28 July 1948: The Battle of London Airport

A violent gang of thieves intent on robbing London Airport had the tables turned on them on this day in 1948, when the police got wind of their plans.

On the night of 28 July 1948, a gang of nine thieves prepared to pull off one of the most audacious heists in British history. But little did they know, things wouldn't work out quite as they planned.

In a bonded warehouse belonging to the British Overseas Airways Corporation at London Airport, since renamed Heathrow, sat goods worth £224,580, with £13,900 locked away in the safe. A further £100,000 of goods was stashed nearby in the British South American Corporation building, £1,000 of which was in gold bullion. It was a staggering amount of money – the equivalent of over £10m today.

The plan was as simple as it was reminiscent of a B-movie crime thriller. One of the guards on duty that night had been persuaded to drug the tea, and send his colleagues off to sleep. What the gang didn't know, however, was that their inside man had had a change of heart, and informed the police.

Later that night, in the wee hours, the getaway van pulled up outside the office of the bonded warehouse. The thieves hopped out, led by Alfred Roome, brandishing an iron bar. Samuel Ross turned to his accomplice, John Wallis, and said, "Let's settle these geezers", before going into the office and finding three men in airport uniforms, who were pretending to be unconscious.

Ross and Wallis tied up and frisked the men for the chain of keys. Finding what they were looking for, Wallis handed the keys to Roome, who had no sooner than put the key in the lock of the safe, when a cry arose from out of the shadows.

"We are police of the flying squad", yelled Inspector Roberts. "Stand where you are!" The crooks made a dash for the door, but found themselves surrounded. "Kill the swines!" yelled one of the criminals (the actual expletive was too rich for The Times). A desperate struggle ensued with the flailing of various "murderous weapons" and police truncheons.

Amazingly, nobody was killed during the "Battle of London Airport". But before the gang could be subdued and arrested, seven of the villains had been injured, and nine of the policemen.

In September, the criminals were sentenced to hard labour, ranging from five years. Passing sentence, the judge, with typical 1940s bravado, taunted the men: "A raid on this scale profoundly shocks society. You went prepared for violence and you got it. You got the worst of it, and you can hardly complain about that."

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