Better body armour might have saved soldiers, inquests are told

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Inquests into the deaths of two servicemen have raised fresh questions about the standard of equipment for British soldiers in the Iraq conflict.

A coroner examining the death of Guardsman Anthony Wakefield, who might have survived if he had been wearing better body armour, urged the Ministry of Defence to improve the delivery of protective equipment, and an inquest into the death of tank commander Sgt Steven Roberts heard evidence that suggested his pistol and armour were inadequate.

In the commons, Des Browne, the Defence Secretary came under pressure over the availability of helicopters to support British troops in Afghanistan. He was accused of knowing "little about the military and even less about leadership" by Tory backbencher Henry Bellingham. Mr Browne insisted that the British commander in Helmand province had told him he had "sufficient helicopter availability", though a review was being held.

The inquest into the death of Guardsman Wakefield, 24, a father of three from Newcastle upon Tyne, heard that he was killed instantly when a bomb exploded near his snatch Land Rover near al-Amarah on May 1 2005, Oxford coroner's court heard.

He was on patrol wearing standard body armour, but not the latest Kestrel kit with added protection for the neck and arms. He died from neck and chest wounds.

The soldier, who had been serving with the 12th Mechanised Brigade, was providing "top cover", sticking out of the top of the vehicle, the most vulnerable position. Gaps in the side and bottom of the body armour to allow movement were stretched open, allowing projectiles to get through.

Selena Lynch, a deputy assistant coroner for Oxfordshire, called for the Ministry of Defence to make sure British troops were equipped with the best protective gear. "I hope we can rely on the ministry to get this equipment to our soldiers as quickly as possible," she said.

Sgt Roberts had described the lack of equipment for soldiers as "a joke" in an audio diary he recorded in Iraq, and the coroner examining his death heard that the soldier, of 2 Royal Tank Regiment, was unable to defend himself because his Browning pistol had jammed.

Three days after being ordered to give up his enhanced combat body armour because of shortages, Sgt Roberts, 33, from Shipley, West Yorkshire, was shot dead by "friendly fire" as he manned a checkpoint outside the southern Iraqi town of Az Zubayr in March 2003.

Lt Michael Fielder, the leader of the three Challenger tanks, including that of Sgt Roberts, patrolling outside Az Zubayr, said Sgt Roberts had dismounted alone and was checking vehicles for weapons when an Iraqi started throwing stones at him. Sgt Roberts drew his Browning and felt it jam. He had dropped to one knee to change weapons when the machine gun in the third tank opened fire.

Lt Fielder said that he felt the tank's strike was "inappropriate" considering the proximity of Sgt Roberts to the individual being aimed at. The officer, who is now a captain, said Sgt Roberts, so far as he knew, was wearing body armour beneath his combat jacket but without high-velocity protective plates. "I had a set of plates but no vest to put them in," said Lt Fielder. The equipment needed was provided a week after Sgt Roberts' death, he added.

The hearing continues.

Main causes of complaint

* CHINOOK HELICOPTERS

Defence chiefs have been forced to hire private helicopters to ferry British troops around Afghanistan's Helmand province. In the Commons yesterday, the former Tory defence minister Nicholas Soames suggested Britain lease helicopters from the US. A review is being held.

* BODY ARMOUR

The shortage of body armour led to calls for former defence secretary Geoff Hoon's resignation after Sgt Roberts' death. In August this year an Army board of inquiry into his death confirmed the armour would have stopped the bullet that struck him in the centre of his chest.

* LAND ROVERS

There has been concern for months about these ageing vehicles from Northern Ireland. They are not designed to withstand explosions and many British soldiers have been killed in them. Roger Bacon, whose son Matthew was killed by a roadside bomb in September, has led the criticism.

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