An 18-month investigation and surveillance operation ended in success for Police and Customs when they seized the UK’s biggest ever haul of cannabis in a single raid on October 5th, 1984.
“Operation Bishop” was a painstaking joint operation between Police and HM Customs and Excise, resulting in a dramatic armed raid on a yacht moored in the sleepy Essex village of North Fambridge (pictured), on the River Crouch.
It ended with the arrest of eight people and recovery of 4.3 tons of high-grade cannabis resin with an estimated street value of £10.8 million (over £33 million in today’s currency). The drugs were concealed in hidden compartments aboard an 85ft schooner, the Robert Gordon, which had sailed to the UK from the Mediterranean.
Unknown to the drug runners, their every move had been closely monitored for several months as part of the top secret multi-agency investigation. Customs Investigating Officer Don Holmans said the reaction of the smugglers as they were apprehended by armed police was one of “absolute astonishment”. The drugs were taken from the scene in the same vans the crooks had hired to move them.
Police put a security cordon around the whole village as they pounced on the gang, also using a helicopter for airborne surveillance. The smugglers collected the consignment of drugs off the coast of northern Lebanon, near Tripoli, before setting sail for the UK, with sophisticated radar systems used to monitor the schooner’s progress.
The high-grade cannabis resin was a variety known as “Lebanese Gold”. One of the smugglers later told police the drugs had been bought from gunmen in the Lebanon, where war, corruption and political instability all created favourable conditions for trafficking in illegal narcotics. Drug smuggling was a major source of income for Middle Eastern guerrilla groups and gunrunners during the 1980s.
Villagers in North Fambridge – home to a small yacht club and marina on the River Crouch – were just as surprised as the smugglers by the sudden arrival of a fleet of blue-light police vehicles spilling out armed officers in scenes reminiscent of a Hollywood action movie. Commenting on the successful raid, a spokesman for Essex Police said: “The haul was really high-grade cannabis. This is a bit of a feather in our cap.”
Of the eight people arrested, five men were eventually convicted the following year and sentenced to lengthy jail terms for their involvement in the highly-organised drug smuggling operation. The seized 4.3 tons of cannabis went up in smoke, but not in the way the smugglers had intended.