Navy recruit found dead near Exeter 'always wanted to be a Royal Marine', inquest told

Connor Clark, 18, from Norfolk, was discovered near the commando training centre in Lympstone. Credit: Handout

The mother of a Royal Marine recruit who died in East Devon has paid tribute to him at an inquest into his death.

Connor Clark, 18, from Norfolk, was found dead on the railway line near the commando training centre (CTC) in Lympstone on 12 June 2021.

He had just completed the third week of the course that all Royal Marine recruits undertake before they begin their initial training.

His mother, Tracy Clark, spoke at the first day of the inquest at Exeter and Greater Devon Coroner’s Court.

She described how her "amazing" son had wanted to be a marine since the age of 13.

Ms Clark thanked people for the outpouring of love, locally and even internationally shown after his death.

Connor had focussed on fitness during the Covid lockdowns - training daily with his mother, who is an endurance swimmer. Credit: Handout

She added that she was "heartbroken, but not broken" by the tragedy.

Nearly £17,000 was raised in Connor's memory, which was given to the Crusaders Rugby Club in Norfolk.

Before joining the Royal Marines assessment course, he had focussed on fitness during Covid lockdowns - training daily with his mother, who is an endurance swimmer.

The inquest will focus on how, where and when Connor died and what circumstances led to his death.

Senior members of the Royal Marines will give evidence during the week-long inquest.

Connor's mother Tracy is seeking answers as to how he was treated, what pressures he faced during his course, and whether warning signs about his mental health were overlooked.

Connor's mum Tracy said her "amazing" son had wanted to be a marine since the age of 13. Credit: Handout

'Young lads get... a little bit testy with each other'

Philip Spinney, senior coroner for Devon, Plymouth & Torbay, said the inquest would hear evidence from former recruits about a “hostile atmosphere”.

He added that the inquest would hear that instructors were aggressive and would swear at recruits on the four-week recruit orientation phase (ROP) course.

Mr Spinney questioned Major Mark Thrift, who at the time of Mr Clark’s death was a captain in charge of the ROP course, about the evidence likely to be heard.

The coroner said he was expecting to hear about recruits “lashing out at each other during various points of training. These confrontations were common place”.

When asked to comment on that, Major Thrift said: “As a recruit? Yes, I think it probably was because now looking back on it and having time to reflect… I am reflecting on my own experience…”

Asked specifically about Mr Clark’s course, the officer replied: “No I wasn’t aware of that, which is a shame because during the diversity and inclusion lecture which happens on the Wednesday of week one, (it says) that they were part of a family and they needed to look after each other.

“There was to be no bullying, there was to be nothing like that, and if anyone was to experience any sort of behaviour like that, they were to bring it to my attention.

“Young lads get very tired, they get a little bit testy with each other, which I think is probably understandable, but it should not go any further than that and they should not be hostile.

“The training has not changed even in the 40 years I have been in the service and people still get very tired when they are sleep deprived.”

Connor focussed on fitness during Covid lockdowns - training daily with his mother, who is an endurance swimmer.

Recruits were told they were 'useless', coroner says

Major Thrift said the programme was designed to adjust recruits from civilian to military life. He added that up to 48% of recruits leave voluntarily at the end of their first month and, for many, the harsh reality of being there doesn't live up the expectations portrayed in the adverts.

The coroner said he also expected to hear evidence that recruits were sworn at by aggressive instructors, who told them they were “useless and shouldn’t be there”.

“I expect to hear evidence that this happened to Connor,” Mr Spinney said. “Is that your experience of this course that Connor was on? Is that accepted practice?”

Major Thrift replied: “No it’s not because that is not what the course is about. The course is a coaching and mentoring course and easing people into training.

“That is why the ROP was designed, so that it wasn’t a short, sharp, shock treatment of a national service. We’ve moved on from that and the Royal Marines has recognised that. That’s not acceptable.”

The coroner said he expected to hear evidence that “negative comments” were made towards recruits.

Major Thrift replied: “It is something I am aware of, and it does happen, from what I would describe as inexperienced but passionate instructors and they take it too far.”

Connor said he'd been told he was 'a failure' and the 'worst recruit'

The inquest heard that the teenager had made comments prior to his death about “the corporal and captain expressing implicitly and explicitly” that he was a “failure” and being the “worst recruit”.

Mr Spinney asked Major Thrift: “Did you ever tell him he was the worst recruit?”

The officer replied: “No. I did tell him he was failing.”

Major Thrift said he had seen Connor on three occasions. On one of them, Connor had presented himself with a cut on his arm and said he had cut himself on a radiator.

He said it was entirely plausible as recruits rushing around would often injure themselves.

When asked if it occurred to him if it could have been an example of self harming, Major Thrift said it never occurred to him, as Connor was in a "buoyant mood" when he saw him, having just passed a locker inspection.

He told the hearing: "I only remember his smile and it was the last time I saw him."

Nearly £17,000 was raised in Connor's memory for his local rugby club Credit: Handout

During his evidence, he explained that all recruits were told that if they had concerns they should visit the chaplaincy or sick bay.

He added that if they wanted to leave, the chaplaincy or medical staff would make recommendations to enable them to leave in a process that would last a week - or quicker if necessary.

He said the officers would not be told why someone was leaving.

Connor had passed an inspection just three days before he died, which he had been recognised for.

'I still don't understand why he just didn't go home'

Roommates realised he was missing at 5am and alerted Corporal Clinton William, who launched a search of the camp – but not beyond the fence.

“When the recruits woke Cpl Williams, they woke him at 5am. The last time they saw Connor was approximately midnight,” Major Thrift said.

“The first train didn’t come along the train track until 7am, so in my statement I put I didn’t understand how he could have been outside the wire for two hours on a nice, sunny Saturday morning, perhaps sitting considering what he was about to do… he didn’t reflect on that.

“If things were really bad at the CTC why didn’t he just go home? He was already outside the wire. I still don’t understand why he just didn’t go home.

“From the camp’s response, I don’t know why we didn’t search. We are part of a family, and a member of our family was missing and had been outside the wire from maybe just after midnight.

“I would have thought we would have searched in the immediate area at least because there was...a water bottle in the no man’s land between the two fences with ‘Recruit Clark’ written on it. It was likely he had gone outside the wire.”

Major Thrift added: “That troop was my 15th ROP. There were no concerns prior or after for the two years I was there of somebody self-harming or the risk of suicide.”

The inquest continues.