Afghanistan inquest: Soldiers' comrades give evidence
Comrades of six UK soldiers who died in an Afghan bomb blast in 2012 have been giving evidence at an inquest.
The six men were on patrol in a Warrior armoured vehicle when it was caught in an explosion on 6 March last year.
Pte Luke Stones, who was following the Warrior, said that the driver who died took on the job at the last minute.
The attack, claimed by the Taliban, was the biggest single loss of life in an enemy attack for UK Afghanistan forces since 2001.
Sgt Nigel Coupe, 33, of 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, was killed alongside Cpl Jake Hartley, 20, Pte Anthony Frampton, 20, Pte Christopher Kershaw, 19, Pte Daniel Wade, 20, and Pte Daniel Wilford, 21, all of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment.Last minute swap
The six men died in an explosion so powerful it turned their vehicle upside down and blew off its gun turret.
The inquest heard evidence from pathologists which said the men were likely to have been killed or rendered unconscious immediately by the blast.
After soldiers using them were killed by improvised explosive devices in Iraq, the government upgraded all Warrior vehicles used on operations.
Those used in Afghanistan were upgraded in June 2011 as part of a £40m urgent operational requirement that included more than 30 enhancements to tackle the specific threat of mines or IEDs.
These included a flexible modular armour system, enhanced seating design and cushioning to improve protection and comfort, and an improved driver vision system with an increase from one to three periscopes, providing a wider field of vision and night-vision capability.
A further £1bn upgrade was announced in October 2011, to try to ensure the vehicles' suitability for future operations to beyond 2040 by improving their firepower and manoeuvrability.
The MoD says the "Warrior provides some of the highest levels of protection available, but sadly no armoured vehicle can provide absolute protection from the very largest explosions".
All those deploying with the vehicle will be very familiar with it, and for troops arriving in Helmand, there is mandatory refresher training on how to exit an overturned armoured vehicle in the dark.
Ammunition on board the Warrior ignited, causing a fierce fire that burned for hours and hampered rescuers.
The Warrior was at the front of a two-vehicle patrol on the evening of 6 March 2012, the inquest heard.
In a written statement Pte Stones, the gunner in the rear vehicle, revealed that 19-year-old Pte Kershaw - who was driving the Warrior - had volunteered to take the place of another soldier on the patrol at the last minute.
He said the soldier who was to have been the driver "was returning from the shower and as a result Pte Kershaw offered to take his place."
Pte Stones said he heard a "large explosion" just five minutes after the patrol left the Lashkar Gah base.
"Around 20m to my front was a large fireball which had flames reaching around it," he said. "I stood staring at the fireball not really understanding what I was looking at."
He said he heard around 20 rounds of ammunition detonating inside the burning Warrior, and his comrades attempted to tackle the blaze with small fire extinguishers.
A statement from Pte Aiden Walker said: "I could hear ammunition 'cooking off', that's detonating due to the heat of the fire.
"I believe that no-one in the Warrior was alive and could have survived the explosion."Back foot
His view was shared by Warrant Officer Second Class Eric Whitehouse, who described hearing a series of explosions inside the Warrior as he tried in vain to extinguish the blaze.
"It was apparent that anyone involved in the explosion could not have survived the blast," he said.
Maj Edward Colver, commanding officer of the dead soldiers' patrol base, was questioned at the inquest by a lawyer acting for some of their families, Michael Davison.
Asked what could have been achieved by sending out a patrol on the evening of the 6 March that could not have been achieved the next day, Maj Colver said: "You have to constantly keep the insurgent on the back foot."
He added: "If I hadn't sent out a patrol it would have been 20 hours since a patrol had been out. I deem that too long."
The inquest, which is expected to last two days, comes after the Ministry of Defence announced the death of the 445th UK service member to have lost their life since operations in Afghanistan began in October 2001.