Weeks of evidence from current and former SAS soldiers in the defamation trial of Ben Roberts-Smith have revealed a regiment at war with itself.
For all their weapons of war, bravery and fearsome reputation, the defamation trial of Ben Roberts-Smith has this week revealed the dirty laundry of the SAS and claims the elite force turned on each other over rumours and gossip.
Mr Roberts-Smith is suing Nine newspapers over a series of articles in which they claimed he killed unarmed Afghans outside the lawful rules of war.
Nine maintains the articles are true and Mr Roberts-Smith denies each allegation.
Multiple SAS soldiers took the stand this month to give evidence for Nine about key missions between 2009 and 2012.
The first was the SAS assault on a Taliban compound known as Whiskey 108 on Easter Sunday, 2009.
Mr Roberts-Smith, in his evidence last year, told the Federal Court he shot a Taliban fighter armed with a rifle outside the compound.
The man had a prosthetic leg which was taken back to the SAS base, then Australia, as a macabre drinking vessel, mascot and trophy for the troop.
Nine’s journalists, in 2018 articles, claimed the disabled Afghan had actually been pulled from a tunnel unearthed inside the compound and had been detained by the SAS.
They further claimed Mr Roberts-Smith executed the suspected insurgent with a burst of a machine gun after throwing him to the ground.
The Victoria Cross recipient denies that allegation and said no one was found inside the tunnel.
But Justice Anthony Besanko, this week, heard from multiple soldiers that insurgents were found in the tiny cavern.
SAS soldier Person 40 said he saw two men crawl from the crevice – one with a fake leg who was looking for “sympathy” from the Australian troops.
Person 40 told the court, not long after the mission, he heard Mr Roberts-Smith had “pulled the trigger” and killed the man with the fake leg.
The troop had a discussion, sometime after the raid, about how “wrong” it was that the Afghan died..
Person 40 agreed his suspicion of Mr Roberts-Smith was based only on rumours swirling around the regiment – he saw nothing himself.
SAS soldier Person 14 claimed he witnessed an Australian soldier throw a human-like object to the ground before shooting it – but it was too dark to identify the triggerman.
He did not tell the court about any tunnel.
Another soldier, Person 43, said he had helped pull one insurgent out of the tunnel before he was detained.
Person 43 was himself a senior member of the SAS, a patrol commander, during the Whiskey 108 raid and claims he saw the discovery of the tunnel.
Person 43 identified a picture of a slain Afghan as the man he pulled from the tunnel but said there was only one man under Whiskey 108.
Mr Roberts-Smith’s barrister, Arthur Moses SC, said Person 43 was spreading rumours about the tunnel.
“It’s a ridiculous question. I have not told rumours, I have told facts,” Person 43 said on Friday.
The tunnel is crucial because Nine claims a second insurgent was found there and executed by an SAS “rookie” either on Mr Roberts-Smith’s order, or without his objection.
An SAS soldier, Person 41, told the court Mr Roberts-Smith forced the second Afghan to his knees and told the rookie to “shoot him”.
Person 41 told the court, on February 2, he unscrewed his rifle’s suppressor and handed it to Person 4 before stepping out of the room – then a gunshot rang out.
“(The Afghan) had been shot once in the head and the Afghan was dead on the ground, quite a bit of blood flowing out of his head wound,” Person 41 said.
Person 14’s recollection cast a different light – he claimed a different commanding officer bragged about “blooding the rookie” after Whiskey 108.
No other SAS soldier has claimed, in court, that they saw the blooding and Mr Roberts-Smith totally denies the claim.
Mr Roberts-Smith’s barristers suggested Person 4 had helped kill another Taliban weeks earlier – so he did not need to be “blooded”.
Person 4 objected to answering questions about the Whiskey 108 raid because he was concerned about “self-incrimination”.
His barrister told the court its immunity certificates could not prevent prosecution in international courts.
The following year, in 2010, Person 4 was pinned down by Taliban machine gun fire alongside Mr Roberts-Smith during the legendary battle of Tizak.
The following moments made Mr Roberts-Smith a national hero but, the court heard, gave rise to bad blood that split the elite regiment.
Mr Roberts-Smith has told the court his patrol fought toward the machine guns, risking death, where he outflanked and killed the insurgents.
A few months later, back in Australia, he was awarded the VC “for the most conspicuous gallantry in action in circumstances of extreme peril” for silencing the machine guns at Tizak.
Person 4 told the court he was alongside Mr Roberts-Smith and claimed he actually killed one of the gunners.
The court has heard squadmates believed Person 4 would get the VC not Mr Roberts-Smith.
One claimed the awards were “politicised”, another said the citation omitted Person 4’s brave actions though admitted he wasn’t there to witness the firefight.
SAS soldier Person 18 said “rumours were running wild” that Mr Roberts-Smith threw a grenade without first pulling the pin, and had rushed into a building near the machine guns with a jammed weapon.
“Rumours are carried by haters, spread by fools, and accepted by idiots,” The VC recipient’s barrister, Arthur Moses SC, said to Person 18 before the question was withdrawn.
Person 18 told the court he withdrew from the toxic culture of the SAS and it was like a “country wives’ club” riven by gossip about Tizak.
“You’ve told people within the unit Mr Roberts-Smith did not deserve the Victoria Cross,” Mr Moses asked.
“Yes, that’s been my opinion for the last 12 years,” Person 18 responded.
Person 18 would later be accused of war crimes in an anonymous threat, which he denies.
Nine attributed the posted threats to Mr Roberts-Smith in their court case and reporting, a claim he also denies.
The June 2018 letters warned Person 18 to recant his testimony to an ADF inquiry or he’d be outed as killing two prisoners at Tizak.
The high ranking former soldier, Person 43, on Friday told the court he had doubts about the citation and whether Mr Roberts-Smith deserved the medal.
Person 4 told the court he became embittered when he was overlooked for the VC and it took two more years for him to receive a Medal for Gallantry for Tizak.
By that time, Person 4 claims, he had witnessed Mr Roberts-Smith commit a war crime on a third mission in the town of Darwan.
The court has heard Nine had offered a “side-deal” to Person 4 that he would not need to testify about the alleged “blooding” at Whiskey 108 if he spoke about Darwan.
Another judge, on Friday, ruled the agreement would not be a “fraud on justice” – despite arguments by Mr Roberts-Smith’s legal team.
Person 4 told the court he was standing in the town, on the edge of a dry river, looking up to a ledge where a local shepherd had been detained by the SAS.
He told the court he watched Mr Roberts-Smith kick the Afghan, named Ali Jan, in the chest and he careered down a steep incline, shattering his teeth on a rock.
Person 4 claimed he helped drag Mr Jan across the dry river and was standing just metres away as another SAS soldier, Person 11, shot Mr Jan dead in front of Mr Roberts-Smith.
The court has heard Mr Roberts-Smith’s enemies within the SAS, chiefly Persons 6 and 7, used Person 4’s allegations against Mr Roberts-Smith after conversations in 2016.
“You were used by Person 7 to tell a story about Darwan so he could bring Mr Roberts-Smith down,” Mr Moses suggested.
“I’ve suspected that,” Person 4 replied, later adding he had felt “manipulated”.
Person 4 believed Mr Roberts-Smith’s enemies had leaked the allegations to the media.
There were multiple meetings between groups of SAS soldiers with the regiment’s commanders, the court has heard, as various complaints were made about Mr Roberts-Smith.
Person 4 broke down crying speaking about Darwan to a commander and the leadership were reluctant to act, one soldier told the court.
Person 43, on Friday, said he met with Mr Roberts-Smith’s critics to discuss their doubts about the Victoria Cross.
Mr Roberts-Smith’s patrol commander, from Tizak and Whiskey 108, was not invited and neither was the VC recipient’s close friend in the regiment, the court heard.
“It was to discuss Mr Roberts-Smith and they were not on side for lack of a better term.,” Person 43 told the court on Friday.
Person 43 then told the court he shouldn’t have said there were “sides” in the SAS, rather it was just people with “similar opinions” about Tizak.
“What was similar opinion you held?” Mr Moses asked.
“That the awarding of the VC was done in secrecy without involvement of the rest of the troop, and only with the witnesses being amongst the same patrol,” Person 43 said.
“The actual wording of the award was what we believed was incorrect.”
Mr Roberts-Smith told the court the VC put a target on his back for jealous squadmates .
I will maintain until the day I die the Victoria Cross is for what we achieved, because you cannot go into battle alone. You have to do it together,” he said in evidence last year.
The trial continues.