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Tank drill procedures changed following Castlemarin deaths

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Died in the incidet: Cpl Neilson (left) and Cpl Hatfield

AN INQUEST has heard how a fatal explosion in a British Army tank was the result of the absence of a seal used to stop highly unstable gases escaping into a tank crew’s turret.

The incident at Castlemartin Range, Pembrokeshire on June 14 2017 resulted in the deaths of Royal Tank Regiment corporals Matthew Hatfield, 27, and Darren Neilson, 31. Two others were injured in the blast involving a Challenger 2 tank.

The inquest heard the two corporals were only in the tank because they were taking another soldier for a ‘guest shoot’.

Monday (Jul 2) saw the inquest resume, with Louise Hunt, the Senior Coroner for Birmingham and Solihull, saying a crew of four, including the two deceased, took the tank to the British Army range’s firing point without written permission.

Another team had used the tank earlier that morning, but the bolt vent axial (BVA), which is normally fitted to the rear of the tank barrel, had been removed for cleaning. The BVA would have stopped 3,000C high-explosive gases from shell charges escaping into the tank crew’s turret.

Police investigators said the removal of the BVA was standard practice, as it required post-firing inspection, and it was placed in a box within the tank turret called the ‘brew bin’.

Evidence was also heard the tank shell’s ammunition, known as ‘bag charges’, may have been ‘incorrectly stowed’ outside boxes within the turret.

Detective Sergeant Matthew Briggs, of Dyfed Powys Police, told the hearing in Solihull: “As there was no BVA, there would be no gas-tight seal and the force of the bag charge would have come back into the turret.”

Ms Hunt went on to read a statement setting out what then happened: “At around 15:30, a hissing sound was heard and noises and smoke.

“Corporal Neilson was seen to be climbing out of the commander’s turret and there was an explosion. He was projected out the turret, landing some distance away.”

The Coroner heard that the tank had only been taken out because the deputy safety training officer, Warrant Officer Stuart Lawson, had asked permission to go out and fire a tank.

Major John Poole, who was in command of Castlemartin Range, told the inquest that according to Ministry of Defence rules in pamphlet 21, it needed ‘two-star written authorisation’, effectively from a brigadier rank officer, to allow a non-trained soldier into a tank.

Major Poole told Ms Hunt permission had come from the Royal Tank Regiment’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Ridgway.

Warrant Officer Lawson and another soldier, Trooper Michael Warren, were injured in the tank, but survived the blast.

Major Poole said: “Whether they were trying to show off to Mr Lawson, or trying to get through it [firing] as quickly as possible, I don’t know.”

When asked if he was aware of the practice by other crews, Poole responded: “Well, we’re here because somebody else hasn’t stored charges correctly.”

Family and colleagues of the deceased were also heard at the inquest. Cpl Hatfield, from Amesbury, Wiltshire, had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, being described as ‘truly dedicated to the British Army’, whose greatest achievement in life was said to have been becoming a father.

His fiancée Jill McBride said: “To say that his loss has had a massive impact on us is an understatement.”

Cpl Neilson, of Preston, Lancashire was described as ‘Army through and through’.

His wife Jemma said: “He adored the Army…he served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was my world, my soul mate and hero. He was an amazing husband and daddy.”

Both men served with the Royal Tank Regiment in Tidworth, Wiltshire.

The inquest were told on Tuesday (Jul 3) that such an explosion had never happened before in the history of the tank model’s 20 year service, even during combat operations in Iraq.

Army training officer and tank specialist Sergeant Alexander Ahtom told the hearing that he was ‘not aware of any former incident like this before’ yet agreed with Ms Hunt that a ‘misunderstanding’ was possible when a new crew took over a tank.

Sgt Ahtom conceded that there was no regulation in place to recheck the tank barrels after use, but also said that ‘absolutely no-one’ had raised any concerns.

Despite this, the inquest heard training procedures had changed in the six weeks prior, including checks for the barrel and BVA as part of more frequent gun-proving drills.

Sgt Ahtom went on to tell Ms Hunt that he was ‘concerned’ that drills were not being conducted as expected.

Simon Antrobus QC, representing tank-maker BAE, described: “A whole series of rigorous development trials to look at reliability, firing and manoeuvres. During which thousands of rounds were fired and it saw direct action in Iraq against Iraqi tanks.”

Sgt Ahtom also said that he ‘completely’ disagreed with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) joint service inquiry panel’s conclusion into the explosion. The panel proposed that it could be possible if checking another key part that the presence of the BVA could be missed.

With the tank’s earlier crew, Lance Corporal Thomas Gough had acted as loader, and explained that he had cleaned the BVA, and then stored it in the ‘brew bin’. Yet he had earlier conceded that it was ‘common practice’ to take the BVA for engineering inspection at the tower.

When asked by Ms Hunt why he had not taken it to the tower, Gough said he ‘thought they’d be busy’.

Ms Hunt then went on to ask: “How would anyone know it was in the brew bin?”

Gough, who had been with the regiment six years, then replied: “Well, they wouldn’t, unless I told them.”

Normally, he would tell the crew commander Sergeant Paul Mitton that the tank was completely ‘stripped down’ but he had been busy that day with many tasks and ‘forgot’.

Barrister Mike Rawlinson QC, for Mr Lawson, asked Sgt Mitton: “There’s no system here of knowing where any BVA is, at any particular time, is there?”

Mitton, with the Royal Tank Regiment for 18 years, replied: “That’s correct.”

Mr Rawlinson then asked: “There’s no system for making sure the incoming crew know what’s happened to the BVA, is there?”

Sgt Mitton said: “No there’s no system.”

Mr Rawlinson then went on to ask: “This is chaos, isn’t it?”

Mitton replied: “On ranges, there can be quite a lot of pressure and I think sometimes the pace of life on the range is quite fast.”

Army tank drills have now been changed to check the BVA is present, the inquest was told.

The inquest, which is set to last three weeks, continues.

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Newgale: New £30m road proposed to combat coastal damage

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL has revealed a preferred new route for a road around Newgale today (Sept 25) at an event in Roch.

The new stretch of road would begin at Pencym and end at a new roundabout near Roch.

A new route is needed due to fears about road closures during high tides and winds, as well as coastal damage caused by global warming.

Reports have suggested that the current Newgale road may not exist in 20 years times.

The new route could cost up to £30m – compared to £40m a proposed viaduct would cost – and would need funding from the Welsh Government.

A Welsh Government spokesman said: “Transport officials will continue to work closely with the authority as they progress with their studies and firm up their proposals for addressing the current problems with the A487.

“Welsh Government is open to consider an application for funding to move forward the development work.”

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MP calls on Welsh Government to explain broadband delays

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STEPHEN CRABB has called on the Welsh Government to come clean over broadband rollout delays.

Minister Julie James AM, whose responsibilities include digital infrastructure and inclusion, has been urged to explain the reasons for delays to the rollout of superfast broadband to rural properties across Wales.

Last year, the Superfast Cymru scheme saw BT receive £425m in return for connecting the vast majority of premises in Wales to next-generation broadband.

When the contract ended, 90,000 mainly rural properties still had not been connected. Further details of another scheme to complete the work were due to be announced in July, but at the start of August, Julie James AM suddenly announced that ‘unforeseen issues’ were causing delays which could not be further discussed because of ‘commercial confidentiality’.

Stephen Crabb, MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, said: “It’s simply unacceptable for the Minister responsible to announce delays to the next stage of Broadband rollout but refuse to explain why. Access to reliable, fast broadband is of increasing importance to businesses, large and small, in Pembrokeshire and I have worked with many across the constituency to improve their broadband access.

“However, the digital divide continues to exist with rural communities in Pembrokeshire suffering again. It is an inescapable fact that delivery of broadband infrastructure is devolved to the Welsh Government and Julie James AM should now come forward and explain the reasons for these delays.”

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Air ambulance lands at ‘serious’ crash scene

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THE WALES AIR AMBULANCE has landed at the scene of a serious crash this morning (Sept 25) between the Sentry Cross and Honeyborough roundabouts on the A477.

Posts on Facebook from witnesses at the scene say a man is being treated by paramedics.

Police have said one car was involved in the incident.

In addition to the helicopter, Dyfed-Powys Police, the Welsh Ambulance Service and Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service are at the scene.

The road is currently closed with diversions in place.

A police spokesperson said:  “Dyfed-Powys Police is at the scene of a serious RTC between the Sentry Cross and Honeyborough roundabouts, Pembrokeshire.

“The A477 stretch between those roundabouts is currently closed while emergency services deal with the incident. One car is involved; the driver has received serious injuries.

“No further information is available at this time.”

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