Scarborough’s Peter Bleach tells us his story

For Scarborough People.  Peter Bleach, former arms dealer, pictured with a backdrop of Scarborough Castle and South Bay, of which he had a photo on his prison cell wall in Karachi, taken by Scarborough photographer Max Payne.  Portrait by Andrew Higgins  112201a    30/05/11
For Scarborough People. Peter Bleach, former arms dealer, pictured with a backdrop of Scarborough Castle and South Bay, of which he had a photo on his prison cell wall in Karachi, taken by Scarborough photographer Max Payne. Portrait by Andrew Higgins 112201a 30/05/11

SCARBOROUGH’S Peter Bleach can list army intelligence officer, international private eye, gold mine security co-ordinator, paramilitary prison officer and arms dealer among his past occupations. That sounds fanciful enough, before you throw into the mix a lifetime prison sentence for waging war against the Indian state after a botched arms drop, the origins of which remain a cloak-and-dagger mystery.

SCARBOROUGH’S Peter Bleach can list army intelligence officer, international private eye, gold mine security co-ordinator, paramilitary prison officer and arms dealer among his past occupations. That sounds fanciful enough, before you throw into the mix a lifetime prison sentence for waging war against the Indian state after a botched arms drop, the origins of which remain a cloak-and-dagger mystery.

WHEN Jimmy and Oceana Bleach welcomed their son Peter into the world at Halifax Hospital in 1951, they could scarcely have imagined the extraordinary life that lay ahead for their son.

Born into a military family, Peter’s grandfather had been a soldier, his father was a veteran of Dunkirk and D-Day, while his uncle was a veteran of both First and Second World Wars, becoming a colonel with a Military Cross, and the OBE.

When a three-year-old Peter’s father died, his mother took him to live in the part of the world that however far he travelled in later life, he always considered home.

“One of my uncles lived in Scarborough, so after he died we came to live in Lockton near Thornton-le-Dale,” he said. “We were there for a couple of years then we moved to West Street in South Cliff.

“Scarborough was at its height in those days. It was marvellous. I thought it was an idyllic place to grow up. As kids we used to re-fight World War Two in the girders under Valley Bridge. South Cliff has changed completely. Back then the mill owners would buy houses there and tell you about their memories of World War One.”

Peter attended Uplands School in Scalby, which has since been transformed into housing, before continuing his education at St Peter’s Boarding School in York.

“These days everybody says they suffered if they were sent to boarding school, but it was the most fantastic thing,” he recalls. “When you’re 13 it’s an awful time. You think your mother is an embarrassment, so I can’t think of anything better than living with boys your own age.

“All day, every day you were occupied. I was a bit of an unruly child, so I think I would have been hanging around Scarborough getting into trouble if it wasn’t for that.” He added: “The most famous old boy at St Peter’s was Guy Fawkes – I feel I’ve kept up the tradition rather well!”

While on holiday from boarding school, Peter would return to Scarborough and work in restaurants on the seafront.

“It was a really big restaurant town back then,” he said. “People would queue down the street to get into one. To do 1,000 meals a day was not unusual.

“You could make a fortune in tips – they would pay for skiing trips with my school in the winter and more. I also gained a great work ethic.”

Immediately after leaving school, Peter unsurprisingly decided to follow in the family footsteps and enter the military, but his career would take an unexpected turn.

“I wanted to go into a tank regiment,” he said. “But the bloke looked at me and said ‘why not try for the intelligence corps?’ A little accident like that shaped my whole life.”

After completing his training in Kent, Peter was initially posted to Cyprus before being immediately sent to a less glamorous location.

“I didn’t get any further than the airport,” he said. “My orders were cancelled and I was on the next ferry to Belfast. We were among the first troops to be sent to Northern Ireland.

“I remember it as a great learning experience but they got a lot of things wrong tactically and the equipment wasn’t great. It was at the height of the Cold War and all of our training had been geared towards fighting the Soviet army rather than urban warfare.

“It was difficult to be there as a soldier because it was primarily a police action – the army couldn’t really operate as an army.

“I saw terrible carnage for no real purpose, I’m glad those days are gone. No-one can deny that the Catholics had cause for complaint, but bombing wasn’t the way to change things.”

The Official Secrets Act means Peter can not go into his duties in detail, although he admits that he experienced a few close calls. “One moment will always stick with me,” he said. “I was badged up with the Royal Highland Fusiliers and we were on a routine patrol.

“As we were walking along a crossbow bolt hit the wall inches in front of me – the bolt had cracks all the way up from the impact. I foolishly just stopped and looked at it. I kept the bolt as a souvenir until I went to India.”

After three years in Northern Ireland, Peter left the British military for a very different challenge in the early 1970s, although once again he found himself against a backdrop of civil war and political unrest.

“I left Northern Ireland because it was a very frustrating situation with no prospect of anything else,” Peter said. “It wasn’t what I joined the army to do.

“I went to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, when I heard their police were setting up an anti-terrorist unit in their special branch, but through a series of accidents I joined the prison service.

“At first I thought it was a terrible idea but it turned out to be very interesting. It was a paramilitary organisation and given the situation at the time, everybody also had to do their military service in the army.

“We were sent into the bush and for rest and relaxation we would be sent back to work at Salisbury Prison.

“I spent most of the mid to late 1970s on the Mozambique border, and occasionally in Mozambique where FRELIMO forces were not very friendly. Those were bad times, and barely a day went by when we didn’t lose someone to a roadside bomb.” Despite once again finding himself a first-hand witness to the horrors of warfare, Peter also remembers happy times in Rhodesia.

“It was a very high standard of living, it was one of the richest countries in Africa at the time. I don’t defend colonialism or Ian Smith’s rule, but the reality was no-one was starving. They called it the bread basket of Africa and it was true. It’s terrible to see what’s happened now.”

Propping up Robert Mugabe’s government in the early days of the Zimbabwean state after being forced back into military service remains one of the very few regrets in Peter’s life.

“He looked like being a very enlightened African president at the time,” said Peter. “I will never forget being in the mess having a drink one night, when some kids came in and said there was a fireworks party outside.

“We went outside and saw tracer bullets in the sky so it was back on with the combats – Joshua Nkomo was trying to topple the Mugabe government and I took a company down to Bulawayo. My abiding memory of that time is of a former police anti-terrorist officer – now a traffic officer in full gleaming traffic cop kit – kneeling by a pile of rubble and firing a rocket launcher at a T55 tank. It was a bizarre sight.

“There was a set-piece battle and it took two-and-a-half days to defeat the rebel forces completely so that was the end of the carnage for me, but then Mugabe sent his 5th brigade into the rebel strongholds and slaughtered townspeople.

“There were freezer wagons on the railway full of bodies.

“I do regret that we went the wrong way, that was a chance to get rid of Mugabe at an early stage, but you can’t change the past.”

With majority rule, his military commitment ended and Peter left the military with the rank of captain. Peter remained with the prison service into the Zimbabwe period, becoming an assistant chief superintendent, before his life took another twist when he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“In the bush it had been very intense, and I was approached and asked if I would like to run the security set-up at a group of gold mines in the eastern districts of Zimbabwe. I had no experience of mining whatsoever, but I accepted,” he said. “Each fortnight I had to transport around 60 kilos of pure gold bullion from the mines to the airport in Umtali. That was always a tense experience.”

After a few more years in Zimbabwe, Peter returned home for the first time in almost a decade. “An ex-terrorist friend of mine who was in Zanu-PF phoned me and said it would be a good time to leave,” Peter said. “I was very grateful to him, and I thought it was high time anyway.”

After flying back to London in 1985, Peter got the next train back to Scarborough, where his mother still lives to this day.

“I remember thinking after all that time in Africa how green Britain was,” he said. “Even the grass is brown in Africa. I found technology had moved on enormously and the changes in the road systems struck me – you could no longer drive up Westborough.”

In a natural progression from his last job in Zimbabwe, Peter set up a security consultancy firm with a head office based in Southend so that he could commute to London from a seaside town similar to Scarborough. When not at work, he lived in a house which he bought at Fylingdales.

Much of his work involved tracing the origins of counterfeit pharmaceuticals to locations across Europe, and it was this that indirectly led to him setting up in the arms trade.

“I’d been tracking a large amount of pharmaceuticals, and I followed the trail to the Eastern Mediterranean. I needed a good reason to be there so I said I was an arms dealer for South Africa. I knew about the trade and South Africa so everyone accepted that.”

The cover story proved to be so convincing that it wasn’t long before genuine inquiries began flooding in.

“I would phone some old military friends and help them out, but after a while I thought I might as well go into the trade by myself. Everywhere in the world the military has the same terrible bureaucracy, and I understood how they worked.

“I had a nice house and I had made a reasonable living out of the security business, so I thought that I could get three or four contracts a year and shuffle off. A lot of people think the arms trade is not ethical – that is a personal point of view and I can understand why people think that. But then the same people say it isn’t right when our soldiers are sent into Afghanistan with poor kit.

“There are illegal arms dealers but I was never one of them.”

Peter carried out his first arms deal in 1991, and began selling computer equipment, helicopters and clothing as well as guns and ammunition to governments and police forces all over the world.

Then, in 1995, Peter was indirectly approached by a Dane by the name of Kim Davy, and after meeting him, agreed to the deal which would land him before an Indian court with the death penalty hanging over his head.

The episode which would shape the next eight years of Peter Bleach’s life began at a military air show, where arms dealers and military contractors regularly meet, make contacts and hammer out deals.

“A guy I met said he had a Danish friend who was trying to get hold of a consignment of AK-47s, so I sent him a quote. He got back to me and said he liked the prices,” said Peter. “I jumped on a plane to Copenhagen, but when I met him he said he wanted them delivered to the interior of India, rather than a customs bonded warehouse. That is illegal and a different thing altogether from what I was interested in.”

After flying back to Manchester and then to Scarborough, Peter claims he immediately contacted the Ministry of Defence and asked for advice. “In those days the MoD had a department whose role was to look after British arms dealers, and there was quite a lot of them. What they got out of it was that we routinely reported everything we did.

“They said ‘don’t do anything to alert these people that you have spoken to the authorities and we’ll get back to you.’

“In essence I was then told that it was vital that this consignment of weapons was sent to India. I believed the Indian government wanted them to arrive so that they could find out who was behind it and arrest those involved.”

After meetings with his Danish contact in Bangkok, London and Copenhagen, the drop of four tonnes of weapons over West Bengal was agreed. The consignment was made up of 77 cases of Kalashnikov rifles, Makarov pistols, sniper rifles, anti-tank grenades, RPG rocket-launchers, anti-personnel mines, night-vision binoculars and 25,000 rounds of rifle ammunition.

Arms dealers usually act as middle men who never see their cargos. However, an unforeseen problem was to arise which would mean the Indian deal would be different - with fateful consequences for Peter.

“I was never meant to be on the plane,” he said. “But I sold them it, and I was the only who could get the necessary permit to fly it into India and they insisted I stayed on the flight.

“I expected Indian special forces to seize the aircraft when we stopped to refuel in Varanasi in northern India – when that didn’t happen I was gob-smacked.

“It then dawned on me that I had suggested to MI5 that the Indian military could just shoot the plane down. Those were the longest few hours of my life. I was expecting it to be blown out of the sky at any moment. It was late, the Russian crew weren’t used to the altimeter and we were over a very hilly district of West Bengal.

“The drop missed by quite a way. These poverty-stricken villagers woke up the next day to find hand grenades and AK-47s scattered all over the place.”

After flying out of India to Phuket in Thailand, Peter tuned his radio to the BBC World Service, and found that the botched arms drop was making international headlines.

“I just felt detached,” Peter said. “The Danish guy was all for abandoning the aircraft, but the last I heard from the security services was that the plane had to be found in India, so I persuaded him to stick to the original plan and fly back to Europe through India.”

The Antinov AN-26 aircraft was then told to land at Bombay Airport, and Peter and the Russian crew were arrested initially for a suspected breach of immigration laws. Kim Davy disappeared in the chaos.

“We were faced with a couple of senior guys from Delhi. I told them it was the aircraft which had dropped arms a few days before, but they looked at each other and refused to believe me at first.

“I wasn’t worried. I thought it might be a difficult couple of days but I had been honest with the authorities. Then there was a change of gear and I knew things weren’t going quite right.”

For the rest of the night, Peter was interrogated by airport staff. He would not regain his liberty for eight long years. “Then, armed police came bursting through the door,” Peter recalls. “They threw me into the back of a jeep and drove me to the back of the airport runway.

“There were two guys holding my arms in a crucifix position. I heard the soldiers cock their rifles – I was sure they were going to shoot me and just say I was trying to escape.

“In the end they took me back and chucked me into the police cells again, but the experience was a bit of a hint that something had gone badly wrong.”

Peter says he was then kept awake for between three and four days, as Indian security services probed him for information.

He was to find that his military training all those years before, when the British Army prepared its servicemen to deal with Soviet interrogation techniques, had not been wasted.

“It was quite brutal, but I felt elated because I thought ‘I can deal with this’. I had filthy blankets infested with lice and they wouldn’t let me wash or drink but nothing they did was a surprise. I knew the biggest danger is starting to regard your interrogator as your friend. My only thought was survival.”

After days of interrogation, Peter was charged with waging war against the Indian state – a crime which carries the death penalty – and was transferred from police cells to the vile jail in Calcutta.

He set about preparing for his trial, and, not for the first time, used the colonial legacy of the United Kingdom to his advantage.

“The entire legal system in India is based on the British system, and Rhodesian and Indian prisons were almost identical,” Peter said. “There can’t be many people who have been in the prison service and then a life convict.

“My biggest problem at first was looking after the Russians. We were each put in 9ft by 12ft concrete cells, and the most uncomfortable thing was the temperature – it was appalling, especially for them. The cells were huge frying pans.

“I could get through the conditions, but the jail was run by prisoners and you rapidly lose physical condition. I caught tuberculosis and that was nearly the end. If you want a meal you are supposed to give someone money, but no-one was allowed in to see me to give me any.

“The prisoners were also very patriotic. If you’re in jail for doing something against India they demonstrate that patriotism by doing something against you. In the early days a drug dealer tried to have a go and I broke a few of his ribs. It sounds an awful thing to say now but that was life - it was sink or swim. I didn’t have much trouble after that.

“It was amazing how my military training got me through – I never hit rock bottom.”

It would be a year before Peter’s trial would begin, and as well as the painstaking work in formulating his own defence, he found his niche in prison by standing up for his fellow inmates.

“Because I could read and write, I could formulate appeals, so I ended up spending my time getting other people out of jail. There would be a queue of people every day outside my cell asking me to read their petitions - that ended up being my business in prison. I would charge a lot of money to big gangsters that allowed me to use money to help the poor guys.

“I remember there were three young Muslim men who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. They came to me and asked me to read their judgements - it quickly became clear that it had been a travesty. There was no evidence they were anywhere near it. In the end I got them acquitted – that one thing almost makes all that time in jail worthwhile. It was altruistic in a way but it also gave me invaluable practice.”

During his three-year trial, Peter used his expertise to conduct cross-examinations himself, while a lawyer hired by his Russian co-defendants conducted the rest of the defence.

Six key players for the prosecution were convicted of perjury for their part in the trial and who the arms were intended for was never established, but Peter was still found guilty. He was spared the death sentence, but the judge ordered that he spend the rest of his life in prison in Calcutta.

“I made a very convenient scapegoat,” Peter said. “The prosecutor made a determined effort to get the death sentence. I didn’t brood on the possibility.

“Occasionally it got to me, but we all found our own way. I was just grimly determined that I was not going to hang and that was that. There was no way anybody was going to do that to me anyway. I would have gone over the wall before that happened.”

Three months after they were convicted of an identical offence to Peter, the Russians were released after pressure was put on the Indian government by Vladimir Putin. It would be another four years before pressure exerted by Tony Blair’s government would win a similar result for Peter. In 2004, he was granted a presidential pardon.

Although he feels anger at being betrayed by elements within the British security services, he remains remarkably philosophical and demonstrates an admirable lack of bitterness considering the years he spent holed up behind bars in a foreign land.

“I’m probably a better person for all that time in prison,” he says, “It was a whole new experience and gave me a new perspective. I certainly don’t consider it a wasted period of my life.”

After a whirlwind couple of days as his release was finalised, Peter was flown to Heathrow and after a press conference, he was driven straight back up to Scarborough. Surprisingly, the culture shock he experienced all those years ago after travelling home from Rhodesia was more acute than after eight years in Calcutta Prison.

“It was a very, very strange thing, but it seemed like the stuff in India had happened years ago,” he said.

Peter was then reunited with his mother, who had campaigned loudly for her son’s release while he was incarcerated. “She is 90 now, and she was too old to travel over to India for all the time I was there. She had come to terms with the likelihood that she would never see me again, so we had quite an emotional chat but there weren’t great floods of tears.

“I went to bed, and the next day I got up and went shopping in Scarborough. As you can imagine, there were quite a few things to sort out. When you go away for that length of time the people who you owe money to are banging on the county court doors and the people who owe you money aren’t seen for dust. I’d lost the house but it was just one of those things. I quickly built my life back up.”

After renting a flat close to Valley Bridge, Peter began fighting to overcome another challenge.

“I was examined by doctors, and they said I couldn’t work in any capacity because of the scar tissue on my lungs from the tuberculosis I contracted in prison. I saw a job advertised looking after castles in the area, including Scarborough Castle. I thought I’d apply for that and blow that medical certificate out of the water.

“I’ve been doing that ever since and it’s fantastic fun explaining things to the visitors. I’d never dealt directly with the public before, but I found it doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Coca-Cola, tanks or history. It was a fantastic surprise to discover how much I enjoyed it.”

In the seven years since he was released from prison, Peter has taken the opportunity to become reacquainted with Scarborough with an enthusiasm that only a man who once believed he may never see his home town again could muster.

“I absolutely love living here,” he says. “We have a stunning piece of coastline, and Scarborough is a very rich place culturally and historically. One of the bloodiest sieges in the Civil War took place right here.

“Scarborough may not be the biggest or brashest place in the world but we have huge potential – it’s a shame we can’t make more of what we’ve got. A Danish film crew came across to interview me and they were just entranced by the beauty of the place.”

However, despite being more than content with the hand life has dealt him, 61-year-old Peter still has one burning ambition – to find out the truth about the Indian arms drop and finally clear his name.

Things are moving in the right direction – Kim Davy, whose real name is Niels Hock – has surfaced after years in hiding. The Indian government is currently trying to extradite him to stand trial in the country. Only last month, on May 18, Peter was summoned to the High Court in Copenhagen to give evidence at Davy’s extradition hearing.

He argued that while he wants to see Davy on trial so that the facts can finally emerge, he believes Davy would be murdered in an Indian jail before he could reveal the truth if the extradition goes ahead. Peter says that the man who set up the deal which landed him in jail should be tried in Copenhagen instead.

For the first time a former Indian intelligence officer has also stated publicly that he believes the episode was a “shameful” period in the history of Indian intelligence.

“Proving I acted in good faith is the one thing I hope to do before I die,” he said. “Overall my life has been great fun and I have very few regrets, but that is absolutely vital.

“Before 9/11 it was a bit of a joke being accused of trying to start a war, but it’s changed now. There isn’t a major newspaper that hasn’t printed my picture without the word ‘terrorist’ underneath. I’ve got to put a stop to it. I still don’t travel outside the EU.

“I’ve seen the carnage caused by terrorism and believe me, only the innocent suffer. I resent that I am tarnished with the same brush. I don’t care who wanted those guns – they may have had a cause that was fully justified – but it’s time for the truth to come out and that this was laid to rest. I’m pretty confident that within the next year to 18 months we’ll be there.”

These days Peter lives an altogether more sedate life from his home in Cornelian Avenue, with visits to his elderly mother, working on car engines and walking his dog among his daily pleasures. However, one reminder of a far less comfortable time is never far away.

“For all of those years in jail in India I had a Max Payne picture of the castle and seafront taken from the Esplanade on my cell wall,” he said. “Then, it always reminded me of where I came from. Now, when I see that view, it reminds me of where I’ve been.”