During the Second World War, RAF personnel regularly described their activities on the radio for listeners of the BBC. These broadcasts described their experiences in their own words and in effect provided the human stories behind the official communiqués. We present one of these narratives, an account selected from more than 280 broadcasts which were, at the time, given anonymously. One of those men was Flight Lieutenant Alfred Gatward.
In Spring 1942, the C-in-C Coastal Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip de la Ferté Joubert, was informed through the SOE that German forces paraded daily in Paris. In an unvarying routine, the troops apparently marched down the Champs-Élysées, every day, between 12:15 and 12:45. Joubert decided this was an ideal opportunity to send a message of support to the French.
It fell to Coastal Command’s 236 Squadron, and more specifically Flight Lieutenant Alfred ‘Ken’ Gatward and his navigator, Sergeant George Fern, to undertake what was an unusual, if not unique, operation. It was on 5 May 1942 that Gatward and Fern learned the precise details of their mission. It was, as Gatward himself later recalled, to “fly low level down the Champs-Élysées, strafe the parade, and if that failed attack the Gestapo HQ in the former Ministère de la Marine”.
In the Official History of the RAF in the Second World War, Denis Richards outlined some of the preparation for their flight: “They were to carry out the attack only if good cloud-cover extended the whole way from the French coast to Paris. The two men at once began their preparations, making feint attacks each day on an old wreck in the Channel and poring for many hours over maps of Northern France and photographs of Paris. Very soon came the next step. ‘One day’, records Gatward, ‘we went down to the naval dockyard at Portsmouth and drew a very new and grand-looking Tricolour for which we signed several forms. Back at Thorney Island we cut the flag into two and got the parachute section to sew iron bars on to each. In the evenings when few people were around we made tests with the flags, throwing them as high up as the hangar roof to see how they would unfurl.’
“On 13 May the weather for the first time promised well. Half an hour before noon the Beaufighter took off. But it had no sooner crossed the French coast than the clouds cleared, and in obedience to their instructions the two men turned back. Two days later they tried again, with the same result. Twice more they were again baulked; on each occasion the skies cleared when they were well over French territory. Gatward’s patience was by then exhausted. As he took the Beaufighter up for the fifth time… he was determined to get through at all costs.”
It was at 11:15 hours on 12 June 1942, that Gatward’s Beaufighter Mk.IC, T4800 ND-C, again lifted off, despite the pouring rain, from RAF Thorney Island. The events that followed were detailed by Gatward in a broadcast for the BBC:
“I’d never been to Paris before, but it looked exactly as I imagined it would look: we’d studied a lot of guide books and photographs before we set out.
“We flew very low all the way across to avoid attack, and we saw masses of horses in the fields. The Beaufighter is pretty quiet, and we didn’t seem to disturb the horses and cattle very much, but we took some photographs of them. Some horses were rearing up as we came over the fields, and one of them was a white horse and you can almost see the whites of his eyes in our picture.
“We could see the Eiffel Tower when we were 30 to 40 miles from Paris, which helped out with the navigation, because we were much too low to have a look at Paris from above. But it was a very nice day – plenty of sun, and we could see quite easily where we were going. We took a bearing from the Eiffel Tower and came in smack over the Defence Monument, and then headed straight for the Arc de Triomphe.
“I said to Sergeant George Fern, my observer, ‘Are you ready with the first flag?’ and he said, ‘Yes, I’m ready all right, but the slip-stream is nearly breaking my arm.’ He was pushing this furled flag down a flare shoot into the slip-stream from the propellers, and at the right moment he let her go.
“We’d experimented quite a bit with the flags before we started, and they were both weighted and folded so that they’d stream as soon as they were released. However, we couldn’t stop to see exactly where the first dropped; but I’m glad to see that Vichy says it fell right on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which is, of course, just where you’d want it to be.
I’m glad to see that Vichy says it fell right on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior
“One of the things we wanted to look at particularly was the Ministry of Marine, because it was crammed with Huns, and we had something for them too. We spotted that quite easily, and turned north towards the Opera, and then out again. On this first circuit the people in the street didn’t seem to pay a great deal of attention to us. Of course there was a certain amount of traffic in the street, which may have covered up the noise of our engines, but there wasn’t anything like the traffic there is in London, and we didn’t see any motor buses in the Champs Elysées.
“We didn’t go very far before we turned for our second circuit, and this time we came in as low as we dared in case they had any light ack-ack on the rooftops. Actually I was too busy watching out for chimney pots and steeples to notice any ack-ack fire at all; Fern warned me that some tracer did actually pass close by us, but certainly the aircraft was never hit at all.
“On this second circuit we didn’t make quite the same tour. We turned south a bit towards the river so we could come square up to the Ministry of Marine, and when we were right in line at a range of about 500 yards we let fly with our four cannon, and I saw the sparks flying off the building. We hadn’t any time to see whether the shells burst inside, but a good many went through the windows. We sprayed the place from base to apex, and only cleared the roof by about five feet. While I was doing this, my observer was shouting encouragement and pushing out the second flag, which we hoped would fall slap across the front door.
“There was much more interest taken in this circuit of ours, and people were running about the streets to have a good look at us, and we noticed one or two faces at the window actually peering down at us. We saw a number of German military cars stopped in the street with the Huns standing round them, and others of them were dodging round the trees in the Avenue, but we couldn’t let fly at them because there were too many civilians about. Some of the civilians were waving to us. Fern says he saw some German soldiers trying to take cover behind a lorry. One of them was very fat, and he was shaking his fist at us.
“I’m sorry I can’t tell you any more about our visit to Paris – it was very short, only five or six minutes – but I’d like to go again with all the photographs we took, and see how it looks with both feet on the ground.”
Gatward had turned for home at 12:30, landing at RAF Northolt at 13:53, two hours fifty-five minutes after the pair had taken off. The only damage that their aircraft had sustained was the result of a bird strike in the Beaufighter’s starboard engine radiator during the low-level flying. Later intelligence confirmed that the parade had been assembling at the time of the attack but had to be abandoned due to the confusion following Gatward’s raid.
With the reports of their flight having a propaganda value at home that was as big, if not larger, than on the opposite side of the English Channel, the two men became instant ‘stars’, fêted everywhere they went. For Gatward, it also meant the award of a DFC, Fern the DFM. After the war, Gatward was presented with a crate of champagne by the French government.