Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Flag Bomber

In the distance was the sound of a band and the tramp of hundreds of feet marching in unison. The band and the soldiers turned the corner into the Avenue des Champs Elysee in Paris. The parade was German. The lines of Wehrmacht soldiers marched towards the Arc de Triomphe. The local Parisians knew the time without looking at a clock, as everyday this parade was carried out, it was exactly 1215. In early 1942 some of the French watching eventually got word to Britain and the Special Operations Executive (SOE). It was felt that if a mishap could be arranged for the parade then there would be a significant amount of propaganda to be achieved. 

The problem for the attack was of course, finesse. A bomb would cause too much collateral damage, equally you would need to get it into place. SOE passed the idea on. It was soon agreed that a strafing attack from an aircraft would offer the needed ability to limit the damage to the German parade. But what plane to use for the attack? At the time the single engine fighters used by Fighter Command were unable to reach Paris so a Beaufighter was proposed. This of course had the advantage that its mass of firepower was located in the nose, giving even more precision. It would also enable a co-pilot to assist with the delicate task of navigating. However, all of fighter command’s Beaufighters were fitted with air-intercept radar and being used as night fighters. As the attacking aircraft would be flying alone, over France and conducting a low-level strike it was thought that the chance of it being shot down was extremely high. The mission was then passed to Coastal Command, who had experience of long-range navigation, and low-level pinpoint strikes against shipping. 

The mission was codenamed Operation Squabble and given to a No. 236 Squadron pilot, Flight Lieutenant Alfred Kitchener “Ken” Gatward and his navigator Flight Sergeant Gilbert Fern. These two flying officers volunteered for a dangerous mission, although they were not told the exact plan until they had signed on, just that it was dangerous. They then spent some time practising their aim with the guns on the Beaufighter. As well as hitting the Parade they would have a slightly more militarily effective part of attacking the Ministère de la Marine building, which contained the German Command apparatus. In addition, a pair of Tricolour flags was obtained. It was weighted so that they could be dropped down the flare chute on the Beaufighter. These would then unfold during the drop, and hopefully drape themselves over the Arc de Triomphe and the Ministère de la Marine building. The mission was all set to go by June 1942. 

At 1129 on the 12th the Beaufighter took off for a long difficult flight. It had to arrive between 1215 and 1245 to catch the parade. That doesn’t sound like much to us today but remember that back in the war navigation was a much more difficult task, with no modern aids or basic measurement devices. Even the wind could significantly alter a planes flight time. On the flight in they hurtled along at very low level.  At one point they flew through a flock of birds, one alarmingly struck the engine, which started to overheat. A short while later the remains of the bird fell out and the engine began to cool. Their course took them very near the Luftwaffe airfield at Rouen, but even then no planes were sent after them. By 1227 they had reached Paris. They lined themselves up using the Eiffel Tower and barrelled into their attack run. 

Saint-Inglevert airfield at Rouen in 1944 after it had been bombed.

Passing over the Arc de Triomphe the first flag fluttered down the chute, reportedly draping itself over the monument to the unknown soldier. For the first time in many months the German parade had actually been cancelled, so there was no target to attack. There were several German vehicles, but these were too intermixed with the French civilians to fire at. Flt Lt Gatward then banked the plane around for a second circuit and lined up on the Ministère de la Marine. Tracer from German AA passed by the plane but missed. Then the quad cannons in the nose of the Beaufighter shuddered into life. Flt Lt Gatward raked the building from floor level to the roof with a long burst. Several cannon shells smashed through windows exploding inside. As glass and stone chips showered down the outside of the building the Beaufighter roared over the roof at a height of just 5ft. Behind it fluttered the second tricolour. 

F/s Fern had a camera with him, and took a number of pictures during their trip. This is one of them.

Having rather badly embarrassed the Germans the Beaufighter turned for home, Parisians waving to them as they went. Flt Lt Gatward kept the throttles open at full power as long as he dared. Within an hour they would land safely at RAF Northolt.
Gatward would receive a DFC and would survive the war finishing as a Wing Commander. He would stay in the RAF after the war retiring in 1964. He died in 1998. Flt Sgt Fern would be commissioned and be awarded a DFM. After the war he returned to his job as teacher and died in 2010. 


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Image credits:

www.rafa.org.uk, www.battlefieldsww2.com and www.surreymilitaria.com