Page last updated at 19:15 GMT, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Inquest hears vehicle in Afghan blast 'not adequate'

(Clockwise from top left) Cpl Sarah Bryant, Cpl Sean Robert Reeve, L/Cpl Richard Larkin, Private Paul Stout
The vehicle's vulnerability to roadside bombs has been highlighted in the past

The sole survivor of a 2008 blast in Afghanistan has told an inquest he believed the vehicle he was travelling in was "not adequate for the job".

The special forces soldier broke down while giving evidence at the inquest of four UK soldiers who were killed, at Wiltshire Coroner's Court.

They were Cpl Sarah Bryant and three SAS reservists - Cpl Sean Reeve, L/Cpl Richard Larkin and Pte Paul Stout.

Cpl Bryant is the only British female soldier to have died in Afghanistan.

The four were in a Snatch Land Rover, a light vehicle in which at least 37 UK soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Known as Soldier E, the witness said he was told during pre-deployment training he would be travelling in Snatch Land Rovers.

"There was a lot of worry that these weren't the right vehicle, in our opinion, for the job in hand," he said.

"Having used the Snatch in our pre-deployment training, our concerns were heightened, especially when off-road. The mobility and flexibility of the vehicle came into question."

'Huge explosion'

He added: "It could go off-road, but as a platform to maintain operations, I believe it was not adequate for the job."

The witness said the soldiers were moving along their route after doing improvised explosive device (IED) checks when the Land Rover's back wheel hit an IED.

Jonathan Beale
Jonathan Beale, at the inquest
This inquest has once again posed difficult questions for ministers and the Ministry of Defence about the training and equipment given to British soldiers being deployed for combat in Afghanistan.

The inquest has already heard two witnesses, Soldier O and Soldier A, express strong concerns about the Land Rover Snatch. On day one, Soldier O told the court that when they found out they would be using the vehicles to patrol, it was met by "disbelief" among his men. Soldier E, the sole survivor in this incident, also says the Snatch was inadequate for the job.

There is a question, too, over the training they received before being deployed to Afghanistan. Both Soldier O and Soldier E say they had "limited" training in how to detect roadside bombs. There was also clearly a shortage of equipment. Soldier E says he had to go "cap in hand" to "borrow" a mine detector because at first they had not been issued.

This raises another important point. Were members of the Territorial Army - and this unit was made up of mostly reservists - at the back of the queue when equipment was being handed out?

After the soldier told of a "huge explosion", the coroner read the rest of his statement as he was unable to continue.

"The next thing I can recall is our vehicle was being catapulted into the air," he said.

"I remember seeing the ground, the sky, then the ground, the sky, and then the vehicle hitting the ground."

On Monday, Coroner David Masters said the six-day inquest would look at the soldiers' equipment, training and mine detection drills.

The back wheel of their Land Rover hit a 50kg to 100kg (110lb-220lb) pressure-plated IED, or roadside bomb, as they crossed a ditch.

Giving evidence, another witness - Soldier J - confirmed that in his original statement he had voiced concerns about the level of training they had received for IED searches - called Operation Barma drills.

The coroner asked: "You didn't feel you have received sufficient training to conduct these drills?"

Soldier J said: "That's correct, particularly as we knew the biggest threat in the country was from IEDs."

He said he had specifically requested time to practise the drill on dedicated mine lanes at Camp Bastion "but that request was refused".

Better armour

The deaths, in particular that of Cpl Bryant - a young, recently married member of the Intelligence Corps - attracted much media attention at the time.

The incident also attracted a lot of criticism, with one SAS major resigning his commission in protest.

Concerns about the Snatch Land Rover were raised as long ago as 2003.

The lightly armoured vehicle's vulnerability to roadside bombs and other explosives has led some soldiers to call it the "mobile coffin".

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has upgraded the Snatch with improvements to its armour and better electronic counter-measures to detect makeshift roadside bombs. But that work has yet to be completed.

In a statement, the MoD said its thoughts were with the families of Cpl Bryant, L/Cpl Reeve, L/Cpl Larkin and Pte Stout but it would not comment on ongoing inquest proceedings.

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