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Inquest into 'friendly fire' death of Swanley soldier Mark Anthony Smith due to begin

Sapper Mark Smith, killed in Afghanistan
Sapper Mark Smith, killed in Afghanistan

by Thom Morris

Soldiers have spoken at the inquest into the death of Sapper Mark Antony Smith who was hit by 'friendly fire' in Afghanistan.

The Swanley resident (pictured right), who served with the Maidstone-based 36 Engineer Regiment, was hit by a 105mm smoke shell on July 26, 2010.

The soldier’s family sat while evidence was given at Gravesend Old Town Hall, including his mother Helen .

He died in the Sangin area of Helmand District, working as part of a team in the army's Counter Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) Task Force.

The inquest heard that on the day, the team had been targeted with small arms fire and a smoke screen was requested to allow them to get to a strategic building known as Compound 22.

Spr Smith had been deployed in support of the 40 Commando Royal Marines Battle Group.

Lieutenant Colonel Edward James Moorhouse, the Royal Marine commanding officer, gave his evidence first.

Asked by counsel for the coroner Chris Sutton-Mattocks whether the group was taking over a dangerous area, Lt Col Moorhouse said: “The most dangerous area as far as Helmand was concerned.”

He continued: “I know risks, I was risk conscious, when they got fired on they came back, they were really lucky.”

Following the attack, smoke shells used to hide the army's activities were fired from 10.30am to 3pm.

Sapper Mark Antony Smith, of 36 Regiment, Maidstone, is repatriated to RAF Lyneham
Sapper Mark Antony Smith, of 36 Regiment, Maidstone, is repatriated to RAF Lyneham

Sapper Smith's body was repatriated to RAF Lyneham

At 2.30pm, one of the shells went rogue and flew in the wrong direction, accidentally hitting one of the army’s compounds.

The gun continued to fire as it was readjusted before being brought back to its original trajectory. Firing then ceased at 3pm.

At 4.30pm, firing resumed on the same spot it had been targeting throughout the day.

By then, the team made it across the dangerous fields to Compound 22, but another shell went rogue – instantly killing Spr Smith.

Lt Col Moorhouse continued: “We know where the shells are going to land, or we assume we know where it’s going to land.

“I have faith in my guns, I have to. I don’t know why that shell fell short and hit Mark. I hope to find out this week.”

"i never knew your son. i wish i wasn’t here in gravesend, i wish we both weren’t here, but i need to know what happened as well because i’m just as much in the dark" – lt col edward moorhouse

Speaking to the family directly, he added: “Forgive me, I never knew your son. I wish I wasn’t here in Gravesend, I wish we both weren’t here, but I need to know what happened as well because I’m just as much in the dark.

“We’ve left Sangin in a better place. It’s a good legacy for Mark. It’s not going to bring him back. Something went wrong and the shell fell 164 metres short and that stays heavily on my conscience.”

Next to give evidence was Captain John Anderson who was in charge of the 40 Commando Royal Marines Battle Group. He has now left the army.

He said: “We were there to clear the IEDs. We tried to cross to the compound first thing in the morning and we received shots from the tree line.

“Once we had smoke, we went at a snail’s pace across the field with two metal detectors to get to the compound.

“Nothing the Taliban could throw at us could have penetrated those walls.”

It was then that one of the smoke shells came through the roof of the building, hitting Spr Smith.

Capt Anderson, who was thrown three metres into the air, added: “I thought he’d leant against an IED which had blown up. We were all thrown to the ground. It took about 30 seconds for the dust to clear and I could hear screams from the Royal Engineers.”

Captain Douglas Howard Bray, a Royal Engineer with the Counter Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) Task Force said Compound 22 was “key” to moving forward with the operation.

He said: “I heard a bang and there was a lot of dust. My reaction was that it was a partial IED explosion. I heard screaming and ran over to the team. Mark had been extremely badly injured.”

Also in the room at the time was Sapper Sean Dean, the last to give evidence today.

He said: “There was a big whoosh, it was really quick, it takes longer to say it. The next thing I heard was screaming. I had been thrown forward and it was really hard to see because of all the dust.”

The inquest continues.

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