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Britain's Biggest Armed Robberies
By Terry Smith
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Terry Smith
All rights reserved.
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY
8 AUGUST 1963
When criminologists and connoisseurs of crime reflect on what was the most spectacularly dramatic heist of the twentieth century, the Great Train Robbery has got to be way up in the rankings. For it possesses all the characteristics of a Bond movie: a plot to steal a fortune from the Queen; a dynamic cast; plenty of action, and the myth of a mysterious 'Mr Big' that has grown over the years.
Since I have been researching this crime, I've found it totally incomprehensible how a gang of professionals could rob a train with such clockwork precision and escape with £2.6 million, only for them to leave a goldmine of incriminating evidence for the police at their safe-house. Like the robbery itself, it simply defies comprehension.
When people speak about 'the Train', they immediately focus upon the most well-known and celebrated characters, such as Ronnie Biggs, Buster Edwards and Charlie Wilson. But, for this chapter, I want to concentrate on the undisputed mastermind of the robbery: Bruce Reynolds.
Born in inner London on 7 September 1931, Bruce's early childhood was not a happy one. He lost his mother, Dorothy, and his sister during childbirth; in the same year, he also lost his grandfather. But this unfathomable sense of loss brought Bruce closer to his endearing grandmother and his father, Thomas. One often hears that, when a child loses a parent at such an early age, the deceased parent supposedly becomes their guardian angel. Whether this is true or not, by the time that the young Reynolds turned to thieving it was clear that he possessed the Midas touch.
But when his father remarried, problems began. Bruce's grandmother noticed that he felt unloved and unwanted, and took him under her wing. The frosty atmosphere in the Reynolds household came to a head one day, when Bruce came home from school to find his beloved pet dog had been put down by his stepmother, Amy, who was expecting a baby. Some say this was the moment that changed the boy, who decided then that he had to seize what he wanted from life. But the more likely explanation is that, like many children, Bruce became addicted to adventure and danger.
At school he used his natural intelligence and perceptiveness to wheel and deal in the playground. He also learned that, to a great extent, diplomacy was a more effective tool than brute force. He put this to good use when he convinced his grandmother to buy him a Diana .117 air pistol, later taken away by his father when neighbours complained that someone was shooting at their windows.
The teenager's inevitable baptism of fire occurred when he gave a policeman some backchat while out on his pushbike. The policeman jumped into his car and rammed him off the bike, bashing him and driving him to the local nick. This was a complete shock to Bruce, who had never believed that the police wantonly assaulted people. The next day he appeared in court and was fined one pound. Bruce was utterly dumbfounded, and the experience reinforced his burgeoning disdain for those in authority.
In spite of advice from his father, the young Reynolds was determined to follow his instincts and embark upon a life of crime. In between spells of employment as a trainee reporter at Fleet Street and a mechanic at Paris Cycles in Stoke Newington, he was robbing telephone boxes and committing smash-and-grabs. He was first nicked when his accomplice, Cobby, told the police about a smash-and-grab where four air pistols were taken. Bruce was sentenced to borstal training, allocated to Gaynes Hall Borstal in Cambridgeshire. It was reserved for offenders of high intelligence, who were possibly salvageable through education. Reynolds exhibited his intelligence in the only way that he knew, and escaped.
Throughout adolescence and early adulthood, Bruce was in and out of borstal and prison like a proverbial lag. He had been introduced to the austere regimes of Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth, and was gaining an appreciable reputation among the criminal fraternity as a strong, single-minded individual who did not want to be moulded by the prison authorities.
By the time he was released from Reading gaol, aged twenty-one, he wanted to make up for lost time. Instead, he received his call-up papers for National Service. In Bruce's view there was not much difference between prison and army life, so he took off. It wasn't long before he was arrested for breaking and entering, and was sentenced to three years imprisonment with the big boys in adult prison. If borstal was deemed the college of crime, then prison was undeniably its university. Here, in the halls of knowledge and learning, he first recognised that there was no value or profit in just getting nicked and returning to jail. It was time to become professional in his criminal adventures.
After a spell of hoisting (shoplifting) and creeping (entering houses in the dead of night, stealing wallets and jewellery), Bruce entered the twilight world of the 'ladder gangs', made famous by the legendary Peter Scott and George 'Taters' Chatham. Basically, these professional burglars relied upon information from hotel staff, chauffeurs, cleaners and high society magazines which revealed where and when the rich and famous resided during their tenure in Britain.
Once a target and venue were established, the ladder gangs would wait until their targets were sitting down to dinner or sleeping, and enter via a first-floor window to gain their prize. I had the privilege of working on a TV programme with Peter Scott, nicknamed 'the Human Fly', some years ago, and he recounted stories to me about how he would plunder hotels, houses and furriers in the West End. In his day he was, without a doubt, one of the best thieves and money-getters that ever walked the streets of London.
This clandestine world of stealing safes, jewellery and furs by night brought Reynolds into contact with well-known fences. He began to frequent the Star of Belgravia and Marlborough pubs in Chelsea. These watering holes were to become a magnet for artists, actors, gangsters, villains, and even senior detectives with their antennae switched on. Rather than make enemies of the latter, Bruce would occasionally swap drinks and small talk with them.
It's difficult to ascertain what he wanted from his criminal career at this time. Did he want to be low-profile, the man behind the scenes, earning a small fortune and remaining unnoticed? Or did he want to become the super-villain with contacts in every dark corner of criminal life, including the law?
History illustrates how the unholy coalescence of criminals and crooked cozzers is a recipe for disaster. The crook believes that he is being ultra-clever by having such a well-connected contact, but the copper knows that the profit from the liaison will only flow one way. The crook is on borrowed time.
Evidence of this came when there was a fatality on a 'bit of work' in Colliers Wood, south London. The police called at Bruce's grandmother's place in Battersea and left a note telling him to contact Wandsworth police station. Bruce visited the station, gave a statement outlining his whereabouts on the specific day, and was left in no doubt by the friendly chief inspector on the other side of the counter that his activities, the places he habituated, his friends and acquaintances were all well known to the Old Bill.
The corollary remains: high-profile equates with high-danger; low-profile corresponds with safety and survival.
Bruce was going from strength to strength, progressing from the relatively innocuous ladder gangs to gelignite raids. Based upon sound information, he and his gang travelled the length and breadth of Britain to blow safes, plundering the banknotes and jewellery within. His natural drive and ambition were complemented by his personal style and taste. After each successful criminal caper, Reynolds would hop into his Aston Martin and drive to the French Riviera, visiting the best restaurants and beaches along the Cote d'Azur. For he learned at a very early stage in his career that there was no point waiting for Old Bill to knock on your door, when you could be eating lobster and sipping Dom Pérignon in Cannes. He was soon well versed in the acquired art of pleasurable decadence.
As the name 'Bruce Reynolds' became synonymous with success, offers and information were coming in from every angle. Admittedly he had the occasional setback, like three and a half years imprisonment for a botched attempt to rob a bookmaker. But it was inevitable that he would push the boundaries even further, and venture into the aristocratic ranks of the armed robber.
What we have to remember is that, in the early 1960s, the security industry was in its infancy. There were no laminated screens, airlock entry systems or data tracking of security vehicles. It was the caveman era, when the chained strongbox and pickaxe handle reigned supreme.
Bruce and his partner, Harry, decided it was time to join forces with Buster Edwards, Charlie Wilson and Gordon Goody to attack a Securicor van delivering wages to a railway depot at Old Oak Common, northwest London. On the day of the robbery they backed their van into the doors of the wages office, escaping with £30,000. This was considered a small fortune at the time.
Once Reynolds and his new gang members got the taste for well-organised armed raids, there was no looking back. The next bit of work was based upon information from a security guard. A security van used the same route every Wednesday night to return to headquarters. Due to staff shortages the three-man team was currently reduced to two, the guards sitting in the front of the van, leaving access to the rear unhindered. In true bravura fashion, Reynolds decided to ram the security van head-on, while other members of the gang boxed it in from behind.
Once it was clear the security van was going nowhere, the guards jumped out and Wilson started unloading boxes of cash. These were then loaded into the getaway car, before they roared away to their changeover vehicle with takings of £60,000. The whole exercise was over in three minutes. Confidence was sky-high among the gang. They noted that, with a dynamic combination of boldness, split-second timing and the element of surprise, anything was possible.
It was during this belle époque of armed robberies that Reynolds received information about the Post Office transporting cash and valuables via rail. This was not news to the robbers, but, unlike established private and commercial security companies that practically broadcast how they were carrying large amounts of cash, the Post Office espoused a low-security approach using unmarked vehicles and mailbags. The only way to find out about the contents of these nondescript vehicles was from inside information.
Over the years, Bruce had been drawing steadily closer to his lifelong quest for the Big One. His interest was initially piqued when a railway worker told him about a bank manager friend of his, who let him into a bank at Redhill to see £1 million in cash. The bank manager added that they used the Royal Mail regularly to transport huge sums of money. Bruce slipped down to Redhill Station with Jimmy White, to look at the work. Sure enough, there were mailbags piled high on the platform. But deciding which contained the mail and which the cash was impossible without inside information, so they decided to shelve the plan.
The next project looked more promising. Bruce received information from his man in the Midlands about a Royal Mail lorry delivering money to Redditch station. This was the football pools money en route to King's Cross station, in London. Along with other cash amounts collected from stations on the way, it was transported under heavy security to William Hill's head office at the Barbican. Recognising that the information held some credence, Bruce and Harry snatched the money being delivered to Redditch and escaped with £3000. In conjunction with the rest of the gang, their original plan had been to rob the entire pools consignment as it arrived at the Barbican. It was scuppered, however, when their inside man told them that some betting offices sent cheques instead of cash.
Then, in late 1962, Bruce was told that heavy metal boxes containing railway workers' wages were loaded onto the Irish Mail train at Paddington station, destined for Swindon. Buster and Goody found the information to be sound, but the security during the loading of the wages at Paddington was tight. And so a plan was hatched whereby the communication cord of the train would be pulled between stations on the outskirts of London, and the robbers would break into the guard's coach at the rear to seize their prize.
A test run worked perfectly. As planned, the communication cord was pulled and the train stopped by a disused factory at West Drayton. On the day of the robbery itself, Bruce, Buster, Goody and Wilson waited until the train had passed Ealing. Then, armed with crowbars and bolt croppers, they made their way to the guard's coach. Goody smashed open the door and confronted the solitary guard.
The rest of the gang attacked the cashboxes that were chained to the carriage floor. The communication cord had been pulled but the train refused to stop. Reynolds noticed that they were going past their pickup point at the disused factory. Edwards had the presence of mind, however, to apply the brakes manually by turning a huge steering wheel.
By the time the train stopped, the gang were a mile away from the pickup point. They jumped onto the track and ran with the heavy metal cashboxes. Puffing and panting, they finally reached their getaway van, but only the super-fit Goody still held a cashbox. When they finally got back to base, they found it contained £700. It was a rude awakening, a good bit of work ruined by poor planning.
The Airport Robbery
Desperate to make amends for the Irish Mail train fiasco, Charlie Wilson came up with some information regarding wages for the entire BOAC staff at London Airport. Every Tuesday morning, a security van would pull up at Barclay's Bank on the south perimeter of the airport. It would wheel out a strongbox on a trolley containing a rumoured £300,000 to £400,000 for the workers. This would be loaded into the security van for the journey to Comet House, a four-storey office building some hundred yards away. Normally the security van was accompanied by three civilian cashiers, and occasionally a police escort.
Buster Edwards and Gordon Goody, dressed in executive attire, travelled down to the airport to produce a viable plan. While Goody waited in the foyer of the building, Edwards visited a toilet on the third floor. From the toilet window he could see not only the bank, but also the roof of the security van as it pulled up at Comet House. Logic dictated that, if the gang were in the toilet when the security van pulled up, they could take the elevator down and intercept the security guards with the strongbox. Once the prize was seized, the gang would take off in stolen vehicles along a perimeter side-road, through a wire-mesh gate to the changeover vehicle.
The night before the proposed raid, a padlock was cut on the perimeter wire. On the day of the robbery, posing as executive job hunters in bowler hats and pinstripe suits, with iron bars concealed inside their umbrellas, Bruce, Charlie, Buster, Gordon and Billy Jennings made their way up to the third-floor toilet. Harry remained in the foyer while Roy James and Mickey Ball were at the steering wheels of two powerful Jaguars. Everything was set to go, when they noticed the security van had a police escort and the robbery was aborted.
The gang rescheduled the raid for the following week, but they noticed someone had replaced the lock on the wire-mesh gate. They decided to replace the chain with a false link that cleverly came apart. This time, the robbery came off as planned.
On Tuesday 20 November 1962, the security van pulled up outside Comet House; the guards unloaded the trolley and wheeled it into the foyer. Once the elevator had descended to the ground floor, out came five heavily-disguised men with coshes held aloft. After a few deft blows to the guards and attendant cashiers, the robbers loaded the trolley's contents into the Jags and powered away down the perimeter side road.
During the melee, however, Goody had dropped his checked cap in the foyer. As they could not find the false link on the fence, bolt croppers had been used to cut the chain, and these were left in a stolen Jaguar. Back at the count-out, they opened the strongbox and discovered £62,500 in wages. After paying expenses, the eight robbers had netted £6,000 each for their troubles.
The raid attracted significant media attention. The Metropolitan Police's infamous Flying Squad were put on the case, and started rounding up potential suspects.
A day after the raid, Wilson, Goody and the drivers, James and Ball, were swagged in by the squad. Over the next several weeks a series of identification parades were held at Cannon Row and Twickenham police stations. Charlie and Gordon were picked out by witnesses at the scene of the robbery, while Ball was mistakenly identified as Billy Jennings, who bought the bolt croppers from an ironmonger. Evidently, the ironmonger thought Jennings looked suspicious, following him out of the shop and watching him get into Goody's Jaguar. As was his custom, Reynolds was long gone; Paris, Tangiers and Gibraltar beckoned.
Excerpted from Blaggers Inc. by Terry Smith. Copyright © 2012 Terry Smith. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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