The Honourable Sir John William Maxwell ‘Max’ Aitken was the son of the Canadian newspaper magnate and businessman William Aitken, the 1st Baron Beaverbrook, Churchill’s Minister of Aircraft Production.
Born in Montreal, Canada in 1910, Max was educated in England at Westminster School and Pembroke College Cambridge, where he proved to be a talented sportsman, gaining a university blue for soccer.
Aitken joined the Auxiliary Air Force in 1935 as a pilot officer with No 601 (County of London) Squadron – the ‘Millionaires’ squadron. He was called-up for full time service on August 26 1939 and took part in the squadron’s first operation on November 27, when six of its Blenheims joined with six from No 25 Squadron to attack the German seaplane base at Borkum.
In February 1940 the squadron moved to RAF Tangmere but on May 16 Aitken flew to Merville in France with the Hurricanes of 601’s ‘A’ Flight to reinforce No 3 Squadron during the German Blitzkreig.
During the next few weeks Aitken destroyed a Heinkel He 111 over Brussels on the 18th and shot down another He 111 and a Ju 87 the next day. Five days later he claimed a Bf 109 damaged.
In early June, Aitken returned with his section to Tangmere and was promoted to acting squadron leader and assumed command of 601. During the night of June 25/26 he was flying a night time sortie from Tangmere in his Hurricane when he shot down a He 111 off the coast near Brighton. For this and his victories in France he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Aitken’s final victory with No 601 was on July 7 when he shared in the destruction of a Dornier Do 17 bomber over the Channel.
He was posted away from Tangmere on July 20 for a rest and did not return to operations until February 1941 when he took over command of No 68 Squadron at Catterick, a newly formed Blenheim 1F night fighter squadron.
The squadron was declared operational in April. On June 25 1941, Aitken, ever keen to meet the enemy, flew as a supernumerary with Douglas Bader’s Tangmere Wing from Westhampnett in a No 610 Squadron Spitfire. During a sweep over France that day he destroyed a Bf 109 German fighter.
On the night of April 30/May 1 1942, Aitken, still commanding No 68, destroyed a Do 217 bomber and a month later damaged a Ju 88. In July on the same night he destroyed another Ju 88 and a Do 217. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in August.
With his operational tour completed he was posted away in January 1943 and a month later left the UK for HQ Eastern Mediterranean to serve in the fighter tactics branch. On March 5 1944, at night over the Aegean Sea, Aitken shot down two Ju 52 transport aircraft whilst flying a No 46 Squadron Beaufighter.
Aitken returned to the UK later in 1944 to command the Banff Mosquito Strike Wing operating in Norwegian waters against German shipping. He was released from the RAF in early 1946 with the rank of group captain as he had been returned as a Conservative Member of Parliament in the 1945 General Election.
During the next three years he again assumed command of No 601, now a weekend Auxiliary squadron. Aitken was always a keen sportsman becoming an accomplished ocean yachtsman and offshore powerboat racer.
In 1968 he became chairman of Beaverbrook Newspapers and then president in 1977, an appointment he held until his death on May 1 1985.
This article, written by David Coxon is the 48th in a series of articles on the people of RAF Tangmere. More information on the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum can be found at www.tangmere-museum.org.uk