Bruce Reynolds: Criminal known as 'Napoleon' who led the Great Train Robbers

 

Although Ronnie Biggs remains the best-known of the Great Train robbers, Bruce Reynolds was the mastermind. Biggs was recruited by "Napoleon", as he was nicknamed, when he asked to borrow money from him. Instead Reynolds offered him the task of recruiting a train driver for a forthcoming job. It was no run-of-the-mill operation Reynolds was plotting. He believed that what became known as the Great Train Robbery would set him up for life – "my Sistine Chapel", he called it.

Bruce Reynolds was born in London in 1931. His mother died in childbirth when he was four; his father, who remarried, was a union activist at Ford Dagenham. Reynolds was evacuated to Suffolk and Warwickshire during the Second World War and after leaving school worked in the accounts department of the Daily Mail, where he harboured ambitions of going into journalism.

"It was basically filing invoices," he told The Oldie magazine in a long and revealing interview 2005. "There must have been 100 people working in there, in long lines ... I used to look up and see the old boy who was head of the department. He was about 50 and I thought, 'I don't want to be like that.'" He got a job at a cycle firm but fell in with the wrong crowd: "The life of the young outlaw appealed to me tremendously," he recalled.

He was sent to borstal several times, for burglary and shoplifting, and eventually to Wandsworth Prison, which he described as "going from prep school to university. From smashing shop windows, I was talking to people who had blown safes."

On his release he moved upmarket, graduating to jewel-thieving and stealing from country houses. "I was mixing with an older crowd, who dressed well, had nice cars, and I had some excellent mentors. Everything was new: I got my first car – a Triumph TR2 – and then an Aston Martin, and I was having suits made in Savile Row."

In 1957 he was arrested along with Terry "Lucky Tel" Hogan, a leading underworld figure, for robbing a bookie returning with £500 from a greyhound meeting at White City. Reynolds was sentenced to three years; once out he resumed his career and his expensive lifestyle, and eventually began planning the crime of the century.

The Great Train Robbery centred on the Glasgow-to-Euston Post train which left on the evening of 7 August 1963. Registered mail, much of it containing cash, was sorted in a carriage at the front. There would usually have been around £300,000 in there, but after a Bank Holiday weekend in Scotland there was £2.6 million, more than £40 million in today's money. The train passed Leighton Buzzard at about 3am, and moments later the train's driver Jack Mills stopped for an apparent red signal, which Richardson and his gang had made using a glove and a battery-powered light.

Mills was knocked out and the locomotive and first two carriages were uncoupled and driven a mile on to Bridego Bridge, near Mentmore, where Land Rovers were waiting. A human chain removed 120 sacks containing 2.5 tons of cash, which was taken to a farmhouse in Oakley, Buckinghamshire, which the gang had bought in preparation.

The robbers made several mistakes, the most disastrous of which was leaving the train's staff on board the train and telling them to wait for 30 minutes before moving; this suggested to the police that the gang's hide-out must be within half an hour's drive away.

The gang split the money at the farmhouse. Reynolds recalled: "I went to bed and Buster [Edwards] woke me up a couple of hours later and he said, 'It's two and a half million, mate.' I said, 'Yeah, that'll do me.'"

Rather than lie low for a few weeks as agreed, Ronnie Biggs fled with his share. Police were tipped off by a neighbour and the farm, full of the gangs' fingerprints, was raided. The gang was gradually rounded up, and on 20 January 1964 nine of the 17 involved went on trial, eventually receiving 30-year sentences.

Reynolds, however, evaded justice for a time. "I got a friend of mine to buy the lease of a mews house down in South Kensington and I moved and stayed in there until the passport came through safely, about six months."

He spent five years in Mexico, living for a time with his wife and son. But his share of the Train Robbery haul (worth around £2 million today) eventually ran out and he returned to England. He was arrested in Torquay on 9 November 1968. As he recalled, Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler, who had led the Train Robbery investigation, gave him a stark choice. "'Your wife's nicked, your dad's nicked, your stepmother's nicked' – and a great woman friend of mine who had been looking after my son Nick – 'she's nicked. And Terry your best pal. They're all nicked for aiding and abetting and passport offences'. That's the deal he presented me with: plead not guilty and they'd all be nicked. I gave him the look; he gave me the look. I got 25 years."

He was sentenced to 25 years but was released after 10. He spent the last two in Maidstone Prison: "I had a year in the library there and a year as a gym orderly when I used to run 10 miles a day, play badminton and then swim. I got into smoking dope there which was a revelation. It was an absolutely marvellous time. Those two years were the happiest years of my life."

Unable to leave the criminal life behind, he was jailed in the 1980s for three years for dealing amphetamines. He worked briefly as a consultant on the 1988 film Buster (in which he was played by Larry Lamb), and later for the 2000 film Gangster No 1.

In 1995 he published The Autobiography of a Thief. By then, he was living on income support in a south London flat run by a charitable trust. He later he lived in Croydon, and suffered from increasingly poor health; his son Nick, a sculptor and musician who served as a Royal Navy diver on HMS Hermes during the Falklands war, cared for him.

Reynolds was the subject of the song "Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds", covered by the band Alabama 3, for whom Nick plays harmonica. The band's song "Woke Up This Morning" was the theme tune for The Sopranos.

In January he updated Autobiography Of A Thief with the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the Robbery in mind. "He likes to walk around without people recognising him," Nick said last year. "There was a time when he enjoyed the infamy, and that's why he did all the shows and interviews, but he doesn't now."

Chris Maume

Bruce Reynolds, Great Train Robber: born London 7 September 1931; married (one son); died 28 February 2013.

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