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Operation Squabble: When Britain’s RAF Bombed the Arc de Triomphe…. With a Flag

In late January of 1933 President Paul von Hindenburg made Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany. 

The idea was that the largely ceremonial title would appease the pint-size agitator whipping the country into a nationalistic frenzy.

Sadly, it wasn’t enough, and when the Reichstag instituted the Enabling Act in May of the same year, it granted Hitler even more powers, that along with countless other factors would propel the world into yet another epic war just six years later. 

Though fevered sabre rattling, diplomatic wrangling, and military buildups had been going on for some time, hostilities officially began on the first day of September in 1939 when the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe stormed into Poland. 

Just a decade and a half after The Great War had decimated Europea, the continent was once again in turmoil.

Honoring their pacts with Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, but both took surprisingly conciliatory stances in the hopes that appeasement and the statistical strengths of their militaries would protect them from suffering similar fates. 

However, as we all now know, German forces poured into Belgium and France the following year.

Though Britain and France mustered a combined force to halt German aggression, the effort ended with Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of more than 330,000 soldiers from the French port of Dunkirk between May and June in 1940. 

Morale was in the toilet, Britain was facing the Nazi juggernaut on its own, and to make matters worse, the Americans wouldn’t officially enter the war for another year and a half. 

What the French needed to see them through their darkest hour was a gesture so symbolic, so defiant, and so outrageous, that it couldn’t help but lift the citizens’ spirits. 

That said, it’d be two years before they’d get it, thanks to the RAF, a twin-engine Bristol Beaufighter, and a handsome young English pilot named Ken Gatward.

Born in late August of 1914 in a humble north London apartment, there wasn’t much in Alfred Kitchener “Ken” Gatward’s early life that foretold of the daring mission he’d command in the summer of 1942. 

After attending college in nearby Palmers Green, he worked as a journalist and wallpaper salesman before signing on with the Royal Air Force’s Volunteer Reserve in 1937 at the age of 22. 

Two years later with his aviation training complete, Gatward received his commission as a full-fledged pilot just in time for the outbreak of hostilities. 

Preparations

In early May of 1942, young Lieutenant Ken Gatward and navigator George Fern sat dozens of meters over the tarmac atop an aircraft hangar near Portsmouth Harbor. 

The day was cloudy and windy, and the pair held a big French tricolor to which they’d attached bits of scrap metal for additional weight.  

Then, timed perfectly to coincide with a particularly stiff gust, they dropped the rolled flag to see how quickly it would unfurl during its descent.  

Satisfied with the results of their unorthodox experiment, they returned to their Beaufighter to give it a thorough once-over. 

A few days later on May 5 after an uneventful takeoff, Gatward, Fern and their trusty Beaufighter screamed low and fast over the English Channel.

Collectively thumping out 3,200 horsepower, the Beaufighter’s 14-cylinder Hercules engines drove 3-bladed propellers that chopped loudly through the damp sea air. 

Inside, captain and navigator peered through the tiny cockpit in search of their target below. 

Then when it was in sight, Gatward eased the stick forward and the Beaufighter’s bulbous nose dropped.  

The heavy plane gathered speed quickly, and just seconds later as Gatward struggled to control the trembling craft his clammy finger squeezed the trigger on the stick. 

Four 20 mm Hispano cannons in the nose instantly barked to life spewing smoke, flames and armor piercing shells that peppered the target below, which ironically, was just a partially exposed shipwreck of absolutely no military value.

But though this was just routine gunnery practice, if everything went according to plan, in a few days they’d be buzzing over enemy territory at treetop level, strafing the Kriegsmarine headquarters, and the same flag they just dropped from the roof of the hanger would be draped over the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris.

First Attempt

On the morning of May 13, 1942, Fern fidgeted with his maps in the back seat while Gatward feathered the throttles and oriented the plane’s nose along the runway’s centerline. 

Then pushing the big radial engines past 2,900 rpms, he waited for final clearance from the control tower before releasing the brakes. 

Seconds later, humming away at full power, the engines propelled the aircraft down the runway, and when the wings were creating sufficient lift, the 18,000-pound (8,164 kg) warbird lifted into the ominous sky.     

Steadily climbing, Gatward made a slow turn toward the English Channel, and once at altitude eased back on the throttles to conserve fuel and give the engines time to cool.

This time however, the weather just wasn’t cooperating, and the pair had to return to base.  

The Mission

Despite heavy weather around Thorney Island in West Sussex on June 12, at just about noon the twin-engined Bristol Beaufighter crewed by Gatward and Fern once again hurtled across the English Channel at nearly 300 miles per hour (482 km/h).

The conditions were far from ideal for a normal flight, but the mission on which they’d just embarked was anything but garden variety. 

In fact, it was risky. 

Even foolhardy, but the pair had made an unspoken pact – this time turning back wasn’t an option. 

The hazardous nature of Operation Squabble actually required that there be cloud cover over certain stretches of the route, and it wasn’t until June 12 that the necessary conditions materialized. 

Alfred 'Ken@ Gatward's flight to and from Paris for Operation Squabble - 12 June, 1942

Alfred ‘Ken@ Gatward’s flight to and from Paris for Operation Squabble – 12 June, 1942

Approaching the coastline, Gatward took a quick moment to review critical mission details before all hell broke loose. 

According to reports from the Special Operations Executive, German formations paraded down the Champs-Élysées every day between 12:15 and 12:45. 

Such pomp and predictability in a time of war may have been the height of lunacy, but to Air Ministry officials it was a godsend.  

According to them, nothing would boost French morale like an Allied aircraft strafing the very troops who were occupying and oppressing their beloved country, and when Gatward and Fern were approached about participating they both agreed instantly. 

However, since Paris was just out of range of Spitfire escorts, they’d have to go it alone. 

To cocky young aviators it was a choice if dangerous mission. 

Strapped into a Beaufigher, strafing pompous Nazis, airdropping a Tricolor or two onto a beleaguered city, and peppering Kriegsmarine HQ with 20 mm cannon shells sounded like a wonderful way to spend a summer afternoon. 

On the flipside, the chances were pretty good that it would be a one-way trip. 

Then again, Operation Squabble might be so unorthodox and so crazy, that it could just work. 

When a long beam of sunlight burst through the cockpit the young airmen were roused from their ponderings, and just ahead the English Channel gave way to occupied France as the sky began to clear. 

Before long they were over the suburbs of Paris. 

Already flying low to avoid detection and German anti-aircraft batteries, Gatward double-checked the altimeter and descended even further just as Nazi gunners below let loose with a bevy of antiaircraft fire. 

Resisting the urge to take evasive action which would only give the Germans a better target, Gatward hammered the throttles, held his course, and hoped that speed and good fortune would win the day. 

The German antiaircraft crews were good, and all that stood between them and the hissing shells were rivets and thin sheets of aircraft aluminum, but thankfully at such a low altitude they were long gone before the gunners were able to get a good lead on them. 

Then dead ahead the Eiffel Tower appeared like a beacon and as if a switch had been flipped the ground fire ceased, or perhaps the cracks and muzzle flashes were just mercifully drowned out by the adrenaline coursing through their veins. 

Either way, the Beaufighter circled the tower and banked toward the Champs-Élysées, but mid-turn Gatward noticed a small black mass coming right at them.  

He dipped the right wing to avoid impact, but the lone bird – probably a crow – slammed into the starboard engine with an unsettling thud. 

Of all the things that could’ve gone wrong…

Losing oil or fuel pressure at low altitude over enemy territory could be fatal, but the robust powerplant shrugged off the strike without missing a beat. 

With one catastrophe narrowly avoided, another hastily took its place. 

Gatward and Fern were at the right place at the right time, and the Champs-Élysées was exactly where it’s supposed to be, but there wasn’t any Nazi parade like they were told there’d be. 

All they saw were sparse crowds of Parisians strolling and picnicking like they’d be doing on any summer day – even though they were living under tyrannical fascist occupation. 

Bewildered, Gatward turned toward the Arc de Triomphe, and less than 50 yards out and 100 yards up, Fern released the first tricolor from the narrow cockpit window. 

Almost in slow motion it unfolded perfectly and draped lazily over the monument to the delight of the applauding spectators below.  

Then Gatward swung east, hell-bent on turning his cannons on the headquarters of the Kriegsmarine, which were located in the building formerly occupied by the French Ministry of Navy, or Ministère de la Marine.

On multiple passes Gatwarded unloaded cannon shells that ripped through its windows and masonry facade like it was made of cardboard. 

In the maelstrom the German sentries scattered as the Beaufighter swept around for one last pass. 

Then with fuel and ammunition running low, Gatward pulled up slowly and Fern scored another direct hit with the second Tricolor.

Back at Home

Approximately 2 ½ hours after taking off, Gatward and Fern landed safely at RAF Northolt.

Later while inspecting the Beaufighter, Gatward discovered the deceased French crow lodged just a few inches from the starboard engine’s oil cooler. 

It was laid to rest with all due reverence in a shallow grave behind one of the hangars. 

Nobody’s sure exactly why the daily parade had been called off on the day of Operation Squabble, but though the German casualties were lower than they might have been, the brazen attack boosted both British and French morale and served as a valuable recruiting tool. 

For his actions Gatward was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, while Fern received the Distinguished Flying Medal. 

In late 1944 Gatward would receive another Distinguished Flying Cross for leading a 24-plane attack against German Navy and merchant ships off the coast of Norway. 

Losses were heavy, but Gatward’s Beaufighters sank four minesweepers and put at least one destroyer out of action. 

By war’s end Gatward had been promoted to Wing Commander, and he later became a liaison officer to the United States Air Force in Germany. 

Before retiring in 1964 after three decades of service, he also served as Commander at RAF Odiham as well as at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium. 

Ken Gatward died in Essex in 1998 at the age of 84. 

Fern was promoted to Squadron Leader, but after the war he turned in his wings to focus on less dangerous pursuits like teaching, woodworking and painting. 

He died in Bath in September of 2010.

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