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30 April 2010, 17:12
An "inspirational'' commanding officer killed on a routine patrol in hostile terrain in Afghanistan wanted more helicopters to support his troops, an inquest in Trowbridge heard.
Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the most senior British Army officer to be killed since the Falkland War, suffered fatal injuries when his Viking armoured vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device (IED). Trooper Joshua Hammond, 18, of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, from Plymouth, also died in the explosion on July 1 last year, near Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. An inquest into both their deaths resumed on Friday at Wiltshire Coroner's Court, sitting at Trowbridge Town Hall.
Lt Col Thorneloe, 39, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was out on the patrol to "inspire'' his men, the inquest heard. Major Andrew Speed, Lt Col Thorneloe's second-in-command at the time of the incident, told the inquest: "Like all good leaders, Col Rupert wanted to get on the ground. Any good leader wants to get a good feel for what his troops were
doing. He was a hands-on guy.''
He added: "He wanted to demonstrate that, despite being a commanding officer, he wanted to show his troops he was prepared to do what they were doing, and by showing them that they can be inspired.''
The coroner asked Maj Speed what he knew about a memo Lt Col Thorneloe, who lived in Aldershot, Hampshire, sent to the Ministry of Defence raising concerns about lack of helicopters in Afghanistan.
Maj Speed said: "I was aware he had sent an email, I was not aware of its contents.
"He had his own mind. He was bright and intelligent and wanted to share his views with someone else outside Afghanistan.''
Asked if he was aware Lt Col Thorneloe was concerned about the lack of helicopters and the safety of his troops, Maj Speed replied: "Yes.''
But Maj Speed added that he felt he had sufficient helicopter support to carry out his duties, and helicopters would not have been used on the fatal patrol.
Corporal Kevin Williams, of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, survived the blast in the lead Viking, and was the first to attend to Lt Col Thorneloe.
He told the inquest that on the day of the incident, Lt Col Thorneloe chose to take "top cover'' position in the rear of the Viking, despite the role being handed to another soldier.
The coroner asked: "Was it Lt Col Thorneloe's decision to take top cover?''
Cpl Williams replied: "Yes. There was originally top cover tasked, however he told the guy to get down and he would take his place.''
Lt Col Thorneloe remained on board the lead vehicle throughout the patrol - which was comprised of 10 Viking vehicles, tasked to escort four large "drops vehicles'' to a check point. Cpl Williams said the Viking had received an armour upgrade to its front section, but not to the rear cab - where the blast struck. The inquest heard the Vikings would later go on to receive an armour upgrade to its rear section. Cpl Williams said the convoy left Patrol Base Shawqat at 9am for a checkpoint along a known, well-travelled track dubbed "Route Cornwall''. The coroner asked Cpl Williams to recount the moments after the blast. He said he found Lt Col Thorneloe awake and applied a tourniquet to his leg, but he shortly lost consciousness and signs of life.
"Initially I wasn't sure who else had been injured, we knew someone was missing,'' he said.
"It took a couple of minutes to work out it was Joshua Hammond. I found Joshua under the vehicle. A hole had been exposed beneath the vehicle, directly where Joshua was sat.''
Sergeant Peter Simmons, of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, was in the lead vehicle and responsible for conducting drills to search for explosives - known as "Op Barma''. He told the inquest Lt Col Thorneloe took the top sentry position - and even took part in the drills - to "inspire'' the men and instil professionalism. Sgt Simmons said the drills were conducted "thoroughly'' over a 20 to 30 metre stretch.
He said: "Lt Col Thorneloe was trying to inspire his men, which he was doing. He was a bit more thorough than the Guardsmen.''
Sgt Simmons said he did not "normally'' have anyone in the top sentry position, unless the vehicles came under attack.
He said: "Lt Col Thorneloe was professional, he wanted to get up there himself with his rifle.''
Sgt Simmons said the force of the explosion left a metre-deep crater. It was previously reported that three weeks before his death, Lt Col Thorneloe complained bitterly in an email to his bosses that helicopter support for troops was "very clearly not fit for purpose''. It meant that troops had to be moved by road rather than by air, exposing them to the threat of IEDs - one of the Taliban's main weapons. In his email, Lt Col Thorneloe went on to detail how he had "virtually no'' helicopters of the type which would allow him to move troops by air rather than road.
The Welsh Guards officer's dispatch, headed "Battle Group Weekly Update'', read: "I have tried to avoid griping about helicopters - we all know we don't have enough.
"We cannot not move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road.
"This increases the IED threat and our exposure to it.''