Significant steps have been taken to improve the army's Warrior vehicles in the wake of the deaths of six soldiers in Afghanistan, a coroner said today, as he ruled they were unlawfully killed.
Sergeant Nigel Coupe, 33, Corporal Jake Hartley, 20, and Privates Anthony Frampton, 20, Daniel Wade, 20, Christopher Kershaw, 19, and Daniel Wilford, 21, all died when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated under their Warrior in Helmand Province on March 6 2012.
The vehicle was patrolling with another Warrior when it was blown up about 25 miles north of the capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah, bringing the biggest single loss of life for British forces in Afghanistan since an RAF Nimrod crash killed 14 people in September 2006.
An inquest at Oxford Coroner's Court has heard that no other vehicle of its type was designed to withstand a blast of its type, but that since the tragedy, improvements have been made to Warriors.
Giving a narrative verdict, Oxfordshire coroner Darren Salter said: "This of course is a tragic loss of these six soldiers and these young lives.
"At least it is very clear from the evidence of the two pathologists and the evidence of those who witnessed the strike that they did not suffer.
"It also follows that there was nothing that their comrades could have done to rescue or save them."
Sgt Coupe, a member of 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, and his comrades, all members of the Yorkshire Regiment's 3rd Battalion, died of blast injuries caused by the explosion.
Mr Salter told the court: "I am not going to second-guess decisions of commanders in a courtroom today, that is not the purpose of an inquest.
"These are experienced commanders who took decisions on the ground, balancing the risks and exercising judgments."
Outlining the events that day, he said: "The six soldiers were therefore unlawfully killed whilst on active service."
The inquest heard that improvements have been made to Warriors since the incident including better armour, burst resistant fuel tanks, better ways of getting in and out in emergencies and improved fire detection and protection systems.
The court was told that eight new fuel tanks have been fitted so far to the vehicles that are being used in Afghanistan, with 21 more due to have the upgrade, and the coroner said that "significant steps" had been completed in making improvements to the vehicles and there was no need for a formal report under his powers because he was satisfied the areas of concern had been addressed.
Father-of-two Sgt Coupe, from Lytham St Annes, Lancashire; Pte Wade, from Warrington, Cheshire, who was about to become a father; Cpl Hartley, from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire; Pte Frampton and Pte Wilford, both from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire; and Pte Kershaw, from Bradford, had all been in Afghanistan for only a few weeks when they were killed.
They were on a patrol that had been due to leave earlier in the day on March 6 2012 but was delayed due to a sandstorm.
The court was told it was important to send out the patrol that day, rather than waiting until the next, because of "force protection" and showing a visible presence to insurgents.
When the order was given at 6pm to leave, Pte Kershaw "stepped up to the mark" and volunteered to take the place of another soldier on the patrol, who was just returning from the shower, the inquest heard.
The two Warriors left just after 6.30pm, and soon after, the first Warrior detonated the IED, which was triggered by a pressure plate.
Sgt Coupe, a member of 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, and his comrades, all members of the Yorkshire Regiment's 3rd Battalion, were either killed or knocked unconscious by the huge blast, the inquest heard.
The force of the explosion turned the Warrior on to its side and "flicked off" its turret, with a fire breaking out almost instantly, which then went on to set off ammunition inside.
Fellow soldiers struggled to extinguish the blaze and get into the stricken Warrior, but everyone inside was dead.
Today the inquest heard that improvements have been made to Warriors since the tragedy, but no vehicle of its type used by the British Army at the time was designed to take a blast like that.
Major Douglas Nelson, an expert on the Warrior, said insurgents could "always build a bigger bomb".
But he said improvements had been made since last March including thicker armour; a burst resistant fuel tank; improvements to ways of getting out in an emergency; and better firefighting and detection systems.
"This was a very large device and what I would say is no vehicle that we had was designed to take that," he told the inquest.
But he added: "I have absolute faith in that vehicle. Of any vehicle I would travel in Warrior, it's as good as we can make it."
Asked what vehicle they would choose to patrol in, several soldiers picked the Warrior, including Private Dean Dinsley, who said: "I felt safe as houses in it".
Warrant Officer First Class Kenneth Easthill, group senior ammunition technician with 29 EOD & Search Group, said there was nothing "extraordinary" about the bomb and it was difficult to say when it had been planted, which could have been any time from earlier that day during the sandstorm, to months before.
Speaking after today's verdict, families of the soldiers thanked their colleagues for their efforts to save them.
Pte Kershaw's mother, Monica Kershaw, said: "This process has been one which a mother never wishes to have to undertake.
"I feel like I have been involved in a nightmare, from which I can never awake, leaving me emotionally drained.
"From the information we have heard at the inquest, it was a pure quirk of fate that Chris should have been kitted up and got into a patrol for which he was not intended.
"I am still struggling with this - but how like him to be ready to do his duty for his fellow soldiers. How proud I am of his call to duty."
Pte Kershaw's father, Brian, who attended the inquest with the teenager's stepmother, Sharon, said: "Chris always knew what he wanted to do and followed his heart, he did what his grandfather did and became a soldier."
He added: "We hope there is a lesson to be learned from this inquest that will help and protect all soldiers in the future."
Asked about his son's decision to take the place of another soldier on the patrol, he said: "Chris knew what he was there to do and so would any of the other lads in the situation."
Cpl Hartley's mother, Natalie Taylor, spoke of her pride in her son but hit out at politicians, saying: "To lose your child is as painful as losing your own life.
"Our servicemen and women will continue to die as long as politicians who rule our lives value money more than the lives of our sons and daughters."
Pte Wade's fiancee, Emma Hickman, who has battled to have the identity of their daughter Lexie-Mai officially recognised, said the inquest had been a difficult process but was an important step in finding out what happened on March 6 last year.
"It is important to me that Lexie grows up knowing what happened to her father," she said.
"From the struggle to establish Lexie's identity and hearing all the evidence it has been an exhausting ordeal and still we have not come to terms with our loss."
Pte Wade's mother, Lisa Billing, paid tribute to her son as a "well-respected young man" and added: "The last 19 months have been terrible."
Pte Wilford's mother, Diane Sharples, said her son loved his Army life and was proud of his service.
She described the inquest as an "ordeal" but thanked the coroner for a thorough investigation into her son's death.
A statement on behalf of Pte Frampton's family, read by lawyer Michael Davison, said the inquest had been a difficult two days, but they were grateful it had come to an end.
"Obviously nothing can bring Anton back but we are grateful that we have answers," they said.
"We note the verdict the coroner has reached that Anton was killed while on active service. We feel we can take some comfort from the evidence showing that Anton did not suffer."
Lieutenant Colonel Andy Cox MBE, Chief of Staff Task Force Helmand at the time of the incident, said: "On behalf of the Army and 12 Mechanized Brigade, I would like to pay tribute to the six outstanding soldiers who tragically lost their lives in this incident.
"These men paid the ultimate sacrifice whilst serving their country and delivering a better future for the people of Afghanistan.
"Their loss is felt keenly across the regiment and the brigade, although this cannot compare to the pain felt by their families and friends.
"Our thoughts and prayers remain with them today and always."