Royal Marine recruit given 'thrashing' on the night before he died, inquest told

Connor Clark (right) with his mum Tracy Credit: Handout

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A Royal Marine recruit underwent a "thrashing" alongside his troop on the night before he died, an inquest has heard.

Connor Clark, 18, had been going to spend the weekend in Exeter when his body was discovered on the tracks adjacent to the commando training centre (CTC) in Lympstone on the morning of 12 June 2021.

The teenager, from Norfolk, was three weeks into a four-week recruit orientation phase (ROP) course that all Marines undertake before they begin their initial training.

An inquest into his death began at the Exeter and Greater Devon Coroner's Court on Monday 17 June.

The inquest in Exeter has heard Mr Clark had made comments about being told by the staff he was a “failure” and was the “worst recruit”.

He had also misplaced a blank firing adapter for his rifle - but officers told the inquest there would not have been any consequences for Mr Clark for losing the £40 device.

The night before he died, on 11 June 2021, Connor Clark and the other new recruits in his troop had undergone a physical punishment of press-ups, lasting nearly an hour.

Fellow recruit Able Seaman Chris Lee told the hearing, although he could not remember precisely how long the so called "thrashing" was, it was "very significantly more" than the recommended fifteen minutes given for sanctions.

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

He added that it had been issued to the entire troop over concerns of failing to meet standards during their training.

Thrashing is the term used at the Royal Marines Commando training centre for any form of punishment or sanction.

The pair had become friends as they were both originally from New Zealand and got to know each other well. They were looking forward to a meal out in Exeter that weekend.

'I don’t think there was anything I could have seen to prevent what actually happened'

AB Lee rejected claims the teenager had been a target of bullying by instructors. “I wouldn’t say he was singled out or targeted any more than the rest of the troop was,” AB Lee said.

“I wouldn’t say it was fair to say he was unfairly targeted if I am being completely honest.”

AB Lee said he was taken “completely by surprise” by his friend’s death. “We didn’t have any kind of foresight or any thought that could happen. It didn’t really come across our minds,” he said.

“I think even after looking back there were any warning signs that I missed other than potentially the fact that, now that I think about it with the questions asked today, perhaps he got a little more stressed and worried with the fact that we might lose the shore leave because he lost a piece of kit.

“Maybe that played on his mind quite a bit, I am not sure. Thinking about it today with the questions asked, I think that might have been a driving factor.

“Looking back now I don’t think there was anything I could have seen or noticed to prevent what actually happened.”

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

The inquest heard Mr Clark “struggled” with organising his personal kit and had failed inspections as a result.

“He did seem to be quite worried about it all the time. I would also say it wasn’t to a point where I thought he might really need some help here,” AB Lee said.

“There was always encouragement and people were around to help him, but he did seem to stress out quite a bit about his kit, but it wasn’t anything alarming or to the point where I thought this might be an issue.”

The witness told the court there were tensions between recruits, with two or three being aggressive towards each other.

“Amongst the recruits I would say a large number of the troop got along quite well with each other but there were a few people who had started quite a lot of arguments, which at times almost did get physical,” he said.

“I think a few of the individuals, maybe two or three of them, would make situations a bit worse than they needed to be. There were two or three recruits who would make the environment a bit toxic.”

'The comments or statements they were making never really got too personal'

AB Lee said he never saw Mr Clark being singled out by other recruits and said the instructors would shout and swear at times, but were just doing their job.

“I would say occasionally from time to time they might swear at the recruits or shout something, but I didn’t really see it as anything more than them doing their jobs in training recruits,” he said.

“I never really saw them being unfair with anybody either. In terms of exactly what they might have said I don’t recall them using the word ‘useless’ too often.

“I wouldn’t say it was any more different or strange than what would be expected of an instructor.

“From my personal standpoint I saw them as doing their jobs. The comments or statements they were making never really got too personal, so I never really took it that way either.”

AB Lee told the court he had personally suffered around 20 “thrashings” – meaning punishments of physical exercise such as press-ups or running – during his time at the ROP.

The inquest heard that AB Lee had switched to another career within the Royal Navy after Mr Clark’s death.

Asked why, he said: “I would say it was more than that, but it did play into my decision. After that happened, I don’t think my mind was really in the right place to be there any more.

“I think I got disheartened after what happened and looking back, I wouldn’t be exactly able to say why but I think in the moment my mood went down quite a bit and then I started losing the motivation after what happened to Connor.”

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

On the night of 11 June, AB Lee had agreed to meet Mr Clark with others at the washing area to help him but he did not turn up.

They could not find him and went back to their beds. He was awoken by people shouting Mr Clark's name the following morning.

AB Lee went to Connor Clark's room. He saw a bayonet lying on the floor and ran around the block looking for him. He also found his notebook on the ground floor but didn't read it.

When he heard of his death, he said he was completely taken by surprise and he didn't feel like he missed any warning signs.

He told the coroner Philip Spinney that he knew that Mr Clark was stressed about losing a piece of kit.

It was a blank firing attachment that is placed on the end of rifles to indicate that it is only for firing blanks.

It was said to be a piece of equipment that could be of interest to terrorist organisations.

Chris Lee said Mr Clark may have gotten more stressed about the possibility of losing his right to shore leave or the night out for losing the piece of kit.

Opportunity to find Connor 'may have been missed'

The inquest also heard from the officer on night duty on 11 June 2021, when Mr Clark went missing.

Joseph Tyler told the coroner an opportunity may have been missed to carry out a wider search outside the Royal Marines base at Lympstone.

He was told at just after 6am by a duty corporal that a recruit was missing.

He said that it was a common occurrence and suggested a search of the common areas such as the shop, laundry and immediate area.

At around 6.30am, he was made aware that a improvised noose had been found and signs someone had scaled the fence.

However, he said he didn't feel it was an emergency situation and there was no need to call the police.

Answering questions from the coroner Philip Spinney, Joseph Tyler said he felt it wasn't necessary to call the police as they wouldn't view a recruit who had gone absent without leave as an emergency.

Recruits leave camp fairly regularly and he said he would have considered a search may have been misusing resources, because he wouldn't expect to have found him within 50 yards of the base.

A short time later, he was told a notebook belonging to Connor Clark and a note had also been found but he couldn't recall exactly when he was told about the note.

He couldn't say whether it was before or after 7am - which would have been before the first train was due.

He said, had he known there was a note and the nature of its contents with a message to his family, he would have escalated the situation and called for a wider search involving other agencies.

He said: "If there was a threat to life, I would have not hesitated to call the police."

The hearing continues.