Specialist squad celebrates a century apprehending 'the most audacious' thieves

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) is celebrating the 100th anniversary of one of its most distinguished units, the Flying Squad. 

Sep 7, 2018
By Joe Shine

Established in September 1918, the team has since led many high-profile investigations including the Great Train Robbery in 1963, the 1983 Brinks-Mat security depot raid and the Bank of America safety deposit robbery in 1975.  

The Flying Squad’s name is known around the world for excellence in policing and its unrivalled reputation for catching some of the most notorious criminals in the UK.  

According to the MPS, the first reference to the squad came from a Daily Mail article in September 1920, which called them “a flying squad of picked detectives”.  

One of the squad’s members was also the victim of the first-ever machine-gun attack on an officer in the UK.  

Known as the ‘Experimental Mobile Patrol’, its first incarnation was made up of detectives selected for their ability to apprehend “the most audacious” thieves.  

Frederick Wensley, the Flying Squad’s first detective chief inspector, was a distinguished officer who had been commended for his bravery during the ‘Siege of Sidney Street’, in which he rescued a colleague from a rooftop while under fire.  

He had been ordered to use his team to combat the increase in robberies, smash-and-grabs, burglaries and racketeering across London. 

Issued with two horse-drawn covered wagons rented from the Great Western Railway, the Experimental Mobile Patrol went around the streets of the capital with detectives hidden inside, ready to jump out and apprehend offenders.  

The unit was so successful that it was made permanent just a year later.  

In July 1920, the Flying Squad became the first to be provided with motor vehicles – two Crossley tenders that were formerly used by the Royal Flying Corps during World War One, with a top speed of 40mph. 

Seven years later, the squad was issued with six Lea Francis saloon convertibles, each with a top speed of 75mph.  

In the 1960s, the unit was tasked to focus on the increase in armed robberies across London and the Home Counties.   

As soon as the Flying Squad’s name was adopted into public use, it soon evolved to “Sweeny Todd” as a result of Cockney Rhyming slang, and further abbreviated to The Sweeney – the title of a famous 1970s TV show that cast officers in a new light, as the main characters using unorthodox techniques to catch offenders.

To this day, the Flying Squad remains the only dedicated mainland detective unit in the UK that investigates armed robberies from start to finish, with officers trained in firearms and covert surveillance roles.  

Head of the MPS’s Organised Crime Command Detective Chief Superintendent Mick Gallagher said: “The squad has a reputation for operational excellence, and its officers are highly skilled detectives trained in surveillance, the use of firearms, and a range of other tactics which have enabled them to arrest and bring to justice highly audacious criminals.  

“It would be wrong to think we no longer respond to armed robberies and smash and grabs, but serious organised crime is continually changing and the Flying Squad continues to adapt and develop to remain at the cutting edge of law enforcement and maintain levels of operational excellence Scotland Yard is known for.  

“The Flying Squad has always worked closely with external partners and worked in collaboration with specialist units across the Met. Given the squad’s experience of organised crime, understanding of operational activity across the Met, and specialist training of its officers, it will now hold responsibility for responding to and investigating kidnaps across the capital as well as working to bring to justice some of the capital’s most violent offenders.  

“The Flying Squad rightly remains at the forefront of the Met’s respond to serious organised criminality and I look forward to seeing this highly-skilled unit continue to help keep the streets of London safe.  

Barry Phillips, head of the Flying Squad Officers’ Association, added: “For 100 years the detectives of the Flying Squad, so ably assisted by the expert squad drivers, forensics and photographic colleagues, together with police staff, have proudly done their duty as part of an exceptional group of men and women. 

“Dedication only just starts to describe the effort, loyalty and pride which its members put into their duties in protecting the public and for as long as there is a Flying Squad there will be such men and women who can be called upon to do the job. The Metropolitan Police is about the pursuit of excellence and nowhere is excellence better demonstrated than in the Flying Squad.”

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