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Dec. 19, 2011
Bridego Bridge just after the robbery
In August of 1963, 15 men pulled off “The Great Train Robbery,” at Sears Crossing in Buckinghamshire in southeast England, netting the equivalent of $68.5 million in today’s dollars. Of the £2,631,684 stolen, less than £400,000 was ever recovered.
The mastermind, known as “the Ulsterman,” would never be identified. One of the robbers, Ronnie Biggs, became an international celebrity after escaping from prison.
by Mark Pulham
The train didn’t seem to be anything special. It had a single diesel locomotive at the front, pulling a number of coaches, 12 in all, through the night, heading for its final destination, Euston Station in London. The only difference was that the coaches didn’t have windows. This was the overnight mail train from Scotland to London.
The train, known as the “Up Special” made the same journey every night, and had been doing so for 125 years. There had never been any major incidents.
But all that was about to change.
In 1963, there were many events which would be considered significant or noteworthy. In the United States, the year began with George Wallace taking over as the governor of Alabama after a landslide victory the previous November. In his inaugural speech he spoke the line for which he will always be remembered, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Later on in the year, he would stand in the doorway of the University of Alabama to stop the enrollment of black students, only stepping aside when confronted by federal marshals, the deputy attorney general, and the Alabama National Guard.
The end of the year came with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
In between those two events, Alcatraz closed as a penitentiary, the first James Bond film, Dr. No, had its North American premiere, and Martin Luther King gave his 17-minute “I Have A Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In Great Britain, it was the swinging sixties. Heavy snow dominated the beginning of the year, with snow remaining on the ground in many places right into April. It was the worst winter in 16 years. The end of the year would see the police in Ashton-under-Lyne begin a fruitless search for a missing 12-year-old boy named John Kilbride.
Kim Philby, a high ranking member of British Intelligence, would turn out to be a double agent spying for the Russians. He would disappear and resurface later in Moscow. It was an embarrassment for the Conservative Government. One of Philby’s fellow double agents, Guy Burgess would die later in the year.
In Gorton, Manchester, 16-year-old Pauline Reade went missing, the first victim of the Moors Murderers, Brady and Hindley.
Harold Wilson became the leader of the Labour Party after the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskill; The Beatles released their first album “Please, Please Me” which went to number one and sparked Beatlemania. The album would remain at the top for 30 weeks until finally being toppled by their second album.
Following the Philby spy humiliation, the Conservative Government was hit by a second scandal, when 48-year-old John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, resigned after admitting that he had been having a “secret” affair with a 21-year-old woman named Christine Keeler, a call girl. The problem was that Profumo wasn’t the only one having an affair with Keeler. Also sharing her bed was Yevgeny Ivanov, a senior naval attaché, and spy, at the Soviet Embassy in London. When Keeler was interviewed, she used the term “nuclear payload,” a term not used by the general public at the time. It was clear that John Profumo liked to talk in bed. The Profumo Affair would eventually bring down the Government.
In other news, Pope John XXIII died, and in the Soviet Union Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.
And in the middle of it all, in August, 15 men, plus a few accomplices, would commit a crime so audacious that it would go down in history as one of the greatest robberies of all time, one that all others would be compared to: The Great Train Robbery.
The Fixer – Brian Field
Brian Field was a 28-year-old solicitor’s managing clerk working for the company James and Wheater. Despite his young age, he was already very successful, both in his personal life and his professional. He had a beautiful German wife, Karin, and lived in a large house in Oxfordshire named Kabri. His boss, John Wheater, was not as well off as his young employee. Wheater lived in a run down neighborhood, and where Field drove a brand new Jaguar, Wheater travelled around in a battered old Ford.
But then, Wheater was honest, while Brian Field was decidedly not. Many of Field’s clients were wealthy, with large houses in the country, filled with artwork, antiques, and jewelry. A great many of his other clients were career criminals, for whom he would arrange alibis, find friendly witnesses, and give out the odd bribe here and there. Naturally, for a small take in the proceeds, Field would supply his less than honest clients an inventory of what could be found in the homes of his other clients.
On November 27, 1962, three businessmen entered Comet House at Heathrow Airport. With their dark suits and two of them wearing bowler hats, it was clear that these were “city gents,” possibly bankers, there to do business, probably with the airport’s own bank.
While the businessmen waited, another group of people were making its way to Comet House. Three security guards from the now defunct BOAC airline had left the Hatton Cross branch of Barclay’s Bank, 300 yards away, and were heading to the building. They were escorting a steel strongbox, a transfer of money between the two banks. The three security men were in one car, followed by a security van containing the strongbox, and a radio car following at the rear.
As they pulled up, they must have noticed the two Jaguar cars and a van that were parked nearby. Inside one of the cars was a chauffeur and, sitting next to him, a woman. It was clear that they were waiting for someone.
The strongbox was taken from the security van and loaded onto a trolley. The three security men wheeled their cargo into Comet House and over to the elevators. While the elevator descended, the three security guards noticed the city gents in bowler hats coming down the stairs, but didn’t take much notice of them.
The elevator arrived and the doors opened. Inside were five men, all wearing balaclavas and masks, and carrying pick axe handles and iron bars. The men jumped out at the guards, and the three businessmen joined in the attack. Within a few moments, two of the security men were unconscious on the floor, while the third one was overpowered.
The robbers wheeled the strongbox back outside and got it into the van, then they all climbed into the van and the two Jaguars and raced away around the back of the hangars. The getaway vehicles stopped at a disused gate that opened onto the A30 motorway, and one man got out. In his hand was a pair of bolt cutters, which he used to cut the chain holding the gate closed. Once the gate was open, the vehicles sped through and joined the traffic heading for London on the Great West Road.
The whole robbery had been planned and timed with military precision, and had taken just two minutes. Inside the strongbox was £62,500, the equivalent today of £1,050,000, or $1,690,000.
Several suspects were picked up by the police and put on an identity parade. But there was a problem for the police. The “city gent” suspects all wore false moustaches, bowler hats, and business suits, which meant that the people in the identity parade had to be similarly disguised.
With the level of skill shown in the robbery, the police were fairly confident as to who had carried it out, and had picked up two suspects that they were sure of, Gordon Goody and Charlie Wilson. Both men were picked out by the guards at the identity parade, and when a search of Goody’s address was carried out, the police turned up false moustaches and chauffeurs hats.
The two men were put on trial, and much to the surprise of the police, they were both acquitted, thanks to a defense team that included Brian Field.
A Mysterious Irishman Known as “The Ulsterman”
The idea to rob the mail train had, according to some sources, been floating around London for a few years. Who came up with the plan in not known, though it is most likely a mysterious Irishman known only as “The Ulsterman” who was well known in the underworld as a man who came up with the ideas, and then sold them on to a gang for a cut in the proceeds. Eventually, the Ulsterman brought the idea to Brian Field, who in turn shopped it around to a few London gangs.
This was a robbery that would that would need someone who could gather together a team of professionals, someone who could plan the robbery meticulously. Such as those who pulled off the Heathrow heist. Brian called his old friend and client, Gordon Goody.
Douglas Gordon Goody was a 33-year-old hairdresser, and the deputy leader of the South West Gang. He was also one of the gang’s key organizers. Brian set up a meeting between himself, the Ulsterman, and Goody. Goody had brought along another member of the South West Gang, Buster Edwards.
Ronald Christopher “Buster” Edwards was born on January 27, 1932 in Lambeth, South London. After he left school, he began working in a sausage factory, and it was while he was working there that he began his criminal career, when he started stealing meat to sell in the post-war black market. He became a club owner, was an ex-boxer, and a small time crook who robbed easy targets along with a friend of his, Gordon Goody.
The four men met, and Goody listened to what the Ulsterman had to say.
The “Up Special” Train
|The Up Special|
The “Up Special” mail train was a mobile post office sorting room, where some 70 post office workers sorted the mail during the 414- mile trip between Glasgow and London. There were 12 coaches, all pulled by a single diesel locomotive. Ten of the coaches were used to sort the ordinary mail, but the first two coaches directly behind the locomotive were different. The first was the baggage wagon, and the second was the High Value Package coach, or HPV.
The HPV carried the registered mail, which included money that the banks sent down from their local branches in the north to the main branches in London. Most of the time, the money carried in the HPV would be around £300,000, a good haul. However, if the robbery took place just after a bank holiday, then the amount carried by the train would be significantly higher. Best of all, the HPV coach was virtually unprotected.
Bruce Reynolds – The Leader of the South West Gang
Goody and Edwards thought the idea was a good one, and they would take it to other members of the gang.
The unofficial leader of the South West Gang was Bruce Reynolds, a London antique dealer and the acknowledged planner of the gang. Goody told Reynolds about the train.
Bruce Richard Reynolds was born in London on September 7, 1931, the son of a trade union activist at the Ford car plant in Dagenham. After his mother died in 1935, his father remarried, and Bruce had trouble getting along with his father and his new wife, so Bruce spent a great deal of his time with his grandmothers.
Bruce started breaking and entering, and subsequently spent some years in prison. But the jail time didn’t cure him. Once he was released, he went straight back into a life of crime. Eventually, he set himself up as an antiques dealer, and carried on his criminal career.
Reynolds, Goody, and Edwards discussed the idea with the fourth member of the gang, Charlie Wilson, who was acquitted along with Goody of the Heathrow robbery.
Born in Battersea, South London, on June 30, 1932, Charlie was the most popular of the gang members, and the most dangerous. He was a career criminal from an early age, and the proceeds from his crimes went to pay for his shares in various gambling ventures.
Career criminals are always on the look out for the “big one,” a masterpiece of crime, and Bruce Reynolds was no different. It was clear to him right from the outset that this was it, this was the one. It was, as he called it, his “El Dorado.”
An “Old Mark Firm”
|Buster Edwards, Tommy Wisbey, Jimmy White, Bruce Reynolds, Roger Cordrey, and Charlie Wilson|
What was also clear right from the beginning was that the South West Gang was too small to handle a job of this size on its own. They had to recruit more people and create a pick and mix gang, what is known as an “Odd mark firm.”
They also needed someone who knew how to stop a train, and for this, they called on Tommy Wisbey. Tommy was a member of another criminal gang, the South Coast Raiders. Wisbey was a 33-year-old bookmaker and a “heavy” for the gang. He knew the members of the South West Gang and had been friends with them since childhood. He joined the odd mark firm, and brought in other members of the South Coast Raiders, including Bob Welch, James “Big Jim” Hussey, and one particular member, Roger Cordrey, who was an electronics expert and knew exactly what would be needed to stop a train.
Another six men were recruited to bring the number up to 15. One was Jimmy White, who acted as the firm’s quartermaster. White was a thief who generally acted alone, but he had known Reynolds for a long time, and agreed to join the firm. Two getaway drivers were also recruited. One was Reynolds’s brother-in-law, John Daly, and the other was Roy James.
Roy James was born in August 1935, and was already well known, though not for his criminal activities. He was a popular racing driver who that same year won the Formula Junior Race at Brands Hatch. But motor racing is an expensive sport, and he had turned to crime to finance his passion, becoming a cat burglar. The gang knew that he was a good driver; he was one of the getaway drivers on the Heathrow job.
|Ronnie Biggs at the time of the robbery|
The last one was Ronnie Biggs. Born in Lambeth, South London, on August 8, 1929, Ronald Arthur Biggs was a small time criminal who had been stealing things since his early teens. In 1950, while he was doing time in Wormwood Scrubs, he met another inmate, Bruce Reynolds.
By 1963, Ronnie Biggs had gone straight. In jail, he had learned how to be a carpenter, and had set up his own firm with a friend named Ray Stripp. On paper, the firm was doing well, but with slow paying customers, it was sometimes difficult to meet the payroll. With a second child recently born, Biggs decided to contact an old friend to borrow £500 to tide him over. He called on Bruce Reynolds.
Reynolds told Biggs that he wished he could help, but all of his money was tied up in a bit of business. Reynolds wondered if Ronnie would be interested in joining. They met that weekend, and Ronnie was reluctant, as he was now married and with a family. Reynolds said okay, but said he could guarantee 40 grand. Ronnie asked for time to think about it. Reynolds said if he wanted to take part, he would have to come up with someone who could drive a train.
Maybe it was fate, but Biggs, at the time, was doing some building work for a train driver, replacing the windows in his house. A few days later, while at the train driver’s house, Biggs casually asked what he would do for £40,000. The driver, “Peter” said he’d do anything for that type of money. Peter may have thought that he was joking at first, but it was clear that Ronnie was serious, and Peter was in.
The gang was all set.
The plan had been basically worked out, but now, with everything in place, Reynolds worked on the plan some more, giving it a final polish until he was satisfied. Reynolds had been supplied with the route the train took, and with Roger Cordrey, they had worked out where to stop the train. Cordrey determined that the train should be stopped at Sears Crossing, just outside of Cheddington in Buckinghamshire. They could then move the train just a mile along the track to Bridego Bridge.
Reynolds needed to take a closer look at the bridge where the unloading would take place. He joined a fishing club in the area, and as he sat there fishing, he took photographs of the bridge and the trains that ran past, taking notes and adding to the plan.
The Safe House
Bridego Bridge was perfect, a barely used stretch of track miles from anywhere, and with a road running right underneath it.
The plan also needed a “safe house” where the gang could hole up before and after the robbery. They decided on Leatherslade Farm, at Oakley in Buckinghamshire, just 28 miles away from Bridego Bridge where the unloading of the train would take place. Brian Field was to arrange the purchase of the farm, an isolated property consisting of a ramshackle two storey farmhouse and several small run down outbuildings.
For the next couple of months, the gang planned and rehearsed again and again. Finally, they were ready. Knowing that the next bank holiday was on August 5, Reynolds set the date for the robbery for the day after, and waited for confirmation from the Ulsterman.
Early on Tuesday, August 6, 1963, Ronnie Biggs left home and caught the train from Redhill Station, heading for Victoria Station in London. Also on board, though travelling separately, was “Peter” the train driver.
Once they arrived in London, they went around the corner to a café where, waiting for them, were Bruce Reynolds, John Daly, Jimmy White, and a big man known only as “Mr. Three.”
After a cup of tea and something to eat, the six men left and climbed into a green army Land Rover. Peter was relaxed and impressed by the Land Rover. Naïve, Peter innocently said, “Nice vehicles, these Land Rovers. Who do they belong to?” Jimmy White said he didn’t know, “We nicked it the night before last in the Strand.”
Peter looked shocked. “Nicked it!” he said, “Christ! You can get pinched for that kind of thing.” Everyone in the Land Rover started laughing.
By the time they reached Leatherslade Farm it was mid morning, and after unpacking the Land Rover, they settled down to wait for the other gang members to arrive. Late that afternoon, an Austin army truck pulled in to the farm, stolen earlier. Inside were Buster Edwards, Tommy Wisbey, Bob Welch, and Jim Hussey. Two others were with them, “Mr. One” and “Mr. Two.” Shortly after the arrival of the truck, a second Land Rover pulled in, with Charlie Wilson and Roy James. Roger Cordrey arrived later on a bicycle.
The only one missing from the group was Gordon Goody. He was staying with Brian Field at his house in Pangbourne, waiting for a phone call from the Ulsterman letting them know that the money was on the way.
As the gang members waited at the farm, they amused themselves by playing cards and “Monopoly.” At around 11 p.m., Gordon Goody arrived. He told them they could all relax, nothing was going to be happening that night. They all settled down for a night of rest, though most of them couldn’t sleep right away, and instead played cards and drank beer until they were tired.
The next day, they had a visitor, a Mr. Wyatt. He was a neighboring farmer who used to hire a meadow at Leatherslade when the old owners were there. He wondered if he could have the same arrangement with the new owners. Bruce Reynolds told him that they were only there to redecorate before the new owners moved in, but he would pass on the message.
They sat around all day, waiting. They went over the plan once again. The plan was for the gang to pose as an army unit engaged in night time military exercises. They were using army vehicles and they would all be dressed in army uniforms. Bruce would be the officer in charge, and he even had forged official papers in case someone asked.
Stopping the train would be fairly simple. As with cars on the road, trains also had to obey similar lights along the track, green for go, amber to slow down, and red to stop. It would just be a matter of rigging the lights to show the colors they needed to bring the train to a halt.
The “Up Special” Departs Glasgow Central Station for London
While the gang did its final review of the plan, in Glasgow, the train was almost ready to depart.
On Wednesday, August 7, 1963, around 6:50 p.m., the “Up Special” pulled out of Glasgow Central Station in Scotland for its regular trip to Euston Station in London. On board, there were 72 post office workers, sorting the mail as the train made its way down to London. There were several stops along the way, where more mail was collected and sorted mail was dropped off. Mail was also collected and dropped off using the track side hooks.
Around 10 p.m., Goody went back to Brian Field’s house to get news from the Ulsterman. When he returned some time later, he had the news that everyone had been waiting for. The train was on its way, and it was carrying an unusually large amount of money.
The gang got ready, loaded the vehicles, and just after midnight on Thursday, August 8, coincidentally, Ronnie Biggs birthday, they headed out toward Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire.
The lead Land Rover was driven by Mr. Two who was accompanied by Ronnie Biggs, Bruce Reynolds, John Daly, Roger Cordrey, and Peter the train driver.
The truck followed behind them, driven by Mr. One, and carrying almost all of the rest of the gang, with the exception of Gordon Goody, Jimmy White, and Roy James, who followed along in the second Land Rover. Within the hour, they were all at their designated posts.
The first Land Rover dropped John Daly and Roger Cordrey just outside Leighton Buzzard, where there was a signal light known as the “Distant Signal.” If there is no traffic on the line ahead and the track is okay, then this signal will show a green light. If, however, traffic is heavy or if there is a problem with the line ahead, then this signal would show amber. The driver would then know that it is okay to carry on, but to slow the train down as the next signal, known as the “Home Signal” may be red, which meant the train would have to stop.
After dropping off Cordrey and Daly, the Land Rover continued on to Bridego Bridge, where it met up with the rest of the gang. They all put on blue overalls over their army uniforms, an added precaution from Reynolds, who believed that if they were seen on the tracks, they would just be taken for railway maintenance workers doing repairs to the track.
Biggs and Peter climbed the embankment and made their way along the railway track to Sears Crossing, not far from Ledburn in Buckinghamshire, between Leighton Buzzard and Cheddington to the south, and the location of the Home Signal.
Roy James cut the telephone wires for the trackside emergency call box and then helped Bruce Reynolds cut the public telephone lines so that no one could call the police. In the meantime, other members of the gang unrolled markers that would show where the train had to be stopped.
Once this was done, Reynolds got one of the Land Rovers and headed further up the track to his position at the Ledburn Road rail bridge, where he would keep a lookout for the train as it approached. Once he had identified the train, he would call the others and let them know it was coming. At Sears Crossing, Biggs and Peter were joined by the rest of the gang, apart from Bruce, and John Daly who was stationed at the Distant Signal. Now all they could do was settle down and wait. Peter the train driver was so relaxed, he took out a pipe. As he struck the match, the flare seemed brilliant in the darkness of the night. Charlie Wilson came scrambling over from the other side of the embankment and put it out. Wilson looked at Peter and said, “Look at the old fucker. You’d think he was on his holiday.”
Knowing when the train had left Glasgow gave them a fair idea of when it would reach Leighton Buzzard, and it would be a couple of hours. Several trains went through during that time, but none were the “Up Special.” Finally, just after 3 a.m., right on time, Reynolds saw the “Up Special” coming along the tracks. He picked up his walkie-talkie and said, “This is it, this is it, this is it.”
John Daly covered the green signal with a glove and black paper, making it impossible to be seen from the train drivers cab. Cordrey had wired up an amber light to a set of batteries, which Daly now switched on.
At the home signal, a similar device had been set up, this time with a red light. The green light was covered.
|Train Driver Jack Mills|
The train driver, 57-year-old Jack Mills, saw the amber light ahead and knew that the next light would probably be red. He slowed the train down and continued along. At Sears Crossing, 1,300 yards beyond the distant signal, Jack Mills saw the expected red signal light, and applied the brakes.
He was confused to see, further along the track, a green signal light, which suggested to Mills and his 25-year-old fireman David Whitby, that there may be a fault in the red signal light.
David Whitby climbed down from the cab and walked along the track to the emergency phone, but found on arrival that the phone was dead and saw that the lines had been cut. Moments later, a man appeared, wearing blue overalls. He told Whitby to follow him, and Whitby, thinking the man was a railway maintenance worker, followed along. Whitby was wrong, it was Buster Edwards.
Suddenly, Whitby was grabbed by several men wearing balaclavas and rolled down the embankment. Whitby was handcuffed and one of the men clapped a hand across his mouth and whispered, “If you shout, I will kill you.”
In the meantime, other members of the gang had climbed up into the cab. The idea was to restrain the driver, but Jack Mills resisted, and Mr. Three, the biggest member of the gang, hit him with an iron cosh. Mills collapsed, striking his head again as he went down.
Two coaches back, Roy James and Jimmy White were busy uncoupling the 10 rear coaches from the HVP coach. The 10 ordinary coaches would be left behind while the engine and the first two coaches would be driven just under a mile along the track to Bridego Bridge.
Everything was going well, but now, they hit a snag. The train had been uncoupled, and now the plan was to move it down the line. But Peter, who was unnerved by the sight of the blood from Jack Mills, was not familiar with this type of engine. Brake pressure had gone down, and Peter told Goody he was waiting for the brake pressure to build back up. Frustrated and anxious, Goody told Biggs to get Peter out of there, and he got Mills up instead.
Goody told him to move the train and he’ll tell him where to stop. Wilson reassured Mills, bleeding profusely from his injury, that no more harm will come to him and he was not to worry.
Mills drove the train down to Bridego Bridge, leaving the 10 remaining coaches behind with the workers carrying on as usual, sorting the mail, unaware of what had happened outside. The first stage of the robbery had taken around two minutes.
Mills stopped the train at the markers that had been placed on the bridge, and where Bruce Reynolds, in his officer’s uniform, waited for them. Bruce told Biggs to take Peter down to the Land Rover and wait there with him. Biggs sat with Peter and they watched as the robbery continued.
At Bridego Bridge, the robbers attacked the HVP coach with sledgehammers and axes, smashing through the windows. Normally, the HVP coach would have been fairly secure, but this particular coach was not the one that was normally used. The three HVP coaches that were usually used on the “Up Special” were out of commission with various faults, allowing for the less secure coach to be used on this particular night. It is unlikely that this was just a fortuitous coincidence, but more likely an act of deliberate sabotage.
Inside the HVP coach, the five workers, who had guessed exactly what was going on, had barricaded the doors with mailbags. One of the gang called out to get the guns, and hearing this, the postal workers inside took down the barricade, not realizing that the robbers were not armed.
Once the gang was inside, the workers were tied up and made to lie on their stomachs. Jack Mills and David Whitby were brought from the locomotive and were similarly tied up.
The gang then formed a human chain and began to move the mailbags out of the coach and down the embankment, where they were loaded into the vehicles. Quickly, quietly, and efficiently, the bags were loaded until the truck was full. Bruce Reynolds, knowing that dawn was rapidly approaching, gave the order to move out.
The postal workers on the floor of the coach were told to stay where they were and not move for half an hour, and then the gang all got into their vehicles and drove away. They had taken 120 mailbags, leaving just seven behind on the train.
Thanks to the meticulous planning of Bruce Reynolds, the whole robbery, from the time the train was stopped to the getaway, had taken less than 40 minutes.
By this time, the postal workers who had been left behind in the 10 coaches had begun to wonder why they had been stuck there for so long. Some of them emerged from the coaches and discovered that the front part of the train was missing. They realized what must have happened.
One of the guards used his lamp to stop a train that was passing and got a ride down to Cheddington Station, arriving at around 4:15 a.m. He telephoned the Buckinghamshire Police to report the robbery.
Back to the Safe House to Tally the Take: A staggering £2,650,000.
The gang made its way back to Leatherslade Farm, with Ronnie Biggs monitoring the police band on the radio. It was just beginning to get light when they pulled into the farmyard, and the radio, which had remained silent all through the drive, now burst into life. The robbery had been reported.
The vehicles were unloaded by the tired men and the Land Rovers and the truck were hidden out of sight in one of the out buildings. Now came the task of counting the money, which nobody seemed anxious to do, this being the boring part. But once the bags had been opened and the sight of all the money was in front of them, they changed their minds.
Bruce Reynolds gave each of the gang members an assignment. Some men were sent to keep a lookout, some were to open all of the bags to see if they had been fitted with tracking devices. Ronnie Biggs, Mr. Two, and Bruce himself, were to unwrap the money and pass it along to Cordrey and Wilson, who were to do the counting.
The haul was made up of 10 shilling notes, £1 notes, and £5 notes, both the older white ones and the new blue notes, which were about half the size. It took a few hours to count the money. When they had reached £1,000,000, they were all called in to take a look at it. Gordon Goody began singing Tony Bennett’s “It’s The Good Life.” While Charlie Wilson started dancing the Twist and singing Gerry and the Pacemakers, “I Like It.” He would like it even more at the end of the count. The total, in used bills and completely untraceable, was almost a staggering £2,650,000. Today, that would be £44,000,000 or $68,500,000.
The plan to rob the mail train had gone like clockwork, thanks to the precision military style planning of Bruce Reynolds. But like many great plans, it just needed one weak link to bring it crashing down . . . and the robbers had one.
One Weak Link
|Malcolm Fewtrell (centre) investigating the robbery|
Chief Superintendent Malcolm Fewtrell, aged 54, was the head of the Buckinghamshire Criminal Investigation Department. He was called and arrived at the scene of the crime at around 5 a.m., and joined later by Leonard “Nipper” Read from the London Metropolitan Police. Fewtrell began supervision of the evidence gathering before heading off to Cheddington Station, where he spoke to Jack Mills, David Whitby, and the postal workers.
It was clear that there were about 15 men involved, all, according to the witnesses, wearing blue overalls. But other than that, there was very little to go on.
But something one of the witnesses said made Fewtrell stop and think. The witness told how one of the robbers told them not to move for a half hour. This suggested that the robbers may have been hiding out somewhere within a 30 minutes drive from the scene of the crime. This would make sense. If they tried to get back to London, there was the chance that the crime would be discovered and roadblocks set up before they made it.
Fewtrell held a press conference later and gave this information to them. But the press mistakenly reported that the police were searching within 30 miles.
For the most part, public opinion on the robbery clearly put them on the side of the gang, who they saw as Robin Hood types, who had taken from the establishment. The general attitude of the man on the street was good luck to them. This no doubt incensed the government and the police, who spared no effort in tracking the robbers down.
The gang had planned to lie low at Leatherslade Farm until the heat died down, possibly a couple of weeks, and they had brought in enough food to last them a length of time. But when they heard on the radio of Fewtrell’s plan to search within 30 miles of the crime scene, their plans were suddenly changed. They could not stay there, they would be found.
Hurriedly, they wiped down the building to get rid of any prints, and left as soon as they could. They had made arrangements with Brian Field that after they were gone, he would send in a cleaning crew to do a thorough cleaning of the farm, assuring that there was nothing left that could link it to the robbers. If it was necessary, they would even burn the place to the ground.
The following Monday, Charlie Wilson called Brian Field and asked if the farm had been cleaned. Field assured Wilson that it had, everything had been taken care of and there was no problem. Whether it was something Field had said or his general tone, something made Wilson suspicious. He didn’t believe Field. Wilson called for a meeting with Bruce Reynolds, Buster Edwards, Roy James, and John Daly. Wilson told them of his concerns, and they all agreed that they needed to be certain.
The next day, they called Brian Field and arranged a meeting for later that day. Confronted by the others, Brian Field cracked and admitted that he could not be sure if the farm had been cleaned or not. Brian Field was their weak link. Charlie Wilson was infuriated. If the others had not been there to hold him back, Charlie Wilson would have killed Brian Field right there.
Police Find the Safe House
There was only one solution. They had to go back to the farm and do it themselves. But they were too late. The police had received a tip from a farm laborer, who told them he had seen a suspicious looking vehicle at Leatherslade Farm a few days before. Initially, this tip was overlooked, but eventually, police followed up on it. Leatherslade Farm was investigated on Monday, August 13, the day before the gang confronted Field.
A police sergeant and a constable came to the farm and started to look around. A truck that had hurriedly been painted yellow was soon found. They also found both of the Land Rovers, both bearing the same number plate. The overjoyed police gave the news to reporters. The gang’s hideout had been found.
Inside, the police found bedding and sleeping bags, and a large amount of food that indicated they had planned on being there some time. They also found mail sacks, bank note wrappers, and registered mail packets.
It was clear that the place had been hurriedly cleaned, but some places had been missed by the robbers. Fingerprints were found, including one on a bottle of ketchup and a couple on the Monopoly board. According to some sources, the robbers played Monopoly after the robbery, but instead of the game money, they used the real money they had just stolen.
“The Grey Fox” from Scotland Yard Forms a Train Robbery Squad
By this time, Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad, headed by the newly promoted Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler, had become involved, investigating the London end of the case. Tommy Butler, known as the “Grey Fox” for his shrewdness, was a relentless hunter of criminals, whose dedication to the job bordered on the fanatical.
Butler swiftly formed a Train Robbery Squad, made up of six men. They were Detective Inspector Frank Williams, four detective sergeants, Jack Slipper, Steve Moore, Jim Nevill, and Lou Van Dyck, and Detective Constable Tommy Thorburn.
A £10,000 reward was posted by Postmaster General Reginald Bevins for “the first person giving information leading to the apprehension and conviction of the persons responsible for the robbery.”
With the fingerprints from Leatherslade Farm, it was soon known who some members of the gang were. A decision was made to publish the photographs of the known suspects, a decision that was strongly protested against by Tommy Butler, knowing that the robbers would go underground.
Sure enough, once the photographs were out, the robbers went into hiding, with Buster Edwards and Bruce Reynolds fleeing the country.
Roger Cordrey went to Bournemouth, Dorset, where he stayed with a friend named William Boal. They rented a fully furnished apartment above a flower shop in Wimborne Road. Cordrey needed to rent a garage and found one in Tweedale Road. He paid the owner, Ethel Clarke, for three months rent in advance, all in used ten shilling notes. With the news of the robbery in all of the newspapers and on the television, it was a stupid thing to do. It was made worse by the fact that Ethel Clarke was a police widow, and she soon tipped off the police.
Nabbing the Robbers, One at a Time
Cordrey was picked up and brought in for questioning. Jack Slipper came down from London to carry out the interrogation and soon noticed that Cordrey was squirming in his chair. Eventually, Cordrey told Slipper why he was uncomfortable. He had the ignition key for a car hidden inside his rectum. The key was retrieved, and the car, a Ford Anglia, was found in a Bournemouth car park.
Inside the car the police found £140,000. Roger Cordrey was the first of the train robbers to be arrested. William Boal, Cordrey’s friend, was also arrested with him.
On the morning of August 16, a middle aged couple was taking an early morning stroll through Dorking Woods when they came across a briefcase and a couple of bags. Curious, they opened them and found them to be filled with money. The couple contacted the police, who came and found another briefcase, also containing money. It totaled £100,900. One of the robbers had got scared and had just dumped the money.
But who had dumped the money? It was a question that was soon answered, as also found along with the cash was evidence pointing to his identity. Inside one of the bags was a receipt from the Cafe Pension Restaurant in Sonnenbichl, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Germany. It had been made out to Herr and Frau Field. The weak link had struck again.
The money and the receipt were sent to Malcolm Fewtrell in Buckinghamshire, who by this time had also discovered the identity of the person who had purchased Leatherslade Farm. That person was Brian Field, who was not only stupid enough to purchase the farm in his own name, but also to put the purchase through the company he worked for, James and Wheater.
Fewtrell contacted Interpol, who confirmed that in February that year, Brian and Karin Field had stayed at the Pension Sonnenbichl. Fewtrell also discovered that Field had acted for several criminals, including Goody and Wilson.
With a crime this well planned and executed, the police knew that only a few career criminals were capable of carrying it out, and at the top of their list was Bruce Reynolds. Now with the connection with Field to Goody and Wilson, known associates of Reynolds, their suspicions were confirmed.
|Bruce Reynolds caught|
Within a week, Charlie Wilson was arrested in London. The police announced that they were looking for Bruce Reynolds, Jimmy White, Buster Edwards, and Roy James. Other arrests soon followed. Ronnie Biggs was arrested on September 4, and Jim Hussey three days later, followed by Tommy Wisbey on September 11.
Brian Field had been interviewed a couple of times, and finally, on September 15, the gang’s weak link was also arrested. Two days later, for his part in the purchase of Leatherslade Farm, Brian Field’s boss, John Wheater, was also arrested.
Gordon Goody had been questioned, but had been released on lack of evidence. However, on October 10, he was also arrested and charged. By December 10, Bob Welch, John Daly, and Roy James were also in custody, James after a dramatic chase across the rooftops including a bold 30 foot jump to the ground.
“Mr. Three” Cashes Out
On December 3, 1963, money totaling £47,245 was discovered in a London telephone box in Great Dover Street. According to South London gang leader Fred Foreman, this money was supposed to be part of a deal made by Detective Inspector Frank Williams with one of the train robbers. The deal was brokered by Foreman, who had a good relationship with Frank Williams. The train robber was never charged with the crime due to lack of evidence, but it is believed that the robber was Mr. Three, the man who struck Jack Mills.
But not much of the money would be found. Of the £2,631,684 that was stolen, less than £400,000 was ever recovered.
An Escape Plan
Ronnie Biggs, Charlie Wilson, Jim Hussey, Bob Welch, and Tommy Wisbey, had all been kept together at Bedford Prison in Bedfordshire to await their trial. At first, they all believed that they had been “fitted up” for the crime just because they were known associates of Bruce Reynolds. But when Ronnie Biggs’s wife, Charmaine, came for a visit, they learned that it was because their fingerprints had been found at Leatherslade Farm. Ronnie’s were on the ketchup bottle.
In Bedford, the gang thought about making an escape, but before anything could be put into action, they were moved to Aylesbury Prison in Buckinghamshire where the rest of the gang had been sent
They learned that the evidence against them was strong, and once again they contemplated an escape. They managed to befriend one of the guards, and he helped, in exchange for a little cash, to smuggle in things that they needed. Over the next few weeks, the guard got them some hacksaw blades, a set of needle files, a watch, a wood chisel, and a key blank.
They filed down the key blank to make a key that would unlock the cells, and arrangements were made for a car to be waiting for them at the back of the prison hospital. But Bill Boal got cold feet and the plan was told to the head warden. The cells were searched and all the items that had been smuggled in were found and confiscated. Security was tightened and there were no outside visits or communication between the prisoners. The gang members found themselves in permanent lockdown.
On January 20, 1964, the trial of the Great Train Robbers began at Aylesbury Assizes. Presided over by Mr. Justice Edmund Davies, the trial lasted for 51 days, with 240 people appearing as witnesses, and 613 pieces of evidence. Roger Cordrey was not in attendance, he had already pleaded guilty, hoping for a reduced sentence. John Daly had also considered pleading guilty, but was persuaded against it.
Jack Mills gave his evidence to a hushed court, the reporters writing down his damaging testimony.
On the 14th day of the trial, Detective Inspector Basil Morris of Reigate CID took the stand to testify on his questioning of Ronnie Biggs. One question from the prosecution caused an upset. “Did you, Inspector Morris, ask Mr. Biggs if he knew any of the men wanted for the train robbery in Buckinghamshire?”
Morris said that he did, and when asked what Biggs answered, Morris said, “He said, ‘I know Reynolds. I met him when we were doing time together.’” Morris had inadvertently told the court, and more importantly the jury, that Ronnie Biggs had spent time in prison. This meant that they jury could no longer be impartial, and Ronnie Biggs was sent back to jail to await a retrial.
By February, the prosecution had rested its case, and the defense team began its turn. With so much evidence, supporting witnesses, and the number of people accused of the robbery, the trial dragged on into March, when the closing arguments began.
However, by this time, one of the accused had already got his break. John Daly’s fingerprints had been found at the farm only on the Monopoly board. His lawyer saw an advantage. He told the court that his client’s fingerprints were found only on the Monopoly board, but nowhere else in the farm. His fingerprints, therefore, could have been on the game before it was taken to the farm. The jury agreed that this was possible. A stunned John Daly was acquitted and released, thankful that he changed his mind about pleading guilty.
The jury retired on March 23 to consider its verdict, and two days passed before the jurors returned to the courtroom. All were found guilty of conspiracy to rob, while six of the accused, Gordon Goody, Charlie Wilson, Roy James, Jim Hussey, Tommy Wisbey, and Bob Welch, were also found guilty of robbery with violence.
Sentencing would be delayed until after Ronnie Biggs had his retrial, which began on April 8, and lasted barely a week. Ronnie Biggs was found guilty on all counts.
The next day, the robbers were brought back to court and one by one they heard their sentences. Expectations were that the sentences would be high. Fifteen years is a long sentence, but the robbers had made the government and the police angry, so they knew they were facing 18 to 20 years.
Roger Cordrey was the first, and as he pleaded guilty, expected a reduced sentence. He got 20 years. William Boal was next, told by the judge that he had showed no remorse and had continued to plead his innocence, his sentence was 24 years. The rest of the gang, Goody, Wilson, James, Wisbey, Welch, Hussey, and Biggs, each got 30 years. Cordrey, it seemed, had got a reduced sentence.
Brian Field was sentenced to 25 years on the conspiracy charge, and sentenced to five years to run concurrently, for obstruction of justice. His boss, John Wheater, got three years.
Everyone, not only the robbers, was shocked at the severity of the sentences. It was double the amount one would get for murder. It was clear that an example was being made of them. In the public eye, the robbers were now the victims.
They all appealed the sentences, but it was a waste of time for most of them. Roger Cordrey, whose prints were never found at Leatherslade Farm, successfully got his sentence reduced to 14 years, as did Bill Boal, when it was concluded that his age, 50 at the time of the robbery, temperament and physique made him unlikely to be one of the actual robbers, and considered that it may result in a miscarriage of justice. Brian Field also got his sentence reduced to just five years on the charge of obstruction of justice, the conspiracy to rob charge being, reluctantly, overturned.
Charlie Wilson Escapes
On August 12, 1964, just after 3 a.m., Charlie Wilson was lying on his bed at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham, waiting. The cell door opened, and in walked three men dressed in dark clothing and wearing black masks. They tossed a bundle of clothes to Wilson. Hurriedly, Wilson dressed in the black roll neck sweater and the dark trousers, he slipped on the black trainers and pulled the black balaclava over his head. Then Wilson and the three men left the cell and quietly made their way down the corridor. An elderly guard lay on the floor, bound and gagged, and unconscious after being hit.
As they passed through the open doors, the intruders closed and locked them behind them, and made their way outside. Keeping within the shadows, the men crossed to the 20 foot wall and the rope ladder that hung from the top.
After climbing the wall, they dropped down into a builder’s yard, then out to a towpath that ran along next to a canal. There, they climbed into two waiting cars and sped off.
From the time his cell door opened until the time the cars drove away, the escape of Charlie Wilson had taken just three minutes.
Where he went immediately after is unknown, but one story has him living in a London apartment for a few months, while another has him being driven to an abandoned airfield and flown to France.
Also a mystery is how his rescuers managed to get hold of a set of keys. Only one member of the prison staff has a set of keys, yet somehow, they had obtained a duplicate set.
With the escape of Charlie Wilson, the rest of the gang was placed on “Special Watch” to make sure they didn’t escape as well. Ronnie Biggs was in the tough Wandsworth Prison in South West London, a jail considered to be Britain’s equivalent of Alcatraz and the largest prison in London. Also inside was Paul Seabourne, and later, Eric Flower. Eric was an old friend of Biggs, and the three of them decided to arrange an escape. Paul was due to be released, and he would be their outside man.
Ronnie Biggs Escapes
Less than a year after Charlie Wilson’s escape, on Thursday, July 8, 1965, Ronnie Biggs escape plan went into action. On weekdays, the Special Watch prisoners had their exercise in the prison yard by the main prison wall. At around 3:10 p.m., a removal van pulled up on the other side of the wall. Moments later, a head covered by a stocking appeared on the top of the wall, swiftly followed by some rope ladders. As Biggs, Flowers and a couple of other prisoners, scrambled up the ladders, a few of the other inmates interfered with the guards that were racing to catch them.
The roof of the removal van had been cut open so a platform could be pushed through to give the height needed to reach the top of the 25 foot wall. Once over, the prisoners dropped through the hole in the van roof onto a pile of mattresses, then out of the doors to a waiting car. The crowded vehicle sped off toward the main road and into a cul-de-sac where the car was dumped and the passengers ran down a footpath where they got into another car. Ronnie Biggs was away.
By 3:30 p.m., they were in a semi-detached house in Dulwich, okay for a short time, but they needed somewhere safer. He and Eric were moved to a tenement building in Bermondsey, then, a week later, to Camberwell. A short while later, they moved to the seaside resort of Bognor Regis in West Sussex.
They spent some months in Bognor, then it was back to Camberwell before they were smuggled across the English Channel to Antwerp, then on to Paris, where, for a price, they were given new passports, new clothes, and thanks to plastic surgery, new faces.
With the escape of Ronnie Biggs, five of the train robbers were loose. Along with Biggs and Wilson, Buster Edwards was not in jail, neither were Jimmy White, or the mastermind, Bruce Reynolds.
But the freedom, for most of them, was not to last.
Tracking Down Bruce Reynolds and Re-capturing Charlie Wilson
Buster Edwards fled to Mexico after the hunt for the robbers began, and he stayed hidden until 1966. But a life on the run is not as glamorous as it seems. Money soon began to run out, and Buster was also feeling homesick. Buster made negotiations with Detective Inspector Frank Williams for a return to England. Once he was home, Buster was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, the sentence length more lenient now that an example had been made with the others.
Jimmy White never left England, and on April 10, 1966, one of his new friends recognized him from a newspaper photograph. The friend called the police and White was arrested. He was sentenced to 18 years.
In January, 1966, Charlie Wilson flew from Brussels to Montreal, Canada under the name of Ronald Alloway and settled down at Riguad, Quebec along with his wife and children. For a while, he worked as a car salesman, and later became a dealer in silverware.
Police eventually tracked him down to his hideout, but decided to wait for a few months, keeping him under surveillance in the hope that he would lead them to Bruce Reynolds.
|Charlie Wilson being brought home from Canada by Tommy Butler|
The surveillance was fruitless, and on January 25, 1968, Tommy Butler arrested Wilson, who was brought home to serve out the rest of his sentence. His wife and five daughters stayed in Canada.
Bruce Reynolds freedom lasted less than a year after Wilson was captured. As with Buster Edwards, Reynolds fled first to Mexico, then back to London, and finally, he settled down in Torquay, Devon. When the police spotted a known associate of Reynolds in the Chelsea Potter pub in Kings Road, they traced his phone calls. One of them was to a Mr. Hiller, living in Torquay. The police were suspicious. They knew that Reynolds, while living in Mexico, had gone under the name of Miller. The similarity in the names couldn’t be a coincidence.
Early in the morning of November 9, 1968, police surrounded the elegant property known as “Cap Martin” in Torquay and Bruce Reynolds, after more than five years on the run, was finally captured. He was sentenced to 25 years.
Ronnie Biggs Becomes a Celeb
But for Ronnie Biggs, things would be very different.
Ronnie Biggs was only a minor player in the actual robbery, but he would go on to become the most famous.
After he recovered from the plastic surgery, Biggs, using the name Terence Furmiger, flew to Australia, where he would later be reunited with his family. After some time in Sydney, then Adelaide, Biggs and family finally settled down in Melbourne. Life for Ronnie Biggs was fairly normal. He had begun work as a builder, and for a few years, nothing happened.
But by the end of 1969, Eric Flower had been captured in Sydney, and there was word going around that Biggs was likely hiding in Melbourne. There was nothing for it; Ronnie Biggs had to go on the run again.
His wife, Charmaine, decided that the best thing was for them to split up, and she remained behind in Australia with the kids. Life with Charmaine was, effectively, over.
On the evening of February 5, 1970, the S. S. Ellinis departed from Australia heading for Panama, with Ronnie Biggs on board, travelling under the name Michael Haynes. Panama was only a stop over for Biggs, who bought an airline ticket for a flight to Rio de Janeiro and flew there on Sunday, March 11.
Ronnie Biggs settled into life in Rio, making new friends, and entertaining a long line of women. But Biggs missed his family, and he was almost broke. A life on the run is expensive, and a large amount of his money had been spent keeping him a long way from the reach of the police.
To make matters worse, financially, he had started living with a girlfriend named Raimunda, and she announced one day that she was pregnant. Now Biggs was desperate for money to support both his English family, and his new Brazilian family. Biggs called a friend and asked him to contact the major newspapers in Britain. For £50,000, one of the newspapers would be given the exclusive rights to the Ronnie Biggs story, and the story of him giving himself up.
In January, 1974, the Daily Express offered to buy the story, and they sent one of their reporters, Colin Mackenzie, out to Rio. Mackenzie told Biggs that the newspaper had only authorized £35,000, not the £50,000 Biggs had asked for. But Biggs was desperate, and needed the money. He accepted the offer.
Biggs and Mackenzie began working on the story in Mackenzie’s hotel room where, a few days later, they were sitting when a knock came on the door. When it opened, a group of men entered. One was the British Consul-General, one was the Brazilian Vice-Consul, and the other three were policemen, one from Brazil, and the other two from Scotland Yard. One of the British policemen was Biggs’s nemesis, Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper.
For the next month, there was a lot of legal squabbling, which was further complicated by the fact that Brazil had no extradition agreement with Britain. Until further enquiries could be made and the whole thing sorted out, Ronnie Biggs would be kept in jail in Brasilia for 90 days.
While on the plane to Brasilia, Biggs was given a newspaper to read, and there, Biggs saw the truth. The Daily Express had set him up. They would get his story, bring him back to England, and not pay one penny for it.
But there was a flaw to their plan. Biggs learned from his fellow prisoners that it was very unlikely that he would be extradited, not with a child on the way. Mackenzie came to see Biggs in Brasilia and told him that he had no idea that his newspaper had set him up, which Biggs believed as Mackenzie also wanted to write a book with Biggs, something that would not happen if he was in on the trick. A few weeks later, Mackenzie told Biggs that Granada Publishing had advanced £65,000 for the rights to his book.
Biggs’s fellow prisoners were right. Biggs was released on May 6, 1974 and was told that as long as he remained in Brazil, he was a free man. A few weeks later, his wife Charmaine, who had visited him in prison, came to Rio to visit. During this visit, they decided to end their marriage.
In August, Raimunda gave birth to a boy, who they named Michael.
|Biggs in 1985|
By this time, Biggs, no longer having to hide under a false name, had become a criminal celebrity, giving interviews and getting offers for films and books. He was approached by Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, who asked Biggs if he would appear with them when they were in Rio. Biggs was delighted, and not only appeared with them, but also wrote a song with them, called “No One Is Innocent.”
In March 1981, among the many requests for interviews, was one from National Geographic. He was supposed to meet with their journalists at a local restaurant, and arrived there at 9 p.m. Instead of journalists, however, he was grabbed by several men wearing masks and bundled into a waiting van.
The men were all ex-military, led by a man named John Miller. The van stopped and Biggs was dragged out and on to a plane, flown to Belém in northern Brazil, just over 2,000 miles away. From there, Biggs was taken on a dinghy to a yacht and sailed to Barbados. Miller’s plan was to sell Biggs to the highest bidder. However, it has also been suggested that Miller was paid by the British Government for the kidnapping, using this method so they could deny any responsibility.
When the yacht reached Barbados, it was impounded. Ronnie was fingerprinted and sent to a local jail to await a hearing in court. The yacht and its occupants were sent on their way.
The court case ended with Biggs being told he would be deported back to Britain, but he appealed the decision, and it was overturned. Once again, Ronnie Biggs was a free man. Two television stations chartered a Lear jet to take him back to Brazil.
Over the years, Ronnie Biggs became a tourist attraction, with people meeting him at his home and having their photographs taken with him. Bruce Reynolds visited, as did Albert Spaggiari, the man who organized and broke into the Société Générale bank in Nice, France in 1976. Another visitor was a member of the Police, this time not the law but the group, Sting.
There were autographs and even tee shirts that read “I met someone who went to Brazil and met Ronnie Biggs – honest.” It kept Ronnie in money, but not enough to live a life of luxury.
In 1991, Ronnie was once again a pop star, this time with the German punk band Die Toten Hosen and again in 1993 with an Argentianian punk band called Pilsen. The following year, he published his autobiography, Odd Man Out.
In 1997, an extradition treaty was ratified between Brazil and the U.K., and by this time, Ronnie had said that he would not oppose extradition. The British wasted no time and requested an extradition. The Brazilian court rejected it. Ronnie Biggs could stay in Brazil for the rest of his life, a free man.
But by 2001, Ronnie Biggs wanted to return home so he could, as he put it, “walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter.” and added, “I hope I live long enough to do that.”
|Sun newspaper on Biggs return|
Ronnie contacted the Sun newspaper and announced to them that he was willing to return to Britain, knowing that he would be arrested the moment he set foot on British soil. The Sun paid for a private jet which landed Northrop RAF airbase in Middlesex on May 7, 2001. Ronnie Biggs was home.
After suffering three strokes and now very ill, the 71-year-old Biggs was met by Detective Chief Superintendent John Coles, the head of Scotland Yard’s Serious and Organized Crime Group, who took Biggs into custody. Later that day, Ronnie Biggs appeared in court where he was ordered to serve out the remaining 28 years of his original sentence. He had been on the run for 36 years.
His son, Michael, continued to campaign for his fathers release on the grounds of ill health, and was continuously turned down until, finally, on August 6, 2009, Ronnie Biggs was freed on compassionate grounds.
But Ronnie Biggs was not going to fade from the public eye. On November 17, 2011, the updated version of his 1994 biography, now re-titled Odd Man Out – The Last Straw, was released, and Biggs gave his first UK press conference since the robbery. Now unable to speak and confined to a wheelchair after another series of strokes, the frail 82-year-old answered questions by pointing at a letter board. Asked how he would like to be remembered, he said as a loveable rogue.
|Ronnie Biggs releases new book, 2011|
Tommy Butler was a tenacious detective. He postponed his retirement just so he could capture the whole of the gang and this relentless pursuit of the great train robbers bordered on extremism. There were stories from other officers involve in the investigation who complained that Butler would not share information, but would just give orders that needed to be carried out, but not telling them why. But how far would he go to get a conviction? Would he resort to framing them?
When Charlie Wilson was caught in 1963, he was said to have told the police in a confession, "I don't see how you can make it stick without the poppy, and you won't find that." Poppy was a slang term for money, but it was not a term used by the robbers. It was a slightly old fashioned term. However, it was known that it was a term used by Tommy Butler, one that he had been using for years. Butler had also been suspected in the past of making up confessions, a practice so common that it was known as “verballing.” The defense for Charlie Wilson successfully got the confession thrown out.
Also questionable is the evidence that sent Gordon Goody and William Boal to jail. On the sole of one of Goody’s shoes, the police found some yellow paint, the same paint that had been used to paint the truck. Some had been spilled in the garage at Leatherslade Farm, and it seemed that Goody had stepped in it.
The same paint had been found on the clutch pedal in one of the Land Rovers. Goody, perfectly willing to admit that he was part of the robbery, and that he was also at the farm, is adamant that the only way that paint could have got on his shoe is if the police had put it there. Strangely, although the paint was on the clutch pedal of the Land Rover, there is no evidence of paint on the carpet underneath the pedal where he would have had to rest his foot.
As for William Boal, when he was searched, the police found a watch winder in the lining of his jacket. This watch winder also had traces of the yellow paint, which firmly placed Boal at the farm and therefore one of the gang members.
All the train robbers are unanimous and stated without question that William Boal was never there, and was never a part of the gang. His only crime was to be a friend of Roger Cordrey. Boal had to have known that Cordrey was one of the train robbers; Cordrey was flashing money around too much for this conclusion not to be reached. But the most that Boal could have been arrested and charged with would have been helping to hide Cordrey or possibly receiving stolen money, which would have resulted in a sentence of four or five years. Both Malcolm Fewtrell and Jack Slipper were convinced that William Boal was completely innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.
Ronnie Biggs, with the attempted kidnappings, the pop songs, the extradition attempts, and the media attention, made him the most famous of the robbers. For the other members of the gang, they served out their sentences, but for most, not the full number of years.
Bruce Reynolds was released in 1978, and became a media figure that would be consulted by the press and TV for his thoughts whenever a robbery hit the headlines. He wrote his life story, The Autobiography of a Thief, in 1995, which was well received. But for him, the great train robbery became a curse. Even as the robbery was taking place and they were going back to the farm, he wondered what he would do now, he’d already made “the big one” and nothing was left. For many career criminals, it’s not the money, but the excitement, the buzz. Now, nothing could top this, the buzz wouldn’t be there.
His notoriety meant no-one would hire him, legally or illegally. “I became an old crook living on handouts from other old crooks,” he once said. In 2003, he was the guest of honor at a village fete in Oakley, close to Leatherslade Farm, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the robbery.
Gordon Goody was released in 1975 and moved to Spain where he opened a bar. He was lucky as he had entrusted his share of the robbery to people he could trust, unlike most of the others who saw their share reduced to nothing while they were in jail as family members and friends used up the money for their own purposes.
Brian Field was released in 1967 and changed his name to Brian Carlton. His wife, Karin, had divorced him while he was in prison and she remarried, to a journalist in Germany. In May, 1979, Brian was killed in a car crash on the motorway. His boss, John Wheater was released in February 1966. Unable to rejoin his former occupation, he moved to Harrowgate to manage the family laundry business.
Tommy Wisbey was released in 1976 and along with Jim Hussey, who had been released the year before, slipped back into a life of crime and ended up back in jail before being released and retiring from crime.
When Charlie Wilson was released in 1978, after 10 years in jail, he moved to Spain. According to many sources, he began to get involved in the drug trade. On April 23, 1990, Wilson was relaxing by the swimming pool at his home in Marbella when someone shot him to death, supposedly over a drug deal.
Roy James was released in 1975 and hoped for a return to motor racing. But his chances of having a Formula One career faded when he crashed a few cars, and he went back to being a silversmith. In 1984, James was acquitted of attempting to import gold into the country without paying the excise, a scam he became involved in the year before in partnership with Charlie Wilson.
In 1993, James found himself back in prison, this time for six years. He had been found guilty of shooting and wounding his former father-in-law and pistol whipping and partially strangling his ex-wife. Heart problems followed and in 1996, he had to have a triple heart bypass and was released from prison the following year. On August 21, 1997, Roy James suffered another heart attack, one which he didn’t survive.
Jimmy White went to live in Sussex after his release in 1975, and Bob Welch, who was released a year later, became a car dealer. Welch had a leg injury while in prison and had to undergo several operations, but was left semi-crippled.
Roger Cordrey was the first of the robbers to be released, getting his freedom in 1971. He went back to his former profession as a florist and moved to the West Country. His friend, William Boal, was not so lucky. In 1970, he died in prison from cancer.
Buster Edwards, like Ronnie Biggs, also became a celebrity of sorts. After his release in 1975, he went back to his old job, which, like Cordrey, was a florist. He had a stall outside Waterloo Station, where he got involved in another robbery, this time as a victim, when actor Dexter Fletcher ran past and grabbed two bunches of flowers. As luck would have it, Edwards wouldn’t have known who he was except that he had seen him in a film only the night before and was able to tell the police who had robbed him.
In 1988, a film was made of his life. Buster starred Phil Collins in the title role, and is more comedic than the real story. On Tuesday, November 29, 1994, Buster Edwards was found hanging from a steel girder inside a lock up garage in Greek Street, Lambeth. It’s not clear why he committed suicide, but some suggested that he was under investigation once more, and the thought of going back to prison pushed him over the edge. However, it has also been said that Edwards was too drunk at the time to commit suicide. At his funeral, two wreaths were in the shape of trains.
Both Jack Mills and David Whitby never fully recovered from the traumatizing events of August 8, 1963. Mills suffered from headaches for the rest of his life and never returned to work. All of the train robbers have stated that Mills was never hit as hard as the press and prosecution made out, an incident that they admit they regretted and should never have happened. But, they believe the injuries were exaggerated to justify the long sentences that they received. Jack Mills died in 1970 from leukemia, though his family firmly believes that it was the stress of the robbery that actually killed him. Peta Fordham, the wife of Ronnie Biggs’s lawyer, revealed that before his death, Jack Mills had admitted to her that he had been warned that his pension would be at stake if he showed any sympathy to the gang while in court, or if he suggested that the robbers had treated him like a gentleman. He was also told not to admit under any circumstances, that his worst injury came from the fall and not from the blow to his head from Mr. Three.
David Whitby was young and returned to work, but the robbery had never left him. On January 6, 1972, he died from a heart attack. He was 34-years-old.
Frank Williams hoped to become the head of the Flying Squad after the retirement of Tommy Butler, but Butler’s postponing of his retirement dashed those hopes. His chances of promotion were in doubt anyway due to his choice of friends. Other members of the police viewed his relationship with Fred Foreman with suspicion, and it is that, along with the deal with the recovered money that also may have stopped his promotion. Eventually, realizing he would never lead the Flying Squad, he moved to Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad before retiring in February, 1971 to become the security superintendent for QANTAS Airlines. His book, No Fixed Address criticizes his old boss Butler.
Tommy Butler finally retired in 1969, and died the following year at the age of 57. At the time of his death, the story of Ronnie Biggs was appearing in the Sun newspaper. Jack Slipper, who became the Head of the Flying Squad after Tommy Butler, died on 24 August 2005, at the age of 81, and Malcolm Fewtrell died on November 28 the same year at the age of 96.
Peter the train driver, Mr. One, Mr. Two, Mr. Three, and the Ulsterman have never been identified.
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