They were called the Millionaires’ Squadron, a dashing young group of well-heeled sportsmen and adventurers with a passion for danger and high jinks. But they were also a very effective fighting unit, placed in the front line of defence against German invasion in the Battle of Britain.
Born into high society in 1914, William Henry Rhodes-Moorhouse was determined to follow a family passion for flying.
His father had built and designed planes and flown in World War I, becoming the first airman to win the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery in battle.
Flying at just 300ft (91m), William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse volunteered to drop a single bomb on a strategic rail junction near Ypres in the face of intense ground fire. He made it back to British lines, but died of his wounds shortly afterwards.
Young Willie, his son, was able to fulfil his dream, thanks partly to his school friend George Cleaver, whose family owned a plane. He had his pilot’s licence by the age of 17 before leaving Eton.
After extensive travelling, he returned to settle in England where, so family lore records, he “fell head over heels in love” with his wife-to-be, Amalia Demetriadi. A strikingly attractive woman, she was approached in a London restaurant by a talent scout to be screen-tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. A private person, Amalia declined.
For Amalia and Willie, life must have seemed to be bursting with promise. They had a comfortable life and a very good lifestyle, including invitations to the south of France and skiing trips to St Moritz.
A keen sportsman, Willie was selected for the 1936 British Winter Olympics team, but an accident on the ski jump prevented him from competing. But war was looming and short of funds, the RAF had its eyes on amateur pilots like Willie, George and Amalia’s brother Dick. It could not maintain a large peacetime force, but if war came, it would need to mobilise fast.
As early as the mid 1920s, the first Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Trenchard, had come up with the idea of auxiliary squadrons, amateur pilots who could be rapidly recruited and deployed on the outbreak of war.
The first auxiliary squadron, 601, later to be known as the Millionaires’ Squadron was, according to legend, created by Lord Grosvenor at Whites, the gentlemen’s club and restricted to club membership.
Recruitment under Grosvenor involved a trial by alcohol to see if candidates could still behave like gentlemen when drunk. They were apparently required to consume a large port. Gin and tonics would follow back at the club.
Grosvenor wanted officers “of sufficient presence not to be overawed by him and of sufficient means not to be excluded from his favourite pastimes, eating, drinking and Whites,” according to the squadron’s historian, Tom Moulson.
The squadron attracted the very well-heeled, not just aristocrats but also sportsmen, adventurers and self-made men. There would be no time for petty rules or regulations. But Grosvenor was nonetheless intent on creating an elite fighting unit, as good as any in the RAF.
Under their next commander, Sir Philip Sassoon, the squadron acquired a growing reputation for flamboyance, wearing red socks or red-silk-lined jackets as well as driving fast cars.
They also had a reputation for ridiculous games such as navigating around a room without touching the ground. Or a table calibration test in which the subject was distracted to the point at which beer could be poured down his trousers.
There were other auxiliary squadrons such as 600, made up of stockbrokers and city bankers.
And others sprang up around the country, 602 and 603 in Glasgow and Edinburgh and by 1939 there were 14 auxiliary squadrons made up of experienced, amateur pilots who would be equipped and deployed almost immediately on the outbreak of war, effectively adding 25% to the strength of RAF Fighter Command.
But while many of the auxiliaries were wealthy and had their own planes, no squadron was as exclusive or elitist as 601. And they certainly regarded themselves as every bit as good if not better than the regulars. “Tradesmen, RAF, etc, entrance at rear by order” read one sign at a 601 officers’ mess.
The Millionaires had a reputation for escapades and flouting the rules says Peter Devitt from the RAF Museum. “But they could not have got away with it without being an efficient and effective fighting unit. They were very serious about their flying and their fighting.”
Days before the German invasion of Poland in 1939, 601 squadron was mobilised including Willie, Amalia’s younger brother Dick Demetriadi and their friend George Cleaver.
When war finally came to Western Europe in May 1940, Willie was part of 601 Squadron’s A flight which was despatched to France under Squadron Leader Max Aitken, son of Lord Beaverbrook the newspaper magnate. It was the pilots’ first action in their Hurricane fighters and they performed creditably, with Aitken being decorated.
In July, as the Battle of Britain began, 601 Squadron was right on the front line at RAF Tangmere in Hampshire.
The Luftwaffe was targeting Allied shipping in the Channel in an attempt to lure the RAF into combat.
On 11 August 1940, in one of the opening skirmishes of the war, 21-year-old Dick Demetriadi was shot down off the Dorset coast.
Willie had lost his best friend, but he also had to break the news to Amalia that her brother would not be coming home.
The following weeks saw the most intense raids on southern England as the Luftwaffe attempted to destroy the RAF and seize control of the skies to allow an invasion.
Willie Henry Rhodes-Moorhouse and the Millionaires of 601 Squadron were in the thick of the fighting. After heavy losses, the squadron was pulled back to Essex, only to find themselves in the front line again as the Luftwaffe targeted London.
From an initial strength of about 20, they lost 11 men killed in action with others injured or posted to other squadrons.
The replacements were more cosmopolitan. And while many of the Millionaires’ traditions survived, they were no longer the band of aristocrats and adventurers who had started the war.
Other squadrons were also suffering heavy losses but the RAF pilots were also destroying two German planes for every British loss. Willie was responsible for shooting down nine aircraft.
Willie’s body was recovered from his plane and his ashes buried alongside his fatherThe Victoria Cross was sold to raise money for the W.B. Rhodes-Moorhouse VC Charitable Trust which makes donations to RAF charitiesHe is pictured above with Amalia, who died in 2003
On 3 September, he and Amalia were invited to Buckingham Palace where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
It was to be one of their last times together. Just three days later he was shot down.
Other members of 601 squadron survived the Battle of Britain including Willie’s friend George “Mouse” Cleaver who shot down seven planes before an eye injury which ended his flying career.
But by the time the Luftwaffe called off its assault and the invasion of Britain was cancelled, the RAF had lost 544 pilots.
Churchill immortalised “the few”, but for each man lost, there were wives, parents and sisters left behind, women like Amalia.
“It was very, very hard on Amalia, losing Willie and Dick,” says Rupert Pyle-Hodges, who has helped preserve the family history – Willie and Rupert’s grandmother were cousins and were brought up in the same extended family house.
Amalia was godmother to Rupert’s father and he remembers visiting her for tea. It was not fashionable for women like Amalia to go to work and she lived within modest means, tending her garden and – like many of the wartime generation who had lived through rationing – recycling everything.
She never re-married although there were certainly offers and she lived a quiet life until her death in 2003.
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