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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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Amroth: RNLI rescue three people swept out to sea

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THE RNLI rescued three people after they were washed off rocks by huge waves at Telpyn Point near Amroth.

At 5pm on Sunday (Dec 9) as the lifeboat crew’s children’s Christmas Party was ending, both of Tenby’s RNLI lifeboats were requested to launch after a report that three women were cut off by the incoming tide somewhere between Marros and Amroth.

The casualties had been forced to cut their call to the Coastguard short as their mobile phone battery was about to run out, so the Coastguard didn’t have an exact position for them.

The lifeboats were quickly on the water and the volunteer crew made best speed to towards Amroth to begin their search in pitch black conditions and with a large swell running into the rocks.

Despite the low battery, once the casualties spotted the lifeboat in the distance, they turned on their phone’s screen and began waving the phone towards the lifeboat. The volunteer crew on the inshore lifeboat immediately spotted the light and headed for it, closely followed by the all-weather lifeboat.

Once on scene, it was apparent to the lifeboat crew that this would be a difficult rescue due to the heavy swell crashing on the rocks, just feet from where the casualties were precariously perched, so Tenby and St Govans Coastguard Rescue teams were paged in case a rope rescue was required.

With the numerous underwater rocks making it impossible for the all-weather lifeboat to get anywhere near, the bigger vessel illuminated the rocks with floodlights, whilst the inshore lifeboat prepared their anchor to veer down into the rocks through the swell in an attempt to reach the casualties.

As the crew made attempts to get close enough to shore in very tricky conditions, a large wave hit the rocks, washing one of the casualties into the sea. As the casualty struggled in the heavy swell, the helmsman managed to get the lifeboat alongside her and the crew pulled her to safety.

She was rushed to the all-weather lifeboat where the crew were waiting to assess and treat her. On their return to check on the remaining two casualties, the inshore lifeboat crew could only watch as another wave hit the rocks and washed them into the surf. Again, the helmsman managed to get inside the surf line and the crew plucked them to safety, before dropping them aboard the all-weather lifeboat.

With everyone accounted for, the boats returned to the station, where the casualties were further assessed and were delighted to be able to take warm showers. Despite the ferocity of the surf that washed them off the rocks, the women were lucky to escape with only a few minor grazes.

Once they were warmed up enough and had had a warm drink, they thanked the crew and then made their way home.

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Interviews to take place this week for £91k council job

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INTERVIEWS are to be held this week for a controversial senior role within Pembrokeshire County Council, with an advertised salary of up to £91,000.

On Wednesday (Dec 12), interviews will be held for the Head of Economic Development and Regeneration post, which has a salary bracket of £53,982 – £91,443.

In addition, the job was advertised with £5,259 subsidy for a leased car and a ‘generous pension scheme’.

Relocation assistance was also being offered for applicants outside of Pembrokeshire.

In July, at a meeting of Full Council, the new job post was approved, with most agreeing that the post should be advertised in order to ensure improvements and large investments are made around the county. The former head of regeneration recently retired.
Despite initial concern at the meeting, the only councillor strongly against the new role was Cllr Reg Owens, saying: “I really can’t see any justification in filling this post, I’ll say that from the start.

“Over the past year quite rightly we have been lectured… about the need to be far more prudent in our expenditure. When we approved the budget last year, and we approved the 12.5% [council tax] I did say at the time we are asking the people of Pembrokeshire to contribute towards Pembrokeshire County Council and we have also got to be seen to be doing our bit as well.

“When I look at the job description…we have certainly got those skills with our current chief officers and heads of services and of course the cabinet members, so I don’t think we will be cast adrift by not making this appointment, in fact, if we don’t make this appointment, we will be showing everybody that we do mean business trying to save some money.”

Despite this, Cllr Owens was ultimately persuaded by justifications of others.

Cllr Michael Williams of Plaid Cymru argued: “If you want justification just go and walk through our towns. I mean the whole economic base that used to be in these towns is now almost dead.

“To do nothing is not an option. We have got to show some ambition for the benefit of this county, otherwise the whole place is going to fail.

“I think this is an opportunity, I think we’ve failed in the past because we haven’t resourced in any way adequately enough this unit. And we have got to get that right.”

The proposition by Cllr Williams, seconded by Cllr Miller, detailed how the Senior Staff Committee recommend to the Council that the role of Head of Economic Development and Regeneration be advertised.

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Milford Haven: Defibrillator donated to town

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ON SUNDAY (De 9) a defibrillator was presented to the town of Milford Haven by The 3 Amigos & Dollies motorcycle group.

After the death earlier in the year of fellow 3 Amigo Little Bri (Brian Craig), money was raised at his funeral by the Amigos to make the donation possible.

The defibrillator is now dedicated to Little Bri, with a brass plaque hung on the wall in his honour. Brian’s widow, Kath, his friends, and the Amigos all attended the presentation.

The defibrillator can be found on the wall by Tom Neewing & Son funeral directors.

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