The betrayal of a soldier: Coroner in blistering attack on ministers at inquest

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The first British soldier to die in combat in Iraq was killed by friendly fire because of the Army's "unforgiveable and inexcusable" failure to equip him with body armour, an inquest has found.

Sgt Steven Roberts went into battle lacking "the most basic piece of equipment", the coroner examining his death concluded. "To send soldiers into a combat zone without the appropriate basic equipment is, in my view, unforgivable and inexcusable and represents a breach of trust that the soldiers have in those in government," concluded Andrew Walker, Oxfordshire's assistant deputy coroner, at the end of an inquest which uncovered a litany of flaws in Britain's preparations for the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Mr Walker's damning conclusions further expose a British military struggling desperately to equip its forces to deal with the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scores of troops have been killed in aged Land Rover vehicles which offer inadequate protection against roadside bombs, while there is a shortage of helicopters and doubts about the effectiveness of the SA80 rifle.

The Army is experiencing major recruitment problems - its size has fallen below 100,000 for the first time since the Victorian era - and ministers face criticism over the poor salaries of troops serving overseas.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said Sgt Roberts' death was "utterly inexcusable and in a more honourable Government would have resulted in resignations". He added: "We still hear stories which reinforce the point that Tony Blair's Government is all too willing to commit our forces to battle without committing the appropriate resources to our armed forces."

At Oxford Coroner's Court, Mr Walker said he had heard "justification and excuse" during six days of evidence about Sgt Roberts' death, which has centred on the army's decision to take back the soldier's enhanced combat body armour (ECBA) three days before he died because there were not enough of the sets to go around. "I put these to one side as I remind myself that Sgt Roberts lost his life because he did not have that basic piece of equipment," he said.

When he died just after dawn on 24 March, 2003, Sgt Roberts, 33, from Shipley, west Yorkshire was clad in makeshift armour which he had made by stuffing pieces of padding into his fatigues and sticking them together with black masking tape. After leaving one of three British Challenger tanks patrolling a vehicle checkpoint east of Az Zubayr, in southern Iraq, he came under attack from a stone throwing insurgent wearing white face paint, which seemed to mark him out as a martyr.

Sgt Roberts'Browning pistol jammed in the dust - as have many others carried by the British forces. Then, a machine gun in a tank also failed, so the co-axial machine gun was turned on the Iraqi instead. But the young gunner who fired the fateful round had not been trained in the use of co-axial. He did not know it was a long-range weapon which, at short range, hit objects to the left of the sights - where Sgt Roberts happened to be.

The coroner last week asked former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon to appear before him after hearing how the minister delayed for eight weeks before approving a request for extra ECBA kits in 2002. An MoD director, David Williams, appeared in the minister's place yesterday and gave evidence which revealed why military staff working for a Board of Inquiry into Sgt Roberts' death, earlier this year, had failed to unearth answers about the eight-week delay.

Mr Williams said that an urgent written request for 37,000 extra sets of ECBA, sent to Mr Hoon by an MoD logistics team on September 13, 2002, was returned by the minister with the annotation "further advice required" because any approach to manufacturers would have telegraphed the fact that Britain was preparing for war while diplomacy continued at the UN.

Mr Hoon finally allowed officials to place an order for the £167 ECBA kits (the cost is equivalent to two days' pay for an Army private) on 13 November. But the kits did not reach Iraq until 31 March, 2003 - eight days too late for Sgt Roberts, who was serving with the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment Cyclops Squadron.

The lack of equipment was exacerbated by the coalition's decision, in January 2003, to invade Iraq from the south, rather than the north. Though an additional 4,000 troops were needed for the southern approach, the combat gear order had not been increased accordingly. A total of 2,200 troops lacked ECBA kits.

Mr Roberts' widow, Samantha discovered some of these shortcoming when she heard audio tapes recorded by her husband in the days before his death, describing preparations as "a joke".She said: "The loss of Steve to us cannot be measured. This has been the driving force behind our quest for answers, some of which we feel could have been provided earlier."

The grievances

By Nigel Morris

* Pay/allowances

Levels of pay are a constant grumble, as Tony Blair discovered when visited Afghanistan last month. Several soldiers told the Prime Minister that a basic marine, who is paid just over £12,000, could have earned double in the fire service.

* Recruitment/retention

Levels of recruitment are holding up, but 9,200 left last year before their period of engagement was up. The armed forces are 5,170 under strength.

* Mental illness

According to MoD figures, 1,897 soldiers have returned from Iraq with mental health problems, of which 278 have post-traumatic stress disorder, while others suffer depression, acute anxiety or turn to drink or drugs to cope with their problems.

* Equipment

The standard-issue army rifle, the SA80 A2, has been dogged by problems, particularly when salt-water and sand interfered with its mechanism. The rifle has been upgraded but complaints persist.

* Vehicles

A quarter of British soldiers killed by hostile action in Iraq were travelling in "snatch" Land Rovers - vehicles designed for Northern Ireland rather than the arid conditions of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are bullet-proof, but provide no protection from improvised roadside bombs.