Mystery death of British soldier from Port Elizabeth

Brian Hayward

THE British Ministry of Defence has launched a full-scale investigation into the mysterious execution-style killing of one of its soldiers, Port Elizabeth-raised Paul Watkins, after he was gunned down in Afghanistan at the weekend, allegedly by the very soldiers he had been sent to train.

Condolences poured in yesterday following the release of Watkins’s name as the sole fatality of an attack in which two other British soldiers were injured on Saturday afternoon in the southern Afghanistan province of Helmand, apparently after a member of the Afghan Friendly Forces they had been training since March opened fire on them.

News of the incident has dominated headlines on Sky News and in British newspapers, although the British Army only released Watkins’s name yesterday.

Watkins, 24, who matriculated from Woodridge College in 2005, joined the British Army in 2007 after spending a gap year assisting at a school in Winchester, England.

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According to his family, he had wanted to join the army “ever since he was two bricks and a tickey high” and had loved every minute of his fledgling career.

It was relayed to Watkins’s family that he had been shot twice in the back of the head, but the British Army said it would not comment on details of the attack until its investigation had been wrapped up.

Watkins’s shocked family, who live in Ben Kamma, Port Elizabeth, were met by Pretoria-based British Peace Support Team Major Steve Penkethman after they returned home from dining out on Saturday evening.

“Because of the operational and security information on the ground, I can’t give further information,” Penkethman yesterday.

“I can indicate an investigation is under way by the British and Afghan forces into the incident. Further information will be made known when it becomes available.”

The Watkins family – father Rod, mother Gillian and younger brothers Luke and Simon – will fly out to meet Penkethman in Johannesburg today, before flying to the Royal Air Force base in Lyneham, southern England, tonight.

Watkins’s body will be flown to England from Afghanistan on Thursday for a “repatriation ceremony”, after which his family will return home and scatter his ashes in Algoa Bay – his last request should he ever be killed in action.

Tearful father Rod described yesterday how Paul would call home once a week – even when he was deployed to Afghanistan.

“He had always wanted to join the army, from a young age. He enjoyed the outdoors life, and the discipline that went with army life.

“That was his life. He phoned home regularly; once a week from Afghanistan. He was in his element.”

Watkins had been based with his regiment, the 9th/12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales’s) in Hanover, Germany, for much of his career.

Aside from his Afghanistan mission, he had been deployed to the Middle East just one other time – to Iraq for nine months in 2009.

Watkins’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel William Fooks, said Watkins would be “missed immeasurably by us all but never forgotten”.

“Lance-Corporal Paul Watkins was absolutely someone you’d want on your team and by your side; tough, hugely dependable and determined, yet compassionate.

“When all around him was frenzied activity, Lance-Corporal Watkins would be serenely and reassuringly calm. And combined with his arid sense of humour and his disarming grin, a big problem very quickly became no problem at all.

“This was a mature and vibrant young man, who lived his life to the full and was trusted and respected across the board both in Germany, where the regiment is based, and out here in Helmand.

Lance-Corporal Adam Younger, who served with Watkins, said: “Paul was far too big a character to be summed up in just one paragraph. He was a gleaming bloke, one of the boys, but somehow maintained a maturity to keep the rest of us all in check. He was the guy you would turn to when the going got tough. He would have never given up and it is profound he was there fighting to the end.”

Following his mission to Iraq, Watkins was the youngest inductee into the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (Moth), Settlers District Dugout, last year.

Moth spokesperson Nick Cadle said yesterday: “Paul was the 332nd British soldier to have died as a result of hostile action while serving in Afghanistan since the start of operations in October 2001.

“On behalf of all Moths we extend our condolences to parents Rod and Gill, brothers Luke and Simon, and other family members.”

Watkins, who had already booked his plane ticket home for Christmas, had just three months left in Helmand before returning to Hanover.

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