This Day In History: August 12

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On August 12, 1964, Charlie Wilson, part of the gang who pulled off the 1963 Great Train Robbery, one of the biggest heists of its kind, escapes from Winson Green Prison in Birmingham, England. Several men broke into the maximum-security facility to free Wilson, who remained on the loose until 1968.

The so-called Great Train Robbery took place on August 8, 1963, when 15 masked men attacked the Glasgow to London Royal Mail train near Buckinghamshire, England. The thieves hauled off 120 bags of money totaling a record 2.6 million pounds. In less than a week, a tip led police to the robbers’ hideout, Leatherslade Farm in Bedfordshire, where they found fingerprints and other evidence. Charlie Wilson and other gang members were soon arrested. In April 1964, Wilson was sentenced, along with six other Great Train Robbers, to 30 years in prison. Five other men received shorter terms. In 1969, group leader Bruce Reynolds, who initially evaded capture, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The majority of the Great Train Robbery loot was never recovered.

On August 12, 1964, just four months into his sentence, Wilson, age 32, escaped from Winson Green Prison. He eluded police for several years before being recaptured in Canada on January 24, 1968. He was returned to England, where he served out the rest of his punishment. Wilson later moved to Spain, where he allegedly became a drug dealer, and was shot to death on April 23, 1990.

The most famous of the Great Train Robbers was Ronnie Biggs, who broke out of Wandsworth Prison in July 1965 by climbing a wall. Biggs changed his appearance with plastic surgery and eventually moved to Brazil. He was discovered there by British authorities in the 1970s, but Brazilian law made it impossible for Biggs to be extradited. As a result, he became a tabloid hero in Britain. In May 2001, Biggs, who was in poor health, turned himself in to authorities and was returned to prison in England. He died in 2013.