The last post: A letter home, then a funeral

Kingsman Jamie Hancock was killed by a British bullet. Yesterday the MoD confirmed it is investigating a possible case of friendly fire. The teenager wrote describing one lucky escape, but hours later he was dead. Cole Moreton was with the family as the body came home
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The Independent Online

The bullet that killed Jamie Hancock, within moments of the teenage soldier starting his first ever sentry duty at the Old State Building in Basra, was British.

It was the type of round usually fired from the SA80 rifles used by those on duty around him that day. The bullet just missed the body armour on the teenager's back, passed through his shoulder and chest - probably killing him instantly - and was trapped by the armour plate on his front. The Ministry of Defence yesterday confirmed that it is investigating a possible case of friendly fire.

Forensic experts are examining weapons used in sangar (protected) sentry posts at the base on 6 November, looking to match the bullet to a gun. An MoD spokesman said: "The danger of friendly fire is always present in incidents such as this and cannot be ruled out without a proper investigation." However, there is also a chance that the shot was fired by an SA80 picked up by Iraqi insurgents during combat.

Kingsman Hancock was 19 years old. He had been in Iraq for two weeks. Yesterday his father, Eddie, 60, of Hindley Green in Lancashire, said: "It makes no difference to Jamie whether he was killed accidentally by one of his own side or by insurgents. He still died a hero and a man, serving his Queen and his country. I get some comfort from the thought that he would have died instantly, without suffering."

Mr Hancock would not comment on specific circumstances until military investigators had done their job. He had previously accused Tony Blair of treason and called the Prime Minister "the mother of all liars" for sending troops to Iraq under false pretences.

The family has released exclusively to The Independent on Sunday the last letter Jamie wrote home, on the night before he was shot. In it, he says: "I had my first rocket attack about two hours ago. I was on the roof just looking at the view and I heard a whizzing noise and then a big bang. One of the rockets didn't explode it went straight through the toilets. Unlucky."

Next to that word he drew a smiley face. Hours later he was dead. The letter was passing through the Army mail system as uniformed officers called at the family home that evening, and over the days that followed, as those who loved him grieved.

On the day the letter finally arrived, Mr Hancock was not there. He had gone down to RAF Brize Norton to meet his son's body, flown home by a Hercules transporter. Also at the airfield in the misty rain were the families of four other servicemen and women, killed on Remembrance Sunday. Jamie was fourth off the plane, his coffin draped in the Union Flag and carried down the ramp by fellow members of 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment.

"I had to go to him," said Mr Hancock. "It's not protocol, they don't like it, but I had to." The honour guard paused as the grieving father ran across the tarmac. "You want to open up the casket and cradle him, but you can't. I just kissed it. I said, 'Welcome home, soldier. Your family and your nation are proud of you.'"

The body was released to the family last Wednesday and kept at a modest local funeral parlour. "I went and sat with him and talked to the lad," said Mr Hancock. "Just chit-chat, like remembering the last time I drove him back to Catterick. He said, 'Stop at KFC, Dad. I'm going to buy you a meal.' I don't like the stuff, but I thought, 'Well, all right, this is new.' We got to the counter and he turned to me and said, 'Dad, lend us a tenner will you?'" The body was in dress uniform but Mr Hancock did not ask to see it. "I want to remember him alive, for the good times."

As a baby, Jamie Lee Hancock was christened at St John the Evangelist in Hindley Green. As a soldier and a man he was remembered there on Friday. Jamie re-entered the church at noon, the pale wooden casket still draped in the flag and carried by nine members of his battalion to The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Arms linked across the shoulders and eyes firmly to the front, each man's face was twisted by the effort of carrying the body. They passed a montage of photographs of Jamie the sleeping infant, the adventure-loving lad, the joker, the charmer and the young soldier.

Outside, crowds in Atherton Road listened to the relayed service. Inside, old soldiers held up the banners of the Royal British Legion and a regimental brass ensemble played hymns including "Fight the Good Fight". It was impossible to sing without remembering Eddie Hancock's fiercely held view that his son died in a war he should never have been asked to fight.

Capt Colin Howard read the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Sons of God." Senior officers in immaculate dress uniforms looked out of place in the modest parish church, but Lancashire gives many of its sons to the Army. In the side pews were Jamie's friends from school with spiky hair, pale faces and averted eyes. One was in an Army uniform of his own.

Jamie's mother, Lynda, wrote an open letter to him that was read during the service. In it, she said she kept thinking he would turn up any day with a bag of washing. Describing her son as "always a leader and never a sheep", she wrote: "You were so full of life, we will remember you and your favourite things: Scott, your best friend, nights out with the boys - and the girls, of course - at Barbarella's, Wigan Pier music, 'proper' food at McDonald's, and Kentucky family buckets just for you..." Mrs Ledwith signed the letter: "Sleep tight, J. Love always, Mum XXX."

Eddie Hancock and Lynda Ledwith have both remarried, to Rose and Lee. They have one other son, Joe, a 24-year-old corporal at the barracks in North Yorkshire where Jamie was stationed before going to Iraq. As a serving soldier, Joe was unable to comment on his brother's death but asked an Army chaplain to read his words from the pulpit. "To be a soldier is in our blood. It's not something that can be given, only earned," he said. "We give our lives to be the best, and leave our family, friends and home to fight for what we believe to be right. We train and fight in conditions that shock people, and we do it because we love what we do. Jamie died a man, a hero, and most of all for Queen and country. How many young men have that sort of commitment today?"

Jamie lived his life by the core values of the Army: selfless commitment, courage, discipline, integrity, loyalty and respect for others. "He used to tell me he looked up to me, and wanted to succeed like I had, but what he didn't know is that he had already succeeded, as a perfect soldier, and a natural-born leader. It is I that look to him for courage, strength and advice."

Half of his ashes will be scattered on Castle Hill, Kendal in the Lake District, where he and his mother once watched the sun go down. The other half will be put in a casket made by Eddie Hancock - "I've got a lovely bit of oak" - and buried in the garden at the foot of a weeping blue cedar. Tomorrow, Mr Hancock will go back to work as a joiner, with a few jobs on the house his sons had just bought together. "I still think of him as on a tour of duty," he said. "I am so proud of my son."

THE LAST LETTER

Hi Dad

I am now in Basra Palace. I am going to the Old State Building tomorrow. It's really mad here. I got here last night.

The weather is getting cooler. It rains about now to December. I had my first rocket attack about two hours ago. I was on the roof just looking at the view and I heard a whizzing noise and then a big bang. Fuck me. I shit myself. One of the rockets didn't explode it went straight through the toilets. Unlucky. [smiley face]

Basra looks really nice. This place is amazing Dad, it's all made of marble. I have taken a few pictures of it. I will show you when I get home. Thanks for all the [foot] creams and powders they came in handy.

Okay, love you loads, tell Joe [his brother] I love him too.

The letter Kingsman Jamie Hancock wrote to his father the night before he was killed. It arrived on the day his body was flown into RAF Brize Norton

The Death Toll: 'Glaring failures have been noted'

British soldiers who have died in friendly fire incidents while serving in Iraq:

Corporal Stephen John Allbutt, 35, of Stoke-on-Trent. Cpl Allbutt diedin Basra in March 2003 after his Challenger II tank was hit by British soldiers from the Black Watch battle group. He was married with two children. An inquest date has not been set.

Trooper David Jeffrey Clarke, 19, of Littleworth, Staffordshire. Tpr Clarke died in the same Challenger II incident in Basra in March 2003. Clarke was engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Rachel. He was thought to be the youngest British soldier to die in the war. His mother was told there would be no inquest because there were no remains.

L/Cpl of Horse Matthew Hull 25, of Windsor. Cpl Hull, a Scimitar tank gunner, was killed when a US A-10 Warthog hit his convoy in Basra. He died in March 2003. The inquest into his death is coming up, but the American airman responsible is unlikely to attend. American servicemen have not attended any friendly fire inquests.

Flight Lt Kevin Barry Main, 35, of Burntwood, Staffordshire. Lt Main was the pilot for the GR4 Tornado and one of two men shot down at 18,000 feet while attempting to land. An American Patriot missile battery mistook them for an incoming Iraqi missile and opened fire near the Kuwait border. The battery worked independently and was not connected to the main information system, leading to confusion, panic, and their deaths in March 2003.

Flight Lt David Rhys Williams, 37, died in the same Tornado incident in 2003. He was Tornado's navigator and was shot down with Lt Main as they returned from a successful mission attacking south-west Baghdad as part of the "shock and awe" campaign. Earlier this month, Oxfordshire assistant deputy corner Andrew Walker ruled that the deaths were "entirely avoidable", noting "glaring failures" in the system to identify friendly aircraft.

Royal Marine Christopher Maddison, 24, of Scarborough. Marine Maddison's river patrol boat came under fire on the Faw peninsula. It was first believed that he was killed by an Iraqi ambush during a mission to flush out enemy boats, but the Ministry of Defence later revealed that Maddison's own men were responsible. He died of shrapnel wounds in March 2003. A combination of communication breakdown and tired, tense soldiers were blamed for his death during the inquest.

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