Matthew Norman: A crime straight from an Ealing comedy

The villains simply strode into the depot, tied up the staff and spent a leisurely hour loading their lorry
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The Independent Online

It is not the way of responsible newspapers or their columnists to condone the commission of any crime, let alone one involving firearms and the abduction of a woman and her child. On this we must be unequivocal. Nor is there anything admirable or amusing about the Bank of England being taken for a cool 40 million quid. So we can all agree that the armed robbery at the Securitas depot in Tonbridge, Kent in the early hours of Wednesday constitutes an extremely serious offence, and the sooner these dangerous villains are caught and punished the better for us all.

Having duly made these points after the style of a particularly dull home office minister (Hazel Blears, I'd imagine), I ask you now to place your right hand on the Bible, the Torah, the Koran or whichever holy text is applicable (Zen And The Art Of Cash Laundering in my own case), and swear that news of this heist no more gave you a frisson of guilty pleasure than it did me.

At this early stage of a police investigation which will, on the form book, take at least 25 years to complete, the facts are few and incomplete. Even on what sketchy information is available, however, there is enough of an Ealing Comedy flavour to suspect the involvement of Alec Guinness, and to wonder whether a place in the gang was found, possibly as "wheels", for the late Alfie Bass. This has less to do with the execution of the raid, which appears flawless, than its beguiling simplicity.

Having seized the depot manager and his family, the villains simply strolled into the depot clad in balaclavas, tied up the staff and spent a leisurely hour loading their lorry with used, non-sequential Treasury notes, the serial numbers of only some of which may have been previously recorded.

In an age of staggeringly, fantastically sophisticated security systems, there is something poignant about the ease with which the robbery was conducted. No reliance on high-intensity explosives (the failed Fort Knox raid in Goldfinger), no sabotage of traffic-light computers (The Italian Job), no use of futuristic laser technology (Ocean's Eleven) ... just a few guys in balaclavas with shooters.

This is a movie straight from the early 1950s, filmed in black and white with the old Routemaster buses in every establishing shot, and Richard Wattis doing his bumbling civil servant number from behind a Whitehall desk. You can almost hear the Rada-trained actor in the constable's helmet tooting on his police whistle and screaming: "'Ere, clear orf you pesky kids, I gawt a £40m robbery on me 'ands," as he lopes through the smog to shine his torch at the depot gates. How could a nation of professional nostalgists not get a little glow from that?

If the swag was in gold bars, we'd have to assume that the felons would now be melting down the metal and remoulding it into mini-Eiffel Towers, after the precedent of 1951's The Lavender Hill Mob.

But these days, it is harder to dispose of huge chunks of cash than bullion, thanks to recent legislation about the laundering of money, and here we find the other Ealingesque quality to the raid - the strong suspicion that the men involved, whether or not they had inside help, had no real idea of the scale. Imagine thinking you were on for a few hundred grand, and blundering in to a hundred times that amount. How on earth do you dispose of well over a million notes weighing half a ton?

From now on, every policeman in the country, the security services, HM Customs, Interpol and other national and international agencies will be on the case. Every copper's nark in Kent will be keeping an ear out for whispers of unusually lavish spending in pubs and restaurants. Every estate agent on the Costa del Sol and in Rio will be expected to report major new activity.

Journeys with connecting flights to Gran Cayman and other centres of numbered bank accounting will be monitored. All over the world, eyes will be peeled for men of Kent with gargantuan wads in their back pockets. As facile as it may have been to come by the cash in the first place, it will be infinitely more difficult to get rid of it.

Myself - not that I'd given a minute's thought to the matter before now, of course - I'd take my £5m cut, wait for a moonless night and head for the Normandy coast in a fishing boat. Airports, car ferries and especially Channel Tunnel trains are out of the question with All Ports Bulletins in effect throughout the land; but given a following wind and a bit of luck, a tiny fishing vessel should make the beach at Trouville or Honfleur undetected by French coast guards.

Once arrived, the next step would be to launder the money, very slowly, in the casinos to be found in every French coastal town. It's an old and well-known scam (it became such a problem in Turkey that a few years ago the government closed every casino in the country overnight), but with caution it should be OK, and this is how it works.

You buy your chips with sterling, go to the roulette table, and bet on red and black at the same time. You'll lose a little due to the presence of zero, of course, but still recoup almost 99 per cent of your stake. After a couple of hours, you take the chips to the cashier and cash them out, asking to be paid only with the world's largest commonly used treasury note, the €500 bill.

It would take many months of pootering from town to town, all the way through France to Nice and Cannes, in a stolen Citroën 2CV (who'd look for a holder of the British National Armed Robbery record in one of those?) before your cumbersome giant trunk of £50s is reduced to a slim briefcase of €500s. And what more relaxing way to pass a spring and summer could there be than that?

Whether the Tonbridge Mob will follow this blueprint is anyone's guess, but it will be the hope of us all that whatever laundering method they employ will fail, and that they are swiftly apprehended.

Then, as is traditional with major fiscal offences, they can spend twice as long in jug as they would have done for committing a couple of murders. The Tonbridge heist may be as close as it gets to a victimless crime (the wife and child of the depot manager are said to be fine, if a little shaken; and with Securitas repaying the dosh, it won't even cost Johnny Taxpayer a farthing). Even so it is, as I say, an exceedingly grave crime, and you'd have to be a very warped individual indeed to tip your hat to those who achieved it.