The missile tore a 6ft wide by 2ft deep crater in a farmer’s field 300 yards from the Paddington to Penzance line near Salisbury Plain. Gunners from Foxtrot Battery of 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery made the potentially deadly mistake during routine exercise Cypher Resolve. The Army report into the 2014 near-miss said farmer Andrew Snook heard a “loud whistling noise” followed by an explosion which rocked the village of Patney, Wiltshire.
The 105mm shell was packed with enough explosives to destroy a tank. Two inquiries followed but their findings were never made public. The first by the Royal Military Police called for the prosecution of two soldiers.
The second investigation in 2016 resulted in a report “declined for publication” until now.
A bomb disposal officer present at the inquiry said “an incorrect charge was fired from one of two guns used by F Battery and that it appeared that there was a serious lapse in safety checks”.
But the commanding officer of 7 RHA and the regiment’s Master Gunner claimed that at the time the Royal Artillery units were being asked to do “too much with too little”. The report details how the master gunner – the regiment’s most senior specialist – complained there were not enough safety officers and manning shortages “put yet further pressure on troops”.
He was backed by the commanding officer, who pointed to the reduced number of soldiers.
The inquiry, which failed to identify which of the two guns fired the rogue shell, heard that the battalion’s numbers had been cut from 443 personnel to 357.
This was a result of the Army’s 2020 plan to cut the number of soldiers from 103,000 to 82,000.
Yet it was still expected to provide six gun batteries and associated support.
A battery should be manned by 40 soldiers. But the report revealed it could expect to “average 20-25 people” because troops were “here, there and everywhere”.
It concluded “it was impossible for someone not to realise something was wrong” in the moments after the shell was fired.
The report ruled this could have been an issue when combined with the pressure of speed.
It said: “Almost all gunners interviewed highlighted the need for speed; to be the first detachment to finish the fire mission.
“The majority specifically mentioned safety checks slowing them down, getting in the way of rounds going down range.
“It is the opinion of the panel that whilst safety precedes were followed, an adequate level of diligence was lacking.” The report endorsed 27 recommendations made by 7 RHA’s own internal investigation.
They included improved communications, additional checks and a plan to reduce the culture in which speed overrides safety.
But last night one Royal Artillery major said: “Speed is everything. That is what we train for.
“There’s no point being the safest gun team if you are the slowest.
“Yet this mistake had nothing to do with speed.
“If you cut manpower – as we saw with 7 RHA – then those responsible for the reduction in personnel must acknowledge that with less staff, you reduce the safety standards and run the risk of making an error.
“It’s as simple as that.”