Around 3 a.m. on that fateful morning 50 years ago, Jack Mills, the driver of the Royal Mail train from Glasgow to London, stopped at a red signal located near a remote bridge at Ledburn in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London. Unfortunately for Mills, the signal was fake; the robbers had placed a glove over the real signal and used a battery to illuminate the red light. After assaulting Mills’ co-driver, David Whitby, who had come out to check on the signal, 15 men wearing ski masks and helmets boarded the train, and one of them (it is still unknown exactly who) hit Mills over the head with an iron bar.
Acting on inside information from an unknown informant known simply as “the Ulsterman,” known burglar and mastermind Bruce Reynolds and his fellow thieves knew the Royal Mail train carried large sums of money nightly, and that it was stored in the second car behind the engine. There was a particularly large haul that night, as a bank holiday weekend had just concluded in Scotland, and the thieves were able to load some 2.6 million pounds (the equivalent of 45-46 million pounds, or $69-71 million, in today’s money) into 120 mailbags. They then escaped in an ex-British Army truck and two stolen Land Rovers marked with identical license plates (to confuse the police).
At a rented farmhouse in Bedfordshire, England, the gang of thieves divided their loot and planned to lay low for a couple of weeks, even as a huge police operation kicked into gear. Rewards totaling a record 260,000 pounds were offered by insurers, banks and the Post Office for information leading to their capture. Meanwhile, the robbers decided to ditch their hideout, which police raided after a tip from a neighbor. Twelve out of the 15 thieves were eventually captured, and received prison sentences totaling some 300 years among them. The bulk of the cash they stole was never found, but the most serious casualty of the robbery was Jack Mills, who never fully recovered from his head injuries, and died in 1970.
The perpetrators of the Great Train Robbery attained cult status with the international public, becoming the most famous robbers and outlaws since the “Hole in the Wall Gang” of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bruce Reynolds went on the run in Mexico and Canada with his family and managed to elude capture for five years, but was eventually sentenced to 25 years in prison (he served only 10.) Ronald “Buster” Edwards also escaped to Mexico for three years before giving himself up; his story was later featured in a movie, “Buster,” starring Phil Collins.
But it was small-time hood Ronnie Biggs who became the most famous of the Great Train Robbers, pulling off an escape from Wandsworth Prison in 1965, after serving only 15 months. He had plastic surgery to change his appearance, fled England and lived abroad (in Spain, Australia and Brazil) for years, flaunting his playboy lifestyle and taunting British authorities while repeated efforts to extradite him failed. In 2001, Biggs finally returned to the United Kingdom to receive health treatment and was jailed in order to serve the remaining 28 years in his sentence. He was released in 2009 on compassionate grounds after suffering several strokes in jail.
Ahead of today’s 50th anniversary, some of the key players in the Great Train Robbery stepped briefly back into the spotlight to reflect on the case that made them famous. Douglas Gordon Goody, who was also sentenced to 30 years for his role in the heist, told the U.K.’s Guardian that he will reveal the identity of “the Ulsterman” in a documentary airing later this year. Goody and Edwards were the only members of the gang to meet the informant in person, and some authorities apparently viewed Goody (rather than Reynolds, who died earlier this year) as the true mastermind of the robbery.
As for Ronnie Biggs, he celebrates his 84th birthday today, and has remained defiant about his participation in the robbery. Though he can no longer speak, Biggs communicated to journalists through a spelling board before the anniversary that he had no regrets about being one of the train robbers. In fact, he said he was “proud” to have been one of them, stating that “I am one of the few witnesses—living or dead—to what was ‘The Crime of the Century.’”
Want more info on the Great Train Robbery? Christopher Pickard, co-author of Ronnie Biggs’ autobiography, discusses the crime at www.biography.com