Gulf War

'I Wouldn't Wish It On Anybody': Former RAF Pilot Recalls Time As Gulf War Prisoner

"If I close my eyes I can still smell what it was like being a prisoner of war. It never leaves you."

John Peters came to the world's attention as a prisoner during the First Gulf War, with his bruised and battered face seen by millions on televisions around the world.

Mr Peters was an RAF Tornado GR1 pilot with XV Squadron, based at Laarbruch in Germany, before being deployed to Muharraq Air Base in Bahrain for the war.

He and his navigator, John Nichol, would be shot down over Iraqi territory on the first day of the conflict, after which they were brutally interrogated before appearing on Iraqi television four days later.

More than 30 nations led by the US went to war with Iraq which became Britain's biggest armoured deployment since D-Day in 1944.

Thirty years since the conflict, Mr Peters has spoken to Forces News about his time during the war and the doubts he had about what he was being asked to do.

Some of the more distressing topics covered in John's interview do not feature in this piece.

John Peters was a Tornado pilot during the war (Picture: MOD).

On 16 January 1991, Operation Desert Storm began with a massive air offensive and Mr Peters and Mr Nichol were preparing for their first combat mission over Iraq.

Mr Peters said: "We got in at midnight and they said 'you’re going in the morning' and we went 'no we're not, that's ridiculous', because [in] every conversation there was never going to be a day low-level sortie by a Tornado against an airfield. It was deemed too dangerous.

"It was all going to be night work and so, literally, when people say 'just do what you’re told', no, I mean, our formation leader argued for about two to three hours as we were planning to go, going 'this is ridiculous, this is a suicide mission'."

Their target was the Ar Rumaylah airfield southeast of Baghdad, and they planned to drop eight 1,000lb (453.5kg) bombs onto the target.

"The biggest threat when you enter an integrated air defence system are missile systems," Mr Peters said.

"So you've got two things, either you jam them and you can fly through. But we don't have as many assets as the Americans have or because we didn't have those assets, [we] would go low and fast at low levels, so you get the ground return off the floor and you fly below the radar.

"So, during the day, we were going to fly in at low levels. The challenge at low level is you are going to get anti-aircraft guns."

Skimming just 25ft above the desert at 650mph, the Tornado prepared to drop its bombs, but the weapons failed to release.

With their presence now known, the pilot and navigator dumped the bombs in the desert, then headed home, but 50 miles into the journey the aircraft got hit by a missile in the right-hand engine and they were forced to eject at 320ft.

"We landed in the desert and it was suddenly deathly quiet, and I was sat down a bit dazed from the ejection and John wandered across, [he] landed about a hundred metres away, picked up his parachute and wandered across, stood above me and went 'this’ll be the Iraqi desert'," Mr Peters said.

The Tornados flew as low as 25ft above the desert at 650mph (Picture: MOD).

"Suddenly you get 25 soldiers with Kalashnikov machine guns coming towards you. We're just lying on the floor, it's completely flat, nothing to get behind, just lying on the sand and they see us and they open up. 

"I remember just as they were coming... I wore contact lenses at the time, so I flicked my lens out and it was there [at the end of my finger] the little crescent of the lens and the first bullet hit that."

Captured by Iraqi forces, they were tied up, their possessions seized and they were taken to a nearby airfield.

"There they tried to interrogate us, no violence really, just asking us questions [and] we said nothing," he said.

"It was very much 'please tell us or else we'll have to send you off to the nasty people in Baghdad'.

"They said that in a way that 'you don't want to go there', but they were good to their word."

The pair were then taken for a full interrogation 10 hours away at the headquarters of Saddam Hussein's notorious Ba'ath Party.

As they approached Baghdad, blindfolded and handcuffed, Mr Peters said "things started getting nasty".

"They started smashing [our] faces against the side of the lorry, hitting [us] around the heads with pistol butts," he recalled.

"The van came to a halt and they pushed us through what felt like a corridor of troops – we were still blindfolded and handcuffed – who were kicking, rifle-butting and thumping you."

Pushed into a room, a bomb almost immediately hit the building.

The ceiling came down and Mr Peters remembers being thrown across the room with the force of the blast, landing underneath a pile of desks, rubble and chairs.

The pair were then separated and the interrogation began.

"You can smell and sense six, seven eight men in there, you can smell the smoke, the sweat, feel the lights on you and the sense of what's going to happen."

Once transported for interrogation, a bomb almost immediately hit the building (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Mr Peters explained that he was only allowed to tell them his name, rank, number and date of birth and not answer any other question.

They asked him whether he was the pilot or navigator. He went to reply with "'I cannot answer that question, sir'' but was hit.

"And your head explodes as they hit you round the head with a baseball bat, and they just spend their lives beating you with baseball bats and rubber truncheons," he recalled.

"They set your hair on fire and burn you with cigarettes. My knee was quite bad from the ejection and they kind of karate kicked with the heel down [on my knee] and I let out a yelp.

"Then they just went mad, they pulled me up and you could tell they'd found a [weak] point. Eventually, I just said 'pilot'.

"Then the interrogation moves onto a different level but my pride is I don't think I released a single bit of information that was worth anything."

After days of illegal brutal interrogation, the crew was threatened with death unless they appeared on Iraqi television.

"What you see on television is actually acting, you don't eyeball them because, again, they beat you more, so I thought 'I'll just convey that I am here under duress'," he said.

Thirty years on, John Peters bears no ill will to his captors for their treatment of him.

"So, I very much put my eye out, I talked really slowly and quietly, I just said 'I’m Flight Lieutenant Peters'... but my real pride is they had a whole script and I just played punch drunk and I got away with that, so I never said the script."

After seven weeks in captivity, the allied Prisoner of Wars were released but, by then, images of the battered crew had been seen by millions around the world.

"Then we flew home. The air forces said 'there’s a whole load of media attention, are you ok?' And I went 'yeah, I’m fine', but I arrived home and that's when you realise your world's changed, because there was a wall of light [paparazzi]," Mr Peters said.

"And then you see your son come out, and I thought Guy was going to forget me because he was two, but he ran along the path going 'Daddy, Daddy' and that was, however much I love my Air Force career, that was the best moment in my whole career."

Reflecting back on his treatment Mr Peters bears Iraq no ill will for his treatment, even though it was illegal.

He said: "War is war, and I'm a military pilot that drops bombs. What are you really going to do to me?

"So they used violence against someone like me and it's not that the Iraqi people are bad or any country is bad. That is war, people do bad things in war, so I'm ambivalent about what happened to me really. Yes, it was illegal [and] I wouldn't wish it on anybody.

"Yeah, it's absolutely terrible, if I close my eyes I can still smell what it was like being a prisoner of war. It never leaves you. But it is what it is."

Listen to the story of the First Gulf War, told by those who were there. Decision-makers, military commanders, soldiers, sailors and air personnel reflect on their roles in the conflict, 30 years on.

'GRANBY: The Storm in the Desert' is available from Friday 15 January, wherever you get your podcasts and on bfbs.com/podcasts.