The ‘great train robber’ that got away … and his Devon link

Ben Fox
Ben Fox
David Pembroke

A when a retired London black cab driver was cremated at the end of 2020, the key to one of the most enduring mysteries of the last century may have died with him.

Doting grandfather and family man Danny Pembroke, was strongly believed to have been the ‘great train robber’ who got away with the 1963 heist.

He may also have been the mystery robber known as Alf Thomas, who police were convinced was responsible for battering train driver Jack Mills.

Scotland Yard said they were ‘certain’ that former British soldier Pembroke was one of the gang who held up a Glasgow-to-Euston mail train at Sears Crossing, near Cheddington, Bucks, and stole £2.6 million in bank notes – worth £50 million today.

Likewise, Post Office investigators also ‘strongly suspected’ him for the robbery. He was questioned and his home searched, but his involvement could never be proved.

The other robbers were caught through fingerprints and forensic evidence linking them to their hideout, Leatherslade Farm, which had not been burned down as planned.

South Londoner Pembroke, whose real name was Dennis Pembroke, drifted into crime after completing his national service aged 20 and was suspected by police to have been a member of a gang known as the South Coast Raiders.

The gang had already held up several trains on the London-to-Brighton line when they joined up with a team of professional robbers from South West London to carry out the crime
of the century.
Pembroke was a close associate of fellow South Coast Raiders Bob Welch and Tommy Wisbey, who he lived close to on the Elmington Estate in Camberwell.

Welch and Wisbey, two of the last three surviving known robbers, were both convicted of the train robbery and jailed for 30 years.

Bruce Reynolds

Train robbery author Chris Pickard said: “From what the robbers have said themselves, the south coast team were on the east side of the track and the other lot were on the west.

“Once the train stopped the team from South West London moved in. Buster Edwards tried to get in the driver’s cab from the east and Gordon Goody went in from the other side and got Jack Mills in a bear hug.

‘One of the South Coast Raiders then supposedly went round the front of the train and came in the same side as Goody and hit Mills over the head with an iron bar.

‘The robbers have always refused to say who hit the driver, but there have been suggestions that it was one of those who was never caught.”

One of the most senior officers on the train case, DCI Frank Williams, confirmed after his retirement that police suspected the uncaptured robber known as Alf Thomas of battering Jack Mills, but nothing could be proved against him.

Pembroke’s name surfaced as a suspect soon after the robbery and he was put on an unerringly accurate list of names compiled by Scotland Yard CID commander George Hatherill.

The list was produced from information supplied by criminal informants who were seeking favours and a share of the £10,000 reward.

As well as Pembroke it also included another one that police highly suspected got away with it, Harry Smith. All the other suspects named on Cdr Hatherill’s list were later convicted.

The only one of the captured robbers not to feature on it was the now notorious Ronnie Biggs.
Three weeks after the robbery, the Yard chief said he was satisfied the criminals named to him were the ‘certain offenders’ and later wrote in his autobiography that the information was ‘substantially accurate’.

Pembroke’s home was searched on 6th September, 1963, by Flying Squad officers DCI Williams and Det Sgt Jack Slipper. Nothing incriminating was found and Pembroke was interviewed and his prints taken before being released. Tests proved negative.

Soon after being released by police, Pembroke went to the Devon village of Beaford with Welch and three other men, where they are suspected of hiding stolen cash.

Locals became suspicious about them spending £5 notes in pubs, although the parish church vicar reported his most successful harvest festival contributions ever.

Those close to the robbers claim major bribes were given to police by those who got away
with it.

Certainly, Danny did not show any overt signs of great wealth after the robbery — unlike Harry Smith, who bought 28 houses, a hotel and drinking club.

Many of the robbers were also ripped off by other criminals for their money.

Intriguingly, Danny featured as a gang member in a fictional book titled The Men Who Robbed The Great Train Robbers, published in 2019.

But there could well be another explanation for Pembroke’s apparent lack of wealth.

On 3rd December, 1963, on the day gang driver Roy James was captured, police received an anonymous call telling them to go to a phone box in Southwark, where they found almost £50,000 of train robbery money.

The money is thought to have been left there in a deal with police by the previously mentioned mystery robber known as Alf Thomas.

Cdr Hatherill later said the motive for the return of the money found in the phone box was unclear but said it had been done by ‘one about whom extensive inquiries had been made and who was interrogated at length’.

He added: “In spite of our strong suspicions, nothing could be proved against him and so no charge could be brought.

‘My belief is that he thought we knew more about him than we did, and thinking things were getting hot, he decided to get rid of the money to avoid being found in possession with it.”

Another interpretation is that the money was intended as a bribe to Flying Squad detectives, who were prevented from keeping the loot by unforeseen circumstances.

Either way, nothing more was ever heard about ‘Alf Thomas’.

Following the robbery, Pembroke turned his back on crime and lived in quiet obscurity in Chislehurst, Kent, working hard as a cabbie to bring up his five children.

He died aged 79 from a heart attack in his sleep at home on 28th February, 2015, and was cremated at Kemnal Park Cemetery in Chislehurst.

As well as his children, Pembroke leaves behind ten grandchildren and one great grandson. His son Danny Jnr, 55, said that his father had never spoken about the ‘great train robbery’.

The gas fitter from Sevenoaks, Kent, added: “My dad was a fiercely private man. He didn’t have a mobile phone or a bank account his entire life.

‘He had a razor-sharp mind and right up until the day he died he was the most clued-up man I’ve ever known.

‘But more than anything he was a family man. He was the last of a dying breed, unbothered by what other people did and just focused on providing for his family.

‘I couldn’t fault him. He was a fantastic bloke and friend and a super, kind and loving dad. He was the best man I ever knew.”

In another Devon link, at 5am on 9th November, 1968, at Cap Martin, Braddons Hill Road East, Torquay, Londoner Bruce Reynolds, aged 36, was arrested for masterminding and taking part in this well organised robbery.

Not long after the robbery, Bruce was soon running short of money due to his lifestyle so moved to Canada, then France and back to London for a short while and then decided on Torquay for his new hideaway.

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