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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 July 2007, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
Killed in the confusion of battle
By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

Challenger 2 tank
A British Challenger 2 tank fired on "friendly" troops

A coroner has criticised an Army officer over a "completely avoidable tragedy" in which two British soldiers were killed by "friendly fire" in Iraq.

Corporal Stephen Allbutt, 35, and Trooper David Clarke, 19, were killed just five days after the start of the war in Iraq.

But instead of dying by the bullet of the enemy, they were fired on from a tank crewed by fellow UK troops. Two other British soldiers were also injured.

A Ministry of Defence (MoD) inquiry into the incident found serious communication failings led to their deaths.

A senior officer told an inquest into Cpl Allbutt's death that he failed to inform his men about changes to firing boundaries.

Describing the circumstances surrounding the incident at the time of the release of its report, the MoD said: "It was in the war-fighting phase, with all the pressure and difficulties associated with an operational environment."

Bridge mission

It was in the early hours of 25 March 2003, that Cpl Allbutt and Trooper Clarke, both serving with the Queen's Royal Lancers, found themselves patrolling a strip of land to the west of the Shatt al Basra Canal, on the outskirts of Basra, in their Challenger 2 tank.

The pair, both from Staffordshire, were part of a Royal Regiment of Fusiliers mission to monitor the area around a captured bridge. They positioned themselves, along with another tank crew, north of the crossing - west of the canal's dam.

Cpl Stephen Allbutt
Cpl Allbutt had wanted to join the Army since he was a boy

But, unaware of their comrades' task and location on the western side of the canal, members of the Royal Tank Regiment attached to the Black Watch, positioned to the east, saw movement in the darkness across the water and concluded they were observing enemy soldiers climbing in and out of a bunker.

The result was a request to open fire and two high-explosive rounds were released north west towards their fellow British tanks.

The first landed short of the intended target, but the blast threw a number of crew members from their vehicles. Six minutes later, a second round was fired, directly hitting Cpl Allbutt and Trooper Clarke's tank.

According to the MoD's inquiry report, "the round detonated on the commander's hatch causing high velocity fragments to enter the turret, setting it on fire and causing an explosion and the subsequent destruction of the tank".

Both Cpl Allbutt and Trooper Clarke, who were inside the tank, were killed instantly. Two other crew members were thrown from the vehicle and suffered serious burns.

Crews 'disorientated'

The MoD's inquiry in 2005 concluded that the Black Watch group had not been adequately briefed on the location of friendly tanks, changed boundaries between units and where they were permitted to fire.

It also said the crews were "not orientated accurately", placing the enemy on the wrong side of the canal.

Lt Col Lindsay MacDuff, commander of Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, told the inquest into the death of Cpl Allbutt that he did not tell his men about changes to the firing boundaries in the area they were patrolling.

But he insisted he had informed them about the presence of two nearby friendly tanks and that the message had not been passed on.

The inquest was only able to record a narrative verdict regarding the death of Cpl Allbutt because the remains of Trooper Clarke were never found and therefore no inquest could be held.

Trooper David Clarke
Trooper Clarke served in Germany and Kosovo

The two deaths and those of other British victims of so-called "friendly fire" during the conflict have led to calls for more to be done to prevent such accidents on the battlefield.

The MoD says it is already making improvements in training, target recognition and fire control as well as creating better awareness of the Bowman radio system, which aims to clarify the location of friendly forces.

But the ministry admits that while it is doing everything it can to minimise the risks through training and technology, they may never be totally eradicated.

An MoD spokesman said: "No single piece of technology will resolve the issue completely. Effective operational doctrine, tactics, training and battlefield procedures, as well as a range of technology, are needed for effective combat identification.

"It is highly unlikely that all cases of fratricide will ever be eliminated but improvements in these areas will reduce its likelihood."

With troops from many different countries working closely together in Iraq and Afghanistan, British solutions also needed to be compatible with those of allied troops "in order to be effective in coalition warfare", he added.

Map of the incident

Widow calls for further action

Officer recalled to army inquest
06 Jul 07 |  Staffordshire
Officer blamed over army deaths
03 Jul 07 |  Staffordshire
MoD 'hid soldier deaths details'
29 Jun 07 |  Staffordshire
Friendly fire progress 'too slow'
01 May 07 |  UK Politics

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