top heavy and unstable in so far as top cover sentry was concerned, that they were relatively light armoured."

He added: "There was limited visibility. These concerns were raised by the commanding officer Colonel A."

He said Colonel A, who was not named for security reasons, requested a WMIK vehicle to replace the Snatch.

"There was a limited pool of vehicles available, a general shortage of vehicles available during that period," said Mr Masters.

"He wanted WMIKs because of the nature of the territory. He put in a request and justified it but he didn't get them. That shortage meant that they were unavailable to him.

"There was only a finite supply of vehicles to be allocated across the whole brigade."

A WMIK would have suffered the same level of "devastation" in the blast, he told Wiltshire Coroner's Court, sitting at Trowbridge Town Hall.

The widespread use of Snatch Land Rovers by frontline troops has provoked criticism.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown was forced to defend the use of the vehicles last week when he gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry.

He said "once these new vehicles were asked for, they were offered and the money was paid, I think within months."

And officials travelling with Mr Brown during a visit to Afghanistan this weekend said an announcement about 200 new armoured vehicles to replace the Snatch Land Rovers was expected within weeks.

But the Conservatives pointed out the original contract notice was for "up to 400" vehicles and accused the Government of cutting the number it was acquiring by half.

The sole survivor of the devastating explosion during an operation east of Lashkar Gah told the inquest last week the vehicle he and his fallen comrades were travelling in was "not adequate for the job".

Soldier E, who can not be named for security reasons, fought back tears during his evidence, telling the coroner: "Having used the Snatch in our pre-deployment training, our concerns were heightened, especially when off-road. The mobility and flexibility of the vehicle came into question."

Cumbria-born Cpl Bryant, of the Intelligence Corps, was described by her family as their own Angel of the North.

Her father Desmond Feely, who has criticised the MoD in the past, attended the inquest.

Colonel Graham Le Fevre, chief of staff intelligence corps, said outside the court: "We were all deeply saddened to learn of the deaths of Corporal Sarah Bryant, Corporal Sean Robert Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Private Paul Stout when this incident occurred in June 2008.

"Our thoughts are with their families at this difficult time.

"We extend our deepest sympathies to the families of these four soldiers who lost their lives while serving their country in Afghanistan.

"As tributes at the time said, all four soldiers were immensely professional and were dedicated to serving in the armed forces and on operations in Afghanistan.

"They were proud to serve their country and sadly paid the ultimate sacrifice playing their part to help begin to shape a better Afghanistan."

Mr Masters said his Rule 43 report, which is also copied to the Lord Chancellor, would help prevent future deaths.

He will raise concerns over Operation Barma drill training, the lack of metal detectors available to troops and the continued use of Snatch Land Rovers, particularly in Helmand, Afghanistan.

Mr Masters said: "At the time leading up to these deaths that training ... for this unit was inadequate.

"In predeployment training and from the evidence of so many witnesses there was not the equipment, the Ebex available to provide familiarity in all respects and training with hands on teaching to members of this unit which by reason of the tactical aid memoir guidance notes they needed to use so as to properly conduct the Operation Barma drills.

"Not only was there a shortage of that equipment for training but also for use in earnest in the field."

He added: "The evidence has clearly shown that Snatch Land Rovers were not the preferred vehicle of choice for the evolving task upon which PMT (Police Mentoring Team) were engaged.

"There was significant disquiet about these vehicles being the only resource available to this unit for a variety of reasons."

He said his report would seek a review on the use of Snatch Land Rovers by such a specialist unit.

"It seems that Snatch Land Rovers may not be currently used but the evidence which we have heard at this inquest indicates to me that this needs to be confirmed by the Minister," he added.

He said he will also inquire about their replacements, the Snatch Vixen and Vixen Plus, and their availability in theatre now.

Cpl Bryant's mother, Maureen Feely, reading a statement after the inquest, said: "We understand why Sarah has received so much media attention but this is something she would've hated.

"She would not have wished to be treated any differently from any other of her colleagues.

"She was a soldier who died with honour."

She added: "We do not want some of the issues this inquest has raised to detract from Sarah's bravery, dedication and selflessness."

Adam Wilson, solicitor for the families of Cpl Reeve and L.Cpl Larkin, said: "We are at least comforted by the fact there has been careful and open consideration of the circumstances in which they died so that lessons may be learned for the future.

"We have heard over the course of the inquest how a lack of metal detectors and inappropriate vehicles contributed to their death.

"We hope that the lack of resources and shortcomings in training and planning which have been exposed in the evidence we have heard will not be repeated.

"We hope that the MoD will heed the recommendations of the Coroner and that by reason of the changes they make no other families will have to stand in the position in which we stand today."