THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN

They had been a bunch of aristocratic, rule-breaking aviation hobbyists swept along on their wealth, privilege and free time. But when the second world war broke out, they took their private planes into combat and risked their lives for the Allied effort. NICK SCOTT takes us inside the unforgettable story of the Millionaires’ Squadron.

Pilots of 601 Squadron, the County of London squadron, at RAF Northolt in west London in January 1941 (Photo via Getty)

On paper, the squadron formally established at R.A.F. Northolt in 1925 should have been anything but an elite battle unit — and could easily have remained anything but had two global alliances not gone to war as the middle of the 20th century approached. Its men were recruited not in some pristinely tidy but fusty-smelling room with strategic maps and charts lining its walls, but in a particularly hedonistic corner of White’s — the Mayfair club whose former members include Edward VII, Lord Rothschild, Evelyn Waugh and Beau Brummell — by an old Etonian aviator and raconteur, Lord Edward Arthur Grosvenor (son of the 1st Duke of Westminster).

Grosvenor was a man partial to knocking back a couple of glasses of Sicilian fortified wine before breakfast, who’d done a stint in the French Foreign Legion, and who carried a silver-topped cane when on the ground and a loaded sawn-off bespoke J. Purdey & Sons shotgun in the cabins of his two Blériot monoplanes. He “chose his officers from among gentlemen of sufficient presence not to be overawed by him and sufficient means not to be excluded from his favourite pastimes — eating, drinking, and White’s,” according to Tom Moulson, a former 601 pilot and author of The Millionaires’ Squadron: The Remarkable Story of 601 Squadron and the Flying Sword.

Published

December 2020

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