Daring RAF pilot who dropped the Flag of France on occupied Paris


Images Used (From Left): (1) Alfred ‘Ken’ Gatward, the daring RAF pilot (2) Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté who devised the Operation Squabble (3) Gatward’s feat gave a much needed morale boost to the French and was celebrated in the press with such type of illustrations in June 1942

The years leading up to the WWII were turbulent times for people across the globe. The worldwide economic depression started in 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s. It was the longest, most widespread and deepest depression of the 20th century; the world wide GDP fell by 15% between 1929 and 1932. The great depression originated in the United States after a stock market collapse.

Italy invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935 and the war ended in 1936 with Ethiopia merged into the Italian East Africa. Three years long Civil War broke out in Spain in 1936 which was considered to be the rehearsal of WWII as Nationalist leader General Francisco Franco backed up by Italy and Germany won the war. Imperial Japan invaded China in 1937 and the 2nd Sino-Japanese War continued till September 1945. Imperial Japan also engaged in a border conflict with Soviet Union between 1932 and 1945 and invaded Soviet Union and Mongolia in 1938; Japan lost the wars and signed a pact of neutrality with the USSR.

Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. They demanded the German speaking Sudetenland region from Czechoslovakia. Britain and France followed the diplomacy of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and conceded the territory to Germany, much to the displeasure of the Czechoslovak government. In return, Germany promised of no further territorial demands. However, Germany and Italy then forced Czechoslovakia to cede territories to Hungary and Poland. Germany invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia and turned it into a pro-German client state. Italy conquered Albania in April 1939. Then Hitler delivered an ultimatum to Lithuania to compromise the Klaipeda Region. He also claimed the Free City of Danzig which was part of Germany prior to WWI. Amid such ominous scenario, Britain and France expressed their support for the independence of Poland, Romania and Greece.

Germany and Italy formed a strong alliance and a non-aggression treaty called Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was also signed between Germany and Soviet Union in August 1939. Nazi Germany staged an attack on its own radio station and accused the Polish forces for being involved in this incident knows as the ‘Gleiwitz Incident’. Germany used this staged attack as a pretext for invading Poland on September 1, 1939 and initiated the WWII.

Britain, France and independent dominions of British Commonwealth declared war on Germany two days later. The French forces carried out a small attack into Saarland, Germany between September 7, 1939 and September 16, 1939 to assist Poland. The French forces had to withdraw in October, 1939 amid a German counter attack. The complexity of the war spread all across the world and Italy also invaded France on June 10, 1940. On June 14, Paris fell to the Germans and France surrendered. It was divided into zones occupied by Germany, Italy and the collaborationist Vichy regime. The Free France Government in exile was set up in London. Until the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, a collection of French resistance movements fought guerilla warfare against the Nazi occupation of France and against the collaborationist regime. These were dark days for the French.

Online edition of renowned British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported on Alfred ‘Ken’ Gatward, the daring RAF pilot who dropped the French Tri-Colour on occupied Paris as part of the WWII Operation Squabble during the spring of 1942.

RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté, who was born in India and was of partial French descent, devised this propaganda idea to boost the morale of the French when he was provided with intelligence report by Major Benjamin Cowburn of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) that the Nazi Forces paraded down the Champs-Élysées boulevard everyday between 12:15 and 12:45. Sir Philip called in Wing Commander Gatward to see if he would volunteer for the risky mission. With numerous low-level day light attacks under his belt, Gatward, along with his navigator, Sergeant Gilbert Fern, agreed. Beside flying low level down the Champs-Élysées and attacking the German soldiers, the plan also included a backup target of attacking the Nazi Navy (Kriegsmarine) headquarters in the former home of the French Ministry of Navy, Ministère de la Marine.

Gatward and Fern started to practice by attacking a shipwreck in the English Channel. They also obtained a French Tricolour from Portsmouth Harbour and had it cut into two pieces. Each piece of flag was weighted with iron and drop tests were carried out from the roof of a hangar to see how well they unfurled. Then the flags were installed on their Bristol Type 156 Beaufighter (serial T4800, code ND-C), a British long-range heavy fighter. One section of the flag was to be draped over the famous Arc de Triomphe monument in Paris and the other over the ministry.

The team made first attempt to carry out the raid on May 13, 1942, but returned back after crossing the French coast due to poor weather. They were ordered to do so in such situation. The duo took off again at 11:29 am on June 12, 1942 from Thorney Island in West Sussex in heavy rain. By the time they were flying over Rouen, the city in the North of France, there was bright sunshine and excellent visibility. The aircraft encountered the first anti-aircraft fires while passing over the suburbs of Paris at a very low altitude of just 30ft. They had circled around the Eiffel Tower at 12:27 and the radiator of the starboard engine of the aircraft suffered a bird strike. But they somehow managed to maintain their course.

The intelligence report about the schedule of the parade was found to be incorrect and no German soldiers were there to be strafed. However, Gatward flew down the Champs-Élysées at second floor window height and Fern released the first flag over the Arc de Triomphe. Gatward then attacked the Naval Ministry in the Place de la Concorde public square and strafed the ministry building with 20mm cannon shells, scattering the German soldiers, much to the delight of the Parisians. Then Fern dropped the second Tricolour. After completing the attack, Gatward turned the Beaufighter for home at 12:30 pm. They landed at RAF Northholt in South Ruislip in Western London at 01:53 pm.

Images Used (From Left): (1) The Bristol Beaufighter (serial T4800, code ND-C) that was flown by Gatward during Operation Squabble (2) Gatward’s flight path during the operation

Upon returning to London, Gatward removed the dead bird from the engine radiator. It was found to be a French crow and was laid to rest at the RAF Northolt. Later, intelligence mentioned that the Nazi parade had been cancelled due to confusion following the Operation Squabble. The attack hugely boosted the morale among the British and French.

Gatward was immediately awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and Fern received a Distinguished Flying Medal. Gatward was also awarded a second Distinguished Flying Cross in September 1944 for his heroics during the aerial attack on a German convoy off the Norwegian coast. He further received a Distinguished Service Order in October, 1944 and retired in 1964 as Group Captain after spending 30 years in the RAF. The RAF hero lived with his wife Pamela in Essex and died in 1998 aged 84.


Video Used: RAF Beaufighters attacking retreating German Afrika Korps in 1942

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE