BY RICHARD MADDOX
SEVENTY FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY a single RAF aircraft undertook an audacious mission to boost the morale of the French population.
NINETEEN FORTY ONE wasn’t a good year for Occupied France and there was no reason to think that 1942 would be any better.
The Occupation continues to make daily life in France – and indeed in all the countries under German control – difficult in many ways.
France is physically and ideologically divided. Troops are on the streets of the Occupied Zone. The Résistance and German authorities continue the cycle of assassinations and reprisals.
Power struggles between Guallist and communist factions split the Résistance.
Factories have been taken over to manufacture products for the Germans.
Rationing continues for the French population.
Mass arrests of communist sympathisers started in 1941 and Jewish citizens are coming under increasing scrutiny – not just from the Germans directly but through the occupying forces using the French authorities and their Vichy allies to enforce the new order.
Unable to lure foreign workers to Germany itself by the promise of better rations, the German controlled Service du Travail Obligatoire (a scheme whereby more than half a million people were forcibly sent to work in Germany) was just starting.
After the evacuation at Dunkirk and the destruction of units of the French naval fleet by the Royal Navy in August 1940, many felt in France and elsewhere felt Britain needed to show its support.
Thus Operation SQUABBLE was born.
Organised by the Special Operations Executive and Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté (himself of French descent) the original plan was for a single attacking aircraft to fly along the mile-long Avenue des Champs-Élysées just as the German Army were parading there and – if the opportunity presented itself – attack the nearby former French Ministre de la Marine (now occupied as the Germany Naval headquarters in France).
Sir Philip was Commander-in-Chief of Coastal Command, the branch of the RAF that operated closely with the Royal Navy and – critical in these circumstances – attack small targets at low level.
Coastal Command had both the aircraft and the aircrew to mount an attack such as this.
Flight Lieutenant Alfred Kitchener ‘Ken’ Gatward was a leading anti-shipping attack expert and was offered the chance of carrying out the attack. It was stressed that it would be an ‘unsafe’ mission using a single aircraft without further support.
Gatward and his navigator, Flight Sergeant Gilbert ‘George’ Fern immediately started planning the flight and honing their skills by carrying out attacks on an abandoned wreck in the English Channel.
The day of the attack dawned and improving weather – that is the lack of cloud cover – forced the pair back to England while they were over France.
This happened not once but three times and without the advantage of surprise the mission was doomed.
So on 12 June 1942 the aircraft left the Coastal Command airfield at Thorney Island, Hampshire (just outside Portsmouth) for what the crew had decided would be the final attempt. They had decide that there was to be no more practising.
This was it.
They would fly the whole mission at low level to give them the best chance.
Crossing the French coast half an hour after take-off, they managed to avoid both fighter aircraft and flak positions.
At one point some 30 feet (10 metres above the ground) the aircraft scattered a murder of crows. One lodged in the engine air intake, causing the motor to overheat.
Still they flew on.
Approaching Paris from the south they rounded the Eiffel Tower and then headed for the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs-Élysées.
Their canons primed and ready, they reportedly flew at less than roof top height down the Champs-Élysées. But not until they had sent one of two banners (made from a French naval ensign back in Britain) fluttering down on the Arc de Triomphe.
But their German army quarry eluded them. The military parade – something that happened every day after midday – was nowhere to be seen.
Instead the crew saw groups of French people happily waving to the aircraft.
At the other end of the Avenue, the Place de la Concorde with its fountains and the Luxor monument grew ever larger.
Swinging around the 75-foot Egyptian obelisk they lining up on their second objective, the Naval Headquarters.
Gatward fired a volley of 20mm shells into the building before dropping the second banner and making off north towards Gare Saint Lazare railway station and then coming around westward to return to England – again at low level.
Landing at RAF Northolt not far from central London, he and Fern delivered 60 photographic images of Paris.
In 2012 Gatward’s Second World War medal group, together with memorabilia about the flight were sold at auction for £51,000.