Crime. Great Train Robbery. pic: August 1963. Cheddington, Buckinghamshire. Detectives inspecting the Royal Mail train from which over ?2.5million was stolen. The Great Train Robbery took place in Buckinghamshire on 8th August 1963 when the train from Gla

Off the Rails: The Great Train Robbery of 1963

A look back at one of Britain’s most infamous crimes.

It's been called "the heist of the century": In the early morning hours of August 8, 1963, a gang of 15 masked men robbed a Royal Mail train on its route from Glasgow to London. The bandits made off with £2.6 million — today's equivalent of $53.3 million.

The Great Train Robbery of 1963 captured Britain's imagination and held on for decades — perhaps because the crime itself was just the beginning of a sprawling and, at times, outlandish tale that included prison breaks, plastic surgery, and book deals. On the 55th anniversary of the crime, a look back.

THE PLAN Bettmann/Bettmann Archive THE PLAN With the help of an inside man known as "the Ulsterman" due to his Irish accent, the robbers — led by thief and antiques dealer Bruce Reynolds — spent several months hatching a scheme to hold up the poorly guarded Royal Mail train. (While newer train cars had started coming into service equipped with more advanced security measures, this was not one of those cars.) In order to stop the train, the thieves rigged a signal light at Sears Crossing on the outskirts of the English village of Cheddington. They covered the green light with an old leather glove and rewired the red light using a pack of batteries to give the conductor a fake stop sign. With that, the con was on. (Pictured: Documenting the scene of the crime.) ALL ABOARD B. Marshall/Getty Images ALL ABOARD Several assailants boarded the conductor's car and one struck head engineer Jack Mills in the head with a crowbar. After detaching the first two of the train's 12 cars, the robbers instructed a bleeding Mills to drive the cars a half mile farther down the line where the getaway cars were waiting.

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IN THE LINE OF DUTY Keystone/Getty Images IN THE LINE OF DUTY A bandaged Jack Mills. The engineer's injuries ultimately forced him to retire from the job. THE HAUL Evening Standard/Getty Images THE HAUL Because of a Scottish bank holiday, the Royal Mail train was carrying a lot more money than the usual £300,000 (today's equivalent of $8 million). The thieves made off with 120 mail bags, dumping them into an old military truck and a pair of Land Rovers. The heist took under an hour to pull off. THAT'S A WHOLE LOTTA CASH Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images THAT'S A WHOLE LOTTA CASH A man stands next to a visual representation of £2.6 million ($53.3 million), the amount of money stolen during the Great Train Robbery. THE INITIAL INVESTIGATION Evening Standard/Getty Images THE INITIAL INVESTIGATION Police were alerted to the heist by one of the railmen and began combing the surrounding area for clues to the bandits' whereabouts. After an unsuccessful day of canvassing, they finally called in Scotland Yard. (Pictured: Police bagging up evidence.) FRONT PAGE NEWS Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images FRONT PAGE NEWS The daring robbery made headlines in the U.K. THE HIDEOUT Keystone/Getty Images THE HIDEOUT Meanwhile, the gang sought refuge at Leatherslade Farm near Oakley, about 30 miles from the site of the heist. Their comings and goings raised the suspicions of herdsman John Maris, who worked the farm next door. He called the police, and they raided the farm on August 13. While the buildings were empty by that time, the thieves left plenty of evidence behind, including a discarded mailbag and fingerprints on a game of Monopoly, which, legend has it, the thieves played using the real money they'd pilfered from the train. AN AERIAL VIEW OF THE FARM Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images AN AERIAL VIEW OF THE FARM MAKING THE ARRESTS Dennis Oulds/Getty Images MAKING THE ARRESTS Though police now had numerous clues thanks to the discovery of Leatherslade Farm, it would take the help of two informants (one a jailed man looking for parole leverage) to finally get the names they needed to make arrests. The first thief apprehended was Roger Cordrey, with seven more members of the gang to follow. (A few peripheral associates were also brought in on charges.) In all, 11 men went to trial and were convicted — many earning sentences of 30 years. Noticeably absent? Ringleader Bruce Reynolds. BRUCE REYNOLDS PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images BRUCE REYNOLDS Following the crime, Reynolds went on the lam with his wife and son, moving often and assuming various aliases along the way. But with funds dwindling, Reynolds and his family ultimately returned to the U.K. in 1968, where Reynolds reached out to a handful of his old associates. It would prove his undoing, as local authorities quickly figured out that the man calling himself "Keith Hiller" was, in fact, Bruce Reynolds. He took a plea deal and was sentenced to 25 years. RONNIE BIGGS PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images RONNIE BIGGS But perhaps the most infamous assailant from the Great Train Robbery is Ronnie Biggs. Though convicted alongside the other 10 men for his relatively small role in the crime (he often joked he was just the "tea boy"), Biggs didn't stay behind bars for long. He broke out of Wandsworth Prison after serving just 15 months and fled to Brussels. He then moved to Paris where he was reunited with his wife and two sons and where he also underwent plastic surgery so as not to be recognized. He lived as a fugitive in a few different countries — most notably Brazil, where he often flaunted his criminal status — for 36 years. (At one point, he was even the victim of an attempted kidnapping plot by supposed former British soldiers.) In 2001, with the U.K. tabloid The Sun promising payment for his story, Biggs returned to England and was immediately arrested and imprisoned. He served eight more years of his sentence and was released in 2009 on compassionate grounds. He died in 2013 at the age of 84. A ROGUE'S REUNION Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images A ROGUE'S REUNION Several of the thieves behind the Great Train Robbery reunite in 1979 to help promote a book about their crime, "The Train Robbers: Their Story" by Piers Paul Read. Despite apprehending the perpetrators, police only recovered about 10 percent of the stolen funds and over the years, the men would earn something of a folk-hero status, with their heist seen as a bold subversion of the Conservative government. But theirs was not a victimless crime: Engineer Jack Mills was never the same after the blow to his head, and he died seven years after the robbery. In 2014, Mills had a train dedicated in his honor and a plaque installed at the Crewe train station remembering him and his co-driver David Whitby. Today, the sole surviving member of the Great Train Robbery gang is Bobby Welch, who is in his late 80s.



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