Original article from Kent Live
A retired Tunbridge Wells major has opened up about allegations of war crimes ahead of the release of a new BBC drama.
Danny Boy is based on the book Double Crossed by war veteran Brian Wood, who was among British soldiers made to testify in court over claims Iraq insurgents were tortured and murdered.
James Rands, a Tunbridge Wells resident and borough councillor, then a captain in the Army who rose to the rank of major, was also one of them.
He faced particular scrutiny over his decision to drop a laptop containing pictures of dead Iraqis into the English Channel, something he continues to justify but admits gave opponents leverage.
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The programme covers the Battle of Danny Boy in southern Iraq on May 14, 2004, between British soldiers and about 100 Iraqi insurgents and the resulting Al-Sweady Inquiry, which the BBC calls “one of Britain’s largest-ever public inquiries”.
Soldiers from Kent and Sussex’s infantry regiment the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, including Mr Rands, were involved in the battle.
Speaking to the media for the first time since the Al-Sweady Inquiry, Mr Rands, who was the regiment’s Battle Group Intelligence Officer, told the Courier on that day a mosque in Najaf had been destroyed and it was “about to kick off”.
“We immediately got reports of firefights in the city. What we didn’t initially realise was we had troops pinned down on a major road called Route Six just to the south of a junction called Danny Boy.
"Troops in Warrior armoured vehicles were sent out to go rescue them and were themselves ambushed. A very complicated battle emerged across different locations, with bayonets fixed and enemy cleared out of trenches,” he said.
He said at the end of the battle the “unusual decision (was taken) to recover the enemy dead for identification”.
“They thought a key player in the insurgency might be amongst them,” he said.
“Not wanting to order my men to do what I would not do myself, I went down with my camera to search the bodies and get photographs. It was a grim business. High-velocity rounds make a mess of people.
“One man had been hit in the eye and most of his head was gone. What angered us most was seeing that amongst the dead was a kid of perhaps 15 who the insurgents had brought out to fight us,” he said.
The inquiry report states there was “a total of 20 dead bodies”.
Mr Rands told the Courier a local guerrilla leader/politician claimed the bodies returned to them by the army the next day “had been taken as prisoners, tortured, murdered and mutilated”.
“He pointed out the missing eye. No one really believed him, but it made us jumpy,” said Mr Rands.
He said some of the soldiers involved in the battle subsequently received medals. Around three years later, relatives of the dead and five of the nine prisoners began proceedings, including seeking compensation.
“The photos I had taken were date and time stamped and these proved the enemy were dead before the time various allegations stated we had tortured or killed prisoners.
"It became key evidence and so I would be a key witness. I hadn’t covered myself in glory by destroying the computer on which the photos had been downloaded so lawyer Phil Shiner’s legal team for the claimants had an avenue of attack and they used it in the press. I flew back from Afghanistan to attend the hearing,” he said.
Mr Rands told us using a personal camera or laptop for photos was “perfectly normal” and taking photos of the dead was “unusual but not unheard of”.
He said: “So initially there was no issue with this. But after allegations came up we classified everything as secret which meant the hard drive of my own personal computer was now secret, which is a big deal and there was no process in place to deal with it. So when it was broken and I couldn’t get it fixed, I destroyed it. All reasonable but also really dodgy looking.”
As was widely reported, Mr Rands told the Judicial Review and subsequent Al-Sweady Inquiry he had thrown the laptop into the English Channel from a ferry.
Mr Rands told the Courier he was travelling to a job in intelligence where security was paramount. “It was just the easy way of getting rid of it and didn’t seem like something I would need to justify solidly for the rest of my life,” he said.
Ahead of the Judicial Review, a practice cross-examination by one of the Army’s barristers left Mr Rands “physically shaking”.
He said: “I knew we were innocent but I also knew that was no guarantee of anything. In fact my day in court was not so bad. I was able to explain every point to the satisfaction of the judges.”
The review was postponed in July 2009 because of “inadequacies in the disclosure process” said the subsequent public inquiry, which was ordered to investigate and report on allegations made by claimants on unlawful killing, and also, ill-treatment of Iraqi nationals by British soldiers.
Mr Rands said: “We had more of the same with much the same results, but, whilst I was OK, others who had been suffering from PTSD were dragged through the courts and made to relive some of the worst experiences of their lives.”
Sir Thayne Forbes, in his executive summary of The Report of the Al Sweady Inquiry dated December 2014, said: “In the event, as I have already made abundantly clear, the work of this Inquiry has established beyond doubt that all the most serious allegations, made against the British soldiers involved in the Battle of Danny Boy and its aftermath and which have been hanging over those soldiers for the last 10 years, have been found to be wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility.”
Mr Rands said: “It was about as clear cut a result as is possible. Still it was felt that prisoners had not been treated consistently to the highest standards and there is a question over whether one got the full medical attention he required. I am certain he did but the paperwork is contradictory. No blame was attached to me at all.”
He added: “It doesn’t haunt me now. I don’t have flashbacks. I do recall the day we finally found out it was over. My legs went out from under me. I had got so used to being under enormous pressure I’d stopped noticing it, but when it was gone I was at a loss.”
Now he is in the public eye as a local councillor, he said the case is occasionally brought up against him on social media.
“It comes up every so often still. People try and use it as a weapon. It’s become a kind of idiot test. If anyone googles me they find some articles and if they are very stupid they try and bludgeon me with those without asking the question ‘If he’s such a monster, how come he’s not in jail?’
“It doesn’t matter that I was exonerated to some people. They think they know better than a high court judge who spent five years working solidly on the inquiry,” he said.
The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, known as “The Tigers”, was awarded the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of Tunbridge Wells in 2013.
Danny Boy, which is a 90-minute one-off drama, will air on Wednesday (May 12) at 9pm on BBC Two.