SAS ‘rumour’ mill, bullying claims and doubts over Victoria Cross dominate Ben Roberts-Smith trial
The war veteran and Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith is suing three newspapers in the Federal Court.(AAP. Bianca De Marchi)
It’s difficult to imagine two environments more different than a club of country wives and a military unit of elite soldiers.
But what they share, according to evidence heard in a Sydney court this week, is a propensity for rumours.
The surprising analogy was drawn by a Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) witness at the defamation trial of war veteran Ben Roberts-Smith against three newspapers.
One “common” rumour stemmed from questions around whether Mr Roberts-Smith deserved his Victoria Cross, said the soldier codenamed Person 18, describing the SAS as “like a country wives club”.
The unit was “a very toxic environment” where “any rumour is expanded tenfold”, he elaborated under cross-examination by Mr Roberts-Smith’s barrister, Arthur Moses SC.
The Federal Court was told this week how rumours were “expanded tenfold” in the SAS.(AAP: Australian Department of Defence)
But Person 18, who is among witnesses called by publisher Nine Entertainment, disagreed that jealousy contributed to the toxicity.
“It’s a very alpha environment where people are constantly trying to … outdo each other or push each other and strive to be better at a skill set,” Person 18 said, adding that mistakes were “magnified”.
Such was the level of post-deployment discussion about Afghanistan among peers, the soldier grew “tired of the topic”.
His “several hundred jobs” overseas spawned “vast” rumours, Person 18 said.
He rejected Mr Moses’s accusation that, far from distancing himself from the “country wives club” of the SAS, he was “right up amongst it as one of the big rumour mongers”.
The Whiskey 108 rumours
The April 2009 assault of a Taliban compound nicknamed “Whiskey 108”, where Mr Roberts-Smith has been accused of shooting a man with a prosthetic leg in an unlawful killing, prompted one such rumour.
Mr Roberts-Smith denies the accusation, which is among several the veteran argues were all false and defamed him when they were published in 2018 articles in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times.
Person 18 said he heard the rumour about the alleged murder of the man with a prosthetic leg first in Afghanistan and then Australia, and it became “widely known”.
He denied feeding the “rumour mill”, as Mr Moses put it, by claiming to have been clearing a secret tunnel in Whiskey 108 when he heard a burst of firing.
Another SAS witness, Person 40, recalled seeing two “obviously very frightened” insurgents earlier emerging from the tunnel, including one with a beard and a “distinctive limp”.
That man lifted his trouser and pointed to a prosthetic leg, expecting “sympathy”, the witness said.
The pair was “marched off” to another area by Mr Roberts-Smith and a colleague, Person 35, the court heard.
Person 40 said he heard a “burst of machine-gun fire” about 20 minutes later. The next time he saw the man with the artificial leg, he was dead on the ground.
The witness said a rumour soon began circulating that the man had been “executed” on site.
While, like Person 18, he could not recall who he heard it from, it led him to “suspect” Ben Roberts-Smith pulled the trigger.
A witness under cross-examination by Mr Moses denied that jealousy contributed to the toxicity in the SAS.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
‘You know where they are’
Under cross-examination, Mr Moses described Person 40’s evidence that senior colleagues — including patrol commanders and troop headquarters personnel — also saw the man with the prosthetic leg emerge from the tunnel, as “ludicrous”.
But Person 40 stood by his evidence, politely rebuffing the idea he had devised “a story” to convince himself he saw something “relevant to that rumour”.
“No, sir,” he said.
The tunnel and what was found inside has emerged as a key topic for cross-examination, with Mr Moses using extended and sometimes repetitive lines of questioning to highlight any uncertainty or doubt within answers witnesses give.
A former patrol commander, Person 43, claimed one man came out of the tunnel, describing him as “elderly”, with a beard and wearing “local clothing”.
Person 43 recalled helping comrade Person 35 cover the entrance as he yelled for an interpreter but said the man emerged within 15 seconds.
Ben Roberts-Smith poses with a prosthetic leg at the so-called “Fat Ladies Arms” bar in Afghanistan.(Supplied)
He then became a Person Under Control (PUC) and would have been searched on the ground, and likely handcuffed and questioned, the witness told the court.
Person 43 said as they left the mission, his colleague Person 40 asked where were the PUCs, to which he replied: “You know where they are.”
He said this was a vague comment designed to avoid “incriminating someone” for something he did not know had happened.
A man’s prosthetic leg ended up in the unofficial soldier bar, The Fat Ladies Arms, where it was used as a drinking vessel and, according to Person 40, became “a mascot” for the troop.
The evidence regarding a man or men in a tunnel contradicts the account Mr Roberts-Smith gave the court last year when he insisted “there were no men in the tunnel”.
He said a person he shot dead that day was an armed insurgent coming around the corner of the compound and was legitimately engaged.
Victoria Cross under fire
Mr Roberts-Smith’s Victoria Cross (VC), which he was awarded for his actions during the intense Battle of Tizak in 2010, came under further attack from the witness box this week.
Person 43 admitted he had told many comrades the VC was “in doubt” — and said others shared this view, partly because it was awarded “in secrecy”, because the only witnesses that day were Mr Roberts-Smith’s own patrol members and because the “wording” of the award was believed to be “incorrect”.
Person 43 told the court many fellow soldiers shared the view the VC was “in doubt”. (AAP: Australian Department of Defence)
He denied being “bitter” that he did not win any award for his own role at Tizak, insisting he was not “an attention seeker”, and said “a lot of people” discussed the VC rumour.
The former patrol commander further admitted he had told colleagues Mr Roberts-Smith was “a bully”, but said the veteran’s “behaviour” and the VC were two separate things.
He told the court he was never bullied by Mr Roberts-Smith.
“I don’t particularly like him,” he said of his view of the veteran now.
Justice Anthony Besanko has been told Nine is likely to continue calling witnesses until around the beginning of April.
Mr Roberts-Smith’s legal team is then expected to call SAS witnesses.
As the trial’s overall duration remains an open question, Justice Besanko flagged his intention to “press on” through April to complete it.
Hi I don’t know why you are continuing the witch hunt against Mr Ben Roberts Smith with such a one eyed coverage of the events by this reporter. There is no doubt that a number of reporters from media have been targeting BRS consistently over the last few years. Their ‘reporting’ has to be questioned and called out simply for its bias which has me frustrated and utterly disgusted!!
NONE of these fools have even pulled on a boot let alone gone to war? So why are you just cutting and pasting their garbage?
I WOULD HAVE EXPECTED BETTER FROM YOU!!
Tony Blake A Company 7RAR 2nd Tour Vietnam 70-71.