How the Great Train Robbery Worked

The Crime
A re-enactment of the signal switch that allowed the robbers to board the Up Special.
A re-enactment of the signal switch that allowed the robbers to board the Up Special.
Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

It took fifteen men to pull off the Great Train Robbery of 1963, along with a few accomplices. The cast of criminals included Bruce Reynolds, Douglas Gordon "Goody,"Ronald "Buster" Edwards, Charlie Wilson, Ronnie Biggs, Roy James, Roger Cordrey, Tom Wisbey, Jim Hussey, Bob Welch, Brian Field, Leonard Field, Jimmy White, William Boal and John Daly.

Their accomplices were known as Mr. One, Mr. Two and Mr. Three; "Peter," brought to drive the train; and John Wheater, who secured the safe house.

Although no one is certain who first had the idea to rob the mail train, Bruce Reynolds, a burglar and antique dealer in London, is known as the mastermind. After ending a stint in prison in 1962, Reynolds began to assemble his crew. He started with his own men, the South West gang, and chose gang member Gordon "Goody," a London hairdresser and part-time thief, to be his No. 2.

As the details were worked out, it became clear that the South West gang wouldn't be big enough to pull off such a large-scale robbery. But as both Reynolds and Goody were good friends with former boxer-turned-club owner "Buster" Edwards, leader of the South East gang, it was decided the two gangs would work together.

Through his contacts, Reynolds obtained the train's details: its schedule, the amount of cash it would be carrying and the car it would be in, and the number of workers onboard. After learning the payload would be greater after a bank holiday -- the next being on Aug. 5, 1963 -- Reynolds tapped into an insider, known later in the media as the "Ulsterman," to find out which day the train would be carrying cash to London. The date was set.

Reynolds had his men, information about the train and a date, but he needed to figure out one last detail: how to stop the train.

It was Roger Cordrey, an associate of "Buster" Edwards, who came up with that answer. Just as we encounter stoplights when we drive cars, trains also rely on signals to know when to proceed and when to stop -- green means go, amber means slow down and red means stop. Cordrey proposed he "fix" the signals. Using black paper and leather gloves, he would cover the green signals at their chosen spot. And using batteries and wire, he would turn on a red signal.

It was time. The men lay low at Leatherslade Farm, their safe house, drinking beer and playing Monopoly while they waited for the date the train was scheduled to pass by.

Police guard Leatherslade Farm at Oakley in Buckinghamshire. The farm was used as a safe house by the Great Train Robbers.
Keystone/Getty Images

Early on the morning of Aug. 8, the men struck. They cut the phone lines at the emergency call box near the tracks, and as they waited for the train to appear, a confident Reynolds lit up a Montecristo No. 2 cigar. The train approached just after 3 a.m. and stopped at the red signal Cordrey had fixed at Sears Crossing. The train's driver, Jack Mills, was hit on the head while trying to discern what was happening. His was the worst injury of the heist.

Roy James and his team uncoupled the engine and first two cars from the train. When "Peter," the gang's designated driver, was unable to move the train, he was tossed off and the injured Mills was forced to drive the train one and one half miles (2.4 km) to the designated unloading spot: Bridego Bridge. There, they removed 120 sacks containing two and one half tons of money, brought it back to their safe house and divvied it up.

It took only 15 minutes for the men to execute the operation. Would it take a game of Monopoly to undo them?