Aug. 8, 2022

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery

August 8, 1963. A gang of 15 criminals steal nearly 50 million dollars from a Royal Mail train in Buckinghamshire, England, carrying out the largest train robbery in British history.


Cold Open

It’s August 8th, 1963, a few hours after midnight in the English countryside.

A diesel-powered train chugs along its tracks. It’s carrying overnight mail, mostly packages, and letters. Driving the train is 57-year-old Jack Mills.

Despite the early hour though, Jack isn’t drowsy. He’s been operating trains for 22 years, and he’s driven the night shift train from Crewe to London countless times.

Beside him, his second man David Whitby leans back and stretches. David is only 26 but has been a railway worker since he was 15. And for both men, this is just another night of many.

Ahead of the train, a signal light turns from green to yellow, indicating that the train may need to stop ahead. David points at it, but Jack is already easing off the throttle and applying the brakes. As they pass the yellow light, the next light ahead of them turns red. They look at each other with curiosity. There is no scheduled stop on their route. 

Jack is confused but not concerned. He knows that if there is another train stopped ahead, then the lights would keep them from colliding. But there is no other train in sight. He wonders if the lights are malfunctioning.

As Jack brings the train to a stop, David climbs down the metal ladder out of the cab. He intends to use a telephone stationed beside the tracks to call a signalman and see if it’s safe for them to proceed.

As David drops out of sight, Jack takes a moment to enjoy the peace and stillness of the early morning. He stands up to stretch his legs and wonders if now is a good time to eat that bacon and egg sandwich he packed.

After a couple of minutes, Jack hears the sound of feet climbing up ladder of the cab. He looks over, expecting to see David. Instead, he sees a man in a mask, holding an iron club in one hand.

Jack feels a shock of adrenaline. He rushes at the man gripping his arms, almost pushing him off the steps of the cab.

But as he struggles with the masked man, he hears the other cab door open behind him.

Jack turns just in time to see another iron club swinging toward his head.

As Jack slumps to the floor, dizzy from the blow, more masked men crowd into the cab. One of them gently sits Jack up and wipes blood from his head. It’s then that Jack realizes these men aren’t here for him. They’re here for the train’s cargo.

The 1960s is a time of incredible social change in England. Feminism is gaining popularity, and the Beatles are shaking up the music scene. But the crime rate is also rising. The Royal Mail train service knows this and is in the process of implementing high-security train carriages to carry money and valuables. But those measures will come too late.

Unbeknownst to engineer Jack Mills, the second carriage of his train contains 128 mailbags of money from a Bank Holiday the day before. And within thirty minutes of breaking into Jack’s cab, a gang of fifteen masked men will steal today's equivalent of almost 50 million US dollars, carrying out the largest train robbery in British history on August 8th, 1963. 


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is August 8th, 1963: The Great Train Robbery.

Act One: The Plan

It’s August 6th, 1963, less than 48 hours before the robbery.

A green Land Rover rolls to a stop in a dirt driveway in front of a secluded rural house, named Leatherslade Farm. Already parked in the driveway is an identical car with an identical license plate. Out of the driver’s seat of the newly-arrived Land Rover steps 31-year-old Bruce Reynolds, a self-described professional criminal. He is wearing a professionally tailored handcrafted suit, and his dark hair is combed neatly to the side. He squints slightly behind thick-framed glasses as if he is always scheming.

Bruce and three other men head into the house. Inside, more men are crowded around a table, playing cards. Elsewhere others are looking through a pile of army uniforms and dark ski masks. Like Bruce, all of them wear expensive bespoke suits - attire that had once been out of reach for all of them.

Although they are well dressed today, Bruce and these other men come from working-class families. Most of them were young teens during World War Two. Many of them grew up working 48-hour workweeks in London for just 10 pounds a week- the equivalent of just 170 dollars today. They all remember the struggle to earn enough to survive.

And they still see that hardship persists for others. In the eight years since the war’s end, Britain has been on the road to recovery. But things are not looking better for the working class.

So, for Bruce and the others, turning to a life of crime was an easy choice. It brought enough money to lift themselves out of the working-class, and enough expendable income to buy things like these tailored suits. By now, all of the men have been in and out of prison, but they are all here today for a job so big that they and their families will never have to struggle again.

As Bruce walks into the house, he tells the men to gather around. Bruce shuts the front door of the farmhouse behind him. And then tells all the other men to gather around so they can go over their plan one more time. Bruce explains to the men that just before midnight tomorrow, they will spring into action. All fifteen men will put on fake army uniforms and load up into their three vehicles - the two identical land rovers and a larger truck to carry the sacks of money they hope to steal. If they are stopped, they will pose as an army convoy.

The site for the robbery is Bridego Bridge, about a half hour away from Leatherslade Farm. To stop the train, two men will tamper with the rail lights. Bruce points to the men assigned this task and quizzes them on the protocol. They know the plan, they will cover the green light with a black leather glove, and then light up the yellow and red light powered by a battery.

The gang knows from an inside source that if the train is stopped unexpectedly, the driver or his second man will call from a trackside phone. So the gang preemptively cut the phone lines to ensure the alarm isn’t raised. 

The gang also knows from their insider that all the money is kept in the second car of the train. So once the train is stopped, the gang will detach the second and third cars. From there, they only need to drive the train a short distance to the bridge, where more men will be waiting to unload the banknotes.

As Bruce mentions driving the train to the bridge, he nods at an elderly man, who the gang calls “Pop”. Pop nods back nervously. He is a retired train driver, not a seasoned criminal like these other men. 

Bruce leans back in his chair as he finishes outlining the plan. Once Pop drives the train to the bridge, the rest of the men will break into the second car and grab the mail sacks of banknotes. Once they have their truck loaded, they will hide out at Leatherslade Farm and split up the money. They plan to lay low for two days and then return to London to live lives of wealth and privilege previously unimaginable to them.

The rest of the men cheer a bit and jostle each other at the mention of the money. But Bruce’s mind is on the thrill of the robbery itself. He thinks of himself as an adventurer, and a suave, sophisticated career criminal. Although he has been in jail many times, he has been successful in his line of work and considers himself a cut above the average thief in both wits and ambition. He sometimes brags about going to the South of France in an expensive car and mingling with rich locals before stealing their valuables.

Bruce is confident that this robbery will be another success. The plan that he and his associates have been working on is solid. But most of all their mental effort has been focused on the robbery itself. In less than two days, Bruce and his men will find out that getting the money is only half of a successful plan. The other half… is getting away with it.

Act Two: The Robbery

It’s just before midnight on August 7th, one day after Bruce outlined the gang’s plan for the final time.

As train driver Jack Mills and second man David Whitby are boarding the Royal Mail train at the Crewe station, the gang is in motion.

In an upstairs room at Leatherslade Farm, Bruce Reynolds is putting on the uniform of an army major. He holds the cap in his hands, reading the motto of the British Special Air Service on the front- “Who Dares Wins.” Though Bruce never served in the military, that phrase resonates with him. He thinks of himself as daring, and he knows that tonight he and his gang are gonna have a chance to score big.

Bruce heads downstairs, where the men are already beginning to load into the two Land Rovers and the truck. Every member has a number and an assigned seat, and Bruce begins to count them all off, making sure all are in the right place. Satisfied, he gives a nod and climbs into the passenger seat of the first Land Rover. The small convoy begins driving to Bridego Bridge.

As the group nears their destination, the men stop their cars and the gang eagerly jumps into action. Two men climb telegraph poles and cut the wires. A few others stretch a white cloth across the tracks to mark where the train should stop. Bruce climbs into the driver’s seat of the first Land Rover and drives along the rail track with two men, batteries, and black gloves in the back seat. 

Bruce drops the two men off at the two lights nearest Bridego Bridge, then circles back and parks the car a distance from the tracks. He pulls out a pair of binoculars and lights a cigar. Bruce is by himself in the car now, and he takes a moment to savor the rush of adventure he feels. The night is warm and clear, and Bruce can see two miles up the track for approaching trains. He checks his watch. 2:50 AM. Bruce grabs his walkie-talkie to confirm that the group near the first ambush site is ready for action.

Ten minutes and a fourth of a cigar later, Bruce sees headlights on the track. He grabs the binoculars to check. Heart pounding, he reaches for the walkie-talkie and tells the men to prepare the signals. In the dark night, he can see as the light farthest from him turns yellow, and the one closest to him turns red. Bruce smiles as the train begins to slow and then stop. He can see three of the gang crouched by the tracks, with dark coveralls and ski masks on top of their army disguises.

The train stops, and Bruce sees a man open the door at the front of the train. He steps out and moves toward the trackside phone, but the gang explodes from their hiding place and quickly overpowers him. Bruce hears muffled yells as men board the engine cab from both sides, swinging metal clubs.

Through the binoculars, Bruce watches as two of his gang begin to uncouple the second car from the rest of the train. And after a few minutes, they jog to the front of the train and give a thumbs-up. Pop, the retired train driver, is already looking at the controls. A minute passes. And then another. Bruce grits his teeth as he hears the frustrated shouts from the front of the train. After two more minutes, Pop gets out of the driver’s seat and the Royal Mail driver is hauled forward, blood running down his head.

Finally, the train begins to move, and Bruce breathes a sigh of relief. He uses the walkie-talkie to alert the team at the bridge, then start his own car and begin driving parallel to the now-shortened train. 

When the train gets to the bridge, the second team breaks into the high-value packages cab and quickly beats the frightened mail workers guarding it into submission. As Bruce pulls up to the bridge, his coordinated gang is already forming a line to pass sacks of money from the train’s second car into their waiting truck. Two men escort the bleeding train driver and his second man out of the front of the train and handcuff them together. For half an hour, the train workers are threatened not to move as Bruce's men haul heavy mail sacks full of cash out of the carriage.

Then, at 3:30 AM precisely, Bruce whistles and tells his men to load up. One of them points out that there are only a few sacks of money left in the train, but Bruce is insistent that they stick to the plan and stop after just half an hour. The rest of the men comply and once more load up into the three vehicles.

Bruce again counts off his gang and then the convoy is in motion, retracing the route to Leatherslade Farm.

On their return trip, the men will slap each other on the shoulders and laugh over what they just pulled off. But they still will not know how long they will be safe at their hideout. Soon, a few critical mistakes will jeopardize their escape plan and scatter the fifteen gang members and their 126 mailbags of money all over the globe.

Act Three: The Clean-Up

It’s August 8th, just hours after the gang’s robbery.

The energy in Leatherslade Farm is ecstatic. The gang has finished counting the money and is beginning to divide it up. A group of them sit down to play Monopoly, using real banknotes from the robbery. They fight over the metal train piece, laughing. Another couple of men begin gathering incriminating evidence to burn or bury, while two others monitor police radio frequencies and news stations. But all of them are relaxed. They’re confident they will know when the police are onto them. But for now, they merely wait.

But while his accomplices celebrate their success, Bruce is upstairs, alone in bed. As they got back into the house, Bruce felt strangely empty. The robbery felt anti-climactic to him. And now, while the others rejoice, Bruce simply sleeps.

But startling news squawking through the police radio soon wakes him. A report from train driver Jack Mills and his second man David Whitby comes through. It says that the robbers made their getaway in several army-type vehicles. The man monitoring the radio looks up sharply, then repeats what he heard loudly for the men playing Monopoly. The smiles drop from their faces. Then, another piece of information comes through the radio: the police are convinced that the gang is within a half-hour radius of the robbery and will start a search of the area.

The gang’s plan was to drive back to London in the two Rovers and the truck. But now, they will need to find other transportation and do it fast.

One man tries to disguise their truck by painting it yellow, but it’s unconvincing. Another jumps on a bicycle and begins pedaling to a friend’s house. He returns in a car to pick up two of the others to go get more cars.

Over the next 24 hours, the gang scatters and goes on a vehicle-buying spree. But, they are no longer acting as the well-oiled machine they did during the robbery. Their hasty exit left plenty of evidence for the detectives who will find Leatherslade Farm. Most important are fingerprints left in the house, including on an abandoned game of Monopoly. Through the largest fingerprinting effort in history, 11 of the men are identified by comparing prints from the house to almost 2 million sets of prints from previously arrested men.

Most of the gang is tracked down and arrested. Bruce gathers his family and forges passports to flee to Mexico, and then to Canada. But, eventually, he runs out of money after some extravagant spending and is arrested.

Of the 16 men involved, only Pop and three others will not be identified. Most of the men arrested will be sentenced to 30 years in prison, but the majority will be let out after 10 or 15 years. A few of them will escape prison only to be recaptured.

Still, all the men involved will become somewhat of a celebrity group. Bruce Reynolds will eventually write a successful book titled The Autobiography of a Thief. His glasses, bespoke suits, and romanticism will eventually inspire the look of future gentlemen thieves in film and television.

Train driver Jack Mills would unfortunately not fully recover from his head injuries. He never returned to work and died seven years after the robbery, of unrelated causes.

The Great Train Robbery, as it will come to be known, is cemented in British popular culture. The story of that day, and the eventual capture of the gang, will appear in headlines for years after Bruce Reynolds and his gang pulled off what is still the largest train robbery in British history on August 8th, 1963.


Next on History Daily. August 9th, 1945: three days after the first atomic bomb falls on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the U.S. drops a second bomb on Nagasaki.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.