Great Train Robbery (1963)

Great Train Robbery
Train Robbers' Bridge.jpg
Mentmore Bridge (previously known as Bridego Bridge and then Train Robbers' bridge),[1] scene of the robbery
Date8 August 1963
Time02:30
LocationBridego Railway Bridge, Ledburn, England
Coordinates51°52′44″N 0°40′10″W / 51°52′44″N 0°40′10″W / 51.87889; -0.66944
Also known asCheddington Mail Van Raid
CauseTrain robbery
Participants
OutcomeTheft of £2.6 million (the equivalent of £53 million today)
Non-fatal injuriesJack Mills (train driver)
Charges
  • Conspiracy to rob
  • armed robbery
  • obstructing justice
  • receiving stolen goods
VerdictGuilty
Convictions11 men sentenced (Bill Boal and Lennie Field later exonerated) to terms up to 30 years

The Great Train Robbery was the robbery of £2.6 million from a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London on the West Coast Main Line in the early hours of 8 August 1963, at Bridego Railway Bridge, Ledburn, near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, England.[2]

After tampering with the lineside signals in order to bring the train to a halt, a gang of fifteen, led by Bruce Reynolds, attacked the train. Other gang members included Gordon Goody, Buster Edwards, Charlie Wilson, Roy James, John Daly, Danny Pembroke, Jimmy White, Ronnie Biggs, Tommy Wisbey, Jim Hussey, Bob Welch and Roger Cordrey, as well as three men known only as numbers "1", "2" and "3". A 16th man, an unnamed retired train driver, was also present.[3]

With careful planning based on inside information from an individual known as "The Ulsterman" (erroneously named as Patrick McKenna in 2014), the robbers escaped with over £2.6 million (equivalent to £53.5 million today). The bulk of the stolen money was never recovered. Though the gang did not use any firearms, Jack Mills, the train driver, was beaten over the head with a metal bar. Mills' injuries were severe enough to end his career.

After the robbery, the gang hid at Leatherslade Farm. After the police found this hideout, incriminating evidence led to the eventual arrest and conviction of most of the gang. The ringleaders were sentenced to 30 years in jail.

Robbery

Planning

The plan to intercept and rob the overnight Glasgow-to-London mail train was based on information from an un-named senior security officer within Royal Mail who had detailed knowledge of the amounts of money carried - he was introduced to two of the criminals who would carry out the raid—Gordon Goody and Buster Edwards—by a London solicitor's clerk, Brian Field. [4]

The raid was devised over a period of months by a core team: Goody and Edwards along with Bruce Reynolds, Charlie Wilson, and Roy James, with Reynolds assuming the role of "mastermind". This gang, although very successful in the criminal underworld, had virtually no experience in stopping and robbing trains, so it was agreed to enlist the help of another London gang called The South Coast Raiders. This group included Tommy Wisbey, Bob Welch, and Jim Hussey, who were already accomplished train robbers[citation needed]. This group also included Roger Cordrey, a man who was a specialist in this field and knew how to rig the track-side signals to stop the train.

Other associates (including Ronnie Biggs, a man Reynolds had previously met in jail) were added as the organisation evolved. The final gang who took part in the raid comprised a total of 16 men.[5]

Royal Mail train

At 18:50 on Wednesday 7 August 1963, the travelling post office (TPO) "Up Special" train set off from Glasgow Central station en route to Euston Station in London. It was scheduled to arrive at Euston at 03:59 the following morning. The train was hauled by English Electric Type 4 (later Class 40) diesel-electric locomotive D326 (later 40 126). The train consisted of 12 carriages and carried 72 Post Office staff who sorted mail during the journey.

Mail was loaded onto the train at Glasgow and also during station stops en route, and from line-side collection points where local post office staff would hang mail sacks on elevated track-side hooks that were caught by nets deployed by the on-board staff. Sorted mail on the train could be dropped off at the same time. This process of exchange allowed mail to be distributed locally without delaying the train with unnecessary stops. One of the carriages involved in the robbery is preserved at the Nene Valley Railway.

The second carriage behind the engine was known as the HVP (high value packages) coach, which carried large quantities of money and registered mail for sorting. Usually the value of the shipment was in the region of £300,000, but because the previous weekend had been a UK Bank Holiday weekend, the total on the day of the robbery was to be between £2.5 and £3 million.[6]

In 1960, the Post Office Investigation Branch (IB) recommended the fitting of alarms to all Travelling Post Offices with HVP carriages. This recommendation was implemented in 1961, but HVP carriages without alarms were retained in reserve. By August 1963, three HVP carriages were equipped with alarms, bars over the windows and bolts and catches on the doors, but at the time of the robbery, these carriages were out of service, so a reserve carriage (M30204M) without those features had to be used. The fitting of radios was also considered, but they were deemed to be too expensive, and the measure was not implemented.[7] This carriage was kept for evidence for seven years following the event and then burned at a scrapyard in Norfolk in the presence of police and post office officials to deter any souvenir hunters.

Stopping the train

Just after 03:00 on 8 August, the driver, 58-year old Jack Mills from Crewe, stopped the train on the West Coast Main Line at a red signal light at Sears Crossing, Ledburn, between Leighton Buzzard and Cheddington. The signal had been tampered with by the robbers: they had covered the green light and connected a battery to power the red light. The locomotive's second crew member, known as the secondman or "fireman", was 26-year-old David Whitby, also from Crewe. As a signal stop was unexpected at this time and place, Whitby climbed down from the cab to call the signalman from a line-side telephone, only to find the cables had been cut. As he returned to the train he was overpowered by one of the robbers. Meanwhile, gang members entered the engine cabin from both sides, and as Mills grappled with one robber he was struck from behind by another with a cosh and rendered semi-conscious.

The robbers now had to move the train to Bridego Bridge (now known as Mentmore[8] Bridge), approximately half a mile (800 m) further along the track, where they planned to unload the money. One of the robbers had spent months befriending railway staff and familiarising himself with the layout and operation of trains and carriages. Ultimately though, it was decided that it would be better to use an experienced train driver to move the locomotive and the first two carriages from the signals to the bridge after uncoupling the carriages containing the rest of the sorters and the ordinary mail.

On the night, the gang's hired train driver (an acquaintance of Ronnie Biggs, later referred to as "Stan Agate" or "Peter") was unable to operate this newer type of locomotive; although having driven trains for many years (by then retired), he was experienced only on shunting (switching) locomotives on the Southern Region. With no other alternative available to them, it was quickly decided that Mills would have to move the train to the stopping point near the bridge, which was indicated by a white sheet stretched between poles on the track. Ronnie Biggs's only task was to supervise Stan Agate's participation in the robbery, and when it became obvious that Agate was not able to drive the train, he and Biggs were sent to the waiting truck to help load the mail bags.

Removing the money

The train was stopped at Bridego Bridge, and the robbers' "assault force" attacked the ‘high value packages’ (HVP) carriage. Frank Dewhurst was in charge of the three other postal workers (Leslie Penn, Joseph Ware and John O'Connor) in the HVP carriage. Thomas Kett, assistant inspector in charge of the train from Carlisle to Euston was also in the carriage. Dewhurst and Kett were hit with coshes when they made a vain attempt to prevent the robbers' storming of the carriage. Once the robbers had entered the carriage, the staff could put up no effective resistance and there was no police officer or security guard on board to assist them. The staff were made to lie face down on the floor in a corner of the carriage. Mills and Whitby were then brought into the carriage, handcuffed together and put down beside the staff.[9]

The robbers removed all but eight of the 128 sacks from the HVP carriage, which they transferred in about 15–20 minutes to the waiting truck by forming a human chain. The gang departed some 30 minutes after the robbery had begun in their Austin Loadstar truck and, in an effort to mislead any potential witnesses, they used two Land Rover vehicles, both of which had the registration plates BMG 757A.

Map of some places connected to the robbery

Getaway and planned clean-up

The gang then headed along minor roads, listening for police broadcasts on a VHF radio, the journey taking somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, and arrived back at Leatherslade Farm at around 04:30, at around the same time as the first reports of the crime were being made. Leatherslade was a run-down farm 27 miles (43 km) from the crime scene, between Oakley and Brill (51°48′23″N 1°3′11″W / 51°48′23″N 1°3′11″W / 51.80639; -1.05306). It had been bought two months earlier as their hideout.

At the farm they counted the proceeds and divided it into 16 full shares and several 'drinks' (smaller sums of money intended for associates of the gang). The precise amounts of the split differ according to the source, but the full shares came to approximately £150,000 each (about £2.65 million today).

From listening to their police-tuned radio, the gang learned that the police had calculated they had gone to ground within a 30-mile radius of the crime scene rather than dispersing with their haul. This declaration was based on information given by a witness at the crime scene who stated that a gang member had told the post office workers "not to move for half an hour". The press interpreted this information as a 30-mile (48 km) radius—a half-hour drive in a fast car.

The gang realised the police were using a "dragnet tactic", and with help from the public, would probably discover the farm much sooner than had been originally anticipated. As a result, the plan for leaving the farm was brought forward to Friday from Sunday (the crime was committed on Thursday). The vehicles they had driven to the farm could no longer be used because they had been seen by the train staff. Brian Field came to the farm on Thursday to pick up his share of the loot and to take Roy James to London to find an extra vehicle. Bruce Reynolds and John Daly picked up cars, one for Jimmy White and the other for Reynolds, Daly, Biggs and the replacement train driver. Field, his wife Karin and his associate "Mark" brought the vans and drove the remainder of the gang to the Fields's home to recover.

Field had arranged with "Mark" to carry out a comprehensive clean-up and set fire to the farm after the robbers had left, even though the robbers had already spent much time wiping the place down to be free of prints. According to Buster Edwards, he 'nicked' £10,000 in ten-shilling notes to help pay "Mark's" drink. However, on Monday, when Charlie Wilson rang Brian Field to check whether the farm had been cleaned, he did not believe Field's assurances. He called a meeting with Edwards, Reynolds, Daly and James and they agreed that they needed to be sure. They called Field to a meeting on Tuesday, where he was forced to admit that he had failed to "torch" the farm. In the IVS 2012 documentary film The Great Train Robbery, Nick Reynolds (son of Bruce Reynolds) said "...the guy who was paid to basically go back to the farm and burn it down did a runner."[10] Wilson would have killed Field there and then but was restrained by the others. By the time they were ready to go back to the farm, however, they learned that police had found the hide-out.

The money

There is some uncertainty regarding the exact cash total stolen from the train. £2,631,684 is a figure quoted in the press, although the police investigation states the theft as £2,595,997 10s, in 636 packages, contained in 120 mailbags—the bulk of the haul in £1 and £5 notes (both the older white note and the newer blue note, which was half its size). There were also ten-shilling notes and Irish and Scottish money. Because a 30-minute time limit had been set by Reynolds, eight out of 128 bags were not stolen and were left behind. Statistically, this could have amounted to £131,000 or 4.7% of the total.[11] It is alleged that the total weight of the bags removed was 2.5 long tons (2.5 t), according to former Buckinghamshire police officer John Woolley.[10]

Famously, the gang had used the money in a game of Monopoly while holed up at a farm house.[12]

Raising the alarm

The robbers had cut all the telephone lines in the vicinity, but one of the rail-men left on the train at Sears Crossing caught a passing goods train to Cheddington, where he raised the alarm at around 04:20. The first reports of the robbery were broadcast on the VHF police radio within a few minutes and this is where the gang heard the line "A robbery has been committed and you'll never believe it – they've stolen the train!"

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