The story of Ronnie Biggs and the 1963 Great Train Robbery captured the imagination of Britons for years and Biggs himself became a virtual celebrity after his escape to Rio de Janeiro, his kidnap by former British soldiers and his eventual return to the UK.
On the morning of August 8, 1963, a Royal Mail train was passing through the affluent and picturesque county of Buckinghamshire in England, on its way from Glasgow, Scotland, to London. A signal on the line had been tampered with and the train came to a stop when the light turned red. As crew members dismounted the train to check on what appeared to be a faulty signal, a well-organized gang of 15 men boarded the train, overpowering the crew.
One of the train’s carriages, known as the High Value Packages coach, was loaded with over £2.6 million in cash, which would have amounted to more than £45 million, or close to $74 million, today. Despite meticulous planning, most of the gang members were arrested in various locations over the next few weeks. The following year, 11 of the gang were sentenced to prison; most of them receiving 25 to 30 year terms.
In August of 1964, a three-man team infiltrated Winson Green Prison and sprang Charles Wilson, one of the organizers of the robbery. He made his was to Paris, France, where he underwent plastic surgery before fleeing to Mexico City. Wilson was eventually returned to prison and was released in 1978. He was murdered at his villa in Spain in 1990.
Ronnie Biggs escaped from prison – also with outside help – less than a year and a half into his 30-year sentence. His story then became something akin to an international thriller worthy of Hollywood: He escaped to Paris, where he had plastic surgery and acquired false identification. After spending time in Australia, Biggs eventually made his way to Rio de Janeiro, were he lived the highlife until 1981.
The Great Train Robbery had become the stuff of legend. Biggs was, of course, still a wanted man but Brazil had no extradition agreement with the United Kingdom. Three British men, who claimed to be former soldiers, were paid to kidnap Biggs and get him back to Britain. The men travelled to Rio and approached Ronnie Biggs as he sat in a restaurant, waiting to meet some friends. After striking up a conversation with Biggs, the men managed to restrain him, possibly with the use of mace, and bundled him into a vehicle.
Biggs was taken by boat to Barbados, from where his abductors believed the British government would successfully extradite him, but the yacht’s engine failed in Barbadian waters and Biggs was rescued by local police. Two of the kidnappers were arrested and held in jail. Biggs himself requested that he be allowed to return to Brazil and was allowed to do so. John Miller, who lead the attempt to kidnap Biggs, told a British television interviewer that the plan was “…to bring him [Biggs] into the country which would then be sympathetic to Britain’s pleas for extradition. There has been no intention to harm him.”
In the years following the Great Train Robbery and his escape to Rio, Biggs became both a hero and an anti-hero; his escapades often popped up in the British press. He eventually returned, voluntarily, to the UK in 1991. He was released from a British jail in 2009.
Ronnie Biggs died Wednesday at the age of 84. Most of the stolen money was never recovered.
By Graham J Noble