The date was June 12th 1942. France had been under German occupation for two years and a parade of German soldiers marched down the Champs Elysées in Paris every day, reportedly between 12.15 and 12.45. For the ordinary French person, who was deeply patriotic and conscious of the symbolism of such an act, this was a humiliation that was difficult to bear.
At one end of the Champs Elysées stood (and still stands) the magnificent Arc de Triomphe, commissioned in 1806 to commemorate the victories of Napoleon Bonaparte and inscribed with the names of French military successes and the generals who carried them out. Nothing could have lowered French morale more than to have this monument mocked by the seemingly invincible army of the hated Germans.
However, the Royal Air Force had a surprise in store. Flight Lieutenant Ken Gatward, together with his navigator Flight Sergeant George Fern, volunteered for a daring solo daytime mission, the aim of which was to ambush the German parade and perform the symbolic act of dropping the flag of the Free French on to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, from their twin-engined Bristol Beaufighter.
The mission had had to be abandoned three times, due to lack of cloud cover, but on the morning of June 12th Gatward and Fern were able to fly at low level all the way across the English Channel and northern France, avoiding detection by not rising more than 30 feet above the waves or the ground. This plan nearly came unstuck when a bird was hit and got stuck in a radiator, but this did not impede the aircraft.
On reaching Paris exactly on time the plane banked over the Champs Elysées but there were no German troops to be seen. It turned out that the SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent who had given the original report about the daily parade had got the time wrong and the parade had yet to take place. However, the fighter plane was able to fire off a few salvos at the HQ of the Gestapo and the two RAF men saw a number of SS officers running for cover as the cannon shells found their mark.
The secondary objective of the mission, namely the dropping of the flag, was achieved to perfection, and the symbolic act of restoring pride to a demoralised nation was a triumph in itself. It proved to the ordinary French man and woman that they had not been abandoned and that, despite the apparently total control over them of the Nazi military machine, there were times when its impenetrability could be breached. The sight of the German officers being reduced to waving their fists at the departing Beaufighter must have gladdened the hearts of many an onlooker.
Flight Lieutenant Gatward was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery, and after the war he was honoured by the French government and presented with own French tricolour flag. His unusual mission showed that raising morale can be one of the most effective weapons in winning a war.
Ken Gatward continued to serve in the RAF for thirty years before retiring. He died in 1988 at the age of 84.
© John Welford