Real Heist Stories: The Great Train Robbery of 1963

Most Infamous Train Robbery in History?

With so much money in the world and how unfair it is distributed, you can expect robberies to happen quite often, preeminent ones that go to history despite the difficulty of getting the heist done. 

We are not trying to justify bad actions with the previous statement; after all, crimes take place even if it isn’t for fake justice from the criminals and people involved. 

But going back to the topic we are interested in, robberies are quite the news when people leave a huge mess behind, and even when some try to deny it, they love reading or watching anything about them to know how they happened or took place. 

Do you need proof? Just think about popular series like “Money Heist,” and when it comes to real-life robberies, the Great Train Robbery of 1963 was definitely at the top when it came to news and interest. 

This heist is one of the most popular ones, and we loved to find every detail about how the criminals planned to the final outcome, which we won’t spoil you just yet. 

If you are a fan like us for heist stories or just want to know a bit more about this robbery in specific, we won’t disappoint with the details and info we’re going to share here. 

Planning the Crime: About The Great Train Robbery 

Most people would start by mentioning how much money was stolen or what was involved during the robbery. 

However, we prefer to give this story a different approach to ensure you get the entire picture and are not focused on numbers or treasures only, but we can give you the heads-up that it does include money. 

To begin with, the Great Train Robbery was the theft of millions from a Royal Mail train traveling from Glasgow to London via the West Coast Main Line and occurred in the early hours on August 8, 1963, at Bridego Railway Bridge in Ledburn, England.

The robbery involved a gang of 15 men led by Bruce Reynolds, who attacked the train after tampering with the signal lines. 

The gang also included Buster Edwards and Charlie Wilson. Roy James, John Daly, and Jimmy White. Roger Cordrey and three men, known only as “1”, “2”, and “3, attacked the train. 

Two of them were Harry Smith and Danny Pembroke. Unnamed, a 16th man was also present.

But before the robbery took place, how did they come up with the idea of assaulting it and steal all the money? Well, the planning of this robbery is more complex than you would think and will take us quite a while. 

The plan to intercept the overnight Glasgow mail train and rob it was based upon information from a senior security officer at Royal Mail. 

He had detailed knowledge about the amount of money on the train and knew how to incept it. 

Brian Field, a London solicitor’s clerk, introduced him to Buster Edwards and Gordon Goody.

A core team of Goody, Edwards, Bruce Reynolds, and Charlie Wilson devised the raid over several months, and among them, Reynolds assumed the role of the leader within the team.

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Although this gang was very successful in criminal underworld activities, they had little experience stopping trains and robbing them, so it was decided to enlist The South Coast Raiders’ help. 

The latter group consisted of Tommy Wisbey and Bob Welch, as well as Jim Hussey. Roger Cordrey was also part of this group. He was an expert in this field and knew the best way to set up the signals on the tracks to stop trains.

As the organization grew, other associates were added (including Ronnie Biggs, who Reynolds had met in prison). 

The planning phase took a long time, and since it wasn’t that easy to deal with a train, you can expect the gang to take their time to set every detail. 

Building the Scene – How Did It Take Place?

The traveling postal (TPO), “Up Special” train left Glasgow Central Station on Wednesday, August 7, 1963, at 18:50, and it was en route to Euston Station, London, where it was due to arrive at Euston Station at 04:00 on the morning of the next day. 

This train involved a great deal when it comes to locomotive since it was pulled by English Electric 4 and a diesel-electric locomotive D326. 

The train comprised 12 carriages and had 72 post office employees who sort mail along the way.

Mail was loaded onto the train at Glasgow, and additional station stops were made along the route. 

Line-side collection points were where local post offices staff would hang mailbags on elevated hooks along the track that were caught by nets used by the onboard staff. 

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Jack Mills, who was 58 years old by the time and from Crewe, stopped the train at Sears Crossing in Ledburn just after 3:00 on August 8. However, he did it since the signal was tampered with by the thieves. 

They made this possible by covering up the green light and connected an electric battery to the red light. 

A second crew member of the locomotive, David Whitby, who was 26 years old and from the same location, was also the second man of the train. He is also known as 

Whitby climbed from the cab to contact the signalman using a line-side telephone. However, he was shocked to discover that the cables had been cut and he was overpowered by one of the robbers as he returned to train. 

Meanwhile, gang members had entered the engine cabin from both directions. Mills was unable to resist one of them and was hit from behind by another with a cosh, rendering him semi-conscious.

They had to move now the train to Bridego Bridge, which is approximately 800 meters further down the track and was key for the plan since this bridge was where they intended to unload the money. 

The robbers had spent a lot of time chatting with railway staff and learning about the operation and layout of trains and carriages. 

After uncoupling all the other mail, the train driver decided it would be more efficient to move the locomotive along with the first two carriages to the bridge.

The hired driver of the train, Ronnie Biggs’ friend, was unable to drive the newer locomotive. He had driven trains for many decades but was now retired and only knew how to shunt locomotives in the Southern Region, and this left Mills as the only option as a driver. 

He had to get the train to the stop point near the bridge, marked by a white sheet stretched between the poles. 

Biggs was only responsible for supervising Agate in the robbery. When it became clear that Agate could not drive the train, they waited for the truck to help load the mail bags.

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The “assault force” the members involved built during their planning attacked the HVP carriage. Frank Dewhurst was the postal worker in charge of John O’Connor, Joseph Ware, and Leslie Penn in the HVP carriage. 

Thomas Kett was also in the carriage as an assistant inspector for the train from Carlisle to Euston. Dewhurst, Kett, and others were beaten with coshes after they tried to stop the robbers storming the carriage, and there was neither a security guard nor a police officer on the scene to help them. 

The staff was forced to lay face down on the ground in the corner of their carriage while Mills and Whitby were then taken into the carriage and made adopt the same position as the rest. 

They took all but 8 of the 128 bags from the HVP wagon and transferred them to the truck waiting for them by making a human chain. 

After the robbery began, the gang took 30 minutes to deal with the escape plan and left in their Austin Loadstar truck. 

To mislead potential witnesses, they used two Land Rover vehicles with the registration plates BMG 757A.

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Successful Escape? – Finding the Money & Aftermath

As you can see, this is quite a robbery to remember by the length of the event alone, and we are still missing the escape part and how authorities were able to trap them (or maybe not). 

After listening to the broadcasts of police on a VHF radio, the robbers headed down minor roads and returned to Leatherslade Farm around 04:30. This was around the time that the first reports of the crime had been made. 

Leatherslade was located 43km from the crime scene, which was an abandoned farm they purchased two months prior as their hideout.

They divided the proceeds into 16 shares and several drinks, being the latter smaller amounts of money meant for gang associates.

Although the exact amount of the split varies depending on the source, the total shares were approximately £150.000 each by the time, which is equivalent to around £3 million to this date. 

The gang discovered that police had calculated that they had been stopped within 50 km of the crime scene while they also obtained information from a witness that stated a gang member had instructed the post office workers to “not move for half an hour.” 

The press interpreted this information as a radius of 50 km.

During this period, the robbers also realized that the police were using a dragnet tactic and would likely discover the farm with the public’s help much sooner than they had originally expected. 

The plan to leave the farm was moved from Sunday to Friday, considering the robbery took place on Thursday. 

Brian Field visited the farm to collect his share of the loot and transport Roy James to London in search of an additional vehicle since the old ones could not be used since the staff saw them.

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John Daly and Bruce Reynolds picked up cars for Jimmy White and Reynolds, Daly, and Biggs.

John Daly also picked up the replacement train driver. Field and his wife, and Mark, his associate, brought the vans to Field’s house and drove the rest of the gang back to their home.

Field had made arrangements with Mark to clean up the farm and set it ablaze after the robbers left, and before this, they made sure to remove any prints and evidence. 

Charlie Wilson called Brian Field on Monday to verify that the farm had been cleaned. However, Charlie did not believe Field and called other gang members to discuss the matter, and they all agreed that they had to verify. 

Field was called to a meeting by the ones involved on Tuesday. He admitted that he had not “torched” the farm. 

As a result, the hideout had been found by police just before they could return to it.

With this part of the robbery done, what can we tell you about the money and aftermath? Were they ever caught? Kind of. 

To leave the detail clear, about £2.6 million were stolen at the time, but only a small portion of it was confiscated. 

However, 11 members of the gang were captured, and their sentences were quite a precedent. 

All the members who faced prison except for John Denby and Willian Boal faced from 25 to 30 years in prison, while the first only served three and the latter 24 years. 

An unprecedented event took place whatsoever. 

Charles Frederick Wilson was able to escape from prison and continues to be a fugitive to this date. Others like Buster Edwards, Jimmy White, and most of the main members of the gang continue to be pursued. 

Although not all members met their sentences fully, most served at least 4 to 6 years from their totals.

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5 Fascinating Facts About the Great Train Robbery of 1963

  • The £2.6 million stolen at the time is about £45 million in today’s money. 
  • Many people consider the sentences of 30 years to be excessive due to no casualties involved in the crime, considering that the same judge reduced the sentence of Charles Connelly, a robber. The latter shot a man and led him to his death, from 15 to 10 years. 
  • Bruce Reynolds and Biggs, after they were released, were signed up to produce a videogame of the robbery in 1999, but it never came up.
  • Many believe a security insider in the post office was involved in the robbery since security was out of service, which never happened before to the features before the event.
  • It took detectives from the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad, Buckinghamshire Constabulary, and the British Transport Police to solve the case and capture 11 members of the gang.

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Written by Dame Cash

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