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30 April 2010, 16:25 | Updated: 2 May 2010, 12:48
A coroner's ruled an Oxfordshire soldier, who became the most senior British Army officer to die in combat since the Falklands War, was unlawfully killed in Afghanistan.
Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe from Kirtlington became the most senior British Army officer to be killed since the Falklands War. He died in July 2009 when the Viking vehicle he was travelling in hit a makeshift bomb in near Lashkar Gah in
Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.
18-year-old Trooper Joshua Hammond, of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, was also killed in the explosion.
An inquest into both their deaths was heard on Friday 30 April 2010 at Wiltshire Coroner's Court, sitting at Trowbridge Town Hall.
Dr Nicholas Hunt, a Home Office forensic pathologist, recorded the cause of death as blast injuries caused by an explosion. An investigation showed the explosion was caused by a 20kg, pressure-plate bomb, the inquest heard. The coroner recorded a verdict of unlawful killing for both soldiers.
Opening the hearing, Wiltshire coroner David Ridley said:
"Both Lt Col Thorneloe and Trooper Hammond suffered fatal injuries as a result of an explosion, some 200 metres south of a crossing point in Helmand Province. While engaged in a routine patrol during an operation, that lead Viking vehicle struck a suspected improvised explosive device (IED), causing their deaths. Both Rupert and Joshua were evacuated but sadly it was clear nothing could be done for them.''
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 convoy left Patrol Base Shawqat at 9am for a check point, along a known, well-travelled route. The men had conducted a drill with metal detectors, known as "Op Barma'' shortly before the explosion, he said. 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.
Sergeant Peter Simmons, of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, was in the lead vehicle and responsible for commanding the Op Barma drills.
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.
"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.
"Lt Col Thorneloe was professional, he wanted to get up there himself with his rifle."
The coroner asked Maj Speed what he knew about a memo Lt Col Thorneloe, who was from Kirtlington, 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'', adding that he felt he had sufficient helicopter support to carry out his duties, and helicopters would not have been used on the fatal patrol.
Tributes flooded in from the highest levels for Lt Col Thorneloe and Trooper Hammond. The Prince of Wales, who is colonel-in-chief of Lt Col Thorneloe's regiment and knew the officer, said he was "mortified'' when he heard of the deaths.
"I was horrified to say the least about both deaths, Trooper Hammond as well.Having been to visit the Welsh Guards at Aldershot before they left to go to Afghanistan, having met the families and having met Col Rupert's wife, my heart is very much with them. It's completely heartbreaking. The whole battalion is suffering. To lose a commanding officer who was such an inspiring person is an awful tragedy."
Major John Thorneloe, father of Rupert, said:
"I think that you could say, I could say, that if my son was killed, as he was, then one good thing might have come from it - and that was that it made the nation, but more importantly the Government, realise that it was a war that we are involved in in Afghanistan and that you don't fight wars based on hope, you fight them based on the worst case and you have all the requisite equipment to manage it. I hope that... at least the Armed Forces were better equipped as a result of the funds made available accordingly."
Maj Thorneloe said the support his family had received following the tragedy had been "outstanding''.
"I would just like to record our great appreciation for all the support we have had from the Armed Forces but, in particular, his regiment, the Welsh Guards. The support we've had from them, from start to finish, to this day, has been outstanding and one could not have asked for any more."
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said:
"They were very professional soldiers, they were serving in Afghanistan in the most difficult terrain. Lt Col Thorneloe was someone I know, someone I worked with, someone I admired."
Sarah and Kevin Finnegan, Trooper Hammond's mother and step-father, said their son died "doing what he loved''.
In a statement on Thursday 29 April, they said:
"We were devastated by Josh's death and as a family his loss has left a gaping hole in our lives. But we are also very proud. Not only of what he achieved but of the way he chose to live his life.''