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Mystery of Great Train Robbery’s Third Man ‘solved’ after identity revealed in newly discovered secret cop files

IT’S a mystery that has fascinated the public for more than 50 years – who was the ”Third Man” in the Great Train Robbery?

Now compelling evidence from Scotland Yard’s archives marks ­former boxer and suspected major- league villain Billy Ambrose as the last of three men who “got away” with the £2.6million heist.

Billy Ambrose with wife ­Elizabeth

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Billy Ambrose with wife ­Elizabeth
The identikit image of a full-faced robber with receding swept back hair matching Ambrose

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The identikit image of a full-faced robber with receding swept back hair matching Ambrose
Railway Bridge - the site of the Great Train Robbery

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Railway Bridge – the site of the Great Train RobberyCredit: Getty – Contributor

The 15-strong gang held up a Glasgow-to-Euston Royal Mail train at Sears Crossing near Cheddington, Berks, in August 1963.

Led by career criminal Bruce Reynolds, the underworld crew bagged bounty worth more than £50million today.

Nine robbers were jailed soon after, while Reynolds and accomplice Buster Edwards fled to Mexico, and Jimmy White was at large in the UK for years.

Three unnamed men also eluded ­cops — including two unmasked by The Sun, Harry Smith and Danny Pembroke.

Now it can be revealed how Eastender Billy, who died in 2009, closely resembled an identikit image of the third unidentified robber seen by witnesses near the gang’s Leatherslade Farm hideout.

Police intelligence provides further clues about Ambrose and ­others suspected of involvement in the robbery.

Author Andrew Cook was given access to documents from a secret Scotland Yard cold-case review ­carried out 13 years after the daring heist which captivated the nation.

The joint investigation by the Yard’s C11 criminal intelligence section and A10 anti-corruption command was prompted by the 1976 arrest of Ambrose over unrelated banking fraud.

Background checks raised suspicions that he was the Third Man.

Cook reveals in a new book how concern was also flagged about whether the robbers who slipped the net were helped by bent cops.

To this day, police have never admitted any of the gang escaped their clutches.

“Scourge of the robbers” Det Supt Tommy Butler maintained the gang were behind bars when the last to be caught, Bruce Reynolds, was jailed for 25 years in 1968.

And “sheer bunkum” is how the Yard’s assistant commissioner Ernie Millen described revelations by the late ­Ronnie Biggs in The Sun two years later that four men had got away with the robbery.

In Biggs’ account, the four men he referred to as “Joe, Bert, Sid and Fred” had dodged justice.

Now, the Yard’s own files reveal that Biggs was right all along — and Butler and his bosses knew it.

Two of the robbers who were not caught, Harry Smith (Bert) and Danny Pembroke (Sid), have previously been unmasked by The Sun.

Both were arrested over the robbery but there was not enough evidence to charge them.

The fourth man on Biggs’ list — “Fred” — was a retired train driver who was not a criminal, and so unknown to police.

He was only brought along by the gang to move the engine and high-value packages coach              — but  he  failed to do this and never received a share of the loot.

Butler was never sure about the identity of the third robber named by Biggs, as “Joe”.

But the dossier of evidence presented in Cook’s book, No Case To Answer: The Men Who Got Away With The Great Train Robbery, casts strong suspicion on Ambrose.

He was arrested with 13 others and charged over a multimillion-pound international bankers’ drafts fraud ­following a joint inquiry by police and MI5.

Cook says: “This prompted train robbery cold-case re- viewers to re-examine the case to see whether he was involved in the ­crime.”

Until now, it was thought the three uncaptured trackside robbers escaped justice because they had kept their gloves on while lying low at the gang’s farm hideout.

‘Sheer bunkum’

But files from the 1976 cold review reveal how the Yard’s newly formed A10 anti-corruption command suspected the trio could have stayed free with help from bent detectives.

Three years after the robbery, ­Butler’s number two on the train robbery investigation, Det Insp Frank Williams, was identified by notorious torture gang leader Charlie Richardson as one of a number of officers he had paid off.

No proof against any of the officers named by Richardson was ever ­established, though the notorious ­gangster was a close associate of ­robbers Smith and Pembroke

Smith gave himself up months after the train robbery and arranged for £50,000 in cash to be found in a phone box by police.

Although the money was properly accounted for by the incorruptible Butler, it could have been intended as a bribe.

Pembroke, meanwhile, invested a large sum of his loot in an ill-fated South African mining ­venture.

The following year Ambrose was convicted of a violent robbery at an East End fountain pen factory and jailed for five years.

The C11 and A10 inquiry focused on a list of six suspects which they were certain contained the Third Man.

Detectives narrowed it down to Ambrose and South London bookmaker Derek “Ding Dong” Ruddle, but concluded the former was the most likely.

Ambrose was one of 18 suspects on a list drawn up by Butler a week after the raid, but ­strangely dropped off the tally in October that year.

Born in East London on September 21, 1929, Ambrose’s ambitions to be a pro boxer ended when his licence was revoked in 1952 after he was fined for receiving stolen goods.

The next year he was convicted of a violent robbery at an East End fountain pen factory and jailed for five years.

While in custody and after his wife had given birth to their son, Ambrose escaped from the hospital next door to Wormwood Scrubs, where he had been taken for minor ­surgery — but was soon recaptured.

On release, he opened an East End drinking club which made headlines when Ambrose was shot in the ­stomach and another man died from gunshot wounds during a fight in 1960.

Ambrose also opened a Whitechapel pub in the name of his wife.

The cold-case review team believed Ambrose was still an active criminal at the time of the train robbery and beyond.

Conspicuous Jaguar

A year after the heist, he was arrested over a large travellers’ cheques fraud in Paris, for which he was jailed for 18 months.

Intelligence reports suggested Ambrose had been in France ­buying property through a former Waffen-SS officer, Otto Skorzeny, who was suspected of laundering cash for ­several of the train robbers.

Details of Ambrose’s conviction in France were surprisingly missing from his Scotland Yard file when the police and security ­services began investigating him over the 1976 banking fraud, and they only came to light during Interpol checks.

By then, Ambrose was a wealthy man. In the mid-1960s he had bought a main shareholding in an East End engineering workshop, W. Cahill and Son, and transformed it into an international business.

He also opened a Soho betting office and in 1975 moved from his modest home in Plaistow to a large house in Esher, Surrey.

Ambrose had bought the Plaistow property from fellow train robbery suspect Harry Smith then sold it back to him via an intermediary.

As well as Smith, convicted train robbers Buster Edwards, Bruce Reynolds and Jimmy White were among the close associates listed on Ambrose’s criminal record.

White ran a cafe next door to a bookmakers owned by Danny Regan, a close friend of Smith and Ambrose and suspected of laundering train money through property.

Further evidence seemingly linking Ambrose to the robbery came from the father of Harry Smith.

He told detectives investigating the mail express heist: “I’ve heard Harry and his mates Jimmy and Billy were involved.”

Equally tellingly is the description given by two witnesses who helped compile the identikit image of a full-faced robber with receding, swept-back hair matching Ambrose.

Local Lionel Hopcraft saw the man in a conspicuous new blue Mark V11 Jaguar which he noticed on four separate occasions near the entrance of Leatherslade Farm and nearby.

The other witness, Arthur Eeles, saw a man of similar appearance with Roy “The Weasel” James close to the farm on the day of the ­robbery.

Their evidence — never heard in court — matched the description of a round-faced robber seen by a mail sorter, Stanley Hall, uncoupling the locomotive from the rest of the train.

Roy James is known to have been one of two men who uncoupled the engine, but the other robber has never been properly identified.

Cook notes the only other round-faced member of the train gang was Buster Edwards, who was ­elsewhere during the raid — part of the team that stormed the engine.

The 1976 review team speculated that the Third Man could have been a late substitute for another ­criminal, Billy Still, who was arrested with explosives two months before the robbery.

Reports from informants further suggested the Third Man was close to Buster Edwards, who had taken part in a major heist at Heathrow in 1962 with some of the other train robbers and had an aversion to ­violence — but Ambrose had a reputation for being physically tough.

The cold-case review was dropped in 1978 when Ambrose was the only one of the 13 defendants to be ­acquitted at the Old Bailey of the bankers’ draft fraud.

But legal fees hit Ambrose hard. He lost his fortune and was living in sheltered accommodation when he died in 2009 aged 79 with wife ­Elizabeth by his side.

  • No Case To Answer – The Men Who Got Away With The Great Train Robbery is ­available from The History Press.

Ron’s link to big raid

ONE of the gang who got away with the train robbery later acted as an adviser and stuntman on a film based on the heist, it can now be revealed.

Danny Pembroke was a close friend of actor ­Stanley Baker, even ­playing in goal for a team of rogues which the star assembled in 1964 for a match against a side of Fleet Street reporters.

Funnyman Ronnie Corbett bought the main part of the Pyes Farm site in 1971

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Funnyman Ronnie Corbett bought the main part of the Pyes Farm site in 1971Credit: BBC

Cook’s book says Pembroke worked on Baker’s 1967 film Robbery, and may have introduced fellow elusive robber Harry Smith to the movie’s scriptwriter.

Although intended as a fictional ­portrayal of the heist, the Scotland Yard review team noted the authenticity of the movie in key parts.

Smith died in 2008 aged 77, having invested his robbery haul in 28 properties in the Portsmouth and Gosport area as well as buying an East London supermarket.

Nine years after the raid, Smith was the only one of five defendants to be acquitted at ­Winchester Crown Court of handling stolen goods and robbing a Royal Mail van in 1971 laden with almost £82,000 in cash.

Ex-soldier Pembroke also lived in comfortable obscurity in leafy ­Chislehurst, Kent, following the famous train raid.

After losing a large sum through gangster Charlie Richardson’s South African mining venture, he bought Pyes Farm in Crowhurst, Sussex, through a property company, Farmgate Investments, and later sold it off in parcels.

The Yard files contain an article from a local paper in 1971 reporting how comic Ronnie Corbett had bought the main part of the site.

Pembroke later became a black cab driver and died in 2015 aged 79.

Author Cook also established the identity of the gang’s bungling retired train driver – brought in to move the train – who strongly resembled an identikit picture.

But the author has not named the man at the request of his family due to illness.         

He is described as a tragic character who had a breakdown after witnessing a fatal train accident.

Famous felons

BRUCE REYNOLDS: The mastermind behind the daring raid had previously been jailed for assault and robbery.

After the train heist, he evaded capture for five years before being nicked and was given 25 years inside in 1969.

On his release in 1978, he struggled to adjust to a life without crime and was jailed again in 1980 for dealing drugs.

He was living on income support before he died in 2013.

BUSTER EDWARDS: He dodged arrest following the robbery, fleeing to Mexico, but when he ran out of money he came back to England.

Spent 15 years inside for his role in the robbery and was later found dead, hanged from a girder, in November 1994 at the age of 63.

Rocker Phil Collins played him in the 1988 crime comedy Buster.

RONNIE BIGGS: Best known for his daring prison break in 1965 using a rope ladder.

He had met heist mastermind Reynolds during a stint in HMP Wandsworth following a botched bookmaker robbery.

After his escape Biggs fled to Brussels, had plastic ­surgery, then spent 35 years on the run in Australia and Brazil – fathering a child in South America and offering meet-and-greets to fans to fund his lifestyle.

In 2001, The Sun tracked him down and, in ill health, he agreed to return to the UK.

Upon landing he was returned to jail to serve the remainder of his life term.

But after a series of strokes, he was given compassionate release in 2009, before dying in 2013, at the age of 84.

Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs

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Great Train Robber Ronnie BiggsCredit: Getty – Contributor
Mastermind Bruce Reynolds was jailed for 25 years in 1968

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Mastermind Bruce Reynolds was jailed for 25 years in 1968Credit: PA:Press Association
Former Waffen-SS Lt Col, Otto Skorzeny was suspected of laundering cash for ­several of the train robbers

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Former Waffen-SS Lt Col, Otto Skorzeny was suspected of laundering cash for ­several of the train robbers
The 1967 film Robbery with Stanley Baker and William Marlowe

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The 1967 film Robbery with Stanley Baker and William MarloweCredit: Alamy

https://www.the-sun.com/news/5547200/mystery-great-train-robberys-third-man/ Mystery of Great Train Robbery’s Third Man ‘solved’ after identity revealed in newly discovered secret cop files

DevanCole

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