Page last updated at 16:00 GMT, Friday, 3 July 2009 17:00 UK

Prince and Brown praise soldiers

Prince Charles: "It is completely heartbreaking"

Gordon Brown and the Prince of Wales have paid tribute to two soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The prime minister said "the whole country" would be mourning the deaths of Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe and Trooper Joshua Hammond.

Col Thorneloe, of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was the most senior army officer to die in action since 1982.

Prince Charles, who is colonel-in-chief of the regiment, said the news of his death was "completely heartbreaking".

Major offensive

Col Thorneloe, 39, from Kirtlington, near Oxford and Trooper Hammond, 18, from Plymouth, died on Wednesday after an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blew up their vehicle.

They were part of a resupply convoy travelling in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

Six other soldiers were injured in the blast.

News of the fatalities came on the same day the US army announced it had launched a major offensive against the Taliban.

Lt Col Rupert Thornoloe and Trooper Joshua Hammond
Tributes have been paid to Lt Col Thorneloe and Trooper Hammond

More than 700 UK troops have launched a similar offensive - codenamed Operation Panther's Claw - against insurgent strongholds in southern Afghanistan.

The prince, who knew Col Thorneloe personally, said: "As you can imagine, the shock and horror that has affected the whole of the regiment family was quite dramatic.

"I was horrified to say the least about both deaths, Trooper Hammond as well."

He added his heart was with the soldiers' families. "It's completely heartbreaking. The whole battalion is suffering," he said.

Speaking during a visit to Manchester Mr Brown said: "They were very professional soldiers, they were serving in Afghanistan in the most difficult terrain.

"Lt Col Thorneloe was someone I know, someone I worked with, someone I admired."

He said Col Thorneloe - the most senior British Army officer to be killed in action since the Falklands War in 1982 - showed great bravery and leadership.

He added: "I would also like to pass on my condolences to his family and also the family of Trooper Hammond, who was a very brave young man."

Viking armoured vehicle

'Exceptional man'

Before taking up his post with the Welsh Guards, Col Thorneloe had worked as military assistant to then Defence Secretary Des Browne.

Mr Browne said: "He gave his all to everything he did. He was a great soldier, a great commander and an exceptional man.

"He passionately believed in what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan, and led his men in the belief that they were there to protect the safety of all us back home."

The commander of the UK task force in Helmand said any success in Afghanistan was not achieved without loss of "friends and comrades".

Speaking at a homecoming parade in Exeter, Brig Gordon Messenger said: "Each loss affected us all deeply and we will never forget those who paid the ultimate price, nor their families, nor those who continue to struggle against the odds in overcoming serious injury."

The two men who died were travelling in one of the Army's Viking armoured vehicles, which have been criticised for not being able to withstand IED attacks.

They are due to be withdrawn and replaced with more heavily armoured personnel carriers.

But Lt Col Paul Kearny, of the Royal Marines, told the BBC a big enough IED would "destroy any vehicle".

"What we need to do is predict where they're going to be and avoid that," he said.

"That's why we've got modern vehicles that have got much, much better manoeuvrability and speed than we've ever had before that can put us out of harm's way as best they can."

'Great compassion'

Speaking at a press conference at Aldershot Barracks on Friday, Maj Gen William Cubitt, commander of the Household Division, of which the Welsh Guards is a part, said Col Thorneloe was "the personification of the regiment".

Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe with his daughter
Lt Col Thorneloe's leaves behind a wife and two young daughters

"He was the complete commander with great compassion for his troops," Maj Gen Cubitt said.

"He was not only tactically astute but also a leader from the front and would have taken the risks of anybody, which tragically has resulted in his death."

Maj Dai Bevan, from the Welsh Guards, said the loss was "a devastating blow" but morale would be maintained.

"Colonel Rupert gave very clear advice as to how the battalion should deal in the face of adversity and death and this has only strengthened our resolve to continue on our mission in Afghanistan and perform to the highest standards that he would expect of us," he said.

Col Thorneloe leaves behind a wife and two young daughters. Padre Tim Cole said the army would do everything possible to support them and the families of others killed in action.

But he added: "Where children are involved they [families] have that awful duty of trying to explain to their children that Daddy isn't going to come home.

"It's like standing on the edge of a dark hole and looking into the abyss."

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