The Arms Drop: Interview with former arms dealer Peter Bleach

The Purulia Arms Drop case is truly fascinating, so it is no wonder that it is the focus of the recent brilliant documentary The Arms Drop, a Danish production directed by Andreas Koefoed. In the film British former arms dealer Peter Bleach sets out to discover the agent who lied in court leading Bleach to be given a lifetime sentence in India for dropping four tons of weapons over West Bengal to start a civil war. Bleach did take part in the arms drop, however as an MI5 informant attempting to setup the mastermind behind it, Niels Holck. However, Holck escaped and Bleach served eight years in Indian jail before being released. Years later Holck stands trial in Denmark and Bleach is called in as a witness. The Arms Drop embarks to uncover the truths behind the mission and finish the story. Kettle Magazine caught up with Bleach to talk about the arms drop and the documentary.

When you think about arms dealing dodgy characters and mass operations come to mind. But as Bleach tells us it is not as mysterious as you may think:

I had spent a lot of time in the armed forces and I was a specialist in arms and ammunition. I knew an awful lot about that part of the trade anyway. I used to do a lot of security work as well. But I came to the end of what I wanted to do with the commercial security business. I knew a lot of people with contracts abroad. It is not as mysterious as people think it is. The military do not just need guns; they need all sorts of things, even toilet paper. Huge supplies. It all has to be supplied in tender and contracts. You cannot just buy stuff if you are the government, you have to have competitive tender. This is published in the Government Gazette and that is how you find the trade. Sometimes it is arms and ammunition. What makes you skilled is how you deal with the really complicated government process. Your skill as an arms dealer or government trader is dealing with that bureaucratic nightmare.

In fact as Bleach goes on to say, getting an enquiry to purchase AK47s is a run of the mill event in the arms dealing industry.

The arms trade is a difficult thing. AK47s are the standard weapons for armed forces all over the world, except for Britain and America which could afford more expensive weapons. AK47s are cheaper and people in smaller countries have to buy what they can afford so getting an enquiry to supply a few hundred AK47s is an ordinary run of the mill thing to happen. They are good, do the job and are all the smaller countries can afford. It is a routine thing then. It is the bread and butter of the arms trade. You get enquiries like that four or five times a week, and once every six months one of those enquiries will come to fruition. 

When Bleach got an enquiry for AK47s from a Danish client his suspicions were not at first aroused. This was until he reached Copenhagen…

I got this enquiry from some Danish businessmen and it didn’t seem to be anything unusual and so I gave a quote. I then received a fax asking me to sign the contract. Normally I will ship the weapons to a custom bonded warehouse in a port. I don’t deliver it to your house. You don’t pay in cash; you issue me a letter of credit. That is how it works: all legal and all above board. But when I arrived in Copenhagen they wanted it delivered to the interior of India, rather than a customs bonded warehouse. There was no way on Earth this was legal. That is when I realised it was really bad.

As soon as Bleach landed in England then he alerted DESO, the organisation that kept the arms trade regulated, and was put in touch with MI5.Bleach had to take part in the arms drop though to avoid raising the suspicions of the Danish Holck, but as an MI5 informant. However, as seen in the film events take a turn for the worse and Bleach is arrested along with the Russian air crew and sentenced for life for attempting to start a civil war.

For Bleach prison was an odd experience, he had been a prison governor in Rhodesia so was used to being the other side of the bars.

Prison was a really strange experience, but in some ways my experience was useful as you understood how the system worked. But in India the system was corrupt. The staff stole all the rations for the prisoner so if you wanted food you had to buy it. 

Good fortune was on its way though for Bleach thanks to, of all people, Vladimir Putin.

There as a lot of corruption in India but you could get justice, it could just take a long time. The Russian crew I had with me, it was very difficult for them.  The Russian Embassy had been told that the crew would be released and there was a car waiting outside to take them home. I was very lucky as Putin was in the process of selling jet fighter bombers to India. India wanted these very badly as you could deliver a nuclear bomb with them. He was in India just about to sign the contract but asked for the Russian air crew to be released before he signed. And they were, the next day. India has a very good constitution, and one of the strong constitutional principles is equality. It states clearly that if two people are equally situated you have to treat them the same. The Russian crew and I were given identical convictions and identical sentences, so I knew I had to be released.

Release came quite suddenly for Bleach after spending eight years in Indian jail. The Russian situation had certainly helped, but Bleach had also caused nightmares for British diplomats speeding up his case.

My achievement was to make it more trouble to keep me in jail then keep me out and I managed to keep my case in newspapers in India all the time.  Any time a British politician came over to India they would ask them what they were doing about me. When Tony Blair came over he spoke to the Prime Minister of India he secured my release and then just out of the blue I was told I could go. It was a bizarre experience as there were thousands and thousands of people outside the jail to see me being let out.

Why years later has this documentary come about then?

The film is being funded by the Danish film industry and what kicked it off was this whole thing with the Danish guy who escaped arrest and has been living in Denmark all along. He couldn’t leave the country. The Indians went to court in Denmark to get him extradited and I had to go over to give evidence. This is what sparked the interest of some filmmakers in Denmark. They spoke to me and thought the English side of the story was interesting and spent several years filming, following me around the place and interviewing people. That is how the film came about.

Although Bleach is fine talking about what happened and has moved on from the arms drop, one thing still gets to him.

It was alright visiting it years later, it is one of those things it happened and I am happy talking about it. I look at it thinking I am alive when I couldn’t have been. I have moved on, I am quite busy in life. What really pissed me off big time though was that they had sent off a Special Branch officer to give evidence to the court in India and he tried to make it worse, and that is what I resent. 

Full of praise for the film, it seems that The Arms Drop has helped lift a weight from Bleach’s shoulders.

As a documentary I think it is a great piece of film and they have done a brilliant job of putting the complex story together. It leaves unanswered questions, but you have to stop the film somewhere. 

Well we wouldn’t want all the answers anyway. A little mystery is always good…


The Arms Drop is available from all good digital platforms from including Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Dogwoof TV and Google Play.