Soldier widow's tribute to 'my world, my hero, best friend and soulmate'

Darren Neilson and Jemma on their wedding day
Darren Neilson and Jemma on their wedding day

The widow of a Preston soldier killed in a freak accident during tank training has paid tribute to her “amazing” husband.

Father-of-one Darren Neilson, 31, died of his injuries after an explosion in a tank at the Castlemartin firing ranges, Pembrokeshire, Wales, on June 14, 2017.

His widow Jemma described him as “my world, my soulmate, best friend and hero.”

She told the inquest into his death: “He was an amazing husband and daddy and we had a life filled with love and laughter.

“He was the most handsome and perfect man I could ever wish to meet. We love and miss him more than words could express.”

Cpl Neilson was the tank commander and was thrown from Challenger 2 during the blast. Corporal Matthew Hatfield, 27, from Amesbury, Wiltshire, also died in the blast.

Two other soldiers, Warrant Officer Stuart Lawson and Trooper Michael Warren, survived the blast.

The inquest yesterday heard that there had never been a similar incident involving the British Army’s main battle tank in nearly 20 years of service.

The coroner’s court in Solihull, West Midlands, heard that a critical airtight seal in the tank’s barrel preventing explosive gases up to 3,000C getting into the crew turret was not in place before the blast.

A senior coroner also heard that the tank’s ammunition, known as “bag charges”, may have been “incorrectly stowed” outside boxes in the turret.

The two corporals, both highly trained gunnery instructors with combat experience, were only in the tank because they were taking another soldier out for a “guest shoot”.

Senior Coroner Louise Hunt earlier read a statement setting out what then happened: “At around 3.30pm, a hissing sound was heard and noises and smoke.

“Corporal Neilson was seen to be climbing out of the commander’s turret and there was an explosion.

“He was projected out the turret, landing some distance away.”

Major John Poole, head of establishment – and in charge of safe firing that day – told the court he heard at his position in the base’s observation tower “stop, stop, stop” over the radio.
He shut down all firing at the range and called 999.

The coroner heard evidence the tank had only been taken out that afternoon because the deputy safety training officer, Warrant Officer Stuart Lawson, had asked permission to go out and fire a tank.

Maj Poole told Ms Hunt permission had come from RTR’s commanding officer, Lt Col Simon Ridgway.

But giving evidence in the witness box, Maj Poole said according to Ministry of Defence rules in pamphlet 21, it needed “two-star written authorisation” - effectively from a brigadier rank officer - to allow a non-trained soldier into a tank.

That would have been a level above that of the commanding officer, the inquest heard.

WO Lawson and another soldier Trooper Michael Warren in the tank were injured, but survived the blast.

Ms Hunt read a statement from Lt Col Ridgway, in which he had said there was “genuine military justification for WO Lawson to be in the turret to observe firing”, in order to improve the range officer’s understanding of the tank fire operations.