The great train robbery

Crime Files

The Great Train Robbery was the name given to the audacious robbery of The Royal Mail’s Glasgow to London traveling post office train on 8 August 1963 at Bridego Railway Bridge, Ledburn near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, England.

The train was stopped by tampered signals and attacked by a 15-member gang, led by Bruce Reynolds along with Ronnie Biggs, Charlie Wilson, Jimmy Hussey, John Wheater, Brian Field, Jimmy White, Tommy Wisbey, Gordon Goody, Buster Edwards and three men only known as 'Number 1', 'Number 2' and 'Number 3'.

“The heist netted the gang £2.6 million and it was noted for its meticulous planning, with no guns being used.”

However, the train driver, Jack Mills, was struck on the head with an iron bar during a struggle. Mills never recovered from the attack and didn’t return to work. Although he died of leukemia in 1970, his family maintains that the attack contributed to his poor health.

No one knows for sure who first came up with the idea of robbing the Glasgow-to-London mail train, but one thing is certain, it led to one of the most audacious crimes in British history and turned the likes of Ronald 'Ronnie' Biggs, into an infamous celebrity.

Regardless of who thought of the idea it was Bruce Richard Reynolds, a London antique dealer and prominent thief who was serving time in 1962, who believed the plot had potential.

After his release, Reynolds discussed the plan with his accomplices in what was known as the South West gang. As his number two, Reynolds chose Douglas Gordon or ‘Goody’, a suave London hairdresser and part-time thief who had a reputation for keeping cool under pressure.

Another main player in the saga was former boxer and jester Ronald 'Buster' Edwards, who was a close friend of Reynolds and Goody. After a brief meeting it was agreed that the two gangs would join forces for the audacious heist.

Ronnie Biggs was keen to go straight and keep away from crime when he left prison. He’d set up a struggling carpentry business and was desperate for a loan. After been invited to Reynolds’ house, he was informed of the plan to rob the Royal Mail train and promised a staggering £40,000 for his efforts. Biggs eagerly accepted.

Biggs’ first task was to find a man who could drive a diesel locomotive train.

The complete line up included, Reynolds, Gordon Goody, Ronnie Biggs, Jimmy White, Buster Edwards, Tom Wisbey, Jim Hussey, Bob Welch, Brian Field and two other men Biggs referred only to as Mr One and Mr Two who, along with a Mr Three, who were never identified and avoided arrest. Others involved in the huge operation were Charlie Wilson, Roy James, Roger Cordrey and the unknown ‘Ulsterman’ who relayed important information to the gang.

Timeline

8 August 1963 - The Great Train Robbery takes place at Bridego Railway bridge, Buckinghamshire20 January 1964 - Trial of Great Train robbers at Aylesbury courthouse8 April 1964 - All suspects receive sentences of between 24 and 30 years in prison8 July 1965 - Ronnie Biggs escapes from Wandsworth prison11 March 1970 - Biggs escapes to RioMay 2001 - Biggs returns to England28 February 2013 - Bruce Reynolds dies aged 8118 December 2013 - Ronnie Biggs dies aged 84

The Arrest

Caught slipping

The original plan was for the gang to stay at the farmhouse for up to two weeks. However, a police broadcast announcing their escapade and revelations that every newspaper in the land was reporting the story, meant that they had to move fast.Before the gang left the farmhouse in new transport, an unknown accomplice was paid to clean up the farmhouse of all evidence.Two major police figures undertook investigations into the robbery. Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler, a Scotland Yard legend and Jack Slipper, a detective with the moniker ‘Slipper of the Yard’.The gang's hideout was soon discovered when a local reported a ‘suspicious vehicle’. Unfortunately for the gang, the man they had hired to clean the farmhouse of any trace of incriminating evidence, had taken their money but left behind a wealth of clues for the police to find.

Within a day of the farm being processed for evidence, the first gang member, Roger Cordrey, was arrested and charged with taking part in the robbery. Ronnie Biggs panicked when a suitcase containing £100,000.00 was recovered from woodlands just a few miles from his own house.A week later Charlie Wilson was arrested in London. The police also announced that they were looking for Bruce Reynolds, Jimmy White, Roy James and Buster Edwards to assist them with their enquiries.Jack Slipper visited Biggs’ residence on two occasions. A month later, Biggs was taken into custody and transported to Scotland Yard for questioning. Later he found himself at Bedford prison with fellow gang members Charlie Wilson, Tommy Wisbey, Jim Hussey and Bob Welch.It transpired that the reason Biggs and the men had been arrested was because their fingerprints were lifted off items such as a ketchup bottle, beer bottles and several Monopoly game pieces.By November, all five of the gang were transferred to Aylesbury prison in Buckinghamshire and kept together in a secure hospital wing, which had been specially cleared to house them. On one occasion they tried to escape by bribing a guard but the plan was botched.

The Investigation

The perfect crime

The Glasgow-to-London mail train comprised of 12 carriages pulled by a single diesel locomotive. It was a mobile mail sorting office that carried general mail items and large amounts of cash en route to London from various banks and financial institutions in Scotland. The cash and other valuable items was stored and sorted in the 'High Value Package' coach, two carriages back from the locomotive.These were the carriages in which Reynolds’ gang were primarily interested. From his research Reynolds deduced that the amount of cash carried was considerably larger following a bank holiday. One such holiday fell on Monday 5 August 1963. Reynolds set the tentative date of the robbery for 6 August 1963.The robbers were to board the train, disconnect the locomotive and the first two carriages from the rest and drive them to a safe location where the valuables could be transferred to waiting trucks. The main problem was how to stop the train without creating too much suspicion.Cordrey, an emotional neurotic, was also a skilled electrician and knew about trains. He would ‘fix’ the signals, forcing the train to stop as required. The best location for this was Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire. The train would reach Leighton Buzzard at 3:30 am, which would give the robbers sufficient time to stop the train, unload the money and make their getaway under cover of darkness. Reynolds suggested that they procure a nearby farmhouse some 27 miles from the planned site of the robbery.“The purchasing of the farmhouse was to be one of the gang’s biggest mistakes.”Reynolds’ usual talent for meticulous planning clearly abandoned him as he negotiated the deal by using a known associate to act as the purchaser under his real name and also acquired the services of a bona fide law firm, without covering his tracks.On Tuesday 6 August 1963, the gang members left their various homes and headed to the farm to wait for confirmation that the money was on the way. All the gang members had concocted stories explaining their absences from their wives and partners, in order not to arouse suspicion. Then they all met up at the farmhouse, having travelled in a variety of ways.Charlie Wilson and Roy James arrived in a stolen Land Rover followed by Roger Cordrey on a bicycle. Gordon Goody was at the home of Brian Field, waiting for a call from an Irishman known as the ‘Ulsterman’, whose job it was to confirm when the money was to be sent.While they waited they played cards and Monopoly. The men were no doubt pleased that Bob Welch had brought several bottles of beer with him but the considerate gesture was to have huge repercussions during the investigations.The gang spent the day reviewing the plan over and over again before preparing to leave at midnight. Their intention was to masquerade as an army unit on night manoeuvres. They had army vehicles, uniforms and fake official papers in order to look the part. At 10 pm they got word from the Ulsterman that a large consignment of money was on its way.In the early hours of Thursday 8 August, the vehicles were loaded and the convoy headed for Leighton Buzzard.

After arriving at the distant signal, they dropped off John Daly and Roger Cordrey to take care of the signals and continued on to Bridego Bridge, where they donned blue coveralls to mask their army uniforms. The team split up and took up their pre-assigned posts.Tapes were unfurled across the track to indicate where the train was to be stopped for unloading and the phone lines at the emergency call box beside the tracks were cut. The gang also cut the overhead phone lines that serviced the district.It was pitch black and just after 3 am the Glasgow to London mail train was nearing the site. Using a portable radio, Reynolds gave the word and the false signals were activated. The mail train slowed and pulled up to where the men lay waiting.The train's fireman got out of the cabin and made his way to the emergency call box to phone ahead. Finding the phone dead, he turned back to the train and saw Buster Edwards in overalls next to the tracks. The fireman assumed Buster was a line worker and walked towards him but was soon overpowered by two of Buster’s accomplices in balaclavas, who pushed the terrified man down the embankment, where he was handcuffed.‘Number 3’, the burliest of the gang, entered the cabin. Jack Mills, the driver, was startled at being confronted and tried to resist. During the struggle he was hit on the head but sustained a more severe injury when he fell against the side of the cabin. While he was bleeding, Mills was dragged away and replaced by gang member ‘Number 3’.Despite his injury, Mills, under threat of a further beating, was required to release a vacuum break that prevented the train from being moved after it had been uncoupled from the mail cars.Postal workers in the High Value coach were alerted by the sound of the uncoupling but before they could do anything, the gang smashed into the coach and overpowered them. They were bound, gagged and left lying face-down as the gang began unloading the booty.The gang formed a human chain leading from the carriage to the embankment and finally to the truck, where the bulky mailbags were offloaded. Forty minutes later, and leaving seven mail bags behind in the coach, the gang made their getaway.It took three hours to unload the bags and view the spoils, over £2,631,784.00, far more money than then they had expected.

The Trial

One way ticket to Panama

The trial began on 20 January 1964 at Aylesbury courthouse before Justice Edmund Davies.During proceedings Jack Mills, the train driver, took the stand. Still recovering from the effects of his head injury, he recounted the episode in detail, giving attention to the injuries he had sustained at the hands of the robbers.Due to the fact that Biggs had previously been in prison, his presence in court was deemed as breaching impartiality and he was sent back to prison. John Daly craftily had his lawyer make a submission to the court that the Monopoly set, which belonged to him, could have had his fingerprints on it before it was taken to the farm. The jury agreed and Daly was acquitted.On 23 March 1964, the jury retired for two days to consider their verdicts. Tom Wisbey, Roy James, Charlie Wilson, Bob Welch, Jim Hussey and Gordon Goody were all found guilty of robbery. Sentencing was delayed until after Biggs' retrial, which was set for 8 April 1964.Finally sentencing was passed. All the men, including Biggs, each received between 24 and 30 years in prison. 

Most of the gang were sent to Brixton prison. Biggs went to Wandsworth in south London. On 12 August 1964, while Biggs was thinking of escape, Charlie Wilson absconded from Winson Green prison in Birmingham, with the assistance of three strangers. After the escape, security surrounding Biggs and the others was increased.On Thursday 8 July 1965 Biggs and fellow prisoner, Eric Flower, exploited the lax security around their exercise period and escaped over the perimeter wall when rope ladders were thrown over. The plan had been arranged for some time on the outside.Biggs and Flower were hidden in various parts of the country for several months before being smuggled across the English Channel to Antwerp in Belgium. There Biggs underwent painful plastic surgery to hide his identity, as well as being given money, new passports and clothes.Travelling to Australia under the alias Terrence Furminger, he was reunited with his family and Eric Flower. He spent several years hiding out in various places in the country.In 1968 Bruce Reynolds, Charlie Wilson and Jimmy White were all arrested and each given long terms in jail. ‘Buster’ Edwards eventually gave himself up to the police. Biggs was the only member of the gang who remained free.Biggs, realising the net was closing in, scraped some money together, borrowed a passport and booked a passage to Panama. Once there he took a flight to Rio de Janeiro via Caracas, Venezuela.On 11 March 1970, Biggs landed in Rio as ‘Michael Haynes’ and he gradually settled into life in Rio. He still kept in constant touch with his wife and family and led a colourful eventful life, with many girlfriends. Whilst in exile he also received tragic news that his eldest son, Nicky, had been killed in a car accident.In May 2001, after 31 years in Brazil, Biggs, aged 71, returned to England. He was a very ill man, having suffered several strokes, but wanted to return even if it meant being re-imprisoned for his crimes. If he was expecting pity on the part of the law, he was sadly mistaken when he was arrested and later imprisoned despite a media campaign by family and friends calling for the Government to offer clemency.However, on 6 August 2009, with his health in decline, Biggs was released from prison on compassionate grounds.

 

The Key Figures

Meet the gang

The Great Train Robbery Gang:Bruce ReynoldsRonnie BiggsCharlie WilsonJimmy HusseyJohn WheaterBrian FieldJimmy WhiteTommy WisbeyGordon GoodyBuster EdwardsMr OneMr TwoMr ThreeVictim:Jack Mills - assaulted during the robbery and unable to work again.Investigation Team:Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler - initial investigatorJack ‘Slipper of the Yard’ Slipper - main detective who investigated case and brought suspects to book