A British soldier was killed in Afghanistan after a US Apache helicopter wrongly identified his base as an enemy stronghold, a coroner has said.
Lance Corporal Christopher Roney, 23, of 3rd Battalion The Rifles, died from head injuries he suffered while serving at Patrol Base Almas, in Sangin, Helmand, in December 2009.
The base had come under attack from insurgents and the platoon based there were busy fighting them off when air support was called in, Coroner Derek Winter said.
A drone fitted with a camera and two US Apaches flew to the patrol base, which was a compound with mud walls, bought from a local owner some weeks before and was not on official maps.
British troops on the ground, who by this stage had won a firefight against their attackers, were incorrectly identified as the enemy and they were hit by 30mm chain gun rounds.
Mr Winter, the Sunderland Coroner, said 200 rounds were fired before the mistake was spotted, leaving 11 injured on the ground.
L/Cpl Roney, a married former drayman, received emergency treatment but died from his injuries the next day.
Mr Winter said the mistaken view that the British base was an insurgents’ compound was shared with key personnel.
This was despite the patrol base, 3km from Forward Operating Base Jackson, having a flagpole, a washing line, defensive constructions and personnel who were not dressed like the enemy, Mr Winter said.
He was summarising the evidence he expected to hear during the week-long inquest.
Statements have been given from the US pilots and co-pilots which will be read later.
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Kitson, who watched live pictures of the attack, said it was a “tragic incident”.
In his opening statement, Mr Winter said throughout the incident the US Apache helicopter crews were not informed, nor did they ask for the exact location of Patrol Base Almas.
He said: “As a consequence, they were unaware that the compound they were observing and in which they believed they had positively identified insurgents was, in fact Patrol Base Almas.”
He described how, with “total disorientation” now in place, the Apaches were authorised to engage.
“Fused by the overwhelming belief that Patrol Base Almas was at risk of being overrun, the subsequent reactions and actions to these events created a devastating cumulative effect”, he said.
Mr Winter said that due to the involvement of the US Apache helicopters, the number of personnel and the different locations, the sequence of events that unfolded was highly complex.
As a result, he said he would consider all that was visible in the context of a base that was not on the map.
He also stated he would take into consideration the “cumulative human factor elements in this tragic incident” as well as any lessons learnt.
Base was hardest to defend, says comrade
In his evidence, Lt Col Kitson said the base at Almas was one of the hardest for the Army to defend.
“By the end of the tour, Almas still remained the trickiest as we had limited vehicle access”, he said.
“There was very rudimentary defences, such as three layers of barbed wire.
“There was also no printed mapping that had it marked on it.”
He said that on the camera picture he was watching of the attack it was impossible to identify those on screen.
He said: “We could see black blobs running around but its just a blob.
“There’s no way at that distance of identifying the people.
“I could see muzzle flashes and projectiles being launched but I was the victim of my own assumptions.”
He said when it dawned on them what had happened the command was given to “check fire”.
“The operations room was very busy and it was a pretty frenetic environment”, he said.
He said six deaths had already occurred that week and there was a general nervousness about Patrol Base Almas.
Concluding his evidence, he expressed his regret at what happened.
He said: “I want to record my considerable amount of regret and there’s not one of us that cannot think of something we might have done differently.”
Lt Col Kitson said Patrol Base Almas was set up to halt activity in what had become a “no-go area” known as the Taliban Playground.
Captain Palmer Winstanley, commanding L/Cpl Roney’s platoon, said that night insurgents set off a large bomb and launched an attack with small arms fire.
He told the inquest his men managed to repel the attackers.
“We were pretty much winning the firefight which means we pushed them back to a safe distance and hopefully they were going to move off into the night,” he said.
Then the base came under heavy attack from what he later realised were Apaches.
“It was like nothing I have ever experienced before and I tried to establish what it could be,” he said.
At first he believed the explosions and shrapnel were caused by enemy rocket-propelled grenades fired from 800m and exploding in the air above them.
He also wondered if the enemy had breached the compound defences in the dark.
He did not know how long the Apache attack lasted or how many passes the helicopters made.
Men were injured, a communication mast destroyed and the picture became confused as he was unaware any Apaches were in the area.
He said at around the same time, his men and staff at HQ realised the US attack helicopters were to blame.
Meanwhile, the enemy, who had been moving away, saw what happened and came back to renew the assault and got to within 30m of the base.
A 500lb bomb was dropped on a compound the insurgents were using to launch fire on Almas, and their raid ended.
Asked by William Roney, the soldier’s brother, if the Apache’s presence was needed, Captain Winstanley replied: “We could have won the firefight ... As we were, we were OK.”