601 Squadron was given the nickname ‘Millionaires Squadron’ because of the men who joined it – originally many were from wealthy backgrounds and led a lifestyle accordingly. Many in 601/Millionaires Squadron were privately educated and had flying experience even before the dark shadows of war gathered over Europe. The driving force behind 601 Squadron was William Rhodes-Moorhouse. His father had won a posthumous Victoria Cross as a pilot in World War One – the first pilot to be decorated with this award for outstanding bravery. William attended Eton College where he befriended George Cleaver. The Cleaver family owned an aeroplane and it was on this that Rhodes-Moorhouse had his first flying experience. He had a pilot’s licence at the age of seventeen. During the interwar years Rhodes-Moorhouse married Amalia Demetriadi. They both lived the good life that his family money enabled them to do so.
The idea for part-time reserve (auxiliary) squadrons had been around since the 1920’s when Lord Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff, had introduced it. The idea was simple: to recruit and use keen amateur pilots in time of war but keep them in the reserve in times of peace. It was a cheaper option to having more squadrons of full-time fliers. By the time World War Two broke out there were fourteen auxiliary squadrons that made up 25% of Fighter Command.
The first auxiliary squadron was 601. This gained the nickname ‘Millionaires Squadron’ because it is said that 601 was formed at White’s Club in London – a private gentlemen’s club – and that recruitment to it was based on whether a candidate could behave like a gentleman even after consuming alcohol – allegedly a large glass of port. 601 had its fair share of those from a privileged background but it was also open to sportsmen and those who had made their own money but were not from a privileged background. 601 Squadron gained a reputation for flamboyant behaviour and hard living but such a reputation belied its ability as a fighting unit. Their second commander was Sir Philip Sassoon and he expected men in 601 to live up to this reputation when they were standing down. However, when they were on duty, professionalism was everything and 601, despite their reputation for the high life, also gained a reputation as an effective fighting squadron.
601 was mobilised just days before the German invasion of Poland on September 1st 1939. 601 fought in the war in France before the Dunkirk evacuation. Max Aitken commanded the squadron at this time and held the rank of Squadron Leader. He was the son of Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper millionaire. By the end of the Battle of Britain, Aitken had sixteen kills credited to his name.
In July 1940 when the Battle of Britain started, 601 Squadron was based at RAF Tangmere. With the Luftwaffe concentrating their first attacks against shipping in the English Channel, 601 was very much in the front line as based by the sea in Sussex, they were one of the nearest squadrons to support shipping. The squadron took heavy casualties and was pulled back to Essex to recover. At the start of the Battle of Britain, 601 Squadron had 20 men – but within weeks this had been reduced to 9 with 11 men killed or wounded. Their replacements were not from the backgrounds traditionally associated with the Millionaires Squadron but the squadron needed new men regardless of the size of their bank balances.
On September 3rd 1940, William Rhodes-Moorhouse went to Buckingham Palace to receive a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) after shooting down nine German aircraft. On September 6th, Rhodes-Moorhouse was shot down and killed.
One of the most famous members of 601 Squadron was Roger Bushell. He was shot down and taken prisoner-of-war by the Germans. He then gained a reputation for escaping from POW camps before he organised the legendary ‘Great Escape’ in July 1944. Bushell escaped from Stalag Luft III but was recaptured and murdered. Billy Fiske (pictured) of 601 was the first American pilot to die in the Battle of Britain and, therefore, the first American combatant to die in World War Two (August 17th 1940).