Great Train Robber they never caught, Retired cabbie took famous heist mystery to grave

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.

Was Danny Pembroke the one that got away?

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 driver Jack Mills following the attack

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.”

Detectives inspect coaches following the heist

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”.

Danny Pembroke in later life

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 . . .

Bruce Reynolds

Bruce Reynolds was mastermind behind heist

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.

Ronnie Biggs

Ronnie Biggs spent many years on the run following the   robbery

 

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

'Buster' Edwards was a familiar face at Waterloo station

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.

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On this day : The 8th of August 1963 AD

Great Train Robbery

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In spite of the facts about the so-called Great Train Robbery – that it was a nasty robbery with violence carried out by career criminals – it has somehow gone into legend in Britain as something of a romantic enterprise.
A total of £2.6 million was stolen from a night-mail train running between Glasgow and Euston . The money stolen was being taken to be destroyed, so was all in used notes with no record of serial numbers. The robbers halted the train by tricking the driver with a tampered signal – a glove masked the green bulb, and the red was operated with a battery.
At 3.15 in the morning the train came to a halt near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire. During the attack the deputy driver was bundled down the embankment, and Jack Mills the driver was struck with a crowbar. Though he recovered he suffered from the injury and trauma for the rest of his life, dying in 1970 without ever returning to work.
Some 120 sacks of banknotes were thrown from Bridego Railway Bridge to which the relevant carriage had been moved, onto a waiting ex-army lorry. Within 20 minutes the robbery had been completed, and the 15 man gang made off in the lorry and Land Rovers, travelling to their hideout – Leatherslade Farm in Bedfordshire .
A reward of £260,000 was rapidly offered by the banks affected and by the Post Office, a massive sum. Though the robbery itself had worked like clockwork, the criminals afterwards were less clever: the hideout was tracked down by the police within days, and fingerprints aplenty were found there; two gang members who were lying low in Bournemouthmade the mistake of paying rental on a garage in cash with a large quantity of 10 shilling notes to a police widow, and were soon arrested, others following soon after. On April 16 the following year 12 of the gang members were sentenced to prison.

Great Train Robbery: 10 things you didn’t know

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Great Train Robbery: 10 things you didn’t know

The crime is still surrounded by myths on the 50th anniversary

Ronnie Biggs, one of the Great Train Robbers, in police custody in 1963.

It is the 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery, on Thursday. Even after all this time, many myths surround it. A new compilation, the Great Train Robbery 50th Anniversary, compiled by Nick Reynolds, son of the robbery’s architect, Bruce, who died earlier this year – and with contributions from the late robber and Ronnie Biggs – hopes to put the record straight. Here are 10 things you (quite possibly) didn’t know about it.

  1. The Bernie Ecclestone connection

Completely unfounded rumours about the involvement of the Formula One supremo have circulated for years, prompting him to make the cheery denial that “there wasn’t enough money on that train”. There is a tiny connection in that one of the robbers, the late Roy James, who had been a professional racing driver, wrote from prison to the former champion Graham Hill, asking for help with his career when he came out. He was told he was wasting his time if he hoped to return to the track. But James was an accomplished silversmith and ended up making trophies.

  1. Those 30-year sentences

Jailing the robbers in 1964, Mr Justice Edmund Davies told them that “to deal with this case leniently would be a positively evil thing” and duly sent most of them down for 30 years. Yet the previous year the same judge had reduced the sentence on appeal of one Charles Connelly, who had been involved in a robbery in which a van driver in Mitcham, Surrey, was shot dead. Cutting his term from 15 to 10 years, Davies said: “The sentence was excessive.”

  1. Brighton rocked

After Biggs and Charlie Wilson escaped from prison, the author Graham Greene wrote to the Daily Telegraph saying: “Am I one of a minority in feeling admiration for the skill and courage behind the Great Train Robbery? More important, am I in a minority in being shocked by the savagery of the sentences?”

  1. The Nazi connection

The robbers negotiated a substantial financial deal for co-operating with the author Piers Paul Read on his 1978 book The Train Robbers. To justify their large advance they invented a story that Otto Skorzeny, the man who organised the ex-Nazi escape network Odessa, had financed the robbery, a hoax that Read only learned of when he went to Brazil to interview Biggs. In fact, it was Bruce Reynolds who put up the necessary money to finance the robbery; it worked out at just £38 per head which he jokingly asked the robbers to refund him afterwards. There was a tangential connection here in that Biggs and another robber, Buster Edwards, got plastic surgery while on the run from a doctor who had remodelled the faces of fleeing Nazis.

  1. The unsung victim

While many recall the name of Jack Mills, the driver hit over the head during the robbery – who died of leukaemia, unrelated to the attack, seven years later – few remember the name of his assistant, David Whitby. He died of a heart attack eight years later at the age of just 34.

  1. The Colin Firth connection

Steady on – the actor was not quite three when the robbery took place. But on the run, Bruce Reynolds needed new names and identities for himself, his wife and his son, Nick, as they fled to Mexico and Canada. They took the surname Firth and Nick became Colin Firth.

  1. The getaway car

British Leyland ran an ad for their Mini in 1979 with the slogan “Nips in and out like Ronnie Biggs” and placed one of the posters near the flower stall of Edwards in Waterloo.

Members of the public complained but the Advertising Standards Authority supposedly only queried whether BL had got Biggs’s permission to use his name.

  1. The video game

Bruce Reynolds and Biggs were signed up to produce a Great Train Robbery video game in 1999 but it never came to fruition. There is, however, a zombie-themed board game called The Great Brain Robbery. (The robbers played Monopoly at their post-robbery hideout, leaving incriminating fingerprints on the board.)

  1. The lawsuit

One robber, Gordon Goody, now living in Spain, sued the People from prison for suggesting he had “coerced an innocent and decent young woman” into taking part in the robbery. He won the case and received £2 in damages.

  1. Odd man in

While four of the robbers were never caught, one of the men convicted, Bill Boal, was not actually involved in the robbery at all. He was arrested because of his links to the robber Roger Cordrey. Boal was found with some of the stolen money which he claimed he had because Cordrey was repaying a debt. He died in prison in 1970, still protesting his innocence. Now his family are considering a posthumous appeal and preparing a file for the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The Great Train Robbery, 1963

 

 

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One of the most infamous robberies of all time, 1963’s Great Train Robbery involved the hijack of a London-bound train, and the theft of millions of pounds.

Late on Thursday 8 August 1963, a Travelling Post Office train left Glasgow for Euston. On board, staff sorted the mail and parcels prior to its arrival in London.

The second carriage from the front of the train was a High Value Package carriage, where registered mail was sorted. Much of this consisted of cash. Usually the value of these items would have been in the region of £300,000 but, because there had been a Bank Holiday weekend in Scotland the total on the day of the robbery was £2.3 million (about £30 million today).

The wrong signal 

The train passed Leighton Buzzard at about 3am on 8 August 1963, and moments  later the driver, Jack Mills saw a red signal ahead at a place called Sears Crossing.

The signal was false. A glove had been stuffed onto the proper signal and the red light was activated by attaching it to a six volt battery. When Mills stopped, his co-driver David Whitby climbed out of the diesel engine to ring the signalman to ascertain the problem.

He discovered that the cables from the line-side phone had been cut and as he turned to return to his train he was attacked and thrown down the steep railway embankment.

Meanwhile, a masked man climbed into the train cab and coshed the driver around the head rendering him unconscious. Meanwhile, other robbers uncoupled most of the carriages, leaving on the engine and the first two carriages containing the high-value property.

The steep embankments at Sears crossing were unpractical for removing the loot from the train but the gang had planned to drive the train a mile further to Bridego Bridge. Here, Land Rovers were waiting to transport the cash to a nearby hideout.

Soon the well-planned heist encountered a problem. One of the gang had spent months befriending railway staff on the pretence of being a railway enthusiast. He had been allowed rides in the cabs of trains and had even been permitted to drive a few trains.

His part in the robbery was to drive the train to the rendezvous point but as he climbed into the cab of the train he realised that this huge diesel train was far more complicated than the local trains he had previously travelled in. One of the gang, Ronnie Biggs, had to rouse the driver to continue the journey.

In the front two carriages, frightened Post Office staff were pushed to one end by some of the fifteen strong gang – but, in the remaining ten carriages left at Sears Crossing, staff did not even realise anything had happened.

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A human chain of robbers

At Bridego Bridge a human chain of robbers removed 120 sacks containing two-and-a-half-tons of money. The robbery was well organised and swift. Before leaving, one of the gang ordered Post Office staff to stay still for 30 minutes before contacting the police. This gave the investigators an important clue, they suspected that the gang had a hideout within a 30 minute drive of the scene.

This was indeed the case. An old farmhouse in Oakley Buckinghamshire, Letherslade Farm, had been rented and during the next few days the jubilant gang shared out the cash. They even played Monopoly using real money.

A huge police investigation was launched, run by the Flying Squad at Scotland Yard and senior detectives from the Buckinghamshire Police. The officer in overall command was Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper.

British Transport Police had a small role to play in the investigation, mainly conducting enquiries, obtaining lists of staff and suspects.

Back at the farm, the gang were becoming spooked by low flying RAF aircraft who were actually on training runs and nothing to do with the manhunt that had now been established. They split the money which was mainly in used £1 and £5 notes (Biggs was to receive £147,000) and left the scene immediately rather than ‘lying low’ for several weeks as they had planned.

A nearby resident became suspicious of the comings and goings at the farm and advised the police. PC John Wooley responded to the report and found large amounts of abandoned food and provisions. Sleeping bags and bedding had been left in upstairs rooms and in the cellar, bank note wrappers, post office sacks and registered mail packages.

Fingerprints on the Monopoly board

A thorough examination found several fingerprints including some on the Monopoly board and others on a ketchup bottle. These fingerprints and other enquiries led to the offenders and one by one they were arrested. BTP headquarters at Park Royal in north London was regularly updated of the progress of the investigation and the Chief Constable was sent supplementary crime reports giving the names and details of those involved.

They all eventually appeared in court. The mastermind of the operation, Bruce Reynolds took five years to track down but received ten years imprisonment. Ronnie Biggs received 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 in May 2001 have been well documented.

The verdict 

The gang received a total of 307 years imprisonment. Despite the huge amount of money stolen none of the thieves were able to live happily on their ill-gotten gains. Buster Edwards ended up running a flower stall at Waterloo station. He received a lot of publicity in 1988 when Phil Collins played him in the film Buster. He took his own life in the late 1990s. James Hussey and Thomas Wisbey were convicted in 1989 for trafficking drugs, while Charles Wilson was shot and killed in Spain.

It must be said that the Great Train Robbery was brilliantly planned and executed. Apart from the attack on the train driver it was non-violent and no firearms were used. The raiders managed to steal much more money than they had planned and perhaps it was the greed in sharing all the money out which led to them being careless and leaving so many fingerprints behind, sealing their own fate.