The British Army resisted replacing inadequately armoured Snatch Land Rovers that were blamed for the deaths of more than 20 soldiers between 2004 and 2006, it has been revealed ahead of the publication of the Chilcot Report into the Iraq war next month.
Previously unpublished documents, available to Sir John Chilcot during his inquiry, have been uncovered by defence journalist Tim Ripley. His book Operation Telic (the codename for the UK’s military operations in Iraq) reveals the long, drawn-out process of replacing Snatches which cost the lives so many troops, including Scots soldier Fusilier Gordon Gentle who was the first to die in a Snatch, which was shredded by a roadside bomb in June 2004.
Twenty-four soldiers died when the poorly protected vehicles used to patrol Basra were ripped apart by improvised explosive devices. The Snatches were considered so unsafe that they became widely known as "mobile coffins" – but it wasn’t until the end of 2006 that the first replacement vehicles began arriving in Iraq.
In a key period between August 2005 and July 2006 there were intense disagreements at the top of the British Army over the whether the Snatch needed to be withdrawn from the frontline.
The British commander in Basra, Major General Jim Dutton, in his end of tour report in November 2005, assessed that the army “has never entirely defeated [the IED]threat but it is manageable, and I don’t believe that it has a significantly deleterious effect on morale in the area of operations. South eastern Iraq remains at the lower end of any table of security incidents.”
At that stage in the conflict a dozen lives had been lost in Snatches, destroyed by shrapnel from roadside bombs which punched through the vehicle’s inadequate armour.
However, Air Marshal Glenn Torpy, the Chief of Joint Operations until the spring of 2006, told the Chilcot Inquiry that there was reluctance among senior officers to second guess the views of commanders in Iraq regarding the threat.
“So, as always, there is a balance to be struck, and there's a risk balance to be taken, and the only person I believe who could take that is the commander on the ground,” he said. “I would not wish, and I don't think an army officer in my position would want to be taking a different view to the advice that he's getting from the person on the ground.”
During the period that saw so many soldiers die in Snatches, General Sir Richard Dannatt and his staff were working up their own ideas for new protected vehicles, but their proposals did not gain any traction.
Up until June 2006, the British headquarters in Basra had not generated an "urgent statement of user requirement" (USUR) asking for a replacement for Snatches, which created a bureaucratic log jam that prevented anyone back in the UK moving forward with the purchase of new vehicles.
The military chain of command could not agree on a requirement for a new vehicle or its specification, according to Lord Paul Drayson, the defence procurement minister.
“The military found it difficult to reach agreement about what was required,” he told the Chilcot inquiry.
With no agreement within the army on what do, Drayson decided to take matters into his own hands.
During the spring of 2006 Drayson “resolved to encourage the army to identify a requirement for an additional medium-weight vehicle rather than a replacement of the light Snatch to avoid getting bogged down in resistance from the military.”
A week after a meeting between Drayson and then defence secretary Des Browne and Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth on June 27, 2006, the new Chief of Joint Operations, Lieutenant General Nick Houghton wrote to Drayson to confirm formally that there was now a requirement for a medium patrol vehicle.
On July 13 Major General Applegate and the officer charged with staffing all requirements for ground vehicles, Brigadier Bill Moore, were tasked to find a solution and on July 20, the Treasury was asked for money to buy 108 new heavily-armoured vehicles to be ready for service by the end of the year.
Air Marshal Torpy confirmed that Drayson was the driving force behind the initiative, commenting in his Chilcot evidence that, “it took the Minister to say, 'We are going to do this'” – but by that time 21 soldiers had died in Snatches.
A further three died in these "mobile coffins" before the first replacement vehicles – heavily armoured Mastiffs – were delivered to Iraq in December 2006.
“Not one single person was killed in Mastiff [in Iraq]. The crews survived EFPs (explosively formed projectiles) and huge bombs – it was very survivable,” Applegate said in 2012.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said: “The MOD has always regretted the injuries and loss of life suffered by our personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt the Iraq inquiry will have taken careful note of the evidence of witnesses. We await the inquiry's report.”