British soldiers in Iraq were betrayed by third-rate kit

It was an issue that proved almost as contentious as the decision to go to war: were British troops sent into battle with equipment that left them dangerously exposed to enemy fire?

Throughout the six years of conflict in Iraq the Ministry of Defence was forced to defend itself against accusations that men and women in the Army lost their lives because they were denied the best equipment.

The war led to a running battle between the MoD and coroners who accused ministers of failing to provide the troops with all that they needed to protect themselves or to fight an increasingly dangerous enemy.

In the early stages of the campaign, soldiers were being killed in circumstances that exposed fundamental weaknesses, both in the choice of equipment and in the supply chain. The errors in London were not just a question of misjudgment or lack of funds, although both issues played a part, but because of the official view that once the combat phase of the campaign was over, the troops would focus on humanitarian efforts.

The case of Sergeant Steven Roberts, of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, the first British soldier to die in combat in Iraq, provoked one of the most devastating attacks from a coroner throughout the campaign.

He died on March 24, 2003, aged 33, after being shot in the chest in error by another British soldier during a confrontation with a violent Iraqi. The sergeant, from Shipley, West Yorkshire, was wearing only makeshift armour consisting of padding stuffed into his fatigues. He had had to hand over his enhanced combat body armour three days earlier because there were not enough sets to go around for everyone in his regiment.

Andrew Walker, assistant deputy coroner for Oxfordshire, who would become the bane of the MoD with his critical comments about equipment in inquests over the next few years, accused the Army of an “unforgivable and inexcusable” failure to provide Sergeant Roberts with proper armour that would probably have saved him.

Six members of the Royal Military Police were killed in June 2003 during a visit to a police station in Majar al-Kabir, when they were besieged by an angry mob and shot. They did not have enough ammunition or a satellite phone to summon help.

Although the MoD took steps to improve equipment and spent hundreds of millions of pounds from Treasury reserves to boost firepower and protection for the troops, coroners stayed on the warpath, particularly when fatalities kept occurring among troops in the lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers that had been sent from Northern Ireland, supposedly to provide extra protection for peacekeeping activities.

The role of Snatch Land Rovers in Operation Telic, and also in the war in Afghanistan, provoked the greatest furore over equipment, but the MoD has made clear that these vehicles still have a function, because of their mobility and their low-profile image — considered better suited to hearts-and-minds missions among local people.

However, changes to the fleet of armoured vehicles available to troops in Iraq were dramatic. Huge Mastiff troop carriers and upgraded Bulldog vehicles arrived. Unlike the sorry tale of previous protracted MoD procurement projects, 108 Mastiffs were ordered in 2006 and by the next year the first batch was in action. Troops’ body armour was also upgraded.

Although the need for greater protection was the key lesson learnt by the equipment specialists in Britain, the challenge posed by an increasingly capable enemy also focused attention on the necessity for more sophisticated intelligence-gathering and electronic warfare systems.

Every patrol contained vehicles equipped with an electronic counter-measure system that could pick up signals from concealed devices and so created a bubble around each convoy, protecting them from roadside bombs.

The system was never foolproof, although it was considered better than the American version, and for at least one soldier, the equipment came too late. Fusilier Gordon Gentle, 19, of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, was killed by a roadside bomb in June 2004 while he was travelling in a Snatch Land Rover that had not been fitted with the detection device.

Meanwhile, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), fitted with advanced cameras, took on an increasingly vital role in scouting and warning of attacks. Their development changed the nature of warfare.

With real-time pictures showing what was happening around corners and over the other side of hills, commanders were able to plan patrols and operations with much more confidence.

In some ways, the new generation of UAVs has played as important a role in protecting the troops as the dispatching of heavily armoured vehicles to carry them from one place to another