601 Squadron fighter command loading ammunition onto the American Airacobra fighter plane October 1941 (Picture: Alamy).
601 Squadron fighter command loading ammunition onto the American Airacobra fighter plane October 1941 (Picture: Alamy).
RAF

History of the Millionaire's Mob – the original 601 Squadron

601 Squadron fighter command loading ammunition onto the American Airacobra fighter plane October 1941 (Picture: Alamy).
601 Squadron fighter command loading ammunition onto the American Airacobra fighter plane October 1941 (Picture: Alamy).

They were the richest, most educated and well-connected men that Britain had to offer –  and they made up 601 Squadron, which was formed on 14 October 1925.

The squadron opened at Northolt with Lord Grosvenor commanding, two regular officers and 21 airmen, selected personally by him.

They were the elite. The crème de la crème of London society. The 601 quickly became known as 'the millionaire's squadron' or as the regular RAF called them 'the millionaire's mob'.

The idea had come to Lord Edward Arthur Grosvenor known as 'Ned' to his friends at Whites Club in St James's – one of the most exclusive Gentlemen's clubs in the world.

The club's past members illustrate its reputation. Edward VII, Evelyn Waugh and, a few years earlier, Beau Brummell, all drank within its walls.

Its location was at one time notorious for extravagance and gambling. Two members in the early 19th Century bet £3,000 on which of two raindrops would reach the bottom of a window first. This was an incongruous sum considering that the average yearly wage at the time was around £260.

As flying enthusiasts with fat wallets, they could customise their own engines. Their aircraft were superior to the rest of the RAF, and so was their style.

Their uniforms and helmets were lined with silk, and they also switched out black ties for blue. They solidified their reputation for subverting military discipline in their dress by wearing bright red socks.

Their flashy fashion choices were not the only thing that made them stand out. They liked to flash the cash.

601 Squadron next to a hurricane.
601 Squadron next to a hurricane (Picture: Alamy).

The 601 Squadron was an auxiliary squadron meaning that it was made up of volunteers.

Legend has it that the first group of volunteers that formed the squadron were personally selected by Lord Grosvenor himself. They were plied with large amounts of port at Whites to see if they still acted as gentlemen when drunk.

The squadron emanated the boisterous party spirit of the inter-war years in the roaring 20s. More importantly, the squadron encompassed the spirit of the man who created it – 'The Spirit of Grosvenor', as it was called, which was 'Be a good pilot and a good comrade, but don't take anything other than flying too seriously.'

The 601 took that motto to heart. Despite their reputation for enjoying the finer things in life, they were superb pilots. Their battle honours include Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Malta, El Alamein, Sicily, Italy and Anzio.

The squadron claimed 100 victories in the Battle of Britain and suffered major losses. They flew Hurricanes and Spitfires, they claimed 220 victories in total with 89 possible.

By the end of the war, the squadron had been transformed. Airmen from across the commonwealth had joined. It became cosmopolitan and diverse. By the time it was disbanded in 1957 not a single of its members was a millionaire.

Lord Grosvenor did not live to see his squadron reach its full potential. He died in 1929 at the age of 36.

The aristocrat spent a large portion of his life in the clouds. His adventurous spirit led him to join the French Foreign Legion after completing his education. After leaving the legion he joined the Royal Horse Guards.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Grosvenor transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. For his wartime bravery, the lord was awarded the Military Cross and Italy's Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.

The millionaire's squadron did not have an official motto, but they had a very distinct flying sword insignia. Designed by Lord Grosvenor on the back of an envelope, the insignia represents the sword of London piercing a pilot’s wing.

One of the many famous members to wear the insignia was Officer William Meade Lindsley ‘Billy’ Fiske. One of many Americans who fought with the RAF in the early period of the Second World War. Famous for being a double award-winning Olympic gold medallist in the bobsleigh (1928 and 1932), while working in England he developed a love for the country. His status in high society was solidified when he married Rose Bingham the Countess of Warwick.

His logbook, which is held at the RAF museum in Hendon, sheds light on the intensity of the action and frequency of victories that the 601 saw in the Second World War.

His last entry in his logbook gives an idea of the thick of action those who served with 601 during the war were in. The entry from 15 August 1940 describes an attack on 40 plus ME110s. Fiske died of severe burns two days later after his aircraft caught fire following combat.

Officer William Meade Lindsley (Billy) Fiske, member of 601 Squadron. (Picture: RAF Museum)
Pilot Officer William Meade Lindsley (Billy) Fiske, a member of 601 Squadron (Picture: RAF Museum).

Today it may be impossible to imagine her Majesty's troops without the Royal Air Force, but at the end of the First World War what was next for the RAF was far from certain.

On Armistice Day in 1918, the RAF was the largest air force in the world but even that did not guarantee its future.

According to Gary Haines, an archivist at the RAF museum in London: "The role of the RAF after the First World War was very precarious.

"It was basically, 'well the war is finished, we don't need a Royal Air Force anymore. The Army and the Navy can sort it out.'"

Many in the military at the time believed that, after the war, the status quo would resume with the Royal Navy and Army carrying on as they had been doing for centuries, seeing the new addition to the forces as a temporary necessity.

It was because of men like Lord Grosvenor and Viscount Trenchard, Marshal of the Royal Air Force who argued that argued for a home defence air force composed of voluntary and regular squadrons that the RAF stands strong to this day.

For an idea that not many in the beginning believed in, the Royal Air Force have the means to splash the cash but the members of 601 did. Auxiliary squadrons were cheaper to maintain in general, but it also was immensely helpful they already had their own planes like many in the 601 did.  

According to Mr Haines despite the term 'millionaire's squadron' having derogatory undertones, the fact that the squadron members had the means to have acquired flying experience prior, their contribution to the Battle of Britain was crucial.

Logbook of pilot Officer William Meade Lindsley (Billy) Fiske, member of 601 Squadron. (Picture: RAF Museum)’ 
Logbook of pilot Officer William Meade Lindsley (Billy) Fiske, a member of 601 Squadron (Picture: RAF Museum).

The squadron was disbanded in 1945 but reformed again in 1946 again at Hendon under Squadron Leader the Hon Max Aitkin, a distinguished pilot of the war with 16 victories. The 601 was finally disbanded in 1957 and reformed again on 20 April 2017 – it is a hybrid reserve unit.

The aim of the current 601 Squadron is to establish more formal links with the wider professional business community and the Royal Air Force. Its three core principles are to offer advice, access, and advocacy.

Many of today's members of the 601 are leaders in their respective industries whether in technology or business who will help to tackle the threats of the 21st Century, as the squadron did with the challenges of the axis forces in the Second World War.

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