It was on Thursday 8th July 1965 that the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs escaped from Wandsworth prison and fled to Australia and then Brazil. Biggs was 15 months into his 30-year prison sentence when things changed. On this Thursday afternoon Ronnie had been allowed out to exercise in the prison yard and, with three other prisoners, he disappeared over the 20ft. high wall while his guards, who were being obstructed by men still on exercise, watched helplessly.
At a minute or so after 3 p.m. a bright scarlet furniture van had trundled off a side road passing the prison and ignoring the notice that said “Private road … speed limit 5 m.p.h.” To the left of the road was the prison wall, to the right the prefabricated bungalows, occupied by prison officers and their wives and, in a cutting behind these, a busy railway line.
So far as could be established no one saw everything that happened. It was at 5 minutes after 3 that a startled officer, one of the four on duty, saw a man’s head, in a stocking mask, appear over the top of the wall. A Home Office statement about the affair said:
“The officer in charge immediately rang the alarm bell and at the same time the man who appeared on the wall shouted and threw over the wall a rope ladder and a tubular steel ladder. Four prisoners immediately made for the ladder and climbed the top. The prison officers in the yard tried to stop the men as they were going over the ladder, but the prison officers were stopped by some of the remaining prisoners. Other prison officers arrived and the men were taken back to their cells.”
The wife of one of the prison staff said she glanced through the window and saw a green Ford Zephyr pass smoothly by and then a red van went up the road and she thought that someone was moving. She got to the door and saw the red van backing and the Zephyr following it. A man with a silk scarf over his head and tied on top get out of the van – she said it looked like a coconut. There was a platform on top of the van and something was going over the wall from it. She saw a man with a silk stocking over his head, a scarf, a peaked cap and a rifle. She thought, ‘This is where I go in and went in very quickly and shut the door and bolted it, because there was nothing I could do to help.’
“After I calmed down I looked through the bedroom and saw two prisoners coming over the wall. I only saw two. They were dressed in blue overalls and striped shirts: prison uniform. I took the number of the Zephyr down and handed it in … I didn’t know whether to dive under the bed when it happened. I am still petrified – this was so well organized …”
Urgent calls were made to Scotland Yard but the only immediate hope of capturing some of those involved lay in halting the green Zephyr – index number AYX 470B. A check was made on a number of other vehicles. As the hunt got under way, senior police officers and a senior Home Office official went to Wandsworth followed by the Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice.
Ronnie finally returned to the UK in 2001 and spent several years in prison, where his health rapidly declined. Biggs was released from prison on compassionate grounds in August 2009 and died in a nursing home in December 2013.