Shortly after midnight, the diesel locomotive rumbled through the sleepy English countryside on its way from Scotland to London. She had twelve wagons in tow. The mail train had left Glasgow at ten to seven, as it did every evening. He was supposed to reach London-Euston at 3:41 a.m. On board: thousands upon thousands of letters and parcels. 75 postmen sat in this rolling letter station and sorted in piece. They managed 2000 pieces per hour if they kept up.
The train belonged to the Royal Mail, more precisely to Her Majesty the Queen. An institution, then, 44 such mail trains drove through England at night. For 125 years – without major incidents. The night of August 7th to 8th, 1963, however, was to be a little restless. Because the train also had a fair amount of money on board.
At the same time, 16 men were making final preparations on a farm near the village of Oakley in the south of England. They put on army uniforms and drill suits, checked that their stocking masks were in their pockets, and went through their plan one more time. Then they grabbed pickaxes, iron bars, and wooden clubs. Shortly after one the entourage started moving towards Sears Crossing, 30 miles from London. A convoy of three cars, a three-ton truck and two Land Rovers, disguised as military in the dark. The gang had spied out the place long beforehand, and it was ideal for their project.
Ronnie Biggs was in one of the Land Rovers. That he was there at all during the attack: coincidence. Its role: tiny. He had jumped up at the last moment. But of all people, Ronnie Biggs would later become the most famous mail robber in history. He would be on the run for 35 years from Paris to Australia, to Panama and finally to Brazil, where he would become a coveted photo motif, right after the Sugar Loaf. His money would be wasted on a failed facial operation in Paris, false passports and lots of escape helpers.
Biggs hadn’t the faintest glimpse of any of this that night, of course. It was his 34th birthday and Biggs was nervous. If the robbery succeeded, he hoped he would be free of all worries.
Months of practice
On board the train were 2.6 million pounds, 57 million euros based on today’s value. The gang was well prepared. An electrician should climb up to the signal, cover the green light and light it up with a “red” bulb. That should force the train to stop. A professional racing driver was behind the wheel of a getaway car. For months, the gang members, disguised as anglers, had scouted the area and played through the attack.
The money from English and Scottish banks was stored on the train. Before the bank holiday they had emptied their vaults and the money was due to go to the headquarters in London: heaps of well-worn one- and five-pound notes that were to be shredded. A dream prey for robbers, because most of the notes were not numbered consecutively. Where the gang got the tip from was never finally clarified.
That was 52 years ago. Mail robbers have since gone pretty out of fashion. The modern bank robber sits at his computer, hacking accounts or manipulating interest rates. Bank robbery 4.0 is pure screen work. But that didn’t hurt the fame of the mail train gang – on the contrary.