Deepcut: 'All that we're asking is, tell us the truth'

As yet more harrowing tales of abuse emerged, ministers announced only a limited investigation into what went on at the barracks. The outraged parents tell Sophie Goodchild and Andrew Johnson that only a public inquiry is acceptable
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The barracks look like they could be part of a typical secondary school. Grassy fields surround the large-windowed, wooden buildings. Patches of barbed-wire fence mark the perimeter. The scene is unremarkable and unthreatening.

The barracks look like they could be part of a typical secondary school. Grassy fields surround the large-windowed, wooden buildings. Patches of barbed-wire fence mark the perimeter. The scene is unremarkable and unthreatening.

This is the Princess Royal barracks in the Surrey village of Deepcut, a name now synonymous with one of the most disturbing and sinister chapters in recent Army history. Here, between 1995 and 2002, four trainees died in suspicious circumstances.

Last week attention refocused on those deaths when MPs on the Defence Select Committee investigating the deaths of young Army recruits met families of the Deepcut soldiers and of soldiers who had died in controversial circumstances in other Army barracks. One parent was Joe McGregor, who took along the ashes of his son Derek.

"They are all I have left of him," he told the MPs. He felt it was important that they understood that.

The McGregors are among hundreds of families whose sons and daughters have committed suicide or died in strange circumstances at training camps while under the supposed care of the British Army. Amnesty International said in June last year that there have been as many as 1,800 "non-natural" deaths of armed forces personnel in or around Army barracks since 1990.

So far, the families' attempts to uncover the truth have been met with denials, delays and suspected cover-ups. Some parents think their children were driven to their deaths because of a culture of bullying, of mental and physical abuse.

Mr McGregor's son, a lance corporal, hanged himself at Catterick barracks 18 months ago. He was 20 - the 13th soldier to die at the camp since 1996. The Army training base in Yorkshire has become the focus for shocking allegations of bullying and abuse, but it is Deepcut that has come to symbolise a side of the Army to which the authorities do not want to admit.

The families of Geoff Gray, Sean Benton, James Collinson and Cheryl James - who all died from gunshot wounds at Deepcut - think their children were murdered. Their theory is supported by at least one independent ballistics expert.

The Army claims that all four committed suicide, and a Surrey Police report published last year concluded that, after the examination of 1,500 statements and interviews with 900 witnesses, no direct evidence had been uncovered to "indicate any prospect of a prosecution related to these deaths". However, last week details emerged of another report by Surrey Police that had been kept confidential. This report listed 173 allegations of abuse at Deepcut, including at least one gang rape, a female recruit being urinated on, another being forced to strip and run naked round the parade ground.

These revelations were disclosed to MPs on the Defence Select Committee, but they had been kept from the Deepcut families. This withholding of information has fuelled the families' frustrations. And it is why they believe a public inquiry is the only way to establish the truth. They are backed by more than 200 MPs, Amnesty International and now the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

The families have formed a pressure group, Deepcut and Beyond, and under its banner spend as much time as they can lobbying, leafleting and demonstrating. They are also threatening legal action against the Government.

Since their children died, evidence has mysteriously gone missing or simply been destroyed. Documents have been withheld. As weeks turn into months, the memories of more witnesses begin to fade.

Yesterday the IoS spoke to a former soldier who witnessed serious abuse at the barracks. The former corporal, who has since left the Army and spoke on the condition of anonymity, trained with Cheryl James. This is the first time his story has been told in a national newspaper.

The 31-year-old said the regime at Deepcut was dominated by four or five non-commissioned officers who had been rejected from other regiments. "They put all the bad apples in the same barrel," he said. He named one sergeant who threw a recruit out of a second floor window, would strip recruits naked and defecate on them and in one incident paraded a group of naked recruits against a wall in the early hours of the morning. "When all this started appearing in the press I had a phone call," he said. "They said we know where you live, we know where your parents live. You know what we're capable of.

"Deepcut was horrible, just horrible. You just kept your head down to get out of there as soon as possible."

Geoff Gray's 17-year-old son, also called Geoff, was found dead with two bullet wounds to the head in 2001 at Deepcut. Since Deepcut and Beyond was set up, Mr Gray says 40 families have been in contact and their stories are all the same. "All I ask is 'tell me the truth'," said Mr Gray. "Trying to get information from the MoD is like beating your head against a wall."

These frustrations boiled over last Wednesday when the Deepcut families attended a hearing of the Commons Defence Select Committee. Des James, father of Cheryl, accused the assembled MPs of not taking enough evidence from the Army. The criticism provoked a fierce response from Bruce George, the committee chairman, who insisted that a thorough inquiry was being carried out.

However, the committee will not be questioning commanding officers, despite strong representations by the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock. "I have not been given a satisfactory reason why not," said Mr Hancock. "It's because the MoD does not want to have an inquiry into Deepcut and Catterick. It will hurt them if they do."

The Government has announced it will hold an independent review following last week's Surrey Police findings. It is expected to be headed by a senior law lord but still falls far short of a full public inquiry. Meanwhile, a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary screened last week pointed out that in 2001 the Army Training and Recruitment Agency had published a report into the treatment of trainees which recommended that more than 300 extra officers were needed to supervise recruits. Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Haes, who compiled the report, told the programme that his report was largely ignored.

For Joe McGregor the agonising wait for the truth must continue. Just before his son Derek died he told his family that he had been beaten by military police. Last week, Mr McGregor finally received the post-mortem report into his son's death. It made harrowing reading. It showed that there were cuts to his son's stomach and bruising to his testicles and legs.

Mr McGregor said he has had enough of the lies. "I saw him in the mortuary at Catterick and he had a black eye and cuts to his face. I want to know why the officers who beat him have not been punished. They say he hanged himself. I've no evidence. They have lied to me time and time again."

Private Sean Benton, 20, from Hastings, East Sussex
Died: June 1995
Cause of death: Five bullet wounds to the chest
MoD ruling: Suicide
Unanswered: How, according to reports, he had been subjected to serious bullying and physical assaults. Inquest verdict of suicide

Private James Collinson, 17, from Perth
Died: March 2002
Cause of death: Single bullet wound to the head
MoD ruling: Suicide
Unanswered: What really happened the night. James died while patrolling the barracks perimeter. Inquest to open in February

Private Cheryl James, 18, from Llangollen, North Wales
Died: November 1995
Cause of death: Single bullet wound to the head
MoD ruling: Suicide
Unanswered: Document that referred to her dislike of the Army; same document also said the opposite. Inquest recorded open verdict

Private Geoff Gray, 17, from Hackney, east London
Died: September 2001
Cause of death: Two bullet wounds to the head
MoD ruling: Suicide
Unanswered: Lack of evidence corroborating the theory that he had taken his own life. Inquest recorded open verdict

A dditional reporting by Cub Barrett and Lauren Meade