Daring robberies

Hands up! It’s a robbery! These words are always electrifying and a sudden risk causes great stress. It is a different story when it happens in an open space where there is always at least a hypothetical possibility of escaping and getting help. But in an enclosed space tension is always greater as limited movement increases panic. This is the case with buildings, airplanes or the narrow spaces of a rushing train…

Passengers travelling by rail have always been easy prey for thieves

Train passengers could not afford choosing their companions. Travelling by rail — compared to, for instance, a stagecoach — was a risky, claustrophobic and dangerous experience. In carriages of different classes representatives of the whole of society travelled. Your travel companion not only could be a chain smoker or a real bore but — much worse — a robber, a maniac or even a murderer. Train robberies happened quite often. The armed assailants were aware that their victims were helpless, had no place to escape or no one to ask for help. In Victorian England there were special train compartments for women shaking with fear at the sight of an approaching tunnel, in particular when interior lighting in the carriage was not a standard. Paradoxically, most assaults, murders and rapes took place in the first class carriages. Crowded trains and platforms soon became an ideal place for pickpockets or luggage thieves.


In the 1870s in one day 76 passengers of the Eastern Counties Railway in England lost their luggage. Already in the first years during which railways in mines and factories were put into operation there were robbery attempts that were many times bloody. The bloodiest incident took place on an April morning in 1843, near Manchester in England.

Packages being loaded into a mail carriage — 1925
A mail officer waiting for mail exchange in a protected carriage — 1913

A train transporting coal slowly entered the turn around a small lake. Two drivers drove a small open-top locomotive. Just like they did many times before. Unluckily, a few days earlier in the miners’ village rumours had spread that the train was to transport money for the workers. Although it was obviously a lie, a group of six desperados decided to check it out. The villains ambushed round the corner of the tracks and had previously obstructed the tracks with a cut down tree. At the sight of an approaching train they suddenly jumped out of their hiding place and — waving at the terrified railwaymen in a frenzy — started shooting in the air and then jumped onto the train. As a result of shooting one of the drivers rolled down the embankment dead. The other was wounded and he pushed the assailant so strongly that he fell under the carriages and died instantaneously. Unfortunately, the train could not be stopped ahead of the fallen tree where other bandits waited. As a result of the crash the boiler of the locomotive exploded and most people died.


In 1838 a statutory obligation was imposed on British railway carriers to carry — against a fixed payment — Royal Mail’s packages and mail. The eighteenth century tradition of mail stagecoach raids was transferred onto the railway tracks. One of the most famous assaults took place in 1849 near Bridgwater, on the route operated by Great Western Railway, connecting London to Bristol, when a mail carriage was robbed. While the train was running two thieves jumped from the neighbouring carriage into an unguarded mail compartment, broke down the doors and having looked through registered letters and parcels jumped out of the train as it was approaching the next station. The criminals were caught the very same day when they attempted to repeat the audacious act on the same train running in the opposite direction.

Mail carriage staff sorting packages — 1920

In 1855 an even braver and extremely audacious robbery took place. Edward Agar, a security specialist, and William Pierce, dismissed from South Eastern Railway three years before, decided to steal gold (worth one million pounds these days) transported from London to Paris. Supported by two railway workers they carried out their careful, one might say, devilish plan. At the station in London, where a carriage loaded with gold bars was waiting, a wailing young woman appeared with a coffin. The girl grieved after the death of her beloved brother who had died of cholera. The woman pleaded with the railwaymen to pack the coffin into the carriage and take it to the nearby town where he was to be buried. The agents guarding the transport warily told her to open the lid. They saw a half-decomposed bad smelling corpse inside so skipping further inspection they ordered the coffin to be loaded into the “gold carriage”. The train had only left London and a member of the gang, Edward Agar, left the coffin still wearing the “dead man” costume and opened the manhole in the ceiling from the inside. William Pierce was already there waiting on the roof of the train where he got in London. They loaded the gold bars into bags brought by William, and the strongbox was filled with scrap metal. The corpse returned to his coffin while Pierce, carrying the bags filled with gold, jumped off the train near a stagecoach waiting nearby. The grieving “sister” picked up the “body” and the boxes continued their journey. Only at the destination station did the guards realise that the closed strongbox contained scrap metal instead of gold bars. The robbers were already far away. They were only caught after several years and the court trial remained in the headlines for many weeks.

Railway crossings were often obstructed during train robberies

The first known train robbery in the history of the United States of America took place on 6 October 1866. Masked and armed with guns, the Reno brothers’ gang slipped into the train that stopped at a water pump. During the journey the criminals emptied the smaller strongbox, and threw the larger one out of the window and jumped off the train. However, the thieves could not open the strongbox so — aware that they were being chased — had to leave it intact. Later, members of the gang were able to make four more assaults. However, most of the outlaws were caught and tried, and some of them died in suspicious circumstances. The American Civil War in the 1860s contributed to an increase in the frequency of train robberies. From that time railways were used for military purposes on a mass scale. After the war many former soldiers deprived of financial security entered unlawful paths. At that time many “heroes” who went down into history appeared. One of them was Jesse James who during the war did military service in the guerrilla divisions of the South army called the “Quantrill’s Raiders”.

Jesse James (1847—1882)

Together with his brother Frank he set on a peculiar crusade against the victorious officials of the Union, first robbing banks and from 1873 also trains. During one of the assaults, robbers shot down two Pinkerton’s agents, which gave rise to a ruthless war between the agency and Jesse’s people. During another raid members of the gang loosened the tracks and hid in the bushes waiting for the train to arrive. The locomotive, the tender and luggage carriages got derailed and the train driver was killed on the spot. To mislead the witnesses the gang dressed up as members of the Ku Klux Klan, who used to manifest their beliefs in a similar way. The thieves stole three thousand dollars (which now would be about fifty thousand). The subsequent raids by Jesse James were a little subtler. Trains stopped at the sight of a burning barricade or they were directed to sidetracks where they were robbed. With time, the gangster allegedly gave up robbing passengers with fatigued hands since he believed they were working class exploited by capitalists. He would often only rob the strongbox and steal the mail. Therefore, newspapers presented him as the Wild West’s Robin Hood though no evidence exists that he ever gave the stolen goods to people in need. The gang prowled for nearly fifteen years. They robbed twelve banks, seven military trains and an unknown number of other trains, four mail coaches and made many smaller raids on federal offices.

The history of train robberies in the Wild West also records numerous assaults involving the infamous members of the Wild Bunch: Robert LeRoy Parker, known as Butch Cassidy, and Harry Alonso Longabaugh, that is, the Sundance Kid. The gangsters were famous for their bravado, in particular during the last robbery. On 2 June 1899, around 2:30 AM, the Union Pacific Overland Flyer train number 1 was stopped by two men holding warning lamps in their hands. The gangsters disconnected the first locomotive and told the train driver to continue driving. They used dynamite to blow up the doors of the mail carriage. Unsatisfied with the contents they went through the passenger carriages terrorising and robbing the passengers until they reached the luggage carriage. The worker present in the compartment was so stunned that he was not able to give them the combination of digits to open the strongbox. Because of the excessive amount of explosives the whole carriage exploded. The gang fled by horse carrying fifty thousand dollars (now it would be equivalent to about one million USD). They went down into history as outlaws who never hurt anybody physically. In fact, Butch and Sundance killed a dozen or so guards, sheriffs and Pinkerton agents. After their criminal tour in the USA, the villains left for South America where they were finally surrounded and shot down in Bolivia.

Members of the Wild Bunch, from the left: The Sundance Kid, News Carver, Tall Texan, Kid Curry, and Butch Cassidy; Texas, 1900

The 20th century saw a considerable development of railway transport, which was due, among other things, to the trains becoming faster. Railway companies increased safety measures to protect the passengers and consignments. Unfortunately, carriers were not able to prevent further robberies. The famous Great Train Robbery took place on 8 August 1963 near the town of Leighton Buzzard in England. At that time the record amount of 2.6 million pounds (now it would be fifty million pounds) was stolen. The Great Train Robbery was carried out by a group of 17 people consisting of security experts, former railway workers, professional drivers and experienced thieves. A 12-carriage mail train travelling from Glasgow to London was stolen. Normally, it carried up to three hundred thousand pounds but due to the holiday being celebrated in Scotland it carried several times more money on that day. The Royal Mail stock consisted of special purpose carriages, equipped with alarms and barred windows, used for transporting large amounts of cash, but on that day all of them were at a service workshop.

Great Train Robbery — policemen packing sacks with evidence

Around 3 PM the staff stopped the train at a red light faked by criminals using a six-volt battery and a glove. Both drivers were stunned with metal bats and the train was rolled to a place that was more convenient for unloading. At the one-kilometre-away Mentmore viaduct 2.5 tonnes of cash were transferred to a lorry that had been waiting there. When the money was counted and distributed members of the gang parted their ways. Later, eleven of them were caught and brought to court where they were sentenced to a total of 307 years in prison. Unfortunately, the police never managed to recover the stolen money. Bruce Reynolds, considered the leader of the gang fled to Mexico with his family. He was caught and sentenced to ten years in prison after he returned to the country in 1968. The story was made into a British mini-series “Great Train Robbery”.


Poles can also boast of famous train robberies although for a completely different reason. During the partitions the Combat Organisation of the Polish Socialist Party (Polish abbreviation: OBPPS) organised two raids on Russian mail trains in 1906 and in 1908. The first operation was the Rogów Raid under Józef Mątwiłł-Mirecki. During a meeting of OBPPS instructors in Łódź he spoke about the need to undertake an armed struggle against the tsar’s invaders. 48 volunteers split into seven groups took part in the operation on 8 November 1906 around 8 PM at the railway station in Rogów. The task of the first group was to secure entrance to the station. The second was to seize the waiting room, the third — to take control of the locomotive, the fourth — disable the guards travelling on one of the carriages, the fifth — seize the telegraph and get rid of the station police officer, while the sixth was supposed to secure the back of the train. The seventh group under Józef Mirecki was to take over the contents of the mail carriage. The operation went according to plan without losses on the Polish side. The amount taken was 30,155 roubles. Most of the raiders, normally working in the factories of Łódź, turned up at work the following morning.


Gaining independence was not a cheap task. The continuing relocations of members of secret organisations and purchasing weapons or giving bribes generated high costs. To prevent this, Józef Piłsudski (following the example of Mirecki) decided to take matters into his own hands and organise another large operation he wanted to be personally in charge of: “I sent so many people there, which led so many of them to the gallows. My death would be a natural moral satisfaction to those silent heroes and a testimony that the chief did not treat their work with contempt”. The Bezdany raid carried out on 28 September 1908 is believed to have been one of the most impressive and — without any doubt — daring expropriation operations by OBPPS.

At that time a Russian mail train carrying money from Congress Poland to St Petersburg was robbed. Twenty people, including four women, took part in the operation. Some of the participants travelled on the train and the rest waited at the station. When the train arrived in the station two bombs were thrown on the mail carriage. Shots and explosions could be heard and the attackers surrounded the train. The station staff was incapacitated and one of the attackers holding a Browning gun watched the terrified crowd of travellers. Józef Piłsudski, Aleksander Prystor and Tomasz Arciszewski broke into the mail carriage but escorts were hiding behind the armoured door. Piłsudski had no more bombs but he approached the door and threatened the soldiers that after he had counted to ten he would throw a bomb inside. The bluff was successful. The escorts opened the compartment and came out with their hands up. After the robbery, the participants put the money into sacks and parted ways. The stolen 200,812 roubles and 61 kopecks were given to the needs of military organisations being formed in Galicia, to support the soldiers and their families and to repay debts. At that time it was a real fortune, equivalent to one hundred thousand dollars today. Unfortunately, despite the operation being successful, the tsar’s authorities quite quickly found the brave campaigners, who were sentenced either to death or to hard labour. Four of them: Józef Piłsudski, Walery Sławek, Aleksander Prystor and Tomasz Arciszewski in the future became prime ministers of the revived Poland. For this reason this event is often referred to as the “the operation of four prime ministers”. 

Walery Sławek and Józef Piłsudski (first two from the right) were the main organisers of the Bezdany raid
Aleksander Prystor (on the right of Piłsudski) — participant and organiser of the Bezdany raid

During World War II train raids were also very frequent. One of them, organised by Jan Szalewski, nicknamed “Sobol”, of the Secret Military Organisation “Gryf Pomorski”, took place on the night of 8/9 June 1942 on the route between Zblewo and Kaliska stations. The Amerika train travelling from Kętrzyn to Berlin was supposed to pick up Adolf Hitler from the station in Malbork after an alleged meeting with Gauleiter Forster. The train was derailed. There was a shootout with SS officers. The train was destroyed, but the Poles were forced to withdraw. Afterwards, it turned out that Hitler had not been on the train. It is still unclear whether the information provided by the intelligence service was true because no documents confirming the presence of the leader of the Reich in Malbork at that time have been preserved. The most important railway sabotage of the Polish underground was Operation Wieniec (Garland). The plan was to eliminate or take over the maximum possible number of railway transports of the Warsaw Railway Junction. The whole operation was planned to take place in the second half of 1942. It was supervised by the top chiefs of the Home Army under General “Grot” Rowecki. The people in charge of the sabotage were the chief of the Warsaw district, Antoni Chruściel, nicknamed “Monter” and the head of the Union of Retaliation, lieutenant colonel Franciszek Niepokólczycki, nicknamed “Teodor”. Seven minesweeper patrols were appointed and were trained in track detonation using a new plastic explosive imported from England. When the Soviet raids intensified at the end of the summer, the commanders in chief came up with the idea to carry out the operation during one of the raids. The aim was to create an impression that the tracks had been blown up and the German trains were destroyed by Soviet sabotage jumpers. The assumption was to clear the Polish underground of suspicion and protect civilians from inevitable repressions. In spite of fast mobilisation and announcing of a combat alert, the guerrillas were late. The raids ceased. Thus, the command appointed the time for the operation on the night of 7/8 October.

A train derailed by the Union of Retaliation forming part of the Union of Armed Struggle — 1943

Around midnight, all groups were at their posts. The operation was to last until 2 AM. The time was to be spent destroying as many German transports as possible or damaging all the available tracks. As a result, eight trains were derailed, one railway bridge was destroyed, another one was damaged and considerable lengths of tracks were destroyed, which stopped the railway traffic for many hours. Overall, 61 trains and 16 steam engines were derailed, 196 trains were burnt and more than 10 thousand carriages were destroyed during the operations of the Polish underground in the territory of the General Government and territories incorporated into the Reich from July 1942 to December 1943. This data gives us a picture of the scale of Polish raids on German trains.

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© Całość praw autorskich - Antoni Bochen, Filip Wiśniewski