In the most daring crime in British history on the night of August 8th 1963 a 15-member gang intercepted the Glasgow-to-London mail train and made off with £2.6m in used bank notes. The audacious nature of the crime captivated Britain and launched a massive police hunt.
By the very nature of the crime and the way in which it was executed, police immediately believed the job was pulled with inside knowledge. The train, which was carrying used bank notes on their way to being destroyed, was stopped by a fake red track signal at a secluded spot at Cheddington in Buckinghamshire. Ordinarily these notes would have been transported by high security train carriages but at the time many of them were broken or had been taken out of service forcing the Royal Mint to transport them by a standard 'travelling Post Office.' With meticulous timing at 3.10am, the engine and front two carriages were uncoupled before being driven up the line. Whilst this was happening the gang were smashing their way to overpower sorting staff. 800 yards later the train was stopped where two vans were waiting to be loaded with 120 mailbags. The whole operation took forty minutes.
The alarm was raised ten minutes later by train driver Jack Mills and his fireman, David Whitby. Mills, aged 58, had originally tried to stop the gang from hijacking the train and as a result was hit over the head with an iron bar. Whitby, who had got down from the train when it was stopped in order to phone for help at a trackside telephone, was pushed down an embankment where he was handcuffed and told not to make a sound.
Following the heist the gang made their way to a nearby farmhouse, Leatherslade Farm, which was in the heart of a small farming community just twenty-seven miles from the site of the robbery. The original plan had called for the gang to lay low at the farmhouse for up to two weeks until the heat had died down. But while monitoring a police broadcast the following day they overheard news that was to change their plans. The police reports suggested that the thieves had used army vehicles at the scene of the robbery and were suspected to be holed up in a farmhouse in the vicinity. On top of that the robbery had become major headlines throughout the country and the police, who had assembled a special 'flying squad', were promising a swift arrest.
Becoming nervous, the gang abandoned their plans to stay holed up at the farmhouse and fled back to London. They 'hired' a man to clean up the farmhouse and wipe away all incriminating evidence including fingerprints. But the man double-crossed the gang and simply took the money and ran. Eight days later, working on a tip-off from a member of the public who had become suspicious of movements at the farmhouse, the police moved in. Within a day of the farm being forensically examined for evidence the first gang member, Roger Cordrey, was arrested and charged with taking part in the robbery and a suitcase containing £100,000 was recovered from woodlands just a few short miles from his house.
A week later Charlie Wilson was arrested in London and police announced that they were anxious to contact Bruce Reynolds, Jimmy White, Roy James and Buster Edwards to "assist them with their enquiries." A month later Ronald Biggs was taken into custody and transported to Scotland Yard for questioning and was subsequently arrested for his part in the robbery.
Thirteen of the gang members were caught, tried and sentenced on 16th April 1964 and as a result received prison sentences. Biggs escaped from prison 15 months into his sentence, fleeing to Adelaide, Australia. When police were tipped off of his whereabouts he fled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and although traced there he could not be extradited because he had fathered a Brazilian child. As a result he lived openly in Rio for many years, completely untouchable by the British authorities.
Charlie Wilson escaped and took up residence outside Montreal, Canada on Rigaud Mountain. Wilson was finally tracked down by Scotland Yard. The story of Ronald "Buster" Edwards, who fled to Mexico but later surrendered to authorities, was dramatised in the 1988 film, ‘Buster,’ which starred Phil Collins in the title role. Edwards became a flower seller outside Waterloo Station on his release from prison. He committed suicide in 1994.
The robbery was investigated by Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper of the Metropolitan Police (widely known in the press as "Slipper of the Yard"), who became so involved with its aftermath that he continued to hunt down many of the escaped robbers in retirement.
Train driver Jack Mills suffered a black eye and facial bruising in the robbery. Mills never fully recovered from the attack and never returned to work, suffering from constant trauma headaches for the rest of his life. He died in 1970 from leukaemia.
One of the post office carriages involved is now preserved at Nene Valley Railway and has been restored to operational condition. As a direct result of The Great Train Robbery certain security measures were introduced. When stopped by a red signal, train drivers were normally required to contact the signaller by telephone (a procedure that required leaving the driving cab). Under the amended rules drivers of mail trains were not to leave the cab at signals and were also required to keep the doors locked. These rules remained until the last Travelling Post Office ran on British railways on 9th January 2004.
Very little of the money from The Great Train Robbery was ever recovered.