Jumping aboard a plane to Gibraltar the night the Great Train Robbery took place led to David Johnston briefly being suspected of being part of one of crime’s most famous gangs, as NIGEL POWLSON discovered.
THE recent death of Ronnie Biggs brought back vivid memories for a Draycott-in-the-Clay man of how he was briefly mistaken for a Great Train Robber back in 1963.
The notorious robbery of a Royal Mail train in August 1963 has gone down in history as one of the most audacious crimes in British history.
But David Johnston, now 75, was just a young man heading for Spain and was unaware that the gang had stolen millions when he boarded the overnight flight for Gibraltar from Heathrow in the aftermath of the robbery.
“I had no idea what was going on as it happened that same night,” he says.
David was travelling from Sheffield to Heathrow and then on to Gibraltar.
He says: “In those days you had to travel from London, there were no local flights.
“The cheapest flight then was the Midweek Night Tourist, which left in the early hours.
“Back then it was the only way you could afford to go. It was a very long flight in a plane where the noise was unbelievable – four-and-a-half hours in a propeller plane; it was a long time ago in terms of the world of aviation.
“By the time I got off the plane, the robbery had got on the Interpol network and they were on the lookout.
“I got off at this small airport and they were presumably looking for single travellers, perhaps like me with just a hat and grip. There was no obvious aggression or unpleasantness, but I was stopped and was asked to go to this office and they kept me there until various people had a chance to speak to me.
“Later, when I was aware of what had happened, I learned I was very similar in description to two of the gang – slight young men like me – at the time known as The Weasel and Foxy Fowler.
“So they kept me in the office, and because I was fluent in Spanish I understood quite a lot that was going on, which threw them off a bit. I also remember not knowing whether it was in my best interest to let them know how much I understood!”
David said it was a ‘very confusing experience’, especially as there was no mention of why he had been singled out for questioning.
“They must have examined my luggage, but I travelled very light. I was in there for several hours before they let me go down the walkway into mainland Spain. I remember being quite relieved I had been let out.
“Its’ a long time ago but I assume it must have gelled with me the next day when it was all over the news.”
What has surprised David is how the robbery has stayed so prominently in the headlines in the years since.
He says: “It’s never gone away, and what rubs with me is how everything is glamourised. I thought that when the film (Buster) came out with Phil Collins. After all, they hit the train driver over the head quite viciously with an iron bar. He died not long afterwards.
“Then after living in South America, we had Ronnie Biggs coming back to take his last years out of the National Health Service. I think this country has been so over-generous to them.”
It’s been the saga of Ronnie Biggs evading justice over the decades that has kept David’s experience fresh in his mind.
He says: “It was always there, what was happening to him in South America, getting more ill as the years have gone by. It has been a permanent reminder of that adventure.”