The first key fact to know about the Great Train Robbery is that it was the work of two different gangs. The main gang was the group that worked with Bruce Reynolds, the man credited with being the mastermind and for the meticulous planning of the robbery.
Reynolds’ gang would number nine of the sixteen men at the track on 8 August. The second gang was known as the South Coast Raiders and were lead by a man called Roger Cordrey. This group numbered a further five.
The two odd men out at the track, members of neither gang, were Ronnie Biggs and a retired train driver, who we will call Peter. Biggs was at the robbery due to his friendship with Bruce Reynolds, a friendship that spread across many years and has endured for more than 60 years. Biggs was also at the track because he could supply a back up train driver.
So the people at the track on that fateful and historic night of 8 August 1963 were:
The Train Robbery Gang: Reynolds’ Firm
1. Bruce Reynolds
2. Gordon Goody
3. Buster Edwards
4. Charlie Wilson
5. Jimmy White
6. Roy James
7. John Daly
8. Mr. One
9. Mr. Two
South Coast Raiders: Cordrey’s Firm
10. Roger Cordrey
11. Tommy Wisbey
12. Bob Welch
13. Jim Hussey
14. Mr. Three
15. Ronnie Biggs
16. “Peter” the train driver
Bruce Reynolds has noted since the robbery that if all the people who claim that they should have been a part of the gang – or were invited to take part in the robbery – was true, they would have had to hold the pre-robbery meetings in Wembley Stadium to accommodate everyone.
Initially Reynolds gang were not train robbers. They normally targeted banks or other locations where they thought there might be cash or valuables. Reynolds’ modus operandi was also to avoid, where possible, confrontation and any unnecessary violence.
In the early 1960s, as banks became more secure and safes became harder to crack, Reynolds’ gang started to look for other options, and that included cash and valuables travelling by train.
In 1962 Reynolds planned a number of robberies involving trains, but not stopping them. The gang’s first target was to rob a train carrying money from betting shops in the Midlands to William Hill’s office in central London. This, however, may have taken place not on the train but as the money was transferred from King’s Cross Station to the office. The plan was abandoned when Reynolds discovered the shipment was mainly cheques and not cash.
The second target was the Irish Mail Train, the Bristol Express that ran out of Paddington Station. The train, Buster Edwards had discovered, often carried the wages for the railway workers at Swindon. It was also a passenger train so the gang could be on the train to stop it. The plan was for the train to be stopped at West Drayton, close to Heathrow Airport, by pulling the communication cord.
A first trial run went exactly to plan, but the actual train robbery was pure Keystone Cops. It was something of a disaster with the gang getting away with less than £700. Among the members of the Great Train Robbery gang to be involved in the robbery at West Drayton were Bruce Reynolds, Gordon Goody, Buster Edwards and Charlie Wilson.
After the experience at West Drayton, Reynolds turned his attention away from trains to planes, and to be exact the BOAC payroll that was delivered each week to Comet House in Heathrow Airport.
The robbery took place on the morning of 27 November 1962 with the gang disguised as “City Gents”. Among those involved were Bruce Reynolds, Gordon Goody, Buster Edwards, Charlie Wilson, Jimmy White, and Roy James, and the take was a far more respectable and rewarding £62,000.
As he had done after other high profile crimes, Bruce Reynolds left the UK for Europe the following day to let the dust settle. Charlie Wilson, Gordon Goody and Roy James were not so lucky and were arrested but not charged after witnesses at the police line up did not pick them.
After a second line up in late December, Goody and the second driver, Mickey Ball, were picked out. Wilson, Goody, and Ball were all charged. Ball pleaded guilty at the trial and was sentenced to five years for a crime that, it is worth noting, was far more violent than the Great Train Robbery.
A young lawyer called Brian Field defended Gordon Goody during the London Airport trial. Field would go on to feed Goody with a lot of the information needed for the Great Train Robbery and introduce the “Ulsterman”.
Goody had Field tamper with the jury and the evidence, and at the Old Bailey the jury found Goody and Wilson not guilty of the airport job. A police contact was also paid £1,500 to have Reynolds’ name removed from the airport case files.
On 26 December 1962 diesel locomotive D326 ran into the back of the Liverpool to Birmingham Express between Winsford and Crewe while hauling the up Midday Scot. 18 passengers were killed and 34 injured. D326 (40126) is the engine that would be involved in the Great Train Robbery. After the robbery a secondman was electrocuted in 1964 when working on the engine, and in 1965 the engine had total break failure when entering Birmingham New Street and hit a freight train injuring the guard. If a train was ever jinxed, it was the D326.
In mid January 1963 Reynolds was back in the UK and circulating with the gang who started looking at trains again. First they looked at the weekly “Gold Train” from Southampton to Waterloo, then turned their attention to the “Money Train” that ran from Bournemouth to Waterloo, with a stop at Weybridge in Surrey. A plan was developed to snatch the bags from Weybridge Station, but fate played its hand when the stolen getaway cars were “stolen” from Jimmy White’s garage. Just goes to show, you can’t trust anyone!
In February 1963 Brian Field contacted Goody with the information about a very large transfer of money by train, possibly as much as £6 million. Field and Goody met at the Old Bailey, and then had a second meeting with Buster Edwards, who Field subsequently introduced to the “Ulsterman” in Finsbury Park.
Reynolds’ firm then had its first meeting to discuss the plans of what would become the Great Train Robbery. Present were Reynolds, Goody, James, Daly, White and Edwards.
Reynolds and Daly took a train ride out of Euston along the known route the train they aimed to rob would take. Even at this early stage Reynolds had decided that the best place to stop the train would be in the open countryside close to Leighton Buzzard. On that trip Reynolds even made a mental note of Bridego Bridge.
During a meeting at Buster Edwards’ flat in Twickenham, the gang realised that they would need to stop the train, but without being on it. Something they did not know how to do. Edwards had heard of the success of Roger Cordrey’s South Coast Raiders in stopping trains, and by chance he knew Tommy Wisbey from the gang.
Edwards met with Wisbey, and subsequently at a meeting at Waterloo Station, Wisbey introduced Cordrey to Edwards and Goody. A further meeting was then held at Edwards’ flat for Edwards and Reynolds to talk through the details with Cordrey and Wisbey.
Legal Start of the Great Train Robbery “Conspiracy”
1 May 1963 probably meant very little at the time to any members of the Great Train Robbery gang or the police, but when it came to their day in court and the trial, 1 May would be the date decided on by the prosecution as the legal start of the “conspiracy” to commit the crime.
By now the two gangs were working as one in preparation for the train robbery. Reynolds and Cordrey did a recce of the track and the ideal location for the robbery was found close to Leighton Buzzard. A meeting of the gangs was disguised as a kick-around on Wimbledon Common.
James and White visited Royal Oak, the main depot for Paddington. Here they found the parked Night Flyer, the train they would rob, and could walk through the deserted and ghostly train passing through the sorting office, and into the High Value Package (HVP) coach.
On another night Reynolds and Goody, after a few drinks, found themselves next to a train parked up on the siding at Euston Station. Inspired by the drink, they decided to see just how difficult it was to get a train to move. They did get it to move, but found it more difficult to stop. They abandoned the moving train and in the morning had to check the papers to see if the incident had made the news. It hadn’t, but both men were convinced that they must have a professional backup train driver on the job.
It is at this point that Ronnie Biggs comes into the picture. Biggs called his good friend Reynolds to ask him if he could lend him £500. Reynolds did not have the money at the time, as all his cash was tied up in the planning of the train robbery. Reynolds, however, along with his wife, Frances, and their son, Nick, did visit Biggs and his wife Charmian in Redhill. It was during the visit that Reynolds discovered that Biggs was working on the house of a train driver who was shortly due to retire.
Biggs was told of the plans for the train robbery and asked to approach the train driver. Biggs was finally introduced to the other gang members at Roy James’ flat in Nell Gwynn House, Chelsea. Biggs was voted on to job, although James was against it, seeing Biggs and the driver as two more mouths to feed that they did not need. James being an engineer, and a racing driver, could not believe that a train could be that difficult to drive.
On the 24 June 1963 Reynolds visited Midland Marts Estate Agents in Bicester to look for a suitable “hideout”. During the day he visited Leatherslade Farm for the first time and subsequently instructed Brian Field and his boss, John Weater, to purchase it for him.
Biggs took “Peter” to Euston Station to check on the trains. Peter established that pressure was needed for the breaks to be released and for the train to move. Stories that he did not know how to drive the train are simply untrue.
Jimmy White organised uniforms and overalls, and with Mr Two the transport. The drivers, lead by Roy James, tested the route between Bridego Bridge, south of Leighton Buzzard, and Leatherslade Farm, while Charlie Wilson organised the food and drink. There was to be enough for the gang to stay at the farm for up to two weeks.
A low-key rehearsal took place at Stewarts Lane shunting yard in Nine Elms, Battersea. The final roles were decided for the robbery, but Reynolds insisted that all roles must be interchangeable in case someone was missing or incapacitated on the day. Everyone was told to make their own arrangements for after the robbery once the money had been counted and split.
A Land Rover was stolen from Oxenden Street, London WC1 on 21 July to be used in the robbery. Five days later an ex-War department Land Rover was purchased from a London motor dealer. The number plate was BMG 757A and that was also used on the stolen Land Rover. On 30 July an Austin goods platform truck was purchased from a government surplus contractor in Edgware.
Brian Field finally purchased Leatherslade Farm for £5,550 (about £95,000 in 2011 values) on 29 July, and two days later Goody & Edwards held their last meeting with the Ulsterman. They set the date of the robbery for the morning of Wednesday, 7 August.
On 2 August Goody flew to Northern Ireland to establish an alibi, while Biggs took his family to Brighton for the Bank Holiday and in the process won more money on the horses than he had asked Reynolds to lend him.
Next: The Robbery