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TAKING the Queen's shilling used to mean giving up most of your human rights.

For the men and women in Britain's Armed Forces, the idea of claiming compensation for personal injury or affront was not only unthinkable, it was also impossible.

Their 'employer', the Ministry of Defence, could not be sued - it had immunity under ancient statutes protecting the Crown from the courts of law.

In 1987 that restriction was lifted and since then legal suits have flooded the MoD. The majority of settlements were made out of court and in great secrecy.

Now, for the first time, The Mail on Sunday can lift the lid on the staggering amount of money being paid out in compensation to individual soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Last year a total of [pounds sterling]70.2 million was paid out to victims of bullying, barrack-room horseplay and other incidents.

Meanwhile, payouts to servicewomen dismissed from the Forces when they became pregnant and entitled to compensation under European law reached [pounds sterling]58 million, with some claimants receiving as much as [pounds sterling]455,000 each.

But these figures pale against other claims in the pipeline. Huge claims for racial harassment are expected in the next 12 months - one solicitor alone has 60 cases pending.

In addition, many millions of pounds could go to homosexuals drummed out of the Services. Campaigners are also

pressing for damages for hundreds of victims of 'Gulf War syndrome' and for veterans, going back to the Fifties, who say exposure to nuclear and chemical weapons tests gave them cancer and other devastating diseases.

The extraordinary figures are disclosed in the first report from a Ministry of Defence unit created to deal with the mass of claims.

Its publication has been low-key - the report was quietly placed in the House of Commons library without any attempt to draw attention to its timebomb contents.

MPs last night said damages claims were reaching 'crazy' proportions, while the senior MoD official who wrote the report warned that the military must urgently alter its traditional attitudes to avoid exposure to even higher liabilities.

Some of the biggest awards have gone to victims of racism, violent horseplay and bullying.

The highest last year was to former Private Iain Roy, who was paralysed from the neck down in an accident on an assault course at the Guards Depot at Pirbright. He was awarded [pounds sterling]1.7 million in an out-of-court settlement after falling from a rope crossing on to a concrete floor.

Gulf War veteran Garth Rundle also received [pounds sterling]1.7 million after his neck was broken in a violent 'game' called King of the Ring in an Army gymnasium.

Fifteen other soldiers piled on top of him, and he lost the use of his arms and legs.

A black Marine who was 'crucified' by racists is currently appealing in a long-running damages claim. The report states: 'This had the potential of being an expensive claim. It is imperative that all forms of racially motivated abuse in the Armed Forces are eradicated.' Potentially massive claims are also under way for eight boys who were allegedly subjected to an indecent sexual assault by two Army Cadet Force officers who have since been jailed.

Some 8,300 claims were settled last year, ranging from road accidents to criminal damage and even rape and murder by soldiers.

The most costly single incident was in June 1994 when an RAF Chinook helicopter flying from Ulster to Scotland crashed on the Mull of Kintyre with the loss of 29 people.

The passengers killed were 25 senior military and MI5 intelligence officers, an incalculable loss to the security forces in Northern Ireland.

Compensation payments to their widows and children have so far totalled [pounds sterling]13.3 million, and range from [pounds sterling]600,000 to [pounds sterling]713,125. …