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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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Mark Drakeford says: ‘Thank you Wales for going red’

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LABOUR is staying in power in Wales after matching its best-ever Senedd election result. It won exactly half of the 60 seats in the Welsh Parliament with all results now declared

Labour has 30 seats, with the Conservatives on 16, Plaid Cymru on 13 and the Liberal Democrats one.
Mark Drakeford thanked Wales for “going red” and has vowed to be “radical” and “ambitious” in government, as Labour looks to solidify its leadership in Wales.

Labour’s Vaughan Gething, health minister in the Welsh government, told the media that the party didn’t “have to look at a formal coalition” because they had done so well.

“We do, however, have to talk to other groups within the Senedd,” he said.

Mr Gething said Labour had a “strong mandate to govern” with 30 of the Senedd’s 60 seats.

The Wales Green Party failed to win a seat in the Senedd elections but they say they recorded their highest-ever result in Wales. Leader Anthony Slaughter said the “results demonstrate the appetite for change” across Wales.

A very happy Mark Drakeford on Saturday, May 8 (Photo Welsh Labour/Twitter)

Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party, said: “We seem to be getting votes from all of the parties and support on that regional list as people increase their knowledge of the voting system.”

Adam Price, who held Carmarthen East and Dinefwr with a reduced majority, said he would not stand down as Plaid Cymru leader.

Despite no gains, Mr Price said the party had increased its share of the vote and its stance on independence had been a “net positive”.

“I’m not walking away from anything, because this is the moment when Wales needs leadership,” he said.

“This is a historic challenge, because of the way that the politics is moving in this island, but it’s also a historic opportunity for us.

On the campaign trail, Plaid leader Adam Price (Pic Plaid Cymru)

“We can move our nation forward and I’m looking forward to playing my part, it’s not something that anyone can do on their own.

“I have a role to play, we all have a role to play and that’s what’s exciting about politics at the moment. Wales is on the move Wales is on the march. I’m going to be part of that.”

Later, on social media, Adam Price said: ” I extend my congratulations to Mark Drakeford on securing a mandate to lead the next government. Although disappointed not to be returning more Members to the Senedd, I am proud that we ran a positive campaign based on a transformational programme.

“Our Senedd group will bring renewed energy and fresh ideas and I look forward to working with all my colleagues as we continue to build the case for independence. We will be a constructive but forensic opposition as we enter a crucial period of pandemic recovery.

“However, the sixth Senedd will be poorer without one of Wales’s most remarkable politicians. No one has given more to the party or to her community than Leanne Wood – an inspiring role model for so many.

“Leanne’s commitment to the Rhondda is unparalleled and I know she will continue to make an important contribution to the future of our nation and the pursuit of social justice which always has and always will drive her politics.

“Westminster’s attack on devolution is only just beginning and Wales needs a plan – that plan must focus on taking our own future into our own hands so we can build a nation that is fair and free.

TORYS CLAIM BEST RESULT EVER

The Welsh Conservatives say that they have secured the party’s best ever result in a Senedd election, winning 16 seats in the Welsh Parliament.

In a statement to the press the party said: “Today’s final election results have seen the Welsh Conservatives secure two regional list seats in both South Wales Central and South Wales East.

“Welsh Conservatives polled 289,802 votes (share up 5.0) across 40 constituencies – 26.1% of the vote – winning eight seats including gains in both the Vale of Clwyd and Brecon and Radnorshire.

“On the five regional lists, Welsh Conservatives secured 278,560 votes (share up 6.3), winning eight seats. The result will see the Senedd return its first ever female from a BAME background, with Welsh Conservatives’ Natasha Asghar making history with election in South Wales East.

Welsh Conservative Senedd leader, Andrew RT Davies with Joel Williams on election day (Pic RT Davies/Twitter)

Commenting, Welsh Conservative Senedd leader, Andrew RT Davies said: “Firstly, I’d like to say a huge thank you to our outstanding set of Welsh Conservative candidates, activists and staff who’ve worked incredibly hard throughout this campaign and secured the party’s best ever Senedd result.

“The team has gone above and beyond and deserve great credit for the positive campaign we’ve run right across Wales, and I am thrilled to see Natasha Asghar make history in South Wales East by becoming the first female from a BAME background to be elected to the Senedd.

Newly elected Conservative member of Senedd, Sam Kurtz, talking to BBC reporter Aled Scourfield (Pic J Coles/Herald)

“As a party we are also delighted to have secured constituency seats in the Vale of Clwyd and Brecon and Radnorshire, and increased seats on the regional lists, resulting in our highest ever representation in the Senedd with 16 members.

“It’s been an unconventional campaign and it’s clear incumbency and continuity has played a significant part. To that end, I would like to offer my sincere congratulations to Mark Drakeford and Welsh Labour on a successful campaign.

“The election has been fought in good spirit by political parties in Wales and I would like to pay a final word of thanks to the many officials across the country who’ve allowed this election to take place in a safe and effective manner.”

IMPACT OF PANDEMIC

Ian Price, director of CBI Wales, congratulated Labour. He said: “This is a critical time for the Welsh economy and the new parliament must have a laser-like focus on rebuilding from the devastating impact of the pandemic,” he said.
“That means all parties pulling together and working with business to protect jobs, rebuild livelihoods and create a fair and sustainable recovery that addresses the longstanding structural challenges our economy faces.”

Royal Town Planning Institute, largest professional body for town planners in the UK and Europe, commented on the election result saying: “The Welsh Labour Manifesto meets many of the issues raised by the RTPI, including tackling climate action, investing in public transport and active travel, and the delivery of quality affordable homes, including a focus on strengthening Welsh language communities.

“The manifesto commits to strengthening the autonomy and effectiveness of local government to make them more successful in delivering services. We have highlighted the need to invest in planning services to enable the delivery of Welsh Labour’s priorities.”

LABOUR “RESILIENT”

Speaking to the BBC, political commentator Prof Roger Awan-Scully said: “I think it’s been an astonishingly resilient performance by the Welsh Labour Party, amidst disasters for Labour elsewhere in the UK.

“The Conservatives are also performing strongly, but not quite bringing it home in terms of the number of constituency victories that they might have expected.

“For Plaid Cymru I think this has to be said to be a deeply disappointing election.”

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Conservatives hold on to Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire seat

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THE CONSERVATIVES have held on to their Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire seat despite Labour closing the gap.

Sam Kurtz will take over the seat from the outgoing Angela Burns who held a majority of 3,400 at the last election.

This time, the gap was just 936 to Labour’s Hassan Riaz who picked up 10,304 votes.

Plaid Cymru’s Cefin Campbell picked up 6,615 votes.

The turnout in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire was slightly up to 52.12% from 51.2% in 2016.

However, with a larger electorate thanks to votes for 16/17-year-olds, the number of votes cast went up by almost 3,000.

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Paul Davies re-elected as Conservatives hold Preseli Pembrokeshire

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PAUL DAVIES has been re-elected to represent the Preseli Pembrokeshire constituency.

He won with 12,295 votes, while there were 10,895 votes for Labour’s Jackie Jones.

Plaid Cymru candidate Cris Tomos gained just over 6,000 votes and there were also 1,239 for Reform UK candidate Alan Dennison.

There were over 3000 more votes cast in 2016, down largely in part to the fact that 16 and 17 year olds were able to vote in this election.

Both the Conservatives and Labour received more votes than before while the gap to Labour closed to just 1,400.

After being elected, Paul Davies said he would continue to ‘fight for Pembrokeshire’ and thanked those who had been involved in his campaign.

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