One of the largest inquiries into the alleged abuse of teenage Army recruits in Britain has collapsed after the Royal Military Police bungled the investigation.
A judge branded the three-year police probe “seriously flawed” as he halted the first of three court martials amid problems of missing evidence and claims that witnesses were forced to make statements.
There are also fears that the Royal Military Police may have mishandled other cases, such as Operation Northmoor - the inquiry into alleged abuses by British soldiers in Afghanistan - and there are now calls for senior RMP officers to be investigated.
It was alleged that 16 instructors - all sergeants or corporals - ill-treated 28 school leavers while posted to the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
The recruits told the court martial in Bulford, Wiltshire, that the instructors would get them fired up by making them play British Bulldog, by putting on “war faces” and getting them running between two hills - known as “heaven” and “hell” - ahead of bayonet training during a battle camp at Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway, in the summer of 2014.
It was then claimed that the teenagers, who were aged 16 or 17, were slapped or punched in the face, spat at, grabbed by the throat, were “clotheslined”, had their faces submerged in mud or were ordered to eat animal manure.
But after eight days, the prosecution offered no evidence in 24 of the 31 charges the first 10 defendants faced - meaning five were acquitted and walked free from court.
The trial of the remaining five instructors continued for another day until Assistant Judge Advocate General Alan Large stayed proceedings, ruling they could not get a fair trial.
Following his ruling - in which he condemned the Royal Military Police for a “seriously flawed” and “totally blinkered approach” to the investigation - the prosecution indicated it would offer no evidence against a further six instructors.
Restrictions remained in force until the conclusion of the final court martial featuring two of the defendants from the first trial but at the 11th hour it was also dropped.
Now with all criminal proceedings over, it can now be revealed that the Royal Military Police botched the investigation by taking a “policy decision” not to secure evidence that might “undermine the prosecution’s case”.
It was split into 10 separate inquiries investigating complaints from 40 recruits against 30 instructors, which resulted in the failed prosecution of 16 defendants in three court martials.
Ten went on trial in February facing 31 charges, two from the first court martial were due to face trial in March accused of eight offences, with a further six instructors being tried in April on 24 charges.
The officer leading the investigation, Captain Teresa Spanton, did not question eyewitnesses - including a major, several captains and a warrant officer - because she believed they would lie in their witness statements - a decision described by the judge as “frankly, startling”.
Handwritten accounts made by some recruits shortly after the alleged abuse have never been found and neither have up to 500 photographs of the training taken by an officer.
It also took two years to interview under caution the accused soldiers and another 12 months before they knew they were being charged.
Lewis Cherry, a Northern Ireland-based solicitor who specialises in military law, said: “I have never found anything that has been as badly done as this. This is so absolutely appalling.
“I am normally a bit cynical about it but this time I am lost for words.
“Not only was this policy running in 2014, it was allowed to keep running until 2018 and absolutely nobody has called a halt.
“This policy decision was not taken by a lowly captain alone; those managing the RMP investigations over those years must themselves now be investigated.
“I just don’t know where it is going to go. I’ve had my doubts about them for many years but I couldn’t believe it was this bad. It has never been proved to me that it is this bad.”
During the court martial, several of the teenagers gave evidence that conflicted with their original written statements given to the RMP.
Some recruits were accused of lying by barristers representing the defendants by saying things in court that were not in their statements.
Others alleged they had been forced or threatened into making statements and to come to court to give evidence in person.
One recruit, Joe Van den Akker, said: “I was forced into making one in Catterick by the platoon staff in Catterick.”
Guardsman Matthew Talbot said the RMP suggested names to him during his interview saying things like “Did you see such and such?”
“It wasn’t really a case of if you didn’t want to be a part of it you could say no,” he said.
“That was how it was put to me - that I’d be doing a disservice to future recruits and there could be an alternative motive proven as to why I’d chosen not to say anything.”
One barrister suggested that sounded like a threat.
Guardsman Talbot replied: “Yeah, it did kind of intimidate me into coming forward with it.
“It did feel like there was quite a lot of pressure put on your shoulders to come forward and do the right thing. There was no way of saying no. Your choice was removed.”