Bob Astles was born in Ashford, Kent. He joined the British Indian Army as a teenager and then the Royal Engineers, reaching the rank of Lieutenant. Of his war service, he recalls: "I enjoyed being with other nationalities and their fights for world recognition during World War II." He was 21 when he left the United Kingdom for Africa.
In 1949, Astles was sent on special duties during the Bataka uprising in Buganda. His first job in Uganda was as a colonial officer with the Ministry of Works, then with £100 he set up Uganda Aviation Services Ltd, the first airline in Uganda to employ Africans. As Uganda's independence approached in 1962, Astles became involved with a number of political groups. One of these was led by Milton Obote, who led the country to independence. Astles worked in his government until the 1971 coup d'état, when he transferred his allegiance to Amin.
In December, suspicion fell on Astles because of his previous support for Obote. Amin sent him to Makindye Prison where he spent 17 weeks, often shackled and brutally interrogated. Astles later said, "Amin called me a 'rotten apple' on the radio, and nationalised my airline. It was ordinary Africans who helped me to survive. One guard was kicked to death for helping me."
In 1975, Astles joined Amin's service, becoming the head of the anti-corruption squad and advising the president on British affairs, while running a pineapple farm. He also presided over an aviation service that transported members of the government. Astles later said "I kept my eyes shut, I said nothing about what I saw, which is what they liked". What Astles did or did not do during Amin's reign is a matter of conjecture. Some considered him to be a malignant influence on the dictator; others thought he was a moderating presence. He came to be known as "Major" Bob (the title of Major was given to him by Amin) or "the White Rat".
Following the Uganda-Tanzania War which led to the demise of Amin's regime in 1979, Astles fled to Kenya, but was brought back to Uganda to face criminal charges. At the time Kenyan newspapers linked the charges to the death of Bruce Makenzie, one of Kenya's former ministers in an aircraft explosion, though it was suspected that the bomb was meant for Astles who had refused to fly on the aircraft. He was imprisoned for his alleged association with Amin's security apparatus, and was charged with everything from murder and corruption to theft. Though acquitted, he remained in Luzira Prison for six and a half years, returning to Britain after his release in 1985.
In 1958, he married Monica, who had come to Uganda with him from Kent. A year later, after they had divorced, Astles married an aristocratic member of the Buganda kingdom, Mary Ssen-Katukka, and they later adopted two children.
Astles later lived in Wimbledon, London, and continued to deny the allegations for which he was imprisoned. After returning to Britain, he dedicated his life to campaigning against superpower interference in African political and economic affairs. He also contributed political commentaries to a number of publications associated with Africa. He died in December 2012 at the age of 88. The obituary in The Telegraph described him as "the most hated white man in postcolonial Africa."
He was played by Leonard Trolley in the 1982 movie Amin: The Rise and Fall. The fictional character of Dr. Nicholas Garrigan in the book and film The Last King of Scotland was loosely based on some events in Astles' life, with the character being changed to a Scotsman.
- "Bob Astles Obituary". The Telegraph. 15 February 2013. Retrieved 16 February 2013.
- "Bob Astles is dead!". The London Evening Post. 2012-12-29. Retrieved 2013-01-22.
- New Scientist 10 May 1979
- "Guilt by association?", BBC HARDtalk, Bob Astles interviewed by Tim Sebastian on 7 January 2004.
- Bold Type: Interview with Giles Foden
- Uganda's white Rat at the Wayback Machine (archived January 25, 2004)
- Interview with Last King of Scotland author Giles Foden
- "Bob Astles' Memories" by Norman S. Miwambo, Black Star News (New York), 30 July 2006
- Kakembo, Titus. "Bob Astles Joins Idi Amin Dada." New Vision. 13 February 2013.
Bob Astles' commentaries
- "In defence of Milton Obote", New African, 1 December 2003
- "Darfur another view", New African, 1 November 2004
- "Who will best lead Uganda?", Daily Monitor, 17 January 2006
- "Ethiopia Opens Pandora's Box", Black Star News, 29 January 2007
- "U.S. Tentacles Spread In Africa", Black Star News, 6 February 2007
- "South Africa Rejects US Africa Militarism", Black Star News, 16 February 2007
- "Killers In The Mist", Black Star News, 20 February 2007
- "Americans Milk Africa To Death", Black Star News, 16 March 2007
- "Ousting Nubians For Profit’s Spoils", Black Star News, 27 January 2008
- "Obama And Source Of The Nile", Black Star News, 5 February 2008