Mother wins MoD apology over 'Snatch' Land Rover death


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Media captionPte Phillip Hewett, of the Staffordshire Regiment, was killed on 16 July, 2005

In July 2005, Sue Smith’s son, Pte Phillip Hewett, was killed by a roadside bomb while travelling in a lightly armoured “snatch” Land Rover in Iraq.

He was the ninth of 37 service personnel to be killed in the vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan, which came to be known as “mobile coffins”.

Twelve years later, following a legal battle that reached the Supreme Court, Sue has finally got her apology.

“He didn’t die for nothing,” she says.

Speaking exclusively to the BBC, Sue has recalled her journey from the inquest process, to a victory at the Supreme Court, to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War.

It has resulted in a settlement of her case and an apology from Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon for failures that “could have saved lives”.

Sue remembered how Phillip had become worried about travelling in the Snatch.

“He wrote to his uncle saying that he was concerned that so many of his friends had lost their driving licences so they didn’t have to drive in Iraq.

“One of his friends said, ‘It’s better to be judged by 12 than carried by six,’ because that’s how dangerous the vehicles were. But he wouldn’t have refused. He would have done as he was told.”

Sue, from Tamworth in Staffordshire, said that when Phillip, a fitness fanatic, came home on leave, he was a shadow of his former self.

“He spoke to his sisters and discussed his funeral and said what he wanted. He wasn’t the same. His character was different.

“He wouldn’t tell me. I think he was trying to protect me so I didn’t worry. But I was worrying anyway. Had I known, I think I would have run over his foot or something to stop him having to go back.”

The day Phillip died, Sue had a premonition.

“I got up to go to work and there was a breaking news story about three soldiers from the Staffordshire battle group that had been killed in Al Amarah by a roadside bomb.

“I can’t explain it but I just knew before I went out the door. And we were sorting out his birthday presents to send to him. It’s like something inside me. I can’t really explain it better than that.”

Sue recalled that waiting for the body to be repatriated was the worst time, because no-one would tell her what had happened.

‘More to be answered’

The inquest into Phillip’s death was due to last five days and Sue hoped it would provide answers, but it was completed in three hours.

“Quite honestly it was like a smack in the face. It was almost as if those three lives were worth an hour each. It shocked me that it was so dismissive.

“Because by then I knew that (the vehicle) was what had to be questioned,” she said.

“And it was almost like I was something under someone’s foot and they just wanted to get rid of me, and it made me feel more determined because I knew there was more to be answered than what I got at the inquest.”

Image caption

Sue Smith (pictured third from the right) at a Stop the War Coalition march in London in September, 2005

Desperate for answers about the Snatch, Sue founded a group called the Military Families Support Group with other families of service personnel.

She was initially told by the MoD that the people in a position to decide, had decided that the Snatch was the correct vehicle for the job.

She found the inability to get answers from the MoD maddening.

“Sometimes I felt like they just wanted me to go away or die,” she said.

But after yet another death things changed and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were deployed on the same roads in Iraq that had been deemed too narrow for them prior to Phillip’s death.

Sue decided that the only really effective way to try and get answers was legal action.

Image caption

Sue Smith after the ruling in her favour at the Supreme Court in 2013

In June 2013 she and the families of two other soldiers, Pte Lee Ellis and L/Cpl Kirk Redpath, killed in Snatch Land Rovers won a landmark ruling at the Supreme Court.

It gave them the right to sue the MoD under the Human Rights Act because it was deemed the soldiers were within the UK’s jurisdiction at the time of their deaths, and so were subject to human rights law. The MoD had wanted to strike their claims out.

Sue recalled: “I was really, really happy that at last, soldiers had got the right to life, and they had to make things right, and yet I suppose it was a bitter-sweet moment, because I did it for Phillip because I didn’t want his death to be for nothing.”

Even after the Supreme Court case, the MoD continued to contest her case.

It was the publication of the report into the inquiry into the Iraq War by Sir John Chilcot in July 2016 that changed everything.

Sue had been to see the inquiry team and was instrumental in it considering the Snatch deaths. The report’s criticisms were stark.

The MoD had known about the vehicle’s vulnerability and for years had failed to provide more heavily armoured vehicles.

Sue believes that if the MoD had listened to her earlier, the lives of some of the 37 soldiers could have been saved.

But even after Chilcot, Sue’s solicitor Jocelyn Cockburn, from the firm Hodge, Jones and Allen, was frustrated by the MoD.

“It was clear that Chilcot had been provided with the very information about Snatch Land Rovers which we’d been asking for all those years – and which we’d been told was not available, was too difficult to provide,” she said.

Finally, Sue’s case and that brought by the families of Pte Ellis and L/Cpl Redpath have been settled, and each has received a letter of apology from the defence secretary.

In the one written to Sue and seen by the BBC, Sir Michael expresses his regret at Phillip’s death.

“I am fully aware of the struggle you have had to bring this matter to court over the last decade and I recognise that this has had a significant impact on you and your family,” he writes.

“The government entirely accepts the findings of Sir John Chilcot in the Iraq Inquiry in relation to Snatch Land Rover.

“I would like to express directly to you my deepest sympathies and apologise for the delay, resulting in decisions taken at the time in bringing into service alternative protected vehicles which could have saved lives.”

He goes on to say that lessons have been learnt, and ends: “The government must and will ensure that our armed forces are always properly equipped and resourced.”

Sue said the apology was “bitter sweet”.

Her 12-year legal battle has taken a heavy toll on her and her family, but she feels that Phillip’s death now leaves a legacy.

“I’d like it to be that his death made a difference. He’s not just a casualty of Iraq.

“Iraq is almost forgotten now. It’s almost Britain’s Vietnam. People don’t want to remember. But at least at the end of it, it’s worth it. Not his death, but for people to remember what I’ve done in his name.”



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