The ‘Millionaires Squadron’ of Hendon Airfield
Last week, to celebrate the arrival of London’s two new Gate Guardians, we told you the story of Ray Holmes and his Hawker Hurricane which saved the day and Buckingham Palace on 15 September 1940.
Our second Gate Guardian is a Supermarine Spitfire MK XVI liveried in colours of 601 Squadron. The Squadron that was based at our London site when it was Hendon airfield. The Squadron was stationed here from 1927 to 1939 and from 1946 to 1949.
601 Squadron was initially called the ‘Millionaires Squadron’ as it was formed on 14 October 1925 from a group of aristocratic and very ‘well-heeled’ young men. Most of them could afford to have their own aircraft and had previously been amateur pilots.
The idea to create a new Reserve (Auxiliary) Squadron of the RAF came to its first Commanding Officer Lord Edward Arthur ‘Ned’ Grosvenor at White’s Gentlemen Club. The legend is that Lord Grosvenor would test his potential recruits by plying them with alcohol to see if they would demonstrate some inappropriate behaviour while under the influence. Not unsurprisingly, many of them passed with flying colours.
However, the young millionaires didn’t pay much attention to the strict military discipline anyway. It was their tradition to line their uniform and helmet with silk, wear blue ties instead of black ones and to use bright red socks. To reflect this, when fully opened, the table cloths in our new restaurant Claude’s will be decorated with red socks and a history of 601 Squadron.
Soon after its foundation, from 1927 and until the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, 601 Squadron was based on Hendon airfield. The first aircraft squadron members flew was the Avro 504, a two-seat training aircraft renowned for its stability and reliability. You can see one in our the First World War in the Air exhibition in London, In Hangar 2.
Young pilots considered the aircraft as ‘generally idiot-proof’ and to be so safe that ‘it could only barely kill you’. One of the regular competitions amongst these daring young men was the challenge for a pilot to take off in the rear cockpit, and retrieve a handkerchief from the front cockpit, before landing with it in their pocket – all in the fastest possible time.
As many of the squadron members were very wealthy men, they could afford to make some alterations to their aircraft. For example, Sir Dermot Boyle, who was then just a Flight Lieutenant, altered his Avro 504 to use a Lynx-Avro engine. One of the best pilots in the RAF, he often put on a show for his Squadron, letting the tail of the Lynx-Avro rise off the ground until the propeller was cutting the grass during take-off.
With the outbreak of the war, 601 Squadron became a day fighter unit in 1940 and flew both the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. At that time the Squadron was as cosmopolitan as all other squadrons, as new members were recruited from all the parts of the Commonwealth to cover casualties and promotions.
One of the more famous squadron members was Sir John William Maxwell ‘Max’ Aitken, a Second Baronet, who flew with 601 Squadron from 1936 – 1940. Initially a Pilot Officer, he rose to Commanding Officer in June 1940, before leaving the Squadron. A British Flying Ace with 16 victories, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1940 and Distinguished Service order in 1942 and later oversaw RAF operations in the Middle East and RAF Coastal Command, rising to the eventual rank of Group Captain.
After the Second World War 601 Squadron returned to RAF Hendon again for a short period from 1946 – 1949.
In 1946, it was reformed as a Fighter Squadron within the Auxiliary Air Force, and was initially equipped with the Spitfire, followed by the jet-powered De Havilland Vampire F3. One of the De Havilland Vampires of 601 Squadron is exhibited at our Historic Hangars (Hangar 3) at our London site. This aircraft served at North Weald RAF base, where 601 Squadron was moved to in 1949, after leaving RAF Hendon. You can still see the evidence of its service, with the iconic ‘Flying Sword’ insignia still featured on the nose of the aircraft. The symbol of 601 Squadron was designed by Lord Grosvenor and represented the scarlet ‘Sword of London piercing a pilot’s wings’.
In 1957, due to the defence budget cuts, 601 Squadron, alongside all other Auxiliary Air Force Squadrons, was officially disbanded. The last aircraft flown by the Squadron was a Gloster Meteor F8, the first British jet fighter and the only jet fighter used during the Second World War. One of these fascinating aircraft is also displayed in Historic Hangars (Hangar 3) at our London site.
601 Squadron flew several types of Spitfire aircraft, including Supermarine Spitfire LF XVIE. One such aircraft is also in our collection in Historic Hangars as part of the Spitfire Experience. For a small charge any visitor can climb inside its cockpit and get a feel for what was it like to pilot this magnificent aircraft.
Another type is the Supermarine Spitfire MK XVI, the same as our Gate Guardian which welcomes all our visitors to our London site and commemorates the famous residents of RAF Hendon airfield – the ‘Millionaires Squadron’.
If you would like to learn more about 601 Squadron we would recommend reading ‘The Millionaires’ Squadron : The Remarkable Story of 601 Squadron and the Flying Sword’ by Tom Moulson, available from Pen and Sword Books.