by Bob Couttie
Legends are not always true and so it is with robber Ronnie Biggs who died on 18 December 2013. He was part of a gang responsible for the 1963 Great Train Robbery which took in a haul of 2.6 million pounds (40 million today) — not even a key member of the gang, yet arguably, he became its most famous member after being on the run from 1965 to 2001.
He was hardly a Butch Cassidy or Robin Hood. He was, however, very good at his own PR.
Until his public exposure in Brazil, Biggs was just another one of the population of crooks who flee to third world countries where the booze is cheap, women are available for a price and the cops look the other way when their palms are sufficiently greased. So how did he become such a celebrity?
Let’s go back to August 1963. Biggs was a small time petty criminal who couldn’t make the grade. He had been released from prison after a 123 month sentence for stealing a car. He went into the building business after getting married in 1960 in Reigate, Surrey.
By June 1963, he desperately needed money and approached Bruce Reynolds, leader of a gang of robbers known as The Firm, for a loan of 500 pounds. At the time Reynolds was collaborating with another gang, the South Coast Raiders headed by a Roger Cordrey, preparing to rob a train.
Biggs was not a member of either gang.
The plan was to stop a train carrying mail, the Night Flyer, and hit the High Value Package compartment. But there was a problem – they needed someone to move the train.
As they mulled over that problem, Reynolds visited Biggs in Redhill. It was then that Biggs heard about the planned train robbery and Reynolds learned that Biggs was working on the house of a train engineer who was about to retire, known as Peter or Stan Agate.
Fast forward to 7 August 1963, the day before the robbery. Biggs, Peter, and members of the gang gathered at Leatherslade Farm, which had been bought by Reynolds for the express purpose of planning the robbery. He had made the mistake of paying more than the asking price. For an alibi, Biggs had told his wife that he was felling trees in Wiltshire.
Later that day they were told that the operation would be delayed for 24 hours.
The next day, 8th August, was Ronnie Biggs’s 34th birthday. He did not know that his brother Jack had died. Desperate to contact him to give him the news, his wife, Charmiane, telephoned the police and asked them to look for him in Wiltshire. With the logging of the call, Biggs’s alibi was already blown.
Later that day it was confirmed that the operation was on. At 1am on the morning of the 9th, the gang, including Biggs and the driver he had recruited, set off for its date with a train. They had a truck and were disguised as an army unit on manoeuvres.
A sheet was erected between two poles to mark where Biggs’s driver should stop the train and trackside telephone wires were cut. Further along the track gang, members tampered with the train signal, which was glowing green.
They obscured the green light and attached a battery to the red lamp. It would now appear as a stop signal.
The gang split up on either side of the track and waited for the mail train.
Just after 3am the train driver, Jack Mills, saw the red signal and pulled to a stop. With him was the fireman, David Whitby. Behind the engine was the High Value Parcels carriage with five men inside sorting the parcels, and behind that was the regular mail sorting carriages with 70 sorters at work.
Whitby got down from the engine intending to use a trackside telephone to find out why the train had been stopped. He discovered the cut telephone wires and, as he returned to tell driver Mills, he was grabbed by gang members.
Two of the gang uncoupled the HVP carriage, which was attached to the engine from the one behind.
On the platform of the train, Mills saw gang members trying to climb aboard and kicked out at them. Unseen, other gang members boarded the platform from the opposite side. One of them hit Mills with an iron bar and he sank to his knees, his head bleeding.
As another gang member used Mill’s handkerchief to staunch the blood flowing from his head, it was time for Biggs to do the only thing he was responsible for: Get Peter to move the train to the bridge where the gang could unload their loot.
Peter was ensconced in the driver’s seat but did nothing. He was, according to Biggs, waiting for pressure to build so he could release the brakes. Impatient, a gang member pulled Peter from the seat and put the injured Mills in his place. Mills released the brakes of the train and moved it forward to the trackside marker.
Biggs was told to take Peter to a nearby vehicle and stay there while the train was looted.
Once the truck had been loaded, the gang drove back to Leatherslade farm.They shared the take, with Biggs getting 147,000 pounds.
Some 2.6m pounds had been stolen.
Little more than an hour after the robbery, it was already being broadcast on BBC Radio. The gang decided to abandon the farm and went their own ways. They cleaned up after them but not well enough.
The former owner of Leatherslade farm was suspicious because the gang had paid more than the asking price for the property. A farm worker reported vehicles at the farm matching the ones apparently used in the robbery. Investigators found fingerprints at the farm that matched those of Biggs, who no longer had an alibi.
Eventually, 13 of the robbers and their alleged associates were arrested and put on trial. Twelve of them went to prison including Biggs who was given 30 years for armed robbery.
A minor thief had become part of the crime of the century. His road to celebrity began 15 months after his incarceration – on 8 July 1965 he escaped from Wandsworth prison when a furniture van pulled up outside the 30 foot high walls and threw over a rope ladder while Biggs and others were exercising.
In October 1965, he went by boat to Antwerp then overland to Paris where, with a false passport and name and a face newly built gratis 40,000 pounds of plastic surgery, he made his way by air to Sydney, Australia.
The police did not give up. A year later, Biggs had been tracked to Melbourne and narrowly escaped capture in a raid by armed police. He managed to stay hidden until February 1970, when he boarded RHMS Ellinis, on his way to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, where he landed in March.
Biggs lived the usual life of the dodgy expat, staying pretty much under the radar and getting himself hooked up with a teenage stripper called Raimuna. His relative anonymity disappeared when the man who had made it his mission to bring Biggs to justice arrested him in Rio in February 1974.
Biggs claims that he was planning to return to the UK to face the law and, now that his haul from the robbery was almost gone, had sold the story to the Daily Express newspaper. He says that he was betrayed by the newspaper.
His luck, or his planning, remained good. Raimunda was pregnant and Biggs was arranging to divorce his wife, Charmiane. Under Brazilian law he could not be extradicted.
Biggs’s fame and notoriety proved to be a financial godsend for the now impoverished crook. In return for cash, he regularly gave scoops to newspapers claiming he was about to return to the UK. In effect, he transformed himself into a one-man tourist industry, and gave British authorities the finger.
In 1980, his story took a Hollywood turn — part keystone cops, part caper movie. A group of British ex-servicemen that were contracted to return Biggs to Britain then enacted a good publicity stunt for their new security firm.
The team kidnapped Biggs in Rio De Janeiro. Brazilian authorities dismissed it as a publicity stunt for a book he’d just published. He was smuggled out of Brazil aboard a yacht that ran into trouble off Barbados and had to send out an SOS.
Britain made an extradition request to Barbados which was refused, and Biggs returned to Brazil more famous than ever. He exploited it to the full, making television commercials, and was featured on a Sex Pistols record as well as with his Brazilian son’s band. He also charged tourists to have their picture taken with him and hustled them for meals.
But Biggs was growing old and sick and ever more destitute. In 2001, he returned to the UK to face a prison term in Belmarsh prison where he finally married his Brazilian girlfriend. He still had 28 years of his original sentence to serve.
Appeals for parole and for redress of his long sentence failed until 2009 when he was finally released on compassionate grounds.
His death on 18 December closed the book on the long and celebrated career of a man who had, in fact, played little part in the Great Train Robbery.
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