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


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.

Daring RAF pilot who dropped the Flag of France on occupied Paris-2

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

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