In A Nutshell
Croydon Airport was London’s main airport between the two World Wars and served as an important airfield during the Battle of Britain. On March 6, 1935, three men walked into the main airport building unopposed and made off with £12 million (about $20 million) in today’s money. Only one of them was imprisoned.
The Whole Bushel
Croydon Airport was London’s main airport for 20 years and was the first in the world to introduce air traffic control. Originally two separate aerodromes during the First World War, they were combined in 1920 to form the larger hub. It was the operating base for Imperial Airways which flew flights to the British Empire, places such as India and South Africa. During the Battle of Britain, it served as a front-line airfield, with squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes being stationed there. Later on in the war, it became the London base for RAF transport command. Despite being handed back to civilian control in 1946, its days were numbered. Heathrow was designated London’s major airport that same year, since Croydon was too small for modern planes with no room for expansion. The last scheduled plane took off on September 30, 1959.
Twenty-four years earlier, a robbery took place at the airport, the haul not being beaten in Britain until the Great Train Robbery in 1963. Three men took a taxi to the airport, asking the driver to wait for them. The only security on duty, Francis Johnson, had gone out to meet a recently arrived German cargo plane. Security was rather different in those days: With no one else in the terminal, the three men simply walked in completely unopposed. They made their way to the secure bullion room and made off with £12 million (about $20 million) in today’s money, in gold bars and sovereigns.
The police had a few leads: A witness had taken down the number plate of the taxi. On top of that, the landlady of one of the gang members (a man called “Swanland”) reported seeing men unloading boxes out of a taxi in the early hours of the morning.
When the police searched Swanland’s house, they found a number of items incriminating him, including an Imperial Airways timetable, seals for the gold in his bin, and an iron band in the fireplace which bore a striking resemblance to those used for holding gold bars together. He was sent to prison and served seven years for his crime.
The rest of the gang was never sent to prison, with two being acquitted after the taxi driver changed his testimony. Due to this, the case quickly fell apart. Some aspects of the robbery remain a mystery even today, such as the identity of some of the gang and the whereabouts of the gold.