House of Parliament
? 1990s ? 1991 ? December 1991 ? 6 December 1991 ? Commons Sitting
Fusilier Lee Thompson
HC Deb 06 December 1991 vol 200 cc583-90
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now
adjourn.[Mr. David Davis.]
Mr. John Hughes (Coventry, North-East)
Just over nine months ago on 26 February,
nine young soldiers of 3 battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
were killed in action in southern Iraq just 48 hours before
the ceasefire. One of those killed was 19-year-old Lee Thompson,
one of my constituents. Eleven other service men were injured
in the incident. What makes the tragic slaughter of those young
men different is that they were killed, or rather murdered,
by so-called friendly fire.
I fully support the views of Lee
Thompson's parents. This incident was a monumental military
disaster. As the circumstances in which it happened have not
yet been fully clarified, there can be no confidence that the
lessons have been learnt or that the deaths were not in vain.
The people who killed those men have not been brought to book;
they are still in the American air force and they could therefore
do the same again. In the circumstances, the Government have
behaved in a deplorably cavalier and grossly insensitive way
towards the families of the men who were killed. Events show
that the Secretary of State is prepared to take the glory for
victory, but not prepared to dirty his hands when others pay
the price for his decisions and, in this case, for the gung-ho
actions of his allies.
The incident occurred when C company
of the Fusiliers was in southern Iraq. Some 37 Warrior and supporting
vehicles were reorganising in the area after a sand storm. According
to the Official Report, at 1500 hours local time, visibility
was clear and skies were good. Suddenly, two Warrior armoured
vehicles were destroyed. Soldiers on the ground assumed that
their vehicles had hit mines, but they had actually been hit
by Maverick missiles from two American A10 tankbusters. The
Al0s had previously been deployed by headquarters 1st British
Armoured Division to attack the Iraqi positions some 20 kmsbetween
10 and 15 mileseast of C company. They were under the
immediate control of the British assistant divisional air liaison
The air controller insists that he
gave the pilots the grid references of the intended Iraqi positions.
The American pilots insist that they did not receive them, and
they certainly did not acknowledge them. Instead, they relied
on the parting words of an American pilot who gave them a physical
description of the terrain in which the Iraqi targets were situated.
They tried to find those targets, but instead found what they
identified as a column of 50 Iraqi T54/55 tanks.
It is claimed that the lead aircraft
made two passes at 15,000 ft and 8,000 ft to check the target.
Although the pilots used high-powered binoculars, they failed
to identify any friendly orange fluorescent markers, and the
two aircraft each fired a missile from 9,000 ft.
The American pilots reported their
action to the air controller, who realised that the US pilots
had hit a British position and called in reconnaissance aircraft.
Unlike the American pilots of the Al0s, the reconnaissance crew
identified the type of vehicles from 14,000 ft and saw their
fluorescent markings at 6,000 ft. Astonishingly, the board of
inquiry failed to establish whether the A10 pilots should have
been able to see the identifying marks from their operating
height of above 6,000 ft. That inquiry proved to
be a charade, and its report a whitewash. Its anodyne conclusion
was that while it was clear that the American A10s delivered
the missiles, it could not be established precisely why they
attacked the wrong target. The board recommended the clearest
standard operating procedures and sophisticated identification
systems to prevent such tragedies in future. More specifically,
it recommended that concise grid instructions be given to and
acknowledged by pilots.
Nearly a year after the tragedy,
all too many questions remain unanswered. I trust that the Minister
will answer them today, or will have them published in the official
record. I vow not to drop this case until satisfactory answers
are forthcoming. As to the board of inquiry, do the Government
accept its report and the specific recommendations that I quoted?
Have the Government established a research programme to investigate
improved identification systems? If so, how much money has been
allocated to that project?
Why did the American pilots rely
on the parting words of the pilot of another plane? Why did
the pilots either not receive or not acknowledge the air controller's
coordinates according to the procedures laid down? Is there
any truth in the report in The Independent on 23 November that
either the controller did not use, or the American pilots did
not know, the secret code word that was supposed to be employed
when verifying messages so as to prevent the Iraqis from transmitting
false data? Is the apparent failure to use that code word a
clue to the chain of events leading to the deaths of nine young
soldiers? Has the Minister thoroughly investigated those points?
What kind of binoculars did the American
pilots use, and how long have they been in service? Did the
Minister read in the 23 November article in The Independent
evidence from British troops on the ground that the American
aircraft were not at 9,000 ft but as low as 150 ft above the
ground? Fusilier Howard Finnan is quoted as saying that several
of his fellow soldiers saw the American aircraft approach at
a very low level. Fusilier Lee Thompson's mother contacted me
this morning to express her great concern at the fact that Fusilier
Finnan has been reprimanded for passing that information to
the media. Is the Minister interested in the truth? Surely the
Minister and the Government are determined to get to the truth,
and should encourage Fusilier Finnan to provide informationespecially
as his observations were substantiated by the expert testimony
of aircraft specialists in the same report in The Independent.
If the A10s had previously attacked
an Iraqi vehicle from 1,000 ft, less than one mile away, they
would have found it difficult to climb to the much higher altitude
from which it is said that the attack on the British vehicles
was made. What is the truth of those claims? Does the Minister
deny them? Does he still stick to what is rapidly being seen
as a fictional account of this incident?
Fifthly, were the British vehicles
equipped with black boxes emitting signals recognisable to friendly
aircraft? If not, why not? When I asked the Prime Minister that
question he used the security angle as an excuse to dodge it.
The Minister no longer has any refuge in that excuse. Sixthly,
how is it credible that the pilots did not see the orange identification
marks, from whatever height they were at? Seventhly, were either
of the pilots given a drug test after their mission? Eighthly,
have the two American pilots been disciplined?
I give notice to the Minister that a refusal to answer on security
grounds will be unacceptable to the parents and myself, especially
since the Gulf war is over. This House has a legitimate interestindeed
a dutyto get to the bottom of this incident, not only
for the sake of the grieving families but so that such incidents
are never repeated, or at the very least, so that the most strenuous
efforts are made to minimise that possibility. If Governments
are to learn from this incident, the truth of the matter must
Contrary to what reports would lead
us to believe, the truth is that allied aircraft were in full
control of the skies in the combat area and were at little risk
from enemy fire the opposite of what the report of the
Army board of inquiry tries to convey. In those circumstances,
pilots were not required to make split-second decisionsthey
had ample time to check with the air controller for co-ordinates
of their targets. The American A10 pilots had ample time to
identify enemy positions and vehicles precisely. More importantly,
they had ample time to identify and locate allied positions
and allied vehicles. That should have been the disciplined scenario.
However, on 26 February 1991 two irresponsible and gun-happy
pilots were on the loose, ignoring all the rules and roaming
the skies in the vicinity of C company. They were intent on
a kill to notch up when they returned to base. Nine men paid
the ultimate price for that act, one which the Government are
still trying to cover up.
The Minister must explain or seek
explanations for discrepancies in the reports of what happened
on that day in February. The most important discrepancy concerns
the reason why the pilots destroyed only two of what they saw
as the enemy target. If, as the pilots claim, they attacked
a column of 50 Iraqi tanks, should they not have continued to
attack and destroy as many as possible? Is it not somewhat illogical,
in military terms, that they fired only two missiles and then
reported to the air controller?
Mr. Terry Satchell, the father of
one of those killed, commented on the report of the Army inquiry
in terms that I fully endorse. He said: "The pilotsthe
American pilots, that ishad enough stuff under their wings
to wipe out half the British army. The fact that they just fired
a couple of missiles shows that they recognised their mistakea
mistake they could have avoided in the first place." He
went on to say: "The inquiry is basically an appeasement
for the Americans" and he called for an independent inquiry.
Another relative, Mrs. Ann Leech,
was quoted in The Daily Telegraph in July, after the release
of the Army's report, as saying: "You cannot tell me that
an American pilot cannot tell 37 marked British troop carriers.
If hethe pilotthought that they were Iraqi, why
stop at bombing just two?" What does the Minister say to
Mr. Satchell and Mrs. Leech and the other parents?
There seems, however, to be a conflict
of evidence between the board's report and the letter from the
American Assistant Secretary of Defence, Carl W. Ford, to the
British ambassador in America. In that letter of 4 November
1991 Mr. Ford states that after the attack the American pilots
departed and passed a report to the air controller. He makes
it appear to be a routine reflex action, yet if there were perceived
to be 50 Iraqi tanks, why did the
A10s take out only two of them? If it was due to being short
of weaponry, why did they not request support? Why let the sitting
duck that they had shot up get away? If they were confident
of their targets, they would surely have continued to attack
the so-called Iraqi column of tanks. That would have been the
action of a competent pilot. Can the Minister explain the discrepancy?
Is not the truth of the matter that
the young men paid the ultimate price for a war which encouraged
the indiscriminate and widespread blasting of Iraqi forces,
which in turn encouraged a gung-ho attack-first-ask-questions-afterwards
attitude in which aircraft took part in a high-tech turkey shoot?
The article in The Independent of
the conversation of Lieutenant Colonel Hayes and his co-pilot
is an example of a pilot's undisciplined approach to the serious
business of war. With the knowledge of a huge discrepancy of
56 between pilot's and co-pilot's co-ordinate readings, missiles
were fired killing American soldiers. It is true to say that
a blasé attitude prevailed during combat, in the aftermath
and at the highest level, judging from the insulting behaviour
of the British and American Governments since the tragedy in
The parents of Lee Thompson said
in their letter to the American president: "We know accidents
happen in wartime, but with all the high-tech equipment you
proudly brag about, why is it left to an incompetent pilot to
use it?" The parents do not want to know the name of the
pilot who gunned their son down, but they want an acknowledgment
of their suffering. They have not had that from the American
Government. President Bush has not deigned to send them a personal
letter of condolence nor, shamefully, have they had similar
acknowledgment from the British Government.
The incident occurred on 26 February.
The war ended on 28 February. I am astounded that a formal board
of inquiry was not convened until 15 May. Surely the Minister
will agree that leaving such investigations so long merely ensures
that the trail becomes decidedly cold, that clues to the behaviour
of those involved are erased, and that memories become fogged.
His inaction begs the question: why were investigations not
begun much earlier? In answer, I contend that the Government
delayed their statement on the inquiry into this serious incident
until 24 July to prevent its being discussed in the House before
the summer recess. For political convenience, they deliberately
tried to draw the sting from this awkward incident so as to
avoid embarrassment and having some of the false glory of the
Gulf war being taken from them. That is an entirely cynical
and unworthy strategy and it shows a blatant disregard for young
The actions of Ministers and the
Prime Minister, who ultimately is in charge of any war, are
the true acknowledgment of the value that they place on the
lives of young soldiers. The families of these young men whose
lives were carelessly tossed away have been grievously insulted
by the callous, heartless and insensitive way in which they
have been dealt with by Ministers. Since this grave matter was
reported to the House, Ministers have refused to meet and discuss
the problem with a delegation of Members of Parliament whose
constituents were killed. Further, the Secretary of State and
the Prime Minister have failed to reply to my letters. They
did not check inaccurate and insensitive letters that were sent
on their behalf to grieving relatives. Their shocking insensitivity
shown by the fact that they allowed illegible rubbish. in the
guise of an American report of the incident, to be sent to the
relatives of the young men. I contend that for reasons known
only to them the Government have deliberately colluded with
their American counterparts to cover up military negligence
of the gravest magnitude.
The Ministry delivered the report
of the inquiry with a letter to the relatives on 23 July. The
Minister disdained to sign it personally, leaving that to his
private secretary. To rub salt into the wound, the Ministry
could not even get the date of the young men's deaths correct.
The letter said that they died months earlier than was the case.
A later apology from the private secretary was sent, but by
that time the damage had been done.
When Parliament returns after the
Christmas break, a year of wasted time will have elapsed since
the Gulf war and the deaths of those young soldiers. It is imperative
that this should be the first matter to be dealt with by the
House in 1992. I am sure that the Queen's Speech will refer
to the tragedy, but to many people those young men will be just
a fleeting memory of the war which television brought nightly
into our living rooms.
Christmas will be a trying period
for the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends of the
soldiers who died in the Gulf war. Their loss will be felt even
more acutely during the festivities which will reawaken the
anguish of those who have become reconciled and adjusted to
the loss of a son or a husband killed by enemy action. For other
mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends, the grief which
consumes them unabated has been compounded by the gross insensitivity
of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, the right
hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who on 21 January 1991
said that his overriding aim was to provide the most helpful
support on a long-term basis for any people who were wounded
in the war and for the families of those who were killed. He
went on to say how happy he was to announce that fact.
Subsequent events have shown that
that was meaningless rhetoric as the Minister did not uphold
his promises. He has not even bothered to meet the families
of those who were killed in the friendly fire accident. Does
he not realise the offence that that, and his refusal even to
sign the letter to the families, have caused? The Government
must be severely reprimanded for that, but it is not enough.
Governments come and go and it will not be long before the present
Government are replaced. Regrettably, however, young soldiers
like Lee Thompson are regularly sent into action. We must uncover
the full circumstances of his death, but all that we have had
so far is a culpable cover-up.
Without a full inquiry, we cannot
fully understand and put into operation the necessary reforms
of procedure and research into and improvements of equipment.
That is why the Minister and the Government must answer all
my questions. The Minister should also agree that the matter
be referred to the Select Committee on Defence so that the Select
Committee can institute a full, thorough and open inquiry with
the right to call witnesses. That is why the Government should
also support the efforts of the human rights lawyer Geoffrey
Robertson QC to discover the truth. Will the Minister allow
the Robertson inquiry to cross-examine Government witnesses?
If not, what has he to hide? How would the right hon. Member
for Bridgwater and his wife feel and act if they were told that
their son had been killed in similar circumstances?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the
hon. Gentleman during his Adjournment debate, but I remind him
that it is customary to allow the Minister a reasonable time
to reply, and there is now very little time left.
Would not their first response be
to ask where, when and why, and would they not feel an overwhelming
need to know why their son's life had been so senselessly sacrificed?
Someone who holds the position of Minister should be fully aware
that in the reconciliation of grief the need to know is absolutely
paramount. He should also be aware that the relatives of the
young men killed cannot come to terms with the ultimate finality
of the loss without full knowledge of the circumstances of the
tragedy. The absence of such certainty and plain, unvarnished
truth, and the Government's insensitivity and lack of support,
only prolong the heartache and grief. Wilfully to collude with
a cover-up and to withhold information from my constituents
Mr. and Mrs. Thompson constitutes an act of mental cruelty.
I shall heed your advice, Mr. Deputy
Speaker, and conclude shortly. I expect the Government and the
Minister of State for the Armed Forces, out of common decency
and human compassion, to respond speedily and honestly, fully
and frankly to the need for the truth. I have two important
messages. The first is to the Prime Minister, who has produced
a proliferation of charters of rights: may we have a charter
of rights for service men and their families? The second is
to the Secretary of State for Defence: he should reveal the
truth or do the honourable thing and resign.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)
I am grateful to the hon. Member
for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Hughes) for bringing this case
to the attention of the House. However, I am sad that I do not
have rather longer to answer the long list of queries that he
raised with me.
I wish, first, to extend my sincere
condolences to Mr. and Mrs. Thompson and the families of the
other soldiers killed in the incident, and indeed to the families
of all the other British personnel who lost their lives in the
Gulf. All of those deaths are tragic, but the fact that Lee
Thompson and eight of his colleagues were killed by allies is,
I know, particularly keenly felt.
Early in his remarks the hon. Gentleman
said that those men had been "murdered". I hope that
he will withdraw that mark, because murder is an intentional
killing. There is no question of those men being intentionally
killed: it was a tragic accident. I hope that the hon. Gentleman
will realise that to use the word "murder" is wrong
in this case.
On 24 July, in response to a written
question from my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr.
Oppenheim), I gave a comprehensive account of the findings of
the board of inquiry. I should just like to recount briefly
the circumstances of the incident.
The tragedy occurred at the height
of the land offensive to liberate Kuwait, on the afternoon of
26 February. Having successfully fought their way through a
number of enemy positions in southern Iraq, the 3 battalion
of the Royal Regiment of FusiliersRRFwas reorganising
before continuing the push towards Kuwait. Although the
battalion itself was not actually fighting the enemy at the
time, the battle was still very much engaged, and the Iraqis
remained a threat to British forces.
The 1st British Armoured Division
was being supported by United States Air Force aircraft. Earlier
in the day, the division's headquarters had tasked two successive
flights to attack Iraqi armour. Subsequently, a further flight
of two United States Air Force A10s reported for tasking to
the British assistant divisional air liaison officer. In my
subsequent remarks I shall refer to him as "DALO".
His intention was that the aircraft should attack the same target
as the two previous flights, in a location over 20 km to the
east of 3 RRF's position at 15.00 hours.
The A10 pilots identified what they
thought was the target area from a physical description given
to them by a departing United States Air Force F16 of the previous
flight, and shortly afterwards saw what they thought was a column
of Iraqi tanks and support vehicles heading north. The pilots
had been briefed that there were no friendly forces within 10
km of their target, and those vehicles were closer than that
to the point they had identified as their target. Having made
two observation passes and seen no friendly markings, both of
the A10s then fired one infra-red Maverick missile, each destroying
one of the vehicles. The aircraft then left the area, having
reported the engagement to the assistant DALO.
As the pilots' report of the convoy
of vehicles differed so dramatically from earlier descriptions
of the target, the assistant DALO asked for confirmation of
the location. When given the grid reference, he immediately
realised that this was not the intended target area; and that
it corresponded with the location of 3 RRF. He then called
up a reconnaissance flight over the area, which identified the
vehicles as Warriors and observed that they were carrying fluorescent
air recognition panels.
Shortly after the incident, a military
investigation began. This investigation gathered much information,
but it became clear that in order to establish exactly what
had happened, a formal board of inquiry would be needed to consider
this information and to gather any further evidence necessary.
This board of inquiry was convened on 15 May. The House will
recall that during last week's debate on Marine Simeon Ferrante,
I outlined the status and purpose of boards of inquiry. Given
that in the case of the Warrior/A10 incident, too, my Department
has been criticised for excessive secrecy in refusing to release
a full copy of the board of inquiry report, it might be helpful
if I covered the ground once again.
Although this was a joint-service
board of inquiry, it was convened by Air Chief Marshal Sir Patrick
Hine, and was conducted according to Royal Air Force procedures.
The RAF derives its authority for holding boards of inquiry
from the Air Force Act 1955, statutory rules made thereunder
and Queen's regulations for the RAF. Generally, the primary
purpose of boards of inquiry is to investigate and report on
the facts of the matter referred to them by the convening authority
and to make recommendations aimed at preventing a recurrence
of an accident.
It is of overriding importance, particularly
in the case of injury or death, to establish the facts as quickly
as possible. It is essential, therefore, that witnesses appearing
before boards of inquiry should give their evidence in a full
and frank manner.