The squad was originally formed on an experimental basis by Detective Chief Inspector Wensley. In October 1919, Wensley summoned 12 detectives to Scotland Yard to form the squad. The group was initially named the Mobile Patrol Experiment and its original orders were to perform surveillance and gather intelligence on known robbers and pickpockets, using a horse-drawn carriage with covert holes cut into the canvas.
In 1920, it was officially reorganised under the authority of then CommissionerSir Nevil Macready. Headed by Detective Inspector Walter Hambrook, the squad was composed of 12 detective officers, including Irish-born Jeremiah Lynch (1888-1953), who had earned a fearsome reputation for tracking wartime German spies and for building up the case against confidence trickster Horatio Bottomley. The Mobile Patrol Experiment was given authorisation to carry out duties anywhere in the Metropolitan Police District, meaning that its officers did not have to observe Divisions, giving rise to the name of the Flying Squad because the unit operated across London without adhering to borough policing boundaries.
Throughout the 1920s, the squad was standardised and expanded, and the establishment was expanded to 40 officers, under the command of Detective Chief Inspector Fred "Nutty" Sharpe until his retirement in July 1937. In 1948, the squad was given the designation of C.O.(C.8) for Commissioner's Office Crime 8 and was augmented. By 1956 it made one thousand arrests per year for the first time.
From 1978 to 1981 the name was changed to the Central Robbery Squad, but still known as the Flying Squad. It is often referred to by the nicknames the "Heavy Mob" or "the Sweeney" (rhyming slang for Flying Squad, from Sweeney Todd).
In July 1948, the Squad learned of a plan to steal £750,000 (£15 million in 2013) of bullion, jewellery and other valuables from the BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) secure warehouse at Heathrow Airport by drugging the guards. Squad officers replaced the guards and pretended to be drugged, with other officers stationed around the warehouse. When the thieves removed the keys to the safe from Detective Sergeant Charles Hewett, the Squad announced its presence and a violent struggle ensued with many on both sides suffering serious injuries. The nine offenders received a total of 71 years' imprisonment for what became known as the Battle of London Airport.
In the 1960s, the squad undertook the role of capturing and gathering evidence on the Kray twins, with many officers giving evidence in court.
The squad took up investigating the Great Train Robbery, which had no firearms involved, but did not catch all of the robbers.
Some of the most dangerous work undertaken by the Flying Squad is the Pavement Ambush, where police ambush armed robbers during an offence. During Operation Char in 1987, and Operation Yamoto in November 1990, this approach led to three armed robbers shot dead by police.
In August 1993, an armed robbery occurred at a Barclays Bank in Blackfen in south-east London. This made the headlines as being the first time police were fired upon by a machine gun in mainland Britain; one officer was struck in the head by a ricochet and received the George Medal. The two robbers were later arrested and sentenced at the Old Bailey.
In November 2000, five men set out to rob the Millennium Dome of the flawless 203.04-carat (40.608 g) Millennium Star, valued at over £200 million. Originally, police were unsure of the intended location of the robbery, but after months of surveillance, it was realised that the target was the Millennium Dome. On 7 November, the robbers armed with smoke bombs, ammonia and a nail gun, crashed into the dome with a stolen JCBexcavator and smashed through to the vault. The robbers planned to escape on the River Thames by using a speedboat. The police operation to catch the robbers was codenamed Operation Magician, and involved 200 officers, including 40 specialist firearms officers (SFOs) from SO19. Some of the officers were positioned behind a dummy wall, and others were dressed as cleaners with their firearms hidden in black bin bags, or rubbish bins, along with officers in dome staff uniforms. A further 60 armed Flying Squad officers were stationed around the Thames, and 20 on the river itself, to hamper any escape attempts. The five men were caught and sentenced on various robbery charges. Detective Superintendent Jon Shatford was in command of the operation.
On 13 September 2007, the Flying Squad was involved in an incident outside a bank in the village of Chandler's Ford, near Southampton. Two suspected armed robbers were shot dead by members of CO19, in support of a Flying Squad operation, who had been lying in wait after receiving a tip off that an armed robbery was imminent. The thieves were attempting armed robbery on a G4S security van outside the HSBC branch when they were killed by the CO19 SFOs.
A Monty Python sketch featured "Inspector Fox of the Light Entertainment Police, Comedy Division, Special Flying Squad," and "Inspector Thompson's Gazelle of the Programme Planning Police, Light Entertainment Division, Special Flying Squad."
In the 2002 video game The Getaway, one of the two protagonists is an officer of the Flying Squad, known as Frank Carter.
In Lynda LaPlante's 2019 novel The Dirty Dozen, protagonist Jane Tennison becomes the first female detective in the Flying Squad
Flying Squad officers dress in plain civilian clothing. Officers carry firearms, most commonly the Glock 17 pistol. When in covert operations with civilian clothing, they conceal the sidearm in a belt holster or shoulder holster.
Bent Coppers, detailing police corruption within the Flying Squad
^"Cheers to you, Ludovic Kennedy: Simon Heffer on a genial study of the late broadcaster's work to expose police corruption and miscarriages of justice". Daily Telegraph. London. 25 February 2017. p. 28.