Revealed: Daring RAF pilot who risked his life to fly down Champs-Elysees at tree-top height to drape the Arc de Triomphe with a giant tricolour at the height of Nazi occupation to keep French hope alive,
The incredible story of how a RAF pilot flew down the Champs-Elysees to drop a French flag over Nazi-occupied Paris has emerged after his medals were put up for sale. Wing Commander Ken Gatward managed the 'impossible feat' of flying his Bristol Beaufighter down the Champs-Elysees at 30ft before dropping the French Tricolour over the Arc de Triomphe. The daring act was a symbol of hope to the occupied French as the Arc honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars. The British pilot then headed towards the Gestapo headquarters which he littered with 20mm shells - helping to boost morale in Paris when it was most needed.
The attack sent the German SS troops running for their lives, to the delight of the Parisians who had seen them as an invincible enemy up until that point. The brave pilot volunteered for the dare-devil mission to boost the morale of the French and put the wind up the Germans. Wg Cdr Gatward’s inspirational antics were celebrated in British newspaper cartoons and raised the hope and morale among the British and French. One of the cartoons depicted his aircraft doing a loop around the Eiffel Tower, with the word ‘Hope’ written in the sky using his trail smoke. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and after the war he was hailed a hero by the French government who presented him with a huge bottle of Champagne and a Tricolour in Paris. Wg Cdr Gatward’s medal set, that includes his DFC with bar and a Distinguished Service Order, have now been put up for auction after the recent death of his widow.
A souvenir booklet featuring a sketch of the moment Wg Cdr Gatward and his observer dropped the Tricolour over the Arc de Triomphe with German army trucks on the ground is also being sold.James Grinter, of auctioneers Reeman Dansie of Colchester, Essex, said: 'Ken Gatward’s act of bravery is a real Boy’s Own story.
Honour: Ken Gatward was presented with a Tricolour by the grateful French in 1949 'He was asked to volunteer for the ‘unsafe mission’ which was aimed as boosting the morale of the French and British people as well as undermine the Germans. 'This is June 1942 and the real dark days of war for the French and this was to demonstrate that the Germans weren’t invincible.' Wg Cdr Gatward was chosen for the sortie as he had demonstrated a skill for accurate flying during low-level attacks on enemy positions after Dunkirk.
The British had been informed the Germans held daily parades down the Champs-Elysees and he was asked to strafe the parade. He and his navigator, Flight Sergeant George Fern, took off from Thorny Island, near Portsmouth, on June 12.
After reaching Paris, he flew at just 30ft before Ft Sgt released the flag down the flare shute and over the Arc de Triomphe. Mr Grinter said: 'It is an amazing story - one of those that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
'He flew down the Champs-Elysees at second floor window height. It was an incredible act of bravery and a real audacious attack. 'He attacked the Gestapo HQ and SS troops were seen to run for their lives. As he turned for home the Germans came out and shook their fists at him.
'The attack gave Parisians one of the greatest thrills of the war and had a huge effect on the morale of the French and at home.' When Wg Cdr Gatward returned he entered a very bland entry into his log book to record the daring raid.
Wg Cdr Gatward was awarded a second DFC in September 1944 for taking part in an aeriel attack on a German convoy in Norwegian waters. He spent 30 years in the RAF before retiring. He lived in Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, with wife Pamela and died in 1998 aged 84.
His medals and other items are expected to sell for 8,000 pounds at the auction on Friday.