An office duty police officer tailed four men who stole thousands of pounds of alcohol from a supermarket in a smash and grab raid.

At around 5am on September 30 four men wearing hoods with scarves covering their mouths used a sledge hammer to smash their way into Theydon Bois Tesco.

They pulled the tobacco kiosk from the wall in a frantic effort to grab bottles of spirits, before heading to a getaway Ford Kuga parked nearby.

Unfortunately for the masked gang an off-duty police officer was driving by.

The offenders ducked down and covered their faces when they saw him watching, which led the police officer to call his colleagues and tail the car until they were intercepted and arrested.

John Crawford, prosecuting at Chelmsford Crown Court, said: "Initially they used a small hammer and then a sledge hammer.

"They then returned to the vehicle and drove off.

"The off-duty officer had called police and he followed the car for some distance, relaying the information to police units en route.

"The vehicle was stopped and all four defendants arrested."

Connor Emeny, 27, of Lynton Avenue, Romford; Aaron House, 29, of no fixed address but from the Romford area; Ryan Keeling, 20, of Prospect Place, Romford; and Ben Hawkins, 28, of Plumpton Avenue, Hornchurch pleaded guilty to burglary.

Damage caused to equipment and stock was valued at £3,170.

Hawkins' sentencing was adjourned until the new year so he could obtain legal representation.

He was the driver of the vehicle and also admits a charge of driving without insurance.

Judge Patricia Lynch QC imposed 15 month prison sentences, suspended for two years, on Emeny, House and Keeling, and ordered that they must each carry out 150 hours' unpaid work, a 30 day rehabilitation activity requirement and attend 19 sessions on a Thinking Skills programme.

She ordered the three to also pay £200 each towards compensation.

Judge Lynth said: "Tesco in Theydon Bois has obviously been targeted.

"You jumped on the bandwagon and anyone who takes a sledgehammer to someone else's property cannot suggest we are not dealing with the most serious of offences."

But she said she was suspending the sentences because of the ages of the defendants.