In the shadows of the Brecon Beacons, an elite training ground has long served as the gateway to one of the world’s most formidable military units, the Special Air Service (SAS). However, since 1984, weather and harsh conditions in the Welsh mountain range has also claimed the lives of twenty soldiers during the UK Special Forces selection process, as revealed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The harsh conditions of biannual event, which attracts military personnel from various units, has been called into question, prompting discussions on how to address the tragedies that led to lost lives.
The four-week selection process, largely unchanged since the 1950s, pushes candidates to their physical and mental limits. The notorious “Fan Dance,” a gruelling 16-mile march carrying heavy equipment, is one of the most demanding trials. Unfortunately, every year, soldiers suffer from heat and cold injuries, and some lose their lives during the training.
A Decade of Incidents
In 2013, three Army reservists collapsed during a 16-mile SAS test march. Lance Corporal Craig Roberts and Trooper Edward Maher died during the exercise, whilst Corporal James Dunsby suffered multiple organ failure, as a result of hyperthermia, and died 17 days later. In addition to these casualties, 10 other soldiers also suffered heat exhaustion. A subsequent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found a failure to plan, assess, and manage risks associated with climatic illnesses during the training.
It was so bad that the HSE served the MoD with a Crown Improvement Notice in October 2013 requiring it to take steps to address the risk of heat illness during the SAS reservist selection tests. Recommendations to establish a plan to deal with heat illness risk on exercises and steps to make sure suitable clothing and water was available were agreed upon by the MoD.
Further calls for improvements were made in 2015 in the wake of a coroner’s ruling that neglect played a part in the deaths of the three Army reservists. The authoritative guidance to deal with heat illness is set out by the MoD in a handbook called JSP 375. Following the deaths of the three SAS trainees, Coroner Louise Hunt found commanding officers were “unaware” of JSP 375, had not been trained on completing risk assessments and there was no system in place to ensure key temperature readings were taken before training exercises. Hunt highlighted a series of errors by those who oversaw the march and described the emergency response as chaotic.
She wrote to the Ministry of Defence, outlining a dozen lessons that needed to be learned to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. The Ministry of Defence was given the maximum sanction possible over the deaths, a Crown Censure, but escaped prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive due to its Crown Immunity.
The MoD’s Crown Immunity shields it from formal enforcement of the Health and Safety Work Act 1974, and instead, a Crown Censure is issued, which carries no financial penalty. Additionally, the MoD enjoys exemptions under the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act 2007. Proposals to create more accountability, including one to amend the military exemptions in the Act, have been rejected by the government.
Following the incident, Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond made reassurances that “We’ve got in place a system now which will ensure that the deficiencies that have been identified are now addressed.” Selection tests for SAS recruits were set to undergo significant changes in order to protect candidates from dangers such as extreme temperatures. The new measures aimed to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future. Among the modifications introduced was a weather test that could lead to the postponement of the selection week if weather conditions were deemed too hot, cold, or humid. Furthermore, practice sessions were implemented to help reservists become accustomed to the terrain. Additional water stations were also placed along routes through the Brecon Beacons to ensure better hydration for participants. These changes were scheduled to apply to the aptitude test week for both the regular and reserve SAS from 2016 onwards.
Are Lessons being Learned?
But the same year that the modifications were supposed to be implemented another death occurred during training. Corporal Joshua Hoole, a 26-year-old soldier, died during an Army exercise in the Brecon Beacons in July 2016. Hoole collapsed just 400 meters from the end of the eight-mile annual fitness test while carrying 25kg (55lb) of equipment on a hot day. Out of the 41 soldiers participating, 18 either dropped out, collapsed, or were withdrawn by the directing staff, including Corporal Hoole. An inquest into the death of Corporal Hoole found that once again there was a lack of awareness of JSP 375 by training officers.
Despite the multiple extensive inquiries following the deaths of Dunsby, Maher, and Roberts, as well as a Crown Censure, the same shortcomings were identified.
A 2017 defence service inquiry report concluded that Corporal Hoole, described as a “fit, capable, and determined” soldier, died due to an undiagnosed underlying medical condition, “within the definition of Sudden Arrhythmogenic Death Syndrome.” However, this conclusion was rejected by Corporal Hoole’s father, who successfully applied for the inquest to be resumed. Speaking on the incident, he paid tribute to his son’s “zest for life” and the great future he had ahead of him. He shared memories of their time together, highlighting Joshua’s exceptional fitness and passion for outdoor activities.
In 2020, the parents of Lance Corporal Craig Roberts broke their silence after six years. In a BBC Wales investigation, they called for the military to lose its immunity from prosecution as lives are being put at risk by repeated mistakes. They wanted the MoD to face criminal charges when people die during training. Despite the MoD stating that safety is a “top priority” and training policies are “regularly reviewed,” Margaret and Kelvin Roberts believe not enough has been done. In the TV programme, Margaret Roberts says, “They promised us lessons would be learned.”
A Question of Accountability
The issue of accountability has repeatedly been raised concerning deaths and injuries during military training. In the BBC Wales Investigation it was revealed that the MoD has breached Health and Safety Laws 40 times in 20 years. In that time 148 servicemen and women have died, not in battle but in training.
In the investigation, solicitor Hilary Meredith argued the need for meaningful consequences and actions that compel the MoD to prioritise system and procedural changes to ensure the well-being of the military personnel. She stated, “Yes, the MoD can be criticised, but nothing with sanctions or teeth to it that can actually make them sit up and think, ‘actually we have to change, we have to change our systems and procedures and we have to look after the people that serve with us.'”
In 2020, Clare Stevens, a legal expert, echoed these concerns in submitted evidence to parliament. She argued that the MoD’s immunity from prosecution and exemptions under relevant acts hinder effective learning from past incidents and the implementation of adequate risk assessments. She noted 12 deaths since 2016 during training exercises and an increase in injury and ill health rates since 2014/2015. Of note, she pointed out that, between April 2015 and March 2019, 3,126 service personnel suffered heat or cold injuries.
The repeated breaches of Health and Safety Laws over the years and the resulting fatalities have raised further questions. Clare Stevens remarks, “It’s staggering that we are almost a decade on from Brecon and despite the shocking nature of that incident and failings on the part of the MoD that were identified. The inquiries that followed, along with the promise that they were sorry that they had learned from it, there is no evidence that they have, and the numbers suggest otherwise.”
More deaths in training than combat
Data today exposes a stark contrast in the safety record of the UK Armed Forces during the period of 2014 to 2022. In that time, a total of 34 servicemen (not just Special forces) lost their lives during training and exercises, raising serious concerns about the safety protocols in place within the military.
Comparatively, the casualties in hostile action stood at just three, prompting questions about the focus and resources allocated to safeguarding personnel during routine peacetime activities.
Such deaths underscores the urgent need for a thorough reevaluation of training procedures, risk management, and safety protocols implemented by the UK Armed Forces. A critical examination of the factors contributing to the rise in fatalities during training and exercises would also honour the memory of those lost and help ensure the safety and well-being of all those who serve in the military.
Where are we now?
The above on-the-record deaths data has covered some of the incidents and responses to military training in extremes of weather. Of course, the safety of army personnel needs to be balanced against the need to ensure that they are tested to the limit, before they are deployed on active duty. However, as the inquests have shown time and again, many of the deaths incurred could have been prevented had the MoD’s own guidance been adequately followed and simple steps were taken to avoid injury and death.
As the debate continues over how best to address the unnecessary deaths of these soldiers, the Ministry of Defence claims it remains committed to maintaining the safety of its personnel. A spokesperson stated, “Our deepest sympathies remain with the families and friends of those who have tragically lost their lives. The health and safety of our personnel is a priority, and we continually review training environments and methods to ensure they are as safe as possible.”
That said, the MoD suffered yet another death in training during the hottest week of 2022. Sapper Connor Morrison collapsed during a training exercise at Rock Barracks in Sutton Heath, Suffolk. With such incidents occurring more frequently further questions are raised, most of all whether lessons are being sufficiently learned.
Will any changes to the selection process will be truly implemented in response to these tragedies? Will anyone be held accountable for past or future deaths? Will there be more deaths?
 Darren Boyle, ‘MoD Admits up to 20 Soldiers Died Undergoing SAS Selection Marches’, Mail Online, 27 January 2021, sec. News, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9190977/MoD-admits-20-soldiers-died-undergoing-SAS-selection-marches.html.
 Henry Graham, ‘Lessons Learned from SAS Training Tragedy – Minister: “MoD Has Learned Lessons from Deaths”’, Western Mail, 15 November 2013, sec. News.
 BBC Stories [@bbcstories], ‘“They Were Prepared to Put Their Lives on the Line.” Craig, Edward and James Died in the UK #ArmedForces. Not in War Zones, but in Training. Families Are Warning Lives Are Still at Risk. #ukmilitary Https://T.Co/Jar0hyXSjx’, Tweet, Twitter, 19 February 2020, https://twitter.com/bbcstories/status/1230041716532666368.
 Jaymelouise Hudspith, ‘Parents Break Six Year Silence on Son’s Death during SAS Selection Exercise’, North Wales Live, 19 February 2020, sec. North Wales News, https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/parents-craig-roberts-break-six-17778688.
 Richard Holmes, ‘British Soldiers Are Getting More Heat-Related Illness than Ever, despite MoD Promises’, Inews.Co.Uk, 23 November 2022, https://inews.co.uk/news/british-army-heat-related-illnesses-soldier-deaths-1989208.
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