The great escape artist

How they captured Ronnie Biggs – and then had to let him go again – is told in a Channel 4 documentary, Kidnap Ronnie Biggs. Grace Hammond reports

On August 8, 1963, fifteen men wearing ski masks and helmets swarmed onto a mail train and grabbed 120 bags full of money – a record haul. The scale and style of the heist captivated Britain and a huge police operation was launched. They found the gang's abandoned hideout in nearby Leatherslade Farm – with fingerprints still intact.

Members of the gang were sentenced to a total of 300 years. Reynolds, eventually found after five years on the run, was given 10 years for masterminding the crime. But it was Ronnie Biggs who became its most famous member, and Britain's most notorious fugitive.

In 1963 Biggs had received a 30-year sentence for his part in the Great Train Robbery, but he escaped from prison a couple of years later. He went on the run, using his train robbery money to put as much distance between himself and Scotland Yard as he possibly could. An international mystery was born as for the next decade Biggs's whereabouts would fascinate the world.

In 1970, Ronnie Biggs fled to Rio having escaped the clutches of the Australian Police where he had lived for four years with his wife Charmian and their two sons. Scotland Yard tracked him to Brazil and arrested him. However, in another remarkable twist of fate, Biggs struck gold once more. Scotland Yard had acted without authority and Biggs had also just fathered a Brazilian child. In a huge embarrassment to Scotland Yard and the Home Office, the Brazilians refused the extradition request.

With Biggs's identity and whereabouts now revealed, he assumed he was safe from extradition and that he could settle down to life in Rio bringing up his young son Michael. But there were people back in Britain determined to return him to justice.

In 1980, a sophisticated and expensive plan was being formed to kidnap Biggs from Rio and to take him to a country that had an extradition treaty in place, from where Biggs could be handed over to the British authorities. This plot would involve a team of ex-British military personnel and two individuals active in international security contracts. The kidnap plot was named Operation Anaconda. With former British military personnel, ex-army and international security expert Patrick King snatched Biggs from Rio de Janeiro and transported him to Barbados, which had an extradition treaty with Britain.

A new documentary tells for the first time the remarkable story of "Operation Anaconda" – with exclusive access to King and other ex-British military personnel – who all had a hand in the now legendary snatch. It reveals how the capture of Biggs from his hide-out in Rio was formulated and executed.

Biggs assumed he was untouchable. He was wrong. The British establishment wanted him back, but so too did other people – with other motives. Biggs meant headlines. Biggs meant money.

In October 1980, Patrick King was approached by a man calling himself Ray Jarrett with regards to bringing Biggs back from Rio to the UK and King listened. The operation intrigued him. He knew there was money on offer and Jarett enticed him with the lure of more lucrative international security work in the future, if he managed to pull off this kidnap.

King also knew that Jarrett had approached him because of his old friendship with John Miller – another player in the security world who, 18 months previously, had tried and failed to kidnap Biggs. Miller was known as a man obsessed with getting Biggs and both Jarrett and King knew that he would be willing to try again. The "project", costing Jarrett 38,000, was to be called "Operation Anaconda".

Miller explains: "We were going to put him in a marquee valise, which is a large canvas bag that you put marquees in, with a sign on it that said 'anaconda snake, handle with care', walk him through a departure lounge, put him into a private jet that we'd chartered, take him to the north of Brazil, put him in a yacht and sail him to Barbados. It was as simple as that."

Or was it? The operation to kidnap Biggs was up and running by March 1. The kidnappers arrived in the West Indies, where King had hired a luxury yacht from a Texan millionaire. King told the skipper of the yacht that they were a documentary team, going to film oil rigs off the coast of Brazil. King and one of his team flew on ahead to Rio, leaving John Miller in charge.

But the operation was to prove far from plain sailing. King successfully befriended Biggs and tried to lure him to a place for the gang to snatch him, only to be foiled when a drunken Biggs failed to show.

The second snatch went to plan, and with Biggs in the bag, the team smuggled him onto the jet bound for Belem and their waiting yacht.

But before they arrived in Barbados, the press got hold of the story and the kidnap became a major international incident. Biggs was handed over to the British authorities, who simply had to extradite Biggs from Barbados. Little did they realise just how lucky he was going to be for a fourth time.

He finally gave himself up in 2001, having been a fugitive for 36 years.

Kidnap Ronnie Biggs, Channel 4, Thursday February 9, 9pm.