THE wife of an East Lancashire soldier killed in a tank blast on an Army firing range has paid tribute to her childhood sweetheart and 'soulmate' during the inquest into his death.

Blackburn Corporal Darren Neilson, along with Matthew Hatfield, both of the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), died of their injuries after an explosion in their tank at Castlemartin firing ranges, Pembrokeshire, Wales, on June 14, 2017.

Father-of-one Cpl Neilson, 31, was the tank commander and was thrown from Challenger 2 during the blast, while Cpl Hatfield, 27, from Wiltshire, was loading ammunition.

Jemma Neilson read a statement in tribute to her husband, a former pupil of Ribblesdale High School in Clitheroe, who she first met at Blackburn Ice Arena, aged just 14.

She said she was "proud to say I am the wife of Corporal Darren Neilson".

She added: "He was the most handsome and perfect man I could ever wish to meet.

"He was my world, my soulmate, best friend and hero.

"He was an amazing husband and daddy and we had a life filled with love and laughter.

"We love and miss him more than words could express."

Lt Col Ridgway, Cpl Neilson's commanding officer, said: "Cpl Daz Neilson was a superb soldier and real character within our regiment.

"He joined the Army in 2004 and served with both 1 RTR and 2 RTR, deploying on operations to both Iraq and Afghanistan."

He added the Blackburn Rovers fan - who was born in the town - was 'renowned for being professional, hard-working, great fun, and a real team player.'

He said: "Daz was clearly a family man devoted to his amazing wife Jemma and incredible daughter Millie."

Earlier this year, brave Millie, eight, held a birthday ball for her dad at his beloved Ewood Park in support of the charity that has helped her family since his death, Scotty’s Little Soldiers.

An air-tight seal stopping high-explosive gases escaping into a tank crew's turret was not in place before a lethal blast, the inquest heard.

Evidence has also been heard that the tank shell's ammunition, known as "bag charges", may have been "incorrectly stowed" outside boxes within the turret.

It also emerged the men, both highly trained gunnery instructors with combat experience, were only in the powerful battle tank because they were taking another soldier out for a "guest shoot".

Resuming their inquests on Monday, a coroner said a crew of four, including the two men, took the tank to the British Army range's firing point, after it had been used by another team for an annual crew test.

She said that a piece of equipment fitted to the tank barrel, called the bolt vent axial (BVA), had been removed by the previous crew.

Police investigators said its removal was standard practice, as it required post-firing inspection.

Senior Coroner Louise Hunt earlier read a statement setting out what then happened: "At around 3.30pm, a hissing sound was heard and noises and smoke.

"Corporal Neilson was seen to be climbing out of the commander's turret and there was an explosion.

"He was projected out the turret, landing some distance away."

Since the incident, he said the gunnery school had made changes to the way charges were stowed.