8th August 1963. The Heist of the Century.
The Night Mail poem by W.H. Auden caught the rhythm and action of the mail train going north to Scotland in the 1930.s. Pure romance, but reality has a way of intruding when in 1963 The Illustrated London News described the recent Great Train Robbery as, ‘the most daring and fruitful mail robbery in English history’.
The Travelling Post Office (TPO) was to see its most dramatic day when the ‘up’ train from Glasgow to London was robbed in Buckinghamshire. ‘The only reason most of us knew something was wrong was that we shouldn’t have stopped for that length of time’, recalled Dino Howell who joined TPO in 1962, later talking about the Robbery which took place Today.
It appeared the robbers tampered with a signal just south of Leighton Buzzard, causing the driver to halt the train.
His assistant alighted from the cab to phone the signal box, but found the wires cut. On returning to the train he was attacked and bound and the driver bludgeoned, in the meantime the two front coaches were uncoupled.
However there was a total lack of co-ordination in the operation as even the former train driver accomplice hired to move the train, found he couldn’t do so, as the handbrake had changed since his day. Thus the injured driver had to move the train.
Later filmmakers tried to suggest a mastermind at work, but in practice it was a bodged job with for example, incriminating evidence being left around including fingerprints at their hideout at nearby Leatherslade Farm, despite a person paid thousands to clear up the place.
Next March in 1964, and with twenty members of the gang still at large, ten men were convicted of the robbery. Next month they were sentenced to a total of 307 years in jail, though later the Appeal Court was to quash the 25-year jail sentences against two of those convicted.
As with many police investigations it wasn’t the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes that solved the crime, for as a police intelligence expert later said, an informer had supplied names, despite the robbers’ denials that this could have happened.
The haul was worth, (in the value of the time), £2.5m, with no notes worth more than a fiver, so a lot of paper, however later in the month £200,000 was found in a beauty spot two miles from Dorking.
One of the survivors of the robbery, Ronnie Biggs, escaped from gaol, found his way to Rio, but later repatriated, became some kind of folk- hero. He was released in 2009 from custody on humanitarian grounds.
Having written a book, assured as he said ‘of his place in history’, he died, ironically on the same day as a BBC Drama on the robbery went out.
The seriousness of the robbery was enough for Labour, Prime Minister, Harold Wilson to inquire about a complete reprinting of the currency to render the notes of the robbery obsolete.
thesun.co.uk/great-train-robbery. Danny Collins.18.2.2017/Pic.