Great Train Robbery – 10 things you didn’t know

The crime is still surrounded by myths on the 50th anniversary

Ronnie Biggs

Ronnie Biggs, one of the Great Train Robbers, in police custody in 1963

 

It is the 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery, on Thursday. Even after all this time, many myths surround it. A new compilation, the Great Train Robbery 50th Anniversary, compiled by Nick Reynolds, son of the robbery’s architect, Bruce, who died earlier this year – and with contributions from the late robber and Ronnie Biggs – hopes to put the record straight. Here are 10 things you (quite possibly) didn’t know about it.

1. The Bernie Ecclestone connection

Completely unfounded rumours about the involvement of the Formula One supremo have circulated for years, prompting him to make the cheery denial that “there wasn’t enough money on that train”. There is a tiny connection in that one of the robbers, the late Roy James, who had been a professional racing driver, wrote from prison to the former champion Graham Hill, asking for help with his career when he came out. He was told he was wasting his time if he hoped to return to the track. But James was an accomplished silversmith and ended up making trophies.

2. Those 30-year sentences

Jailing the robbers in 1964, Mr Justice Edmund Davies told them that “to deal with this case leniently would be a positively evil thing” and duly sent most of them down for 30 years. Yet the previous year the same judge had reduced the sentence on appeal of one Charles Connelly, who had been involved in a robbery in which a van driver in Mitcham, Surrey, was shot dead. Cutting his term from 15 to 10 years, Davies said: “The sentence was excessive.”

3. Brighton rocked

After Biggs and Charlie Wilson escaped from prison, the author Graham Greene wrote to the Daily Telegraph saying: “Am I one of a minority in feeling admiration for the skill and courage behind the Great Train Robbery? More important, am I in a minority in being shocked by the savagery of the sentences?”

4. The Nazi connection

The robbers negotiated a substantial financial deal for co-operating with the author Piers Paul Read on his 1978 book The Train Robbers. To justify their large advance they invented a story that Otto Skorzeny, the man who organised the ex-Nazi escape network Odessa, had financed the robbery, a hoax that Read only learned of when he went to Brazil to interview Biggs. In fact, it was Bruce Reynolds who put up the necessary money to finance the robbery; it worked out at just £38 per head which he jokingly asked the robbers to refund him afterwards. There was a tangential connection here in that Biggs and another robber, Buster Edwards, got plastic surgery while on the run from a doctor who had remodelled the faces of fleeing Nazis.

5. The unsung victim

While many recall the name of Jack Mills, the driver hit over the head during the robbery – who died of leukaemia, unrelated to the attack, seven years later – few remember the name of his assistant, David Whitby. He died of a heart attack eight years later at the age of just 34.

6. The Colin Firth connection

Steady on – the actor was not quite three when the robbery took place. But on the run, Bruce Reynolds needed new names and identities for himself, his wife and his son, Nick, as they fled to Mexico and Canada. They took the surname Firth and Nick became Colin Firth.

7. The getaway car

British Leyland ran an ad for their Mini in 1979 with the slogan “Nips in and out like Ronnie Biggs” and placed one of the posters near the flower stall of Edwards in Waterloo.
Members of the public complained but the Advertising Standards Authority supposedly only queried whether BL had got Biggs’s permission to use his name.

8. The video game

Bruce Reynolds and Biggs were signed up to produce a Great Train Robbery video game in 1999 but it never came to fruition. There is, however, a zombie-themed board game called The Great Brain Robbery. (The robbers played Monopoly at their post-robbery hideout, leaving incriminating fingerprints on the board.)

9. The lawsuit

One robber, Gordon Goody, now living in Spain, sued the People from prison for suggesting he had “coerced an innocent and decent young woman” into taking part in the robbery. He won the case and received £2 in damages.

10. Odd man in

While four of the robbers were never caught, one of the men convicted, Bill Boal, was not actually involved in the robbery at all. He was arrested because of his links to the robber Roger Cordrey. Boal was found with some of the stolen money which he claimed he had because Cordrey was repaying a debt. He died in prison in 1970, still protesting his innocence. Now his family are considering a posthumous appeal and preparing a file for the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The Great Train Robbery, 1963

The Great Train Robbery

One of the most infamous robberies of all time, 1963’s Great Train Robbery involved the hijack of a London-bound train, and the theft of millions of pounds.

Late on Thursday 8 August 1963, a Travelling Post Office train left Glasgow for Euston. On board, staff sorted the mail and parcels prior to its arrival in London.

The second carriage from the front of the train was a High Value Package carriage, where registered mail was sorted. Much of this consisted of cash. Usually the value of these items would have been in the region of £300,000 but, because there had been a Bank Holiday weekend in Scotland the total on the day of the robbery was £2.3 million (about £30 million today).

The wrong signal 

The train passed Leighton Buzzard at about 3am on 8 August 1963, and moments  later the driver, Jack Mills saw a red signal ahead at a place called Sears Crossing.

The signal was false. A glove had been stuffed onto the proper signal and the red light was activated by attaching it to a six volt battery. When Mills stopped, his co-driver David Whitby climbed out of the diesel engine to ring the signalman to ascertain the problem.

He discovered that the cables from the line-side phone had been cut and as he turned to return to his train he was attacked and thrown down the steep railway embankment.

Meanwhile, a masked man climbed into the train cab and coshed the driver around the head rendering him unconscious. Meanwhile, other robbers uncoupled most of the carriages, leaving on the engine and the first two carriages containing the high-value property.

The steep embankments at Sears crossing were unpractical for removing the loot from the train but the gang had planned to drive the train a mile further to Bridego Bridge. Here, Land Rovers were waiting to transport the cash to a nearby hideout.

Soon the well-planned heist encountered a problem. One of the gang had spent months befriending railway staff on the pretence of being a railway enthusiast. He had been allowed rides in the cabs of trains and had even been permitted to drive a few trains.

His part in the robbery was to drive the train to the rendezvous point but as he climbed into the cab of the train he realised that this huge diesel train was far more complicated than the local trains he had previously travelled in. One of the gang, Ronnie Biggs, had to rouse the driver to continue the journey.

In the front two carriages, frightened Post Office staff were pushed to one end by some of the fifteen strong gang – but, in the remaining ten carriages left at Sears Crossing, staff did not even realise anything had happened.

A human chain of robbers

At Bridego Bridge a human chain of robbers removed 120 sacks containing two-and-a-half-tons of money. The robbery was well organised and swift. Before leaving, one of the gang ordered Post Office staff to stay still for 30 minutes before contacting the police. This gave the investigators an important clue, they suspected that the gang had a hideout within a 30 minute drive of the scene.

This was indeed the case. An old farmhouse in Oakley Buckinghamshire, Letherslade Farm, had been rented and during the next few days the jubilant gang shared out the cash. They even played Monopoly using real money.

A huge police investigation was launched, run by the Flying Squad at Scotland Yard and senior detectives from the Buckinghamshire Police. The officer in overall command was Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper.

British Transport Police had a small role to play in the investigation, mainly conducting enquiries, obtaining lists of staff and suspects.

Back at the farm, the gang were becoming spooked by low flying RAF aircraft who were actually on training runs and nothing to do with the manhunt that had now been established. They split the money which was mainly in used £1 and £5 notes (Biggs was to receive £147,000) and left the scene immediately rather than ‘lying low’ for several weeks as they had planned.

A nearby resident became suspicious of the comings and goings at the farm and advised the police. PC John Wooley responded to the report and found large amounts of abandoned food and provisions. Sleeping bags and bedding had been left in upstairs rooms and in the cellar, bank note wrappers, post office sacks and registered mail packages.

Fingerprints on the Monopoly board

A thorough examination found several fingerprints including some on the Monopoly board and others on a ketchup bottle. These fingerprints and other enquiries led to the offenders and one by one they were arrested. BTP headquarters at Park Royal in north London was regularly updated of the progress of the investigation and the Chief Constable was sent supplementary crime reports giving the names and details of those involved.

They all eventually appeared in court. The mastermind of the operation, Bruce Reynolds took five years to track down but received ten years imprisonment. Ronnie Biggs received 30 years but escaped from Wandsworth prison in a furniture van only 15 months later. His flight to Brazil (via Spain and Australia) and subsequent return to the UK in May 2001 have been well documented.

The verdict 

The gang received a total of 307 years imprisonment. Despite the huge amount of money stolen none of the thieves were able to live happily on their ill-gotten gains. Buster Edwards ended up running a flower stall at Waterloo station. He received a lot of publicity in 1988 when Phil Collins played him in the film Buster. He took his own life in the late 1990s. James Hussey and Thomas Wisbey were convicted in 1989 for trafficking drugs, while Charles Wilson was shot and killed in Spain.

It must be said that the Great Train Robbery was brilliantly planned and executed. Apart from the attack on the train driver it was non-violent and no firearms were used. The raiders managed to steal much more money than they had planned and perhaps it was the greed in sharing all the money out which led to them being careless and leaving so many fingerprints behind, sealing their own fate.