A RETIRED London black cab driver was cremated this week – and the key to one of the most enduring mysteries of the last century may have died with him.
Doting grandfather and family man Danny Pembroke was strongly believed to have been the Great Train robber who got away with the 1963 heist.
He may also have been the mystery robber known as Alf Thomas, who police were convinced was responsible for battering train driver Jack Mills.
Scotland Yard said they were “certain” that former British soldier Pembroke was one of the gang who held up a Glasgow to Euston mail train at Sears Crossing, near Cheddington, Bucks, and stole £2.6million in bank notes – worth £50million today.
Likewise, Post Office investigators “strongly suspected” him for the robbery. He was questioned and his home searched, but his involvement could never be proved.
The other robbers were caught through fingerprints and forensic evidence linking them to their hideout, Leatherslade Farm, which had not been burned down as planned.
South Londoner Pembroke – whose real name was Dennis Pembroke – drifted into crime after completing his national service aged 20 and was suspected by police to have been a member of a gang known as the South Coast Raiders.
The gang had already held up several trains on the London to Brighton line when they joined up with a team of professional robbers from South West London to carry out the crime of the century.
Pembroke was a close associate of fellow South Coast Raiders Bob Welch and Tommy Wisbey, whom he lived close to on the Elmington Estate in Camberwell.
Welch and Wisbey – two of the last three surviving known robbers – were both convicted of the train robbery and jailed for 30 years.
Pembroke is thought to have been one of two South Coast Raiders who got away with the robbery. The other has never been identified. One of them was given the pseudonym Alf Thomas and strongly suspected by police of coshing train driver Jack Mills.
Train robbery author Chris Pickard said: “From what the robbers have said themselves, the South Coast team were on the East side of the track and the other lot were on the West.
“Once the train stopped the South West London team moved in. Buster Edwards tried to get in the driver’s cab from the East and Gordon Goody went in from the other side and got Jack Mills in a bear hug.
“One of the South Coast Raiders then supposedly went round the front of the train and came in the same side as Goody and hit Mills over the head with an iron bar.
“The robbers have always refused to say who hit the driver, but there have been suggestions that it was one of those who was never caught.”
One of the most senior officers on the train case, DCI Frank Williams, confirmed after his retirement that police suspected the uncaptured robber known as Alf Thomas of battering Jack Mills, but nothing could be proved against him.
Pembroke’s name surfaced as a suspect soon after the robbery and he was put on an unerringly accurate list of names compiled by Scotland Yard CID commander George Hatherill.
The list was produced from information supplied by criminal informants who were seeking favours and a share of the £10,000 reward.
As well as Pembroke it also included another robber to get away with it, Harry Smith. All the other suspects named on Cdr Hatherill’s list were later convicted.
The only one of the captured robbers not to feature on it was the now notorious Ronnie Biggs.
Three weeks after the robbery, the Yard chief said he was satisfied the criminals named to him were the “certain offenders” and later wrote in his autobiography that the information was “substantially accurate.”
Pembroke’s home was searched on September 6, 1963, by Flying Squad officers DCI Williams and Det Sgt Jack Slipper.
Nothing incriminating was found and Pembroke was interviewed and his prints taken before being released.
He was even asked to provide samples of his pubic hair to compare with those found in sleeping bags left at the farm.
Tests proved negative.
One former underworld associate told The Sun: “Danny got away with it because he was very clever and kept his gloves on the whole time they were at the farm.
“The Old Bill were convinced he was involved, but could not charge him because they didn’t have any forensic evidence to link him.”
Soon after being released by police, Pembroke went to the Devon village of Beaford with Welch and three other men, where they are suspected of hiding stolen cash.
Locals became suspicious about them spending £5 notes in pubs, although the parish church vicar reported his most successful harvest festival contributions ever.
Those close to the robbers claim major bribes were given to police by those who got away with it.
Certainly, Danny did not show any overt signs of great wealth after the robbery — unlike Harry Smith, who bought 28 houses, a hotel and drinking club.
Many of the robbers were also ripped off by other criminals for their money.
Intriguingly, Danny featured as a gang member in a fictional book titled The Men Who Robbed The Great Train Robbers, published last year.
But there could well be another explanation for Pembroke’s apparent lack of wealth.
On 3 December 1963, on the day gang driver Roy James was captured, police received an anonymous call telling them to go to a phone box in Southwark, where they found almost £50,000 of train robbery money.
The money is thought to have been left there in a deal with police by the mystery robber known as Alf Thomas, who was suspected of hitting Jack Mills.
Cdr Hatherill later said the motive for the return of the money found in the phone box was unclear but said it had been done by “one about whom extensive inquiries had been made and who was interrogated at length.”
He added: “In spite of our strong suspicions, nothing could be proved against him and so no charge could be brought.
“My belief is that he thought we knew more about him than we did, and thinking things were getting hot, he decided to get rid of the money to avoid being found in possession with it.”
Another interpretation is that the money was intended as a bribe to Flying Squad detectives, who were prevented from keeping the loot by unforeseen circumstances.
Either way, nothing more was ever heard about “Alf Thomas”.
Following the robbery, Pembroke turned his back on crime and lived in quiet obscurity in Chislehurst, Kent, working hard as a cabbie to bring up his five children.
He died aged 79 from a heart attack in his sleep at home on February 28 and was cremated on Tuesday at Kemnal Park Cemetery.
As well as his children, Pembroke leaves behind ten grandchildren and one great grandson. His son Danny Jnr, 55, said his father had never spoken about the Great Train Robbery.
The gas fitter from Sevenoaks, Kent, added: “My dad was a fiercely private man. He didn’t have a mobile phone or a bank account his entire life.
“He had a razor-sharp mind and right up until the day he died he was the most clued-up man I’ve ever known.
“But more than anything he was a family man. He was the last of a dying breed — unbothered by what other people did and just focused on providing for his family.
“I couldn’t fault him. He was a fantastic bloke and friend and a super, kind and loving dad. He was the best man I ever knew.”
Fate of the big three
THREE men became the most infamous members of the train robber gang. Here is what happened to them . . .
He was the mastermind of the operation.
After the robbery he hid out in a London safe house for six months then moved to Mexico with his family before settling in Canada.
He secretly returned to England and lived in Torquay where he was arrested.
In 1969 he was sentenced to 25 years and released in 1978. In the 80s he was back in jail on drug charges before being released. He died in his sleep in 2013 aged 81.
A close pal of Reynolds, Biggs was recruited to hire a train driver to help move the engine after it was stopped.
But the man he found was only familiar with steam trains.
This led to the coshing of driver Jack Mills, who was forced to move the engine.
Police arrested Biggs after finding his fingerprints at the gang’s safe house.
He was given 30 years but escaped from Wandsworth Prison after 15 months by climbing over a wall.
Biggs fled first to Paris, then to Spain, Australia, Panama and finally Brazil.
He returned to Britain in 2001 after being flown back by The Sun and was sent back to jail.
He was released on compassionate grounds eight years later. Biggs died in 2013, aged 84.
Ronald ‘Buster’ Edwards
Edwards was one of several gang members who claimed to have been the one to cosh Jack Mills, but it’s believed he said this for publicity.
After the robbery he fled to Mexico with Reynolds but gave himself up in 1966 after his money ran out.
He was sent to jail before being released early in 1975. He went back to his original job as a florist and opened a stall at Waterloo Station.
Edwards was played by singer Phil Collins in a 1988 film about his life. He battled alcohol and depression and he ended up hanging himself in 1994 at the age of 63.
• The only gang members still thought to be alive are Douglas ‘Gordon’ Goody who lives in Spain but is said to be very ill and Robert Welch, now confined to a wheelchair.