HUNDREDS of people gathered at dawn yesterday to pay their respects to a soldier killed in a suspected friendly fire incident in Afghanistan.

The hearse bearing the coffin of Lance Corporal Christopher Roney arrived at Holy Trinity Church, in Southwick, Sunderland, as rush-hour commuters made their way to work, shortly after 8am.

The 23-year-old from Sunderland, who served with 3rd Battalion The Rifles, died on December 22 of wounds suffered the previous day in Sangin, northern Helmand.

His coffin, draped with the Union flag with his forage cap on top, was followed into the church by grieving family members, including his widow, Lorna. Their son, William, was only five months old when his father was killed.

The hearse was covered in flowers with some spelling out the words Husband and Dad.

In a card accompanying the flowers his widow, Lorna, 21, wrote: “To Chris. Love you and missing you lots. RIP my sexy apple pie xxx.”

The message on a card from their son said: “To Daddy.

Love and miss you lots. Baby William (Wally).”

The funeral was held in the same church where the couple were married in November 2007. Speaking before the service, L Cpl Roney’s platoon commander, Captain Nicholas Trowell, said: “He was the sort of rifleman that everyone wanted to be.

“He was extremely fit, robust and agile, and was always willing to go the extra mile.

Even when you could see him struggling, he would keep pushing on.”

Cpt Trowell added: “Chris was destined for bigger things.

“In only two-and-a-half years, he rose from the rank of rifleman to lance corporal, a testimony to the potential he had just begun to unleash.

“Soldiering is what he lived for. But above all he was a family man. He was an exemplary individual, extremely popular with his peers and subordinates.”

Cpt Trowell said: “The thing that would stick in my memory was the way that Chris used to make me laugh. He really was the centre of attention – he never wanted to be in the limelight, people just naturally gravitated towards him.”

Paying tribute, L Cpl Roney’s brother, William, 30, who serves with the Royal Logistics Corp, said: “As a soldier Chris was first class.

“He was renowned for being fearless – nothing held him back.”

L Cpl Roney also left behind siblings Samantha, 21, James, 26, and sister-in-law Della, as well as parents Michael and Denise, both 51.

He joined 3 Rifles in May 2006 and deployed to Afghanistan in October.