PETER FROST goes back fifty years to an infamous crime.
In 1957 I went camping with the cubs for the first time. The 18th Willesden pack set up summer camp in a field just outside Leighton Buzzard.
Our site was beside the main Euston to Glasgow railway line and we would stand and watch the steam engines roar by. At night the flames from their fireboxes would light up the sky.
Just six years later steam had gone but my camping field was to become very famous indeed.
Late on Wednesday 7 August 1963, a Travelling Post Office train left Glasgow for Euston. Twenty five years before poet W H Auden had described this very train in the iconic film Night Mail.
This is the Night Mail crossing the border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order.
On board the staff sorted the mail on the move. Every cub with his train spotter badge knew that this was the famous train that snatched leather satchels of mail from line-side gantries as it rushed through stations without even slowing down.
The second carriage next to the engine was the High Value Package van. Tonight because it had been a bank holiday weekend in Scotland the train was carrying £2.3 million the equivalent of about £40 million today.
As the train passed Leighton Buzzard at about three in the morning driver, Jack Mills saw a red signal ahead.
What Mills actually saw was a crude red bulb lit by a torch battery. The green light had been covered by an old glove.
Mills stopped and his co-driver David Whitby climbed out of the diesel engine to ring the signalman. He found the phone-lines had been cut. The next he knew he had been attacked and thrown down the steep embankment.
A masked man climbed into the cab and coshed driver Mills with an iron Bar. Other robbers uncoupled the first two carriages.
The gang had planned to drive the train a mile further to Bridego Bridge where Land Rovers were waiting to take the cash away.
The gang member paid to move the train couldn’t get it to go so the injured driver was roused to take the controls.
In the front two carriages, frightened staff were ordered to one end by some of the fifteen strong gang all armed with sticks and coshes.
The remaining carriages, complete with staff were left behind.
Along the line at Bridego Bridge a chain of robbers removed 120 sacks containing two-and-a-half-tons of money.
The robbers drove their haul to Letherslade Farm at Oakley in Buckinghamshire to share out the cash. They even played Monopoly with real notes.
A huge police investigation was launched, the Flying Squad at Scotland Yard were called in.
The gang split the money which was mainly in used £1 and £5 notes. The key villains got about £150,000 each. Smaller players got around £10,000 and at least one of them was amazed to discover his entire pay-off was in dirty ten shilling notes.
Once the money had been shared out the gang left the rented farm rather than sticking to the original plan to stay in hiding there for several weeks.
The man paid to clean up the farm never showed up.
All the comings and goings at the farm caused a neighbour to call the police. They searched the deserted farm. In the cellar, bank note wrappers, post office sacks and registered mail packages gave the game away.
They also found several fingerprints including some on the Monopoly board and others on a ketchup bottle. These fingerprints and other enquiries led to well-known career criminals and one by one they were arrested.
The perceived mastermind of the operation, Bruce Reynolds, who died earlier this year, took five years to track down but received ten years imprisonment.
Ronnie Biggs was sent down for 30 years but escaped from Wandsworth prison in a furniture van only 15 months later. His flight to Brazil via Spain and Australia and subsequent return to the UK kept the tabloids in spicy copy for years.
In all the gang received a total of 307 years imprisonment. The two or three real masterminds behind the robbery were never caught.
Buster Edwards ended up running a flower stall at Waterloo station. He took his own life in the late 1990s.
James Hussey, who probably coshed driver Mills, and Thomas Wisbey were convicted in 1989 for trafficking drugs, while Charles Wilson was shot and killed by other gansters in Spain.
Driver Mills was so badly injured that night he never drove a train again. He received a miserly £250 compensation and died, a broken man in 1970.
Co-driver David Whitby was just 25 at the time of the robbery. Traumatised by the attack he died of a heart attack in 1972 aged just 34.
Although it was the largest amount of cash ever stolen at the time of the crime the haul from the Great Train Robbery doesn’t come near the total the crime has made in books, films, and media coverage.
For instance it is said that Charmian Biggs, Ronnie’s wife sold her story to the Sunday Mirror for £65,000, almost half Ronnie’s payout for the robbery itself.
So why did the Great Train Robbery catch the imagination of the Nation? This was the swinging sixties, Cash was still king. It would be three years before Barclaycard, the first British credit card was invented.
Criminals were very fashionable. TV and Film stars, politicians and others would vie to get their picture in the papers with the Kray twins or other well known gangsters.
That and the Robin Hood factor where many people secretly admired these villains for getting back on society and getting very rich in the process.
Armed robbers like John McVicar went from prison to journalist, TV pundit and media darling overnight thanks to a prison cell sociology degree.
I reality the Great Train Robbery was ill-planned and clumsily carried out by a bunch of not too bright, but violent, career criminals.
If there hadn’t been so much money on the train that night we would all have forgotten it by now. Perhaps that wouldn’t have been a terrible thing.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star in August 2013