A young Royal Marine drowned after a landing craft which was supposed to drop troops onto a beach into Cornwall drifted into deeper water.
An inquest jury returned a finding that Ethan Jones died as a result of being ‘submerged for a prolonged period’, after hearing that a series of misjudgments led to the tragedy in January 2020.
The lights on the landing craft had been switched off and the 26 young recruits who were landed off a beach in Cornwall were told to take off their lifejackets before entering the water.
The plan was for the men to jump into shallow water and wade ashore but the craft hit a sandbar off the beach. The first men landed on the bar but the boat got lighter as they disembarked and it drifted into deeper water.
Ethan was one of those who jumped into the sea and struggled to float because he was weighed down by heavy equipment and was submerged for about five minutes.
The inquest at Plymouth heard that 20-year-old Ethan and fellow members of his troop were on week 29 of their 32-week basic training to qualify for a Green Beret as a fully-fledged Royal Marine. The jury was told the night- time exercise in January 2020 took place on Tregantle Beach in Whitsand Bay, East Cornwall.
Ethan was in full battle gear for the beach landing which was to be followed by a rope climb up cliffs before an assault on a local fort in an ‘opposed amphibious landing’.
The recruits were divided up into three sections and were given an order to disembark by the coxswain by jumping off the lowered ramp at the front of the craft.
The first men landed up to their knees and hips in the water but as the exercise continued others were hip or chest deep in the sea.
Ethan, of Woodpecker Avenue, Midsomer Norton, near Radstock, was the eighth recruit in the second section of his 282 Troop but he ended up fully submerged under the landing craft.
The jury heard three recruits struggled to get to shore and the coxswain dived in to recover one trainee and then spotted a rucksack floating in the sea and found Ethan face down and unresponsive.
He retrieved him and gave him CPR while 999 was called and an ambulance and air ambulance were scrambled.
Ethan was flown to Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital where he died three days later.
A post mortem revealed he died from a hypoxic brain injury caused by being starved of oxygen due to drowning.
Captain Smith, the troop commander, told the inquest:”The water was incredibly calm. It was clear, crisp and very cold and not particularly rough on the beach, very normal.”
He said a decision was made for the recruits to ‘ditch’ their lifejackets at the last moment before they jumped from the landing craft ramp.
He said everybody was wearing battle order – each had a rifle and ammo and a dry sack with minimal warm dry kit, carrying a helmet and body armour saying it was ‘as light role as you can go’.
But he said he believed the craft had hit a sand bar rather than beaching, but the first section jumped off and were up to their knees and waist in water.
The Captain followed the first section ahead of the second group jumped off and headed towards the beach and cliffs.
The officer said he was then radioed to say they needed a headcount because some recruits were in the water and ‘we were missing numbers’.
Captain Smith waded back to the craft and found Ethan was being given CPR – but it was an hour before an air ambulance arrived at the scene.
He said his understanding was the craft hit a sand bar but after some of the men jumped into the sea, the craft was lighter and dislodged and ended up in deeper water and the next men ended up jumping into that deeper water.
Corporal Crawley was in the wheelhouse of the craft and he realised there was a problem with the time it was taking to disembark.
He heard ‘a lot of commotion’ and saw recruits ‘all submerged’ in the water.
He jumped in and grabbed one man who was okay and then a light was shone and a sack was spotted – he jumped in and brought Ethan back to the craft.
Ethan’s mother Natasha told the inquest that from an early age her son wanted to become a Royal Marine and visited elderly veterans in care homes.
She said he achieved his ‘life goal’ of joining the commandos in May 2019.
She said he was always excited and enjoyed every aspect of training, adding: “His only concern was for others struggling or injured and was concerned for them, that was the type of man he was.”
She said he called his family about the final exercise and was ‘excited and looking forward to getting his Green lid’.
She added he was outgoing, very friendly and sociable and previously had completed the Three Peaks challenge, Duke of Edinburgh award, Ten Tors challenge and martial arts.
The Ministry of Defence was later issued with a Crown Censure over the death for failings in risk assessment, proper planning and supervision and failing to ensure the safety of their employees during what should have been a routine training exercise.
By accepting the Crown Censure, the MOD admitted breaching its duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The jury was told ‘significant learning’ and changes had been made in light of the tragedy.
The inquest jury recorded a narrative conclusion saying the recruits were ordered to remove their lifejackets before disembarking but that the landing craft had possibly hit a sandbar in low visibility.
Training safety methods have been improved significantly, senior officers told the hearing.
The senior Plymouth and South Devon coroner Ian Arrow said he was heartened that many things had been learned and many things changed and offered his heartfelt condolences to the family, saying it was ‘terribly sad’.
Ethan’s family said at the time of his death: “Ethan died fulfilling his dream and doing something he loved.
“He wanted to join the best of the best and challenge himself.”
During training, Ethan had been selected as a recruit section commander and was awarded the Commando Medal which is voted for by recruits for the individual who best personifies the Commando Spirit.
Captain Christian Smith, the troop commander, said Ethan had commanded his section ‘with a strong presence and authority’.
Lt Col Oliver Coryton, commando training commanding officer, said: “It was evident to all that he had an exceptionally promising career ahead. His loss has been keenly felt by those closest to him, yet his spirit endures, inspiring others to be as good as they can be.”
Fellow recruit and friend, Daniel Landrey, said Ethan always had a ‘pasty in his hand’ and never complained.