The Great Train Robbery
The Great Train Robbery of 1963 has become one of the most infamous heists of all time, even attaching celebrity and a somewhat heroic status to many of the gang members.
The heist saw two of London’s most notorious gangs, the South East gang and the South West gang, come together to pull off the most unique and audacious robbery Britain had ever seen; a crime which would soon capture the imagination of not only the British public, but people all over the world, for decades to come.
Taking place on the Buckinghamshire/Bedfordshire border, and with trials at Aylesbury, the heist bought much attention not only to the Buckinghamshire Constabulary, but also the Metropolitan Police and the Post Office Investigation Department. The investigation that followed was the largest combined investigation then undertaken, involving many officers in the direct investigation and many Buckinghamshire Constabulary officers involved in scene containment, and escorting prisoners at the many remand hearings, committal hearings and eventually the trial.
The number of people subsequently arrested required a temporary court to be built within the Aylesbury Rural District Council Chambers as the Linslade Magistrates Court was too small for the committal hearing and the Assize (Crown) Court too small for the trial.
The majority of the robbery had been meticulously planned; each gang member had a specific role and purpose that played a vital part in the execution of the crime.
Although it is not known exactly who came up with the idea, gang leader, Bruce Reynolds is widely believed to have been the mastermind behind the robbery. Using inside information about the train’s movements, Reynolds chose the gang who would hold up and rob the Glasgow to London Royal Mail Travelling Post Office train.
Taking place a day later than originally planned, the gang set off from Leatherslade Farm near Oakley, Buckinghamshire at around 1am on Thursday 8 August 1963. Reaching their destination, Sears Crossing between Leighton Buzzard and Cheddington, the train signals were rigged to stay red, forcing the train to come to a halt at 3.03am.
The gang, disguised in masks, army uniform and boiler suits, swarmed the train and quickly detached the two front carriages from the rest; the front two being where the cash and high value packages (HVPs) were kept, then forcing the train driver, Jack Mills, to drive the two carriages half a mile further up the track to Bridego Bridge. This is where the unloading of the cash took place.
There were no police or security officers on board the train, and although more than 70 mail sorting staff occupied the rest of the train, they were left unaware of what had happened.
One big clue
The gang had thought to cut the phone lines so it was not until 4.15am that the alarm had reached the signalman. By this time the robbers were arriving back at Leatherslade Farm. It was here that they celebrated the robbery, divided up the money shares, and played a game of Monopoly using the money they had just stolen.
It was also here that their plan began to fall apart. Fingerprints were left on items in the farmhouse after the accomplice hired to burn it down failed to stick to his word; leaving their identities exposed. Perhaps luckily for the gang, the local media had wrongly reported that the police were searching farm houses within a 30 mile radius from the robbery, rather than a 30 minute radius, thus scaring the gang and forcing them to leave Leatherslade earlier than planned. However leaving early meant they didn’t spend time covering their tracks properly.
The farm has since been described as the ‘one big clue’, and items found inside Leatherstrade including the Monopoly set are now on display at the Thames Valley Police museum.
Jack Mills and David Whitby
On the night of the robbery, Jack Mills boarded the train during the driver crossover in his hometown of Crewe. He was joined by David Whitby, also from Crewe who was the acting secondman.
When the robbery began it was David Whitby who left the train to address the red lights. Upon discovering the phone wires had been cut he was then confronted and thrown down the embankment where gang members restrained him.
Meanwhile Jack Mills had begun to put up a fight in order to prevent the gang from boarding the train; however this resulted in him being coshed over the head by another gang member who had boarded the train from behind him. The perpetrator of the blow has never been identified though it is believed to have been one of the ‘heavies’ employed by the gang.
The robbers had planned for one of their number to move the locomotive and the two detached carriages but the robber realised he could not drive the large diesel, having had experience on diesel shunters only. Jack Mills, bleeding profusely, was then forced to drive the train up the track to Bridego Bridge.
Following the robbery both Jack Mills and David Whitby had trouble coming to terms with what had happened. Jack Mills never fully returned to work and passed away seven years later, aged 64, from leukaemia; however his family insist that the blow to the head contributed to his ill health and subsequent early death.
David Whitby, who was only 25 at the time of the robbery, was also said to have had problems dealing with the trauma of the robbery and sadly died from a heart attack two years after Jack Mills, aged just 34.
Brought to justice
Bringing the criminals involved to justice was never an easy task; however the majority of the gang were eventually sentenced to a combined total of over 300 years imprisonment. Leader of the gang, Bruce Reynolds was captured after five years on the run and Buster Edwards after fleeing to Mexico for three years.
Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Biggs was sentenced to 30 years in jail but escaped from Wandsworth prison in 1965 and spent the following 36 years as a fugitive residing in Paris, Australia and finally Brazil.
In addition a further 17 people were charged with offences ranging from conspiracy to obstruct justice, harbouring wanted persons, and receiving stolen property.
The Officers involved
Officers from the Buckinghamshire Constabulary were joined by members of the British Transport Police as well as detectives from the Metropolitan Police’s Flying Squad. The investigation into the train robbery was a massive one and employed over 70 dedicated officers working on the case.
In total over 2,000 official reports were documented and of the original 2,535 witness statements, over 250 witnesses were called to court.
Following the discovery of the ‘One big clue’ of Leatherslade Farm, containment around the farm was maintained by up to 10 constables per shift. A team of fingerprint specialists and photographers, under the command of Detective Superintendent Ray from the Metropolitan Police, searched the premises, outbuildings and all the various items found within it for clues that would eventually lead to the identification and subsequent conviction of the main offenders.
In addition to the investigation, Buckinghamshire Constabulary also provided many officers in supporting roles, such as the containment of Leatherslade Farm, and the escorting and transporting of prisoners at remand hearings, committal hearings and finally the trials.
- For more information on The Great Train Robbery, and on Buckinghamshire Constabulary, please visit www.mkheritage.co.uk (opens new window).