The cruellest sacrifice: Revealed: 88 casualties of MoD's failures

While the nation remembers its war dead, service families react with fury as our investigation reveals the extent of the mistakes that have consigned so many of Britain's forces to unnecessary deaths. Andrew Johnson reports

Sunday 11 November 2007 01:00 GMT

More than one in three servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan might still be alive if not for avoidable blunders and equipment problems, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday has revealed. An audit of the 254 deaths in the two conflicts revealed that at least 88 have died in avoidable accidents, friendly fire incidents or equipment shortages, prompting claims that the Ministry of Defence has been negligent of its duty of care to servicemen and women.

The 88 cases listed here are a conservative analysis, leaving out many others where no inquiry or inquest has been completed and exact circumstances have not been established. The scandal is expected to grow, not least because there are about 100 inquests outstanding.

It will also increase pressure on the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, to honour the Military Covenant, which says that, while people in the military risk their lives in combat, the nation should ensure they are well equipped and look after them and, in the case of their deaths, their families.

On Friday, the Government appeared to fudge the issue by announcing a review of the support offered to the armed forces, their families and veterans, with a six-month Command Paper strategy. The Royal British Legion described the move as an attempt to "kick the issue into the long grass".

The list of 88 names drew angry reactions from families and opposition spokesmen. Reg Keys, whose son Tom was one of six Red Caps on the list, said he was "amazed" by the figure. "I know there were several killed in soft-skinned Land Rovers that are completely inadequate for the job," he said.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Nick Harvey, said it showed the Government's "lack of preparedness" for the scale of the two conflicts. "In view of the fact that some of the inquests are over and done with in two or three hours, can we be confident that lessons are being learned and the necessary changes are being made?

"Clearly, accidents will happen in armed conflict and there will always be deaths that could be avoided. But the alarmingly high rate of deaths in these two conflicts bears out all that's been said about overstretch and lack of preparedness for the scale of operations."

Much of the evidence of blunders is revealed only at inquests. For example, reservist Private Jason Smith, 32, died of heat stroke in August 2003 in temperatures approaching 50C. Initially the MoD implied his death was attributable to his health. It was only at his inquest four years later that it emerged there was no air conditioning where he was stationed, no medics and that hydration tablets had run out.

There is also the case of Corporal John Cosby, who was shot by his own comrades in July last year. At his inquest last month it emerged that soldiers were unclear about the rules of engagement. For example, there are several cases of soldiers, such as Cpl Cosby, killed by Nato-issue 5.56mm rounds. In his case the MoD maintained it could not be said who shot him as Canadian hunting rifles also use that calibre. The coroner found that he was undoubtedly the victim of friendly fire. We have excluded the other cases because they have not yet come to inquest. We have also excluded road accidents – except for those where an inquiry has found negligence.

Some of the most disturbing include the deaths of three soldiers shot by insurgents while driving a hired Nissan 4x4 Pathfinder, which was completely unprotected, instead of being in an armoured vehicle.

One young soldier, Lance Corporal Andrew Craw, 21, shot himself on a firing range in 2004. After a year of implying it was L/Cpl Craw's fault, the Army was judged to be at fault by the coroner. He was sent on the firing range after having just two hours' sleep immediately after arriving in Iraq and given a gun which jammed because it had been poorly maintained. It took 90 minutes for a helicopter to evacuate him.

Unlike other wars where issues such as friendly fire are explained as a consequence of the unavoidable fog of war, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan quickly moved to "peacekeeping" mode. Our audit has revealed that at least 11 were the victims of avoidable friendly fire.

We also found that 29 soldiers died when their Land Rovers passed roadside bombs. Families have claimed the soldiers are not sufficiently protected. And just this week a coroner found that the death of Fusilier Gordon Gentle was caused by army supply "chaos" because an electronic device that could have prevented the bomb detonating was not fitted.

An MoD spokesman said: "We go to great lengths to ensure that our armed forces have the best possible equipment and that their training minimises the risk of friendly fire incidents. Combat operations against a determined enemy are inherently dangerous, and, irrespective of the measures we take to protect our troops, they will always find ways to defeat them."

Land Rover scandal: 29 deaths

Rose Gentle's three-year battle for the truth finally ended in victory last Wednesday when a coroner ruled that an army failure had led to the death of her son, Gordon, 19, who was blown up in a Land Rover in June 2004.

An electronic countermeasure (ECM) device, which could have prevented the roadside bomb from detonating, was not fitted despite the fact that it was available. For Rose's friend, Sue Smith, Wednesday's verdict brought only anger. Her son, Philip Hewett, was one of three soldiers who died 13 months later when a roadside bomb destroyed their Land Rover. It wasn't fitted with an ECM, despite the MoD's claims that it had learned lessons from the Gentle case. Her son's inquest lasted just three hours, with much of it held behind closed doors.

The issue for many of the 29 families who have lost loved ones to roadside bombs is wider than the ECM. They argue that Land Rovers should never have been used as it is known they do not offer adequate protection from explosions. Sue and Rose are among 10 parents preparing to meet the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, to ask him why Land Rovers are still being used. The families are preparing a legal challenge over their use.

"Our inquest in January was just three hours for three lads," Ms Smith said. "A lot of the evidence was held behind closed doors and an officer actually punched the air when he heard that no further action would be taken."

Iraq: Cpt David Jones, 29, 14 Aug 03; Flr Gordon Gentle, 19, 28 Jun 04; Gdsmn Anthony Wakefield, 24, 2 May 05; Cpl Alan Brackenbury, 21, 29 May 05; 2nd Lt Richard Shearer, 26, 16 Jul 05; Pte Leon Spicer, 26, 16 Jul 05; Pte Philip Hewett, 21, 16Jul 05; Flr Donal Meade, 20, 5 Sept 05; Flr Stephen Manning, 22, 5 Sept 05; Maj Matthew Bacon, 34, 11 Sept 05; Sgt John Jones, 31, 20 Nov 05; Cpl Gordon Pritchard, 31, 31 Jan 06; Cpt Richard Holmes, 28, 28 Feb 06; Pte Lee Ellis, 23, 28 Feb 06; Lt Richard Palmer, 27, 15 Jun 06; Pte Joseva Lewaicei, 25, 13 May 06; Pte Adam Morris, 13 May 06; Lt Tom Mildinhall, 26, 28 May 06; L/Cpl Paul Farrelly, 27, 28 May 06; Gnr Samuela Vanua, 27, 4 Sept 06; Gnr Stephen Wright, 20, 4 Sept 06; Pte Luke Simpson, 21, 9 Feb 07; L/Cpl Kirk Redpath, 22, 9 Aug 07; L/Sgt Chris Casey, 27, 9 Aug 07.

Afghanistan: Pte Jonathan Kitulagoda, 23, 28 Jan 04; Gdsmn Neil Downes, 20, 9 Jun 07; Dmr Thomas Wright, 21, 24 Jun 07; Pte Ben Ford, 18, 5 Sept 07; Pte Damien Wright, 23, 5 Sept 07.

Friendly-fire incidents: 11 deaths

Debbie Allbutt lost her husband in March 2003 when his Challenger tank was fired upon by another British tank in Basra. At Cpl Stephen Allbutt's inquest in July the coroner described his death and that of his colleague, Trooper David Clarke, 19, as a "wholly avoidable tragedy" and blamed a breakdown in communications.

Mrs Allbutt believes there was more the Army could have done to prevent the incident. Later this month she will begin civil proceedings against the MoD.

Sapna Malik of Leigh Day and Co, who is representing Mrs Allbutt and the two soldiers seriously injured in the attack, said they would be claiming that the soldiers were not issued with equipment adequate to have prevented the tragedy.

She said: "There was hi-tech equipment out there that was used by US forces. This is satellite-based, allowing you to see the position of all friendly troops so this mis-identification situation would not arise."

Iraq: Flt Lt David Williams and Flt Lt Kevin Main, 23 Mar 03: Tornado plane hit by a US patriot missile. Sgt Steven Roberts, 24 Mar 03: had to give up his body armour due to shortages. Tpr David Clarke and Cpl Stephen Allbutt, 25 Mar 03: see above. L/Cpl Matty Hull, 28 Mar 03: US pilot fired at his convoy. Mne Christopher Maddision, 24, 30 Mar 03: died of shrapnel wounds after missile fired at his patrol boat. Flr Kelan Turrington, 18, 6 Apr 03: killed by machine gun fire from a British tank.

Afghanistan: Ptes Aaron McClure, 19, John Thrumble, 21, and Robert Foster, 19, 23 Aug 07: US F15 bombed their position.

Day of care failures: 15 deaths

Lance Corporal Shaun Brierley, 29, died in a road accident on 30 March 2003. His inquest heard that infrared equipment to deter friendly fire had been fitted over one headlight, which meant he did not see a large lump of tarmac in the road. The officer who designed the equipment said they were given just two weeks to do so after a last-minute meeting between the MoD, Whitehall and US.

Gnr Duncan Pritchard, 22, 8 May 03: fell off the back of a Land Rover after it hit a ridge in Kuwait desert. Driver had little training for night driving and vehicle had no spotlights.

Private Jason Smith, 32, 13 Aug 03: died of heat exhaustion in temperatures of 50C. No medics, wrong advice on hydration, supplies of hydration tablets ran out.

L/Cpl Andrew Craw, 21, 7 Jan 04: shot himself on a firing range (see page 2).

Fl Lt Kristian Gover, 30, 19 July 04: Puma helicopter crash at Basra airport. Crew had insufficient training.

Pte Marc Ferns, 21, 12 Aug 04: roadside bomb hit his Warrior which did not have detection device – they were "reserved" for soft-shell vehicles. Metal plate subsequently fitted to all Warriors might have saved his life.

Flr Stephen Jones, 22, 10 Sept 04: Land Rover left the road. He had not slept for two days.

Captain Ken Masters, 40, 15 Oct 05: suicide. Coroner and wife criticised lack of pastoral care

Cpl John Cosby, 27, 16 July 06: shot by British soldier. Inquest heard soldiers were unclear on rules of engagement.

Afghanistan: Sgt Robert Busuttil, 30, and Cpl John Gregory, 30, 17 Aug 02: Sgt Busuttil was shot at a barbecue by Cpl Gregory who then shot himself. Coroner criticised "lethal cocktail" of mixing drinks and guns after hearing soldiers often flouted "two-can" drinks rule.

Tpr Carl Smith, 23, 2 Feb 06: crushed when his Land Rover overturned. Cpl Peter Thorpe, 27, 5 Jul 06: rocket attack in Helmand. He was not wearing body armour, failure in the chain of command.

Cpl Mark Wright, 27, 6 Sept 07: bled to death in minefield. Rescue took six hours as Chinook could not land and had no winch.

Pte Andrew Cutts, 19, 6 Aug 06: shot dead after delivering supplies in Mjsa Qal'eh. Inquest stopped after evidence emerged he was shot by British soldiers.

Hire-care debacle: 3 deaths

No one knows why Corporal Dewi Pritchard, 35, was driving a hired Nissan 4x4 Pathfinder in a convoy near Baghdad in August 2003. Nobody, that is, save for senior figures at the MoD, and they are not saying.

The rest of the convoy was armoured, which is why insurgents raked bullets into the Nissan, killing Cpl Pritchard, a reservist, and two of his colleagues, Maj Matthew Titchener and Maj Colin Wall. The inquest into the deaths of the three men lasted only three hours and much of it was held behind closed doors.

Cpl Pritchard's widow, Tracey, says she feels "abandoned" by the MoD. "I've had no legal advice, nowhere to turn," she said. "My husband was home nine days before and said they were under attack all the time. They should have had the right equipment."

Aircraft crashes: 24 deaths

Graham Knight was not surprised to read this week that a Nimrod spy plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Afghanistan after fuel poured into the bomb bay. He suspects a similar incident caused the disaster that cost the life of his son, Ben, and 13 others when a Nimrod crashed in Afghanistan in September 2006.

A series of leaked emails revealed commanders knew about fuel leaks. One said: "XV230 has fuel leak issues which need to be rectified before the aircraft can be deployed."

Mr Knight said: "Had they fitted a fire-suppressant system as BAE advised, then Ben might still be here. It's a very sick feeling in the stomach that 14 lives were thrown away because of cost-cutting."

Ten men were lost when a Hercules was shot down in Iraq. Families claim the aircraft was not fitted with explosion-suppressant foam.

Hercules: Flt Lt David Stead, 35; Flt Lt Andrew Smith, 25; Flt Lt Paul Pardoel, 35; Msr Eng Gary Nicholson, 42; Chf Tn Richard Brown, 40; Flt Sgt Mark Gibson, 34; Sgt Robert O'Connor, 38; Cpl David Williams, 37; Sqn Ldr Patrick Marshall, 39; Actg L/Cpl Steven Jones, 25.

Nimrod: Flt Lt Steven Johnson, 38; Flt Lt Leigh Mitchelmore, 28; Flt Lt Gareth Nicholas, 40; Flt Lt Allan Squires, 39; Flt Sgt Stephen Beattie, 42; Flt Lt Steve Swarbrick, 28; Flt Sgt Gary Andrews, 48; Mne Joseph Windall, 22; Flt Sgt Adrian Davies, 49; Flt Sgt Gerard Bell, 48; Sgt Benjamin Knight, 25; Sgt John Langton, 29; Sgt Gary Quilliam, 42; Cpl Oliver Dicketts, 27.

Red Caps tragedy: 6 deaths

Three things have made Reg Keys very angry. That his son Thomas, 20, a lance corporal in the Royal Military Police, was sent to a war "founded on a lie"; that Thomas was unable to fight off his killers or call for help because his equipment was taken off him; and that the British and Iraqi governments know who the killers are but have taken no action to arrest them.

L/Cpl Keys was one of six Red Caps killed by an angry mob in a village police station 100 miles from Basra in June 2003. The Red Caps were unable to call for help because their distress flares and smoke grenades had been taken from them to save time before they were sent home. They had not been issued with satellite phones, which was against orders, and had only 50 bullets each instead of the regulation 150.

Some of the crowd were so shocked by what they saw that they named the killers and gave witness statements. Despite arrest warrants being issued in February last year, no action has been taken.

"The British Government says it's up to the Iraqis to make the arrests," said Mr Keys, "and they don't seem to be bothered. To me that's the final insult. I gave my son a watch for his 18th birthday. One of the witness statements describes who took it. He is wearing that watch now and the Government knows who it is. No action has been taken against any of the officers who took the equipment from the men before they went out. The army report says it is a 'systemic failure in the chain of command'. They spread the blame so no heads will roll. These six men took an oath of allegiance and have been betrayed."

Red Caps: L/Cpl Thomas Keys, 20; L/Cpl Benjamin Hyde, 23; Cpl Simon Miller, 21; Cpl Paul Long, 24; Sgt Simon Hamilton-Jewell, 41; Cpl Russell Aston, 30.

Honour them

The Independent on Sunday has been campaigning for the Military Covenant to be honoured. It is a campaign supported by families, retired generals, politicians from the three major parties and the British Legion. We have convened a panel of experts who are offering practical solutions to the problems faced by British troops.

What we want:

* Soldiers to have the right to expect a war to be lawful;

* to have adequate resources and equipment;

* the right to be cared for in the event of injury;

* and the right to know that, in the event of their death, their families will be properly looked after.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in