Around one hundred American contract pilots arrived in Burma in mid-1941, where they were assigned to protect a crucial supply road from Japanese attacks. The “Flying Tigers”—famous for the iconic rows of shark teeth painted on the noses of their P-40 fighters—went on to rack up an unprecedented combat record. Despite flying slower, less maneuverable fighters than the enemy, the Americans downed 296 Japanese aircraft and destroyed more than 1,300 riverboats, all while only losing 69 planes and some two-dozen men. The group was officially disbanded in July 1942, but some of its members later rejoined their old units and served for the remainder of World War II.
The Catalan Grand Company
First organized in 1302 by the adventurer Roger de Flor, the Catalan Grand Company was primarily composed of rugged Spanish veterans of the War of the Sicilian Vespers in Italy. Left unemployed at the conflict’s end, De Flor and his mercenaries contracted themselves to the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II, who brought them to the Eastern Mediterranean to fight off invading Ottoman Turks. The 6,500-strong Catalans succeeded in sweeping the Turks away from Constantinople, but their penchant for wanton sacking and looting also drew the ire of the Byzantines. In 1305, De Flor and some 1,300 of his men were ambushed and killed by another group of mercenaries in the Emperor’s employ.
Rather than disband, the surviving Catalans embarked on one of the bloodiest and most bewildering adventures in medieval military history. Following an abortive attempt to establish an outlaw state in Gallipoli, they marched to Greece and found work as muscle for the Duke of Athens. But when a dispute arose over back pay, the Catalans once again went to war with a former employer. After crushing the Greek armies and killing the Duke at 1311’s Battle of Kephissos, they found themselves the de facto lords of the Duchy of Athens. Amazingly, the mercenaries managed to consolidate their power and rule over large swaths of Greece for more than 75 years until an army from Florence finally defeated them in battle. The remnants of the Catalan Grand Company disbanded shortly thereafter.
The Varangian Guard
The descendants of Norsemen who originally ventured south as pirates and traders, the Varangian Guard were a band of Viking mercenaries paid to serve as the personal bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor. The Guard first took up their post in the late 10th century for the Emperor Basil II, who preferred the axe-wielding barbarians to his more easily corruptible countrymen. The unit immediately proved useful in putting down a rebellion, and they went on to serve as the protectors of Constantinople for over two hundred years.
At first, the Varangian Guard was almost entirely composed of hard-fighting, hard-drinking Vikings, but by the late 11th century their ranks began to be filled out by Englishmen, Normans and Danes. Winning entrance into the unit was no easy task. Initiates had to demonstrate their prowess in battle, and were forced to pay a small fortune in gold as an entrance fee. Still, the gifts showered on the Varangians ensured that its members left extremely wealthy, and some even went on to achieve positions of immense power. One of the most famous guardsmen was Harald Hardrada, who later claimed the throne of Norway.