[April 21, 2020] In early spring of 1942, there was little that citizens of Paris cold look forward to during their German occupation. The Nazi war machine had taken nearly all of Europe, and the “city of lights” was now under the oppressive thumb of the German military. Shortly after noon on one sunny day, a lone RAF Beaufighter roared overhead at low altitude and dropped two carefully-weighted French Tricolors into the city. Flown by Ken Gateward with navigator Gilbert Fern at his side, their mission was to lift the spirits of the French peoples.
As regular readers of my leadership blog will attest, I often pepper my daily articles with an occasional story of unusual bravery. Like the story of heroes, we can find our most valued characteristics in those that jump at a chance to do something that matters. RAF Pilot Flight Lieutenant Alfred “Ken” Gatward was one of these men. We recall stories of the famed UK’s Royal Air Force and the few who gave so much for the many during the Battle of Britain.
Gatward and Fern succeeded more than their wildest dreams. Like so many acts during wartime, this operation was not easy, and it was not a spur of the moment event. Careful preparation and planning went on before the flight by Gatward and Fern took place. Underground intelligence told the story that each day, the German’s paraded at 12:15 in the afternoon up Paris’ Champs-Élysées to Arc de Triomphe (France’s most revered monument). The parade was a deliberate mocking and daily insult, designed to put France’s military in its place, demoralize the population, and show the superiority of German National Socialism.
In the Parisian crowds witnessing this daily spectacle, were secret agents reporting back to Britain. England’s Special Operations Executive was notified of the parades regularity and a decision was made to do something about it. A daring plan was devised to launch a single-aircraft raid. It was to be an audacious act, possibly suicidal, which could reap tremendous propaganda rewards. More importantly, it would give the downhearted citizens of Paris a massive boost in morale. Parisians would know, by this one act, that the Germans were not superior and that the French had friends who would come to liberate them in time.
“I’ll never forget the astonishment of the crowd in the Paris streets as we swept low at rooftop level. They had been taken completely by surprise.” – Ken Gatward, RAF
In early June 1942, Gatward and Fern made three unsuccessful sorties across the English Channel but turned back due to cloud cover. On June 12, they took off from England in pouring rain. As they got to the French coast, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Without permission and deviating from the plan, Gatward decided to take the risk and fly low level over enemy territory.
Gatward released the first Tricolor over the Arc de Triomphe. Then, flying over the Seine River to the Ministere de la Marine building – being used as a Gestapo – he strafed German troops in the open. Fern dropped the second Tricolor here. Throughout the raid, Fern had been taking photographs, 61 in all. This raid on Paris was not the end of Gatward or Fern’s taking on the Germans. More was to come and can be learned in several stories, often told throughout England today.1
See this article for a more detailed account: http://www.vintagewings.ca/VintageNews/Stories/tabid/116/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/450/Ten-Minute-Triumph-Over-Tyranny.aspx