A moped gang armed with knives and an ax are intercepted by four officers from the Flying Squad in Piccadilly on Aug. 3, 2016
Sitting in the back of a horse-drawn, canvas-covered wagon, a detective looked through spy holes cut into the fabric to conduct surveillance on petty thieves in the act. He was one of 12 detectives hand selected by Metropolitan Police Detective Chief Inspector Frederick Wensley in October 1918 to form an elite anti-robbery and violent crime unit known as the “Flying Squad.” The experimental “mobile force” had no limitations in their jurisdiction and could operate anywhere throughout London.
The Flying Squad’s proactive policing style had their detectives deployed undercover to pubs, clubs, and criminal hangouts to establish contacts in the criminal underworld and identify splinter networks that planned future heists. When it was time to make an arrest, the detectives carried out coordinated armed raids, or “pavement ambushes,” that remain in use to this day in crackdowns against criminals.
For more than 100 years, the Flying Squad’s methodology in organized takedowns hasn’t changed much, and the timeless tactics have been used to thwart armed robbery plots during some of the most high-profile cases of the 20th century. When the Flying Squad learned of a gang’s scheme to drug the guards and steal £250,000 worth of bullion (gold bars) from a warehouse at Heathrow Airport in July 1948, the officers were put on the case.
The Flying Squad officers intercepted and replaced the guards with officers in disguise. They pretended to act like they were the drugged victims, but it was all a ruse as they watched the criminal gang slip into the warehouse. The gang, now caught red-handed, had no excuse as the Flying Squad slapped the cuffs on their wrists. Remarkably, another crew tried a similar heist at the same location some 56 years later and were busted by the Flying Squad as they tried to steal £40 million worth of gold bullion.
Another buzz-worthy news story that grabbed headlines across the pond detailed a train carrying £2.6 million in cash (estimated as over $40 million today) that had just been robbed as police hunted for 19 assailants. The 1963 Great Train Robbery was described by the New York Times as a “British Western.” The Flying Squad arrived with “carloads of detectives combing streets and houses” until they received a tip from a farmer who saw an unusual flurry of activity on his land.
The Flying Squad discovered that the criminals had stashed their getaway vehicles there and fled. Their team collected and examined fingerprint evidence from a Monopoly game and ketchup bottle found at the scene. The due diligence of Tommy Butler, sometimes referred to as “One Day” for his ability to capture criminals in a day or less, and Jack Slipper led to the bust of 17 of the thieves two weeks later.
During the 1970s, their name went mainstream thanks to the hit cop drama “The Sweeney,” which helped recruit a generation of aspiring police officers and contributed to the spread of their nickname folklore. “The Sweeney” is in reference to the cockney rhyming slang “Sweeney Todd” (Flying Squad). They were also called the “Heavy Mob” because they always arrived heavily armed to an arrest (street cops in London do not carry firearms).
The most sensational headline-grabbing heist came during Operation Magician. On Nov. 7, 2000, a group of six burglars attempted to use a bulldozer to break through the walls of the Millennium Dome exhibition center in Greenwich. Once inside, they expected to use smoke bombs to create confusion from security officers. They also carried sledge hammers and nail guns to smash through the reinforced bulletproof glass that protected a £200 million 203-carat Millennium Star diamond and a collection of blue diamonds. The total score of £500 million in diamonds would make the smash-and-grab quest the largest in Britain’s history — if they could get away and flee using an inflatable speed boat down the River Thames.
What the burglars didn’t anticipate was the Flying Squad surprising them in the act after they had tracked the gang’s movements under surveillance for months. To protect the priceless diamonds from falling into the wrong hands, they were switched out for crystal replicas on the eve of the heist. Over 100 officers were present during the sting operation, dressed as cleaners working the night shift. They stashed their weapons in the bins of their cleaning supplies and waited for the crooks to show up.
“It was quite exciting, you could hear the chug chug of the bulldozer as it passed the parking lot on its way to breach into the Dome and see smoke rising from it,” said Paul Johnson, who was present during the seizure.
Four thieves were arrested as they attempted to drill the glass of the display case, and two others were caught waiting in the boat on the river. The Flying Squad remains an active component of the New Scotland Yard and stands ready to foil any attempted robberies, no matter how sophisticated or menial.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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