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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.

News

Further coronavirus restriction relaxations brought forward

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FURTHER changes to the coronavirus restrictions have been announced by the First Minister Mark Drakeford today.

The Welsh Government has confirmed further relaxations will be brought forward from 17 May to 3 May – including the resumption of indoor supervised activities for children, indoor organised activities for up to 15 adults, such as exercise classes, and the re-opening of community centres.

This means Wales will have completed the move to Alert Level 3 by Monday 3 May.

From Saturday 24 April, the rule of 6 will allow for up to six people from six households to meet outdoors, not including children under 11 years of age or carers from those households.

The Welsh Government has also confirmed the relaxations that will take place on Monday 26 April. Outdoor attractions, including outdoor swimming pools, funfairs and theme parks, will be allowed to reopen, while outdoor hospitality can also resume, including at cafes, pubs and restaurants.

Organised outdoor activities for up to 30 people will be able to take place and weddings receptions can begin again outdoors for up to 30 people.

Wales has the lowest coronavirus rates of the UK nations.  The successful vaccine programme continues with a higher proportion of people vaccinated in Wales than other nations of the UK for both first and second doses.

Changes from Monday 3 May:

  • Gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities being able to reopen;
  • People will also again be able to form extended households with one other household.

Relaxations planned for 17 May will be brought forward to the 3 May, including:

  • The resumption of indoor supervised activities for children;
  • Indoor organised activities for up to 15 adults (such as exercise classes and swimming lessons);
  • And the re-opening of community centres.

The First Minister said:

“The sacrifices we have made continue to show results. By us all working together and sticking to the rules, combined with our vaccination programme, mean we continue to make progress. Rates of the virus continue to fall and the public health situation is improving. 

“Due to these efforts we are able confirm more easing of the restrictions from 26 April and for early May we are again able to bring forward some of our plans. However, this progress is dependent on all of us continuing to work together to keep Wales safe.

“At the last three-week review, I set out a forward-look of how the restrictions could continue to be lifted in the weeks ahead, if the public health situation remains stable.

“It will be for the incoming Welsh Government to confirm these arrangements at the next three-week review, which will be held on May 13 – a week after the election. It is my assessment that the hospitality sector – bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes – will be able to open indoors from May 17, together with all other tourist accommodation, indoor entertainment and attractions.”

Further possible easements are subject to the public health situation remaining favourable.

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News

Tragedy above Milford Haven takeaway

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DYFED POWYS POLICE has confirmed that a 20-year-old male passed away in Milford Haven last Saturday, April 17.

Police were called to the USA Fried Chicken store on Charles Street at around 1:30pm but have said there are no suspicious circumstances.

A Herald reporter was at the scene and witnessed a number of police cars and an ambulance while plain-clothed officers were also seen.

HM Coroner has been informed.

A Welsh Ambulance Service spokesperson added: “We were called to Charles Street in Milford Haven on Saturday 17 April at approximately 1.34pm to reports of a medical emergency. We attended the scene with one emergency ambulance where we assisted colleagues from the police.”

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Health

Tavernspite School the ‘healthiest of schools despite the pandemic’

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THE STAFF, governors, parents, and of course, the children of Tavernspite Community Primary School are delighted to gain the Welsh Network of Healthy School Schemes National Quality Award for an incredible 5th time after a recent and very rigorous assessment.

The school is already well known and highly regarded for its outstanding work in developing the health and wellbeing of all members of its school community. To achieve this prestigious recognition in the midst of a pandemic is all the more impressive. 

Health and Wellbeing at the school is led by teacher, Lauren Arthur, who has done an incredible job preparing for this re-assessment and raising the profile of the Healthy Schools scheme.

The assessor Mrs Lynne Perry, enjoyed a virtual tour and presentation by Year 3 pupils who took great pleasure in proudly showing Mrs Perry all the wonderful work the school has done to ensure its children are safe, happy with high levels of emotional and physical wellbeing.

In her report, Mrs Perry wrote, ‘Tavernspite School continues to be an outstanding health promoting school. The health promoting school ethos is evident across the whole school population and it runs seamlessly throughout everything that the school does. Tavernspite School continues to give high priority to promoting and enhancing the health and well-being of the whole school community.’

The school received fantastic support from Mrs Liz Western, Senior Public Health Officer and Lead for Healthy Schools and Pre-schools, Pembrokeshire, to whom they are very grateful.

Head teacher Kevin Phelps said, ‘We were delighted to receive this award for the fifth time, particularly considering the experiences we have all been through these past twelve months. Health and wellbeing has never been so important and we are proud to be leading the way like this.’

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