Tributes to marine killed at Christmas

The grieving parents of a Norfolk Royal Marine killed in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve paid tribute to their son last night.Retired solicitor Sam Whatley, 54, and wife Teresa, 52, described L/Cpl Ben Whatley as a “larger than life character”.

He was proud to be a Royal Marine - and died as he led his men fighting the Taliban.

Glowing tributes have been paid this week to L/Cpl Ben Whatley, of Tittleshall, who was killed by enemy fire on Christmas Eve during an operation against insurgents in Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

His body was flown home on Tuesday and was repatriated with full military honours along with fellow Marine Cpl Robert Deering, who died in action three days earlier.

L/Cpl Whatley's grieving parents, retired solicitor Sam Whatley, 54, and wife Teresa, 52, paid tribute to their son and described him as a “larger than life character”.

They were staying in Chester with her parents when they were told that their son had been killed.

The couple and their other son Luke, 22, returned on Christmas Day to their home at Tittleshall.

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They spoke of Ben as a “vibrant, happy person who had an unbridled enthusiasm for life”.

“He was so proud to be a Royal Marine; his death creates an irreplaceable loss for all his family and friends,” they said.

News of his death came through as the Royal family joined prayers at Sandringham for troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and those left behind.

Mrs Whatley, a hairdressing lecturer at the College of West Anglia in King's Lynn, said: “He was a prankster and a real practical joker with his friends and family. He was just a larger than life character.

“While he was growing up he was a boisterous and happy child who was always investigating things. He was constantly getting into scrapes, fooling about and having a laugh.”

The couple said they had decided not to put up a tree or any Christmas decorations in their home because their son was away in Afghanistan.

Instead they had been planning a belated Christmas dinner with him after he returned for a two-week break on January 8 - the halfway point of his seven-month tour.

Mrs Whatley said: “We would have had a turkey meal with crackers and poppers once he was home. There was no way we could have had a proper family Christmas while he was away.

“You never stop worrying when your son is away on a tour. You are on edge for seven months because you never know if you are going to get a phone call or a visit to say something has happened.

“The only time you know your son is safe is when you speak to him on the phone. Then you can relax for that time - but as soon as you put the phone down you begin to get worked up again. You don't know what he will be doing in 10 minutes' time.

“Now we have had that visit which we were dreading. I suppose it is something we don't have to worry about any more.”

Mrs Whatley said her 6ft 5in son wanted to be a Royal Marine from the age of 12.

He was inspired by going on an endurance walk in north Norfolk with a former Marine during his last term at Glebe House prep school in Hunstanton.

L/Cpl Whatley later joined the Army Cadets at Fakenham while a pupil at nearby Litcham High School.

He left school at the age of 16 to go on a pre-uniform services course led by a ex-Marine Lee Mallett at the College of West Anglia. Then he joined the Royal Marines for 32 weeks' basic training in May 2005.

His best friend Tom Curry was killed in January last year when they were serving together in Afghanistan

Mrs Whatley added: “He couldn't talk much about what he was up to because he was not allowed to say anything as people might be listening in.

“He just said that they were doing a job and they had got some work to do. He was so buoyed up. He loved being a Marine.

“He was a very vibrant person. He lived every day as if it was his last and always made the best out of every situation. He packed more into his 20 years than most people do in 60.”

Mr Whatley added: “He enjoyed being with his unit. I don't think he considered the political side of things too much. He was a Marine. It was a job he simply adored. I can't imagine him being anything else or wanting to be anything else.”

L/Cpl Whatley was the 136th British service person who had been lost since operations began in Afghanistan - and the 11th Royal Marine in seven months.

Leading the prayers at Sandringham on Christmas Day, the Rev Jonathan Riviere made special mention of those serving abroad and their families - especially those who had lost loved ones to the conflicts.

A day earlier, L/Cpl Whatley, who was serving with 42 Commando Royal Marines in Helmand province, was killed by enemy fire as he led his men into action against Taliban insurgents, near Lashkar Gar.

The MoD said L/Cpl Whatley was second-in-command of Lima Company, which was conducting an operation to clear enemy forces from the north of the district.

Defence secretary John Hutton later said: “L/Cpl Ben Whatley has been described by his friends and colleagues as a superb Marine and an example to others. He died leading his men into battle.”

Major Rich Cantrill, the officer commanding Lima Company, said: “L/Cpl Ben Whatley was a tough, uncompromising commando. Tall with a booming baritone voice, Ben Whatley had in abundance that magic ingredient of presence.

“We will all miss Ben and the chance to watch him fulfil his tremendous promise. I will remember him as an ever-young commando, a fighter, a man's man, a Royal Marine to the core.”

Cpl Luke Colman, section commander of 9 Troop, Lima Company, said he could not have wanted a better second-in-command and said he would be seen “going up and down the line encouraging the other lads when things were getting hard”.

Lt Col Charlie Stickland, commanding officer of 42 Commando Royal Marines, said: “Another 'Smiley Boy' from 42 Commando lost while doing the job he loved, in an environment in which he excelled and surrounded by his mates.”

As L/Cpl Whatley's body was flown back, a guard of honour was waiting as the transport plane carrying their coffins landed at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.

A cortege then made its way through the streets of the nearby town of Wootton Bassett, which came to a standstill as crowds of people formed amid a busy day of shopping.

The public tributes began spontaneously in Wootton Bassett when repatriation flights switched to RAF Lyneham from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire last year.

The cortege then proceeded to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, where post-mortem examinations will be carried out.

The MoD said the men's bodies would be released to their families once an inquest into their deaths had been opened and adjourned.