In July 2013 three young, fit soldiers died on a Welsh mountain during an SAS selection march. Among them was Tasmanian-raised James Dunsby, who had served with Prince Harry in Afghanistan. Despite the efforts of Dunsby's heartbroken father, no-one has yet been held accountable for their deaths. Why?
By Debi Marshall
5 May 2017
Reading time: 22 minutes
IT WAS NOT the mountain that defeated them, nor altitude that slowed them, nor snow that claimed them. It was heatstroke: preventable, avoidable heatstroke, and neglect: preventable, avoidable neglect.
In 2013, three soldiers – Lance Corporal Craig Roberts, 24, a teaching assistant who joined the British Territorial Army as a reservist; Lance Corporal Edward Maher, 30, a full-time soldier on his second attempt to join the SAS; and reservist, 31-year old Corporal James Dunsby - all died trying to complete the gruelling ‘Point to Point’, a punishing 30-mile hike on south Wales’ highest mountain, Pen Y Fan in the barren Brecon Beacons.
Held on one of the hottest days of the year, at the peak of summer, this endurance march for selection to the specialist SAS military unit was an arduous, demanding challenge of navigational, physical and mental skills over relentlessly tough terrain of steep ascents and descents. It was not for the faint-hearted, and even the fittest soldiers respected the intensity of its challenge.
Dunsby's commanding officer remembered him as “the kind of guy who always prepared intensely for everything he did”.
Dunsby, a Tasmanian-raised, British-born member of the Army Reserves (The Royal Yeomanry) was a brilliant scholar with a formidable intellect who boasted three degrees, including a master’s degree in international relations. A fellow at Oxford by 31, he was also a super-fit athlete and irrepressible character known for his wit and story-telling skills. Nicknamed ‘Mick’, after Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee, Dunsby, who had served in both the Australian and British armies, had completed a tour of Afghanistan in 2007 where he served as Prince Harry’s dismount (a soldier in a vehicle responsible for opening gates, security, talking to locals, and mine sweeping) – and, on the back of that experience, worked as an Afghanistan analyst for the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD).
He was, as his commanding officer in the Royal Yeomanry, Major Conn MacEvilly, remembered him, “the kind of guy who always prepared intensely for everything he did.” In his rare spare time, Dunsby was also a competitive rower and had a passion for smoking pipes – and his new bride, Bryher.
“When he was 4 years old, his grandmother made him up in a soldier’s suit.”
Described by his family as having the most “infectious enthusiasm for life,” and an Aussie digger’s sense of humour, Dunsby was born in Solihull Maternity Hospital in 1981 and moved to Hobart, Tasmania – then a sleepy hollow – with his parents, David and Judy, at the age of 8. David and his son were extremely close; Dunsby was an only child for nine years until the birth of his younger brother, Joe, and later, twin sisters, Helen and Ruth. Even as a child he dreamed of being a soldier.
“When he was 4 years old, his grandmother made him up in a soldier’s suit,” David recalls. “He stood to attention in that little suit in the garden for hours, guarding what he believed was a guard box. In fact, it was a toilet tent used for camping. He told us he was guarding the Queen.”
At 17, and hell-bent on becoming an officer in the British army, James returned to the UK. Though he was deemed too young to be accepted at that time, by 31 and at the peak of his fitness he, along with other SAS selection hopefuls, was ready to pit his skills against the mountain.
JULY 13, 2013: At 06.52, Dunsby – red runner 5 – starts the 26.4km march. Measured as the crow flies, the actual distance is almost 38km. The mountain air is warm, not hot and dappled clouds skitter across a cobalt sky. The march is more than arduous: through five checkpoints and with a time limit of 8 hours 48 minutes, Dunsby carries a pack on his back weighing no less than 60lbs, including his rations of food and water and a dummy rifle.
The clock ticks.
By 08.09 he arrives at checkpoint 5; by 09.55 and on track, checkpoint 3. By 11.39, he reaches checkpoint 4. His breath is now heaving and his body reaching the levels of its endurance, but he runs, without water, the 9km distance between checkpoints 4 and 2. Temperatures on the mountain have now soared to a scorching 40 degrees. Dangerously dehydrated from loss of salt and body water, he is seen close to 1pm by a soldier who described him as appearing “lethargic and confused.” A short time later, he meets another candidate who is lost. Dunsby helps him, showing him which way he has to go. There is not a breath of wind on the sweltering air. Harsh sunlight penetrates through the trees. The humidity is stifling.
But the clock is ticking, and Dunsby determined to meet his goal. He keeps running. Desperate to finish, but now disorientated and giddy, he doesn’t know that his body's temperature control system is failing fast, and his core body temperature at its boiling point. Running the steep incline called Jacob’s Ladder, he reaches his last checkpoint on the top of the mountain – checkpoint 2 – at 14.51. There, he is told by officers that he is behind schedule but can make it if he dashes the last 2.5km. Tragically, he decides to keep going. Tragically, no-one stops him.
Delirious and vomiting, he tears at his clothes, removing them in a desperate, vain attempt to cool down.
Soldier “4Y” would later testify at the inquest that while Dunsby appeared to be quite worn down on the slopes of the mountain, he ran past him on the final leg and said he would make the course on time.
Hurtling down the mountain, Dunsby’s central nervous system is in freefall and his brain, dulled and confused, fails to send signals that he is now well beyond the danger zone – or to remind him that he is carrying an emergency ration of water in his pack. Dunsby’s body and brain are now betraying him. Showing classic signs of advanced heat illness that can lead to death – headache, dizziness, fatigue – he has also stopped perspiring; the body’s equivalent of a cooling system. Without perspiration, organ failure quickly follows.
At 15.17, Dunsby collapses on that lonely mountain track. Delirious and vomiting, he tears at his clothes, removing them in a desperate, vain attempt to cool down. But it will take Commanders monitoring the tracker system at the base of the mountain 64 minutes before they notice Dunsby’s tracking device is static; an indication there is a man down. Just 80 metres from the main tourist track, which is teeming with walkers, and 300 metres from the car park – just a seven minute walk away – Dunsby lies alone while the commanders task soldiers, at 16.35, to an incorrect grid reference. His organs start shutting down, while the commanders dither.
“James lay in a desperate and life-threatening state for almost 90 minutes before help finally got to him, at 16.58,” his father David says. “The ambulance had, initially, been sent to the wrong coordinates; an hour before, another ambulance crew had walked to within 70 metres of where James lay, but abandoned their mission when they received a call that they were tasked to the wrong place. The clutch also broke in the rescue vehicle and so they decided to walk to him, then carry him down. Soldiers carried him but all they had to fan him with was his own map.”
For 45 minutes, a colleague attempted to save Maher on his own, as a rescue vehicle had become bogged.
That walk down the mountain alone took 20 minutes. It was a further 10 minutes before James was placed in the ambulance, where a desperate race to save his life began. It was all too late.
By the time Dunsby had medical help, he was suffering from multiple organ failure and hyperthermia. His body temperature was a staggeringly high 41.4 degrees Celsius and his core temperature even higher. He was dying.
It was too late, too, for Lance Corporals Roberts and Maher, who also should have been stopped at their final checkpoint, number 5. In heat illness, it is critical that help be administered within the first 30 minutes. Unassisted, a fellow recruit had tried for two desperate hours to save Roberts’ life, but by the time others arrived he was dead. Ten minutes after Roberts’ tracking device was found to be static, staff at the bottom of the mountain also checked Maher’s. To their horror, they noticed that his tracker, too, had been static for almost two hours. For 45 minutes, a colleague attempted to save Maher, again on his own as a rescue vehicle had become bogged. He, too, died on the mountain.
As Dunsby had raced against the clock on the mountain, so doctors now raced the clock to save his life. Admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at Prince Charles hospital, he was, David recalls “more dead than alive” and not expected to last the night. Later after Dunsby was transferred to Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, for 15 days and nights, David and family, with James’ wife of nine months, Bryher, kept an agonising vigil as he slowly deteriorated.
“Mate, this is one mountain you can’t climb. Everyone is here who loves you. You can let go now.”
David’s self-containment deserts him when he talks about his son’s final days and hours, his husky voice dropping to a near whisper and his eyes welling with tears.
“He had a couple of seizures, but he kept trying to battle through,” David recalls. “I sat with him every night, reading to him about the Duke of Wellington, combing his hair, making sure the creases were straight on his bed sheets, wiping what I would call his tears away. It was our precious time together, just me and him, putting the world to right.”
James’ blood pressure was spiking and although his heart was beating, he was brain dead. Says David: “On the last night, I said to him, ‘mate, this is one mountain you can’t climb. Everyone is here who loves you. You can let go now.’”
On July 30, 16 days after his collapse on the Brecon Beacons, James did, finally let go. He died on his twin sister’s 19th birthday.
“It was the abysmal response that sealed the fates of my son and the other two young men who died.”
His father is determined that the world knows this was no unavoidable accident: “Thirty-seven reservists and 51 regular’s soldiers were on the mountain that day, rendering it a huge task to monitor the beacons flashing on a small laptop screen. Thirteen soldiers failed to finish and by mid-afternoon there were only six soldiers left on the mountain.
“On that same day, the SAS were undertaking a full exercise as well; they had eight heat casualties who survived because they were located quickly and had plenty of water and received the correct medical care. It was reported that it was 28 degrees, but in reality it was 40 degrees in the valley of the mountain.
“The combination of strong sunlight, high humidity and high temperatures proved fatal. But it was the abysmal response that absolutely sealed the fates of my son and the other two young men who died.”
AT JAMES DUNSBY'S funeral, held at St James Church Trowbridge in mid-August, he was described as a “renaissance man” and adventurer who had the ability to get along with people from all walks of life, from British princes to Afghan tribesmen. That, says his father, was the measure of the man. Dunsby, Roberts and Maher were each buried with full military honours.
The inquest, held by Coroner Louise Hunt, began in mid- 2015 following a police and Health and Safety Executive investigation. For the families, it was a heartbreaking, month-long interrogation of what went so wrong. In a sad twist of fate, it was held at Solihull, where Dunsby’ was born just 31 years earlier.
There was no water in the streams, which were polluted with mud and infested with reeking, dead animals.
Three years after the men’s deaths, the coroner brought down her findings. It is hard to read the harsh realities outlined in this inquiry without wanting to weep; impossible to not reach the sad, inexorable conclusion that Dunsby’s and the other soldiers’ deaths were not only preventable, but that the entire Army exercise was a botch and the Army woefully, shamefully neglectful. A conclusion that these men should not, and need not have died; that Dunsby’s family, and the families of the other young men, should be celebrating their achievements, not grieving their losses.
The coroner’s findings were worse than scathing, a shameful catalogue of preventable failures. Safety procedures, set up to protect the soldiers from themselves, were not followed. The chain of command had failed dismally. Wrong co-ordinates were issued. There was no water in the streams, which were polluted with mud and infested with reeking, dead animals. Water was not replenished at the higher peaks. The commander of the selection process, identified as “Solder 1A” admitted he was not familiar with the Ministry of Defence’s own guidelines on how to conduct a risk assessment. He may, he said, have "skimmed over" one document, but had not "read it in detail".
Professor George Havenith from Loughborough University, who specialises in how the body copes with extreme heat and cold, gave evidence that the combination of temperature, humidity, speed, and the weight of the packs, created a ‘perfect storm.’ David believes a choice of word from Havenith – just one small word – ensured that criminal charges would not be laid against anyone.
“He said ‘had they done this, they could have survived. Had he said ‘would have survived’ things would have been very different,” David says.
The findings included that the risk assessment undertaken for the exercise was inadequate and not fit for purpose; there was a failure to incorporate the weather conditions into the assessment; a failure to follow procedure and cancel the march when the first man showed signs of heat illness. The coroner was blunt: “If this had happened, none of the deceased soldiers would have died.”
The list of findings also included deficiencies in medical supervision and inadequate training for the staff in charge of test week, including having an adequate medical plan to allow for treatment of any heat illness cases within the first golden hour.
The failure to mitigate deficiencies with the soldiers’ tracker system also came in for extreme criticism. It could not adequately monitor slow or static candidates and did not work effectively when its “slow man” function was operational. This last was particularly neglectful: in July 2008, the tracker system was identified as inadequate following the heart attack death of Royal Marine Signaller Benjamin Poole, who had undergone the identical march on the Brecon Beacons while attempting selection for the Special Forces.
Poole was one of a dozen men who had been on a dawn punishment run after a chocolate wrapper was found on a 14-mile march the previous day. At his inquest, the Ministry of Defence acknowledged that there were “lessons learned” and upgraded some software on the tracker system. But the changes made following the Poole inquest did not go far enough. If they had, Dunsby and the other two men would not have died.
“James would have been so hugely disappointed by the behaviour of an organisation for which he had fought.”
The coroner’s report on the 2013 deaths also slammed the failure by directing staff to take into account the “do or die” determination of the soldiers on that march and the failure to ensure they had had build-up marches in the week before the test. Heartbreakingly for Dunsby’s family, it concluded that in addition to a failure to properly assess Dunsby at Check Point 2 at 14.51, where he most probably would have shown signs of heat illness and given treatment which would have prevented his death, had the march been stopped any time earlier, Dunsby would have survived.
Outside the inquest, after the findings had been delivered, Dunsby’s bereft bride, Bryher – slim, dignified and bristling with constrained fury – made her feelings about the army hierarchy clear. “They displayed no responsibility, no accountability and no humility for their role which led to the events of 13 July, 2013,” she read.
“James would have been so hugely disappointed by the behaviour of an organisation for which he had fought and for which he ultimately lost his life.”
The army issued an apology which in part read: “We are truly sorry for all the mistakes that the coroner identified today.” It is of little or no comfort to David and the families of the other two men.
IN THE COLD light of day, and for all the evidence delivered with the stiff British upper lip, it is impossible to forget the savage truth: that by the standards of the Ministry of Defence’s own guidelines, the march should have been stopped at the first case of heat illness, long before it was realised that there were men down. It is impossible to forget the savage truth that Maher was not noticed as static for two hours and that he died clutching a bottle of water and a half-eaten chocolate bar; that Roberts was down for one hour before anyone noticed and that Dunsby – a brother, husband and son, a brilliant scholar, elite soldier and perfectionist in his personal and professional life – died when the Army’s best and finest should have ensured that he lived.
David ruminates with sad resignation on how different the outcome of his son’s rescue could have been. “Knowing that James had been down for so long, why was the Army helicopter not tasked to get him out of there? This was a training exercise, held in an area which has been home for SF [special forces] training and selection for many years. Were the commanders complacent, or just arrogant? Or was everyone simply out of their depth, given the size and scope of what was happening?”
“It’s not Afghanistan – it was the Brecon Beacons. Which part of these deaths is acceptable?”
It is one thing to lose a son; it is another to lose a son to a preventable death. David’s biting anger that James and the other two young soldiers died is palpable. He grapples for answers in the predawn hours when sleep eludes him and overwhelming grief engulfs him; demands answers of those in the highest office who, he believes have sheltered behind blame-shuffling and protection of their military badges and colleagues; demands answers about where the buck stops and who, individually failed in their duty of care; has sought answers and solace as he retraces his son’s footsteps on the mountain.
“James followed his childhood dream to become an elite soldier,” David says. “Twenty years later, he’s in the Household Cavalry with the Queen’s grandson. How tragically ironic, then, that the establishment he adored and respected is the very same one that failed him and led to his death.”
Why were civilian statements not taken when they clearly showed that soldiers were falling ill with heat illness as early as mid-morning?
Dunsby was used to fighting in extreme conditions, adds his father. “But this wasn’t war. This was a training exercise. And it’s not Afghanistan – it was the Brecon Beacons. Which part of these deaths is acceptable?”
Craig Roberts’ parents asked the same question of an army officer, demanding to know why the men were sent on that course in such extreme heat. The answer, they claim, was that “it required too much paperwork to cancel” (the officer told the inquest that he can’t recall saying that).
David Dunsby has written many letters to Army command, seeking answers to questions about why procedures weren’t followed. In one, he questions why, when there was a truck in the car park with candidates who had finished the course, the truck and its occupants weren’t deployed to help in the rescue effort; an oversight that he claims condemned James to die. He asserts that procedures weren’t followed because of the ‘macho’ culture that exists in the army’s elite and the mistaken, narcissistic belief that their elevated positions somehow made them exempt and protected from the need to follow normal guidelines.
“I have nothing but praise for the lads who brought our son back down the mountain. They are the heroes of this tragic story.”
He asks that, given soldiers 1A and 1B did not have the authority to make the decisions that would have saved the boys' lives, why was the senior officer, who could make those decisions not present on the day? Why wasn’t a garrison helicopter on standby? Why was the Army using a monitoring system that was not fit for purpose? Why are there so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the witness statements? Why were civilian statements not taken when they clearly showed that soldiers were falling ill with heat illness as early as mid-morning? Why was David given the wrong location by SAS Directing Staff showing him where his son had collapsed?
All the questions, to date, remain unanswered.
David has nothing but contempt for those he believes are obscuring further information; contempt and disdain. He condemns the system that broke down that July day; condemns the men who hide behind that system; condemns the sloppy and ultimately catastrophic chain of events that led to three young men losing their lives in pursuit of their dreams. “A true officer, a true commander would stand straight and admit that it was their failures which led to the deaths,” he says. “But I have nothing but praise for the lads who brought our son back down the mountain. They are the heroes of this tragic story. They are the true commanders.”
He watched as the men climbed the Brecon Beacons; watched them descend, in dribs and drabs, soaking wet, bedraggled and exhausted.
Desolate and desperately in search of answers, David has literally retraced his son’s footsteps on that lonely mountain no less than three times, finishing the course that James couldn’t finish. The first time he went to the mountain, he sat alone in his car, watching as an army exercise began. He watched as the men climbed the Brecon Beacons, even as the heavens opened up with hailstones as big as golf balls; watched as silhouetted against a grey sky and burdened with heavy packs, they clomped along the top of the ridge; watched them descend, in dribs and drabs, soaking wet, bedraggled and exhausted. He knew what completing that course on time meant to these men; it was an entrée into elite soldier status and one that few would achieve.
For David, returning to that mountain is more than a salute to his son: it is a sacred place, where he sits where James fell; a place where he finds some peace. He talks to him, quietly, but he treads lightly there, too, careful not to desecrate the area where, he believes James actually died. He talks to him, quietly, and apologies that he wasn’t there to catch him when he fell.
Supporters of the selection course claim it needs to be harsh to ensure only the toughest can join the toughest outfit in the world. Others claim the events of July 13 are the consequence of cuts implemented by the Military Strategic Defence Review, which, a month before had decided to slash 30,000 full-time soldiers and replace them with reservists.
“He would tell you that ‘the pipe chooseth the man’, much like the wands do in Harry Potter.”
David’s first wife, Judy, from whom he separated years ago is adamant her son’s death should not be public fodder; that the family has suffered enough. She will not speak for this article, and nor, she says will her children. She protects them, as mother’s do, and protects James’ memory. “He would not want the publicity; he was very private,” she asserts, “and his siblings have suffered a great deal already.”
James’ brother, Joe, did speak to a British magazine, offering a poignant glimpse into the personality of the older brother he adored.
“I absolutely idolised him growing up,” he said. “One of his favourite pastimes was taking people to buy their first pipe at a pipe shop in Frome. He would tell you that “the pipe chooseth the man”, much like the wands do in Harry Potter. It was totally absurd, but so very James. Upon his passing, myself and a few others went to Frome, bought new pipes and spent the evening smoking and drinking in his name.”
“The coroner has only got to part of the truth, so far…”
David says that soldiers who are still serving have been told to remain quiet and those who were marching that day but have since left the Army have distanced themselves from the incident. But many Special Forces personnel, while needing to remain anonymous, have voiced their opinions to David.
This, from a high ranking serving officer, encapsulates the general feeling of disgust and belief that there has been a cover-up: “I am really angry, but not surprised, about the efforts made by MOD to prevent the truth coming out. I hope that there is a criminal trial in the future. I am staggered at the inability to get the right people into court and/or ask the right questions. The coroner has only got to part of the truth, so far…”
“I want [a specific person] to say ‘I was in charge, I was responsible and I am accountable’. I won’t rest until this happens.”
David now lives in a French village in the Dordogne with his second wife, Ruth, with whom he has been for 18 years. He continues to fight for his son for numerous reasons: to honour him and try and comprehend the incomprehensible; to find out why it happened and to ensure it never happens again.
The case is now under a judicial review. Seeking redress through a civil route, David insists he is not out for vengeance: “But the buck stops at the top with the people who didn’t follow guidelines... I want [a specific person] to say ‘I was in charge, I was responsible and I am accountable’. I won’t rest until this happens.”
David quotes a verse from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, which he thinks befits the British armed forces today:
“We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
David and the other families still wait for answers, but they do so in the sure knowledge that, in the end, it was not the mountain that defeated their sons, nor the altitude that slowed them, nor the snow that claimed them. It was simple, avoidable neglect, for which no one has been held accountable – and must be.