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Sept. 5, 2013
The tunnel started in leather goods shop Le Sac and ended inside the Baker Street branch of Lloyds Bank.
After taking almost three months to tunnel under a branch of Lloyds Bank on Baker Street, on September 1, 1971, three robbers forced open more than 260 safety-deposit boxes and walked away with loot valued at more than £3 million. None of the stolen valuables was ever recovered.
By Robert Walsh
“We’ve got about £400,000. We’ll let you know when we’re coming out…” – Part of the intercepted radio chatter between gang members during the robbery.
September 1, 1971. In Wimpole Street, London, amateur CB radio hobbyist Robert Rowlands is tuning his set at around 1a.m., trying to tune in popular European station Radio Luxembourg. Radio Luxembourg doesn’t come through his speakers, but what does provides both him and Scotland Yard detectives with something that none of them have run across before. Rowlands has unwittingly picked up walkie-talkies operating ordinary public frequencies and the conversation is all about a bank robbery in progress. But which bank and where?
Rowlands, once he’d heard enough to know what he’d stumbled upon, called the police. The officer he spoke to, given that it was 1a.m. on a Saturday morning, assumed it was yet another hoaxer who’d perhaps taken one drink too many. He politely suggested that if Rowlands heard any more suspicious chatter he should record it and then ended the call.
Rowlands picked up a small tape recorder, recorded every time the unknown crooks started talking and then dialled the police a second time. This time he was absolutely insistent that a major robbery was still in progress and this time Scotland Yard detectives were sent to his home to talk it through and listen to the tape. What they heard caused a major alert and search operation. It was clear from the tape that a major robbery was still in progress and, if they moved quickly enough, police stood a good chance of finding exactly which bank was being robbed and maybe of catching the robbers red-handed.
What followed was a successful heist, a huge score for the robbers, a serious blunder by Scotland Yard, stiff sentences for the robbers and a crime that lent a seemingly baseless conspiracy aspect to the 2008 feature film The Bank Job. The film alleges (on scanty, limited and sometimes dubious evidence) that it was masterminded by the British Security Service (MI5) to recover compromising photographs of senior public figures including Princess Margaret which were being used by a London criminal to blackmail authorities into letting him continue operating. The film took mere allegations and presented them as though they were hard fact. As far as can be reliably confirmed, they weren’t.
The entertainment business deciding to take a perfectly good story and add fictional, often unnecessary spice is nothing new, that’s been happening for decades. Even some of the earliest feature films marketed as first-hand film of real events were actually shot in some back lot studio somewhere. But, like so many films based on real events, the Baker Street Robbery never really needed spicing up in the first place.
An Elaborate Plan
Like most criminal enterprises it was, theoretically at least, simple. Thieves targeted a branch of Lloyds Bank (one of Britain’s best-known banks) intending to break into the safety-deposit vault, force open as many deposit boxes as possible in the time available and escape with whatever they found worth taking. Safe-deposit vaults are sometimes considered a tempting target for robbery because, as a rule, only high-value items such as jewellery, bearer bonds, securities, uncut gems and large amounts of cash tend to be kept in them and, once robbers breach the vault, whatever they find is likely to be worth the time, effort and expense of breaking in. In the United States, robbing such vaults isn’t unusual and gangs specialising in the higher end of breaking-and-entering (often known as “B&E crews”) are regularly active across the country. A B&E crew operating in the UK had never taken such a huge haul before the Baker Street robbery and none have managed it since.
The theory was simple, the practice wasn’t. Simply to reach the vault the robbers had to choose a nearby shop (leased by an accomplice), break through the floor to a depth of 5 feet, tunnel 40 feet under the Chicken Inn fast food shop between its base and the bank itself (which meant digging through around eight tons of earth and rubble), then tunnel 15 feet back up (owing to sloping ground), break through three feet of reinforced concrete forming the vault floor, break open hundreds of deposit boxes, sort through them for anything worth taking and then escape back through the tunnel with the loot. All this had to be done without tripping any of the vault’s security devices or arousing any public attention while digging the tunnel and robbing the vault. To succeed the plan needed time, patience, significant funding, technical expertise with explosives and a thermic lance (both needed to breach the concrete floor), thorough planning, a willingness by the robbers to risk their lives during the tunnelling and break-in and no small amount of luck. Such a robbery, on such a scale, was simply unheard-of in the UK in 1971. Given the technical difficulties and obvious physical risks it’s not hard to see why.
The gang chose to tunnel under the vault because the walls and ceiling were protected by vibration alarms, trembler switches that would sense unusual vibrations or shockwaves and automatically trigger an alarm summoning police. The vault door was protected by a standard alarm that would be triggered by the door either being opened or directly attacked. Through a contact at the local security company protecting the bank the gang knew that the tremblers in the vault floor were turned off due to false alarms caused by work on nearby roads, a major security lapse. It was essentially a safecracker’s logic applied to an entire bank vault (bank vaults are essentially large safes, after all). A safecracker will often ignore a safe door and try forcing either the base, sides, top or back of an ordinary safe because the door is usually the strongest, best-protected part of it. Bank vaults can often be attacked along similar lines, albeit on a larger scale.
Police estimated that the gang took almost three months to lease the nearest available ground-floor property (a leather goods store named Le Sac just two doors down from the bank), assemble the equipment, dig the tunnel, breach the vault floor and rob its contents. It was a highly-specialised robbery needing considerable technical expertise which makes it unusual that the gang themselves weren’t high-level experts as much as journeyman crooks making an unusually complex entry into the big leagues.
The Baker Street robbery involved four principal players, none of whom had a record or reputation for the higher leagues of crime. Desmond Wolfe leased the store used as the tunnel entrance (something that would come back to bite him later on). Anthony Gavin, Thomas Stephens and Reginald Tucker did the tunnelling and the robbery itself. All these men were known to the police, but none was thought to have the skills for something as complex and difficult as this. Police suspected (but were never able to prove) that the crime was actually masterminded by another London criminal whose identity was never established and the robbers themselves never gave anything to the police to confirm those suspicions.
The gang only dug during weekends, minimizing the risk of anyone noticing unusual noise or visitors going to and from their hideout and explaining the time taken to dig the tunnel. The debris and rubble were stored inside the leased shop which had its windows painted white and a sign placed on the door stating that it was closed for refurbishment. To any passing pedestrian it was just another empty store and the noise inside would easily be put down to the interior being remodelled before re-opening under new management. Having passed under the Chicken Inn between its base and the bank they were faced with another obstacle: There were three feet of reinforced concrete floor between them and the inside of the vault.
They originally chose a thermic lance or “burn bar” to cut through the vault floor, but eventually had to blow a breach using explosives. The burn bar was taking too long and creating dense, toxic fumes in the tunnel itself making it impossible for the robbers to finish the job without blasting. Having partially burnt through the floor and blasted the rest of the way, leaving enough concrete to avoid bank staff noticing any cracks or putting their feet through the weakened section they were in position to wait to make their move. In 1971 British banks were usually closed from Friday afternoons until Monday mornings, giving them the maximum time between burgling the vault and the crime being discovered when the bank re-opened. All they had left to do was break through the remaining concrete, enter the vault and break into as many deposit boxes as possible overnight. Or so they thought, anyway.
The robbers were smart enough to keep one of their number as a look-out on a nearby rooftop and stay in touch via walkie-talkies. The walkie-talkies operated on the Citizen’s Band public frequencies where anyone could intercept the conversations and listen in, which wasn’t very secure. The likelihood of their chatter being intercepted was fairly small, though. Although amateur radio enthusiasts were growing in numbers, CB radios were still technically illegal to use in 1971 and expensive to buy, few people had them and so it’s unlikely the gang thought too much about whether they were providing a play-by-play for anybody who (accidentally or otherwise) found the right frequency. Robert Rowlands did. The chase was now on to figure out the gang’s exact location and hopefully catch them in the act. It didn’t quite work out as Scotland Yard, would have liked.
Having had to make not one phone call, but two before the police would send officers to visit him, Rowlands made a point of telling the police that the range of walkie-talkies at the time was quite short, especially in urban areas with tall buildings, thick concrete and stone walls, electrical interference and varying weather conditions all affecting a signal’s strength. He told the officers that if his ordinary set was picking up walkie-talkie chatter then that meant the robbers and their target couldn’t be more than a mile or two from Wimpole Street. Baker Street is within two miles of Wimpole Street. If it had been acted on Rowlands’s information about the radios’ range would certainly have narrowed the search area hugely, making it far more likely that the gang would have been caught red-handed. But it wasn’t acted on. The gang escaped from the crime scene taking over £3,000,000 of assorted swag that would be worth around £36,000,000 at current values.
Scotland Yard Diddles
Instead of using Rowlands’s radio knowledge to concentrate its search the police decided to visit every bank within 10 miles of his home, some 750 addresses in all, and check all of them as quickly as possible. Given the gang’s use of CB radios police also tried mobilizing radio-detection vehicles from the Post Office. Prior to privatizing national utilities during the 1980’s, pinpointing unlicensed radio transmissions came under Post Office jurisdiction. Unfortunately, like banks, the Post Office worked conventional hours as well. They didn’t have any detection vehicle crews on duty at 1a.m. on a Saturday morning. The police, aside from the sheer number of banks they had to check, could only enter private property without a warrant when there was cause to believe a crime was actually in progress inside that property. In order to work through the list of possible targets they had to identify, the police had to contact and transport the managers of all the banks listed so they could open their premises and check their vaults. The police couldn’t simply force entry to any private address on the off-chance of raiding the right one.
Of course, all this took time to arrange. Enough time for the robbers to breach the floor, enter the vault, open over 260 deposit boxes, rifle their contents and escape with whatever swag they wanted. It wasn’t until the Monday morning that the manager of the Baker Street branch of Lloyds, which had been checked at the time without anything unusual being spotted, entered the bank, opened the safe-deposit vault and was greeted by piles of discarded high-value property, hundreds of smashed deposit boxes and a man-sized hole in the middle of the vault floor. What the manager said isn’t on record (which is probably just as well, considering what he’d found), but he immediately called the police. Scotland Yard was faced with considerable public embarrassment. Investigators also now had a vast amount of evidence to sift through even before they could start to identify and catch the gang responsible for what was at the time one of the biggest robberies in British criminal history.
The amount of evidence was huge, time was short and London’s banking community (not forgetting over 260 less-than-happy customers) was in a state of shock. The owners of every box forced open had to be identified, informed and asked exactly what they had deposited which, for any depositor with anything either highly embarrassing or outright illegal in their box, could have caused serious problems. Every one of the hundreds of pieces of swag left behind had to be catalogued and photographed, the tunnel had to be made safe to enter before being traced back to its source, evidence left in the tunnel and the leather goods store had to be catalogued and examined and then the police could actually start hunting for the gang themselves. They needed every lucky break they could get and, for the first time in the case, they actually got one.
One Little Detail Breaks the Case
It was a small break but, as with so many successfully solved crimes, it proved to be absolutely vital. Desmond Wolfe was in the leather goods trade when not breaking the law and it was Wolfe who leased the shop the gang used as a base. Unfortunately for him (and the rest of the gang) Wolfe provided lasting proof of his not being a criminal genius by leasing it under his own name. Once the police identified the source of the tunnel they went looking for whoever owned or leased the shop and it wasn’t long before Wolfe was safely under lock and key to answer a few questions.
With one gang member under arrest, the police looked for Wolfe’s known criminal associates, especially associates who didn’t have alibis, did have records for burglaries and similar crimes and weren’t already in jail for unrelated offences. Soon, Anthony Gavin, Thomas Stephens and Reginald Tucker were all under arrest and being questioned by Scotland Yard detectives. True to the “criminal code,” none of the four men offered any information or offered to give evidence in return for lighter sentences when the case came to trial. In January 1973 all four men were convicted. Wolfe received only eight years due to his age (he was 64 at the time) while Gavin, Stephens and Tucker all received stiff penalties of 12 years each. Two other men were tried for allegedly handling stolen money from the robbery and were acquitted. Not a single item of stolen property from the Baker Street robbery has ever been recovered.
There have always been unanswered questions about the robbery. First, it was highly unusual for relatively low-level criminals to tackle something needing such special skills and equipment. Using a thermic lance isn’t for novices and whoever set the explosives managed to blow a hole in the vault floor without setting off any of the other security devices protecting the vault itself. That suggests a higher level of technical skill than the gang members themselves were known to possess, raising the possibility that there were others involved who managed to evade detection even today. The sheer scale of the tunnel is also far bigger and more complex than any job any of the robbers had tackled before, suggesting either an unusual degree of criminal ambition or that perhaps more outside help than they ever admitted to. Not one of them cracked under questioning, none of them cut a deal in return for lighter sentences and, so far, none of them has opted for a book deal or made any public comment about either the crime or the fact that none of the swag has ever been found. And that too makes me wonder whether or not somebody somewhere has had far more luck (and made far more money) than anybody involved in the actual robbery itself.
As far as can be confirmed, the film’s theory about MI5 setting up the robbery to recover blackmail material is a theory and nothing more. The theory goes that a London criminal known as “Michael X” (real name Michael de Freitas and originally from Trinidad) possessed incriminating photographs of Princess Margaret, and used them to force Scotland Yard to turn a reluctant blind eye to his long-term criminal operations. Having been forced to leave London when police attention became too serious to stay there “Michael X” resurfaced in Trinidad where he was later tried, convicted and hanged for ordering a murder. The film’s makers suggest that the robbery deprived him of his lifeline against prosecution, forcing him to leave Britain.
The suggestion is that there was a media blackout after the robbery, something disproved by widespread reporting of the robbery in the press. The police did impose a blackout while the robbery was in progress, hoping to catch the gang red-handed, but once the gang had committed the crime and escaped with the loot there was no need or point in continuing to suppress the story. Just the opposite, in fact, as media attention can often generate witnesses and jog their memories into offering vital clues.
Rowlands states he was told a so-called “D Notice” was issued to suppress the story which, again, is at best extremely unlikely. What was then known as a “D Notice” (Defence Notice) could be issued by a government department concerned with preserving national security by advising the press to avoid discussing certain matters such as intelligence operations or the current activities of Special Forces troops. A “D Notice” however was (and still is) not legally enforceable in itself, amounting only to the government advising the media to keep something quiet. Then as now the press is not obliged to obey one even when its modern-day equivalent (the “Defence Advisory Notice”) is issued. Second, there are neither records logging any request for a “D Notice” nor for one having been issued and there certainly would be records if it had been done.
Second, “Michael X” was a professional criminal, a freelance felon whose main employment was as a slum landlord, pimp and sometime enforcer. If MI5 was so desperate to see him silenced then a relatively simple killing would have been easier to arrange. There’s nothing especially unusual about gangland feuds and related violence in London and just another dead mid-level gangster is unlikely to have caused either much comment or unwelcome curiosity. After all, it was Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (ironically himself the victim of a contract killer) who coined the famous criminal line that gangsters only kill each other. Mounting a major deniable “black bag” operation under the noses of Scotland Yard yet using easily-intercepted radio equipment is hardly the action of a professional intelligence organization and in the 42 years since the robbery only Rowlands suggests there was a “D Notice” for unidentified “reasons of national security” and the Royal Family angle is only really touted by George McIndoe who also happened to be involved with the 2008 film The Bank Job.
To sum up, the Baker Street robbery was an unusual moment in British crime, but not nearly as unusual as some people might believe or others might like them to. At the time it was one of the largest robberies in British history, the method was highly unusual and the gang members themselves not the type of robbers anybody expected to tackle something so technically complex. There’s also a question mark over whether or not a so-far-undiscovered “Mr. Big” actually put the job together, whether or not all those involved were actually caught and where all the stolen cash and property finally ended up. Somebody must have arranged its onward sale and disposal of the proceeds, but nobody was ever convicted for having done so.
But the evidence supporting the suggestion that this was really arranged by some shadowy spymasters to protect the high and mighty is limited and (so far) entirely unconfirmed. There’s almost nothing to suggest that this was a conspiracy cooked up in the corridors of power, but there’s plenty to suggest that, while it was a huge score and unusually difficult to pull off, it was simply another case of a gang of crooks robbing a bank because, to quote legendary New York bandit Willie ‘King of the Bank Robbers’ Sutton:”That’s where the money is.”