Great Train Robbery gang: first-class thieves or criminals who got lucky?

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Three of the suspects photographed leaving Linslade Court – Central Press/Getty Images

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Members of the Great Train Robbery gang were “second-rate thieves” who “happened to get lucky”.

That is according to crime and policing historian Clive Emsley. Speaking on the 50th anniversary of a crime the British Transport Police (BTP) claim was “brilliantly planned and executed”, Professor Emsley notes how the gang made a number of mistakes.

“It seems to me it was a bunch of second-rate thieves who happened to get really lucky,” he said.

The Open University history department professor, who previously undertook research at Cambridge, added: “They made so many mistakes, but the least said about the police response the better – they didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory and nor did the prison service.”

On 8 August 1963, some 15 men hijacked a London-bound Travelling Post Office train and stole around £2.3 million (about £30 million today).

Having rendered the driver unconscious, the men had planned to drive the train a mile further to Bridego Bridge, where Land Rovers were ready to move the cash to a nearby hideout.

But a gang member tasked with driving the train soon realised “this huge diesel train was far more complicated than the local trains he had previously travelled in”, says the British Transport Police (BTP) on its website.

Consequently, fellow gang member Ronnie Biggs was forced to rouse the driver to continue the journey.

At Bridego Bridge a “human chain of robbers” removed 120 sacks containing two-and-a-half tonnes of money.

The men fled to nearby Letherslade Farm in Oakley, Buckinghamshire, and during the next few days split the cash.

Alarmed by low-flying RAF aircraft who, the BTP explain, were on training exercises and had nothing to do with the police manhunt, the gang fled the scene rather than hide out for several weeks as they had planned.

The gang received a total of 307 years imprisonment. Police spent five years hunting for ringleader Bruce Reynolds, who received 10 years in prison.

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Ronnie Biggs received 30 years but escaped from Wandsworth Prison in a furniture van 15 months later.