G is for Ken Gatward

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for Round 21 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if there are repeats of previous posts.

There are many who have risked their lives in war for the sake of freedom, but few have done what Ken Gatward did in 1942 – to put his neck on the line for the sake of a propaganda stunt.

Gatward was born in 1914 in Hornsey, London, the son of the local Chief Inspector of police. He joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1937 and when war broke out in 1939 he joined No 53 Squadron specialising in low-level raids.

In 1942, the Special Operations Executive received intelligence that the German forces in Paris paraded down the Champs-Élysées every day between 12.15 and 12.45 and concluded that it would be useful propaganda if someone was to shoot them up a bit and drop a French Tricolour on top of the Arc de Triomphe.

Gatward and his navigator George Fern had no hesitation in volunteering for what was clearly a hazardous mission and began practising for their daring mission by attacking a shipwreck in the English Channel. They also studied maps of Paris to work out the best route for getting in and out of the city.

Gatward also obtained a Tricolour from Portsmouth Harbour which he had cut in two horizontally, the plan being to drop one half on the Arc de Triomphe and the other on the Kriegsmarine Headquarters.

They first attempted the raid on 13th May 1942 but were forced back by bad weather and tried again on 12th June. They crossed into France just before noon in excellent weather conditions and by 12:27 they circled the Eiffel Tower before turning towards the Champs-Élysées. The expected military parade hadn’t materialised but they were able to drop the Tricolour on top of the Arc de Triomphe as planned.

Gatward then turned to strafe the Kriegsmarine Headquarters scattering the German sentries and Fern released the second Tricolour on top of the building. They then turned for home and the pair were back at RAF Northolt before 2 pm.

Gatward was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, while Fern received the Distinguished Flying Medal and their daring was commemorated in the newspapers like the cartoon above.

Gatward remained in the RAF after the war and became the liaison officer with the US Air Force in Germany in 1946. He took command of RAF Odiham and later served with Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe before retiring in 1964 with the rank of Group Captain at the Air Cadet Headquarters at White Waltham.

He died in 1998 at the age of 84 and, after his wife died in 2012, his medals and other memorabilia were sold at auction for £41,000.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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