Germany's defence minister ordered a full investigation of practices throughout the armed forces yesterday in response to a series of scandals including an alleged mutiny on a naval training ship and the accidental death of a soldier in Afghanistan who was shot by one of his own comrades.
Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said the probe of the German army, navy and air force was intended to reassure critics who have alleged that the growing number of military scandals that have surfaced in recent days showed that he had lost control of the armed forces.
"I am taking a decisive step against all those who suspect the Bundeswehr (the German armed forces) of wrongdoing," Mr zu Guttenberg told Bild am Sonntag newspaper. "We have to establish whether there has been too much pressure on troops or breaches in the basic principles of leadership," he added.
Three scandals have rocked both the army and navy over the past week. In the army, there have been reports that a soldier who was shot dead in Afghanistan during a visit by Chancellor Angela Merkel last December, was killed by one of his own comrades as the two were sitting in a tent. It was claimed that the soldier was "playing" with his weapon when the shot was fired.
The army has also been hit by evidence that soldiers' post in Afghanistan has been tampered with. Scores of letters home were apparently opened and in some cases items were removed.
The most serious scandal continues to concern the navy and its showpiece, the square-rigged sail training ship Gorch Fock, a vessel regarded as Germany's "floating ambassador" which has been training cadets since 1958.
Last Thursday, the defence ministry was forced to dispatch officials to Argentina's southernmost port of Ushuaia to investigate reports of a mutiny on board. A leaked parliamentary report alleged that several cadets had refused to climb into the rigging to set the ship's sails after a 25-year-old officer cadet plunged 80 feet to her death from the main mast last November.
The Gorch Fock's captain subsequently flew the entire ship's company of cadets back to Germany and had a professional crew sent out to take the ship back to its home port of Kiel via Cape Horn.
Mr zu Guttenberg's ministry announced at the weekend that it had dismissed the ship's captain and was flying out his predecessor to sail the ship back to Germany immediately.
The defence minister said the ship would be taken out of commission on its return and that there would be an investigation to establish whether it was appropriate to continue training naval cadets on board.
The cadet fractured her skull and died when she fell on to the deck from a mainmast yard while the ship was in harbour. Several German media outlets reported at the weekend that she had only joined the ship two days before the incident after flying in from Germany. She was also said to be under the required height for work aloft on a naval tall ship.
After her death a furious argument broke out between a handful of cadets and the crew of the Gorch Fock whose job it is to train them. Several of the cadets were said to have refused point blank to go up. The captain is then reported to have accused them of mutiny and ordered them sent home.
Cadets aboard the Gorch Fock wear safety harnesses but they have to climb the rigging without using them. They only "clip on" once they reach their positions on the masts. The navy insists there is no other way of doing it.
Der Spiegel magazine's website yesterday quoted a number of unidentified former Gorch Fock cadets who spoke of harsh discipline on board and deliberate bullying by superiors.
One cadet who asked an officer why it was not possible to discuss grievances openly was told: "We are here to defend democracy, not practise it."
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