Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park GCB, KBE, MC*, DFC, DCL, MA, RAF performed so many remarkable roles that it is difficult to do justice to his achievements. A New Zealander, he first served with the Anzac Brigade in Gallipoli. Not content with this, Park transferred to the British Army where he was wounded during the Battle of the Somme and declared “unfit for active service”. He transferred again, this time to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps in 1916. Flying Bristol fighters he was credited with downing 20 enemy aircraft. During this period he was awarded a Military Cross and Bar, as well as a Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the First World War, Park joined the newly formed Royal Air Force and by 1938 had been appointed as staff officer to Air Chief Marshal Dowding with whom he helped to devise the strategy for Fighter Command that was to win the “Battle of Britain”. Dowding trusted Park to implement this strategy and accordingly, in April 1940, placed him in command of 11 Group, which was to defend London and the South East and would therefore bear the brunt of the Battle.
While Sir Hugh Dowding controlled the Battle from day to day, it was Keith Park who controlled it hour by hour. Air Vice Marshal ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, one of the top Allied air aces of the war, said: “He was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon”.
Wave after wave of German bombing sorties met with stubborn resistance from the fighter squadrons under Park’s command and, by mid-September, it was clear that Britain’s defences had held and Hitler was forced to abandon the planned invasion of Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “never… was so much owed by so many to so few”. It was Keith Park who led ”the Few”.
In July 1942 Park assumed responsibility for the air defence of Malta, the most bombed place on earth, where the population was collectively awarded the George Cross. Here he turned the tide of the battle and again defeated the Luftwaffe.
Men of such calibre are not commonplace, and we can all count ourselves fortunate that he was at his post in such dark times, even more so because his journey began on the other side of the world in New Zealand. It was, perhaps, auspicious that his birth place was a town called “Thames”. Yet his achievements have been little celebrated and, until 2009, 69 years after the Battle of Britain, he had not been honoured by any public memorial in the country he did so much to defend.
Chairman Terry Smith, who launched the Sir Keith Park Memorial Campaign to “right the wrong of an unsung hero”, was overwhelmed by the support that the campaign received from so many quarters. It revealed both the extent of the respect engendered by Keith Park and the desire for public acknowledgement of the debt that we owe to him.
The Campaign’s aim was to erect a permanent memorial statue to Sir Keith Park in the heart of the capital city he did so much to defend. This was achieved with the erection of first, a temporary statue of Sir Keith Park on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square for a six-month period, and second, a permanent memorial in Waterloo Place, which was unveiled on 15 September 2010 the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
Battle of Britain fIghter pilot Douglas Bader once said: “The awesome responsibility for this country’s survival rested squarely on Keith Park’s shoulders. British military history of this century has been enriched with the names of great fighting men from New Zealand, of all ranks and in every one of our services. Keith Park’s name is carved into history alongside those of his peers.”
The memorial statue has ensured that Sir Keith Park’s name is now “carved into history” and will serve to educate the young and those visiting London of the incredible sacrifices that were made in that epic struggle in the skies during that summer of 1940.
Terry Smith, chairman of the Sir Keith Park Memorial Campaign
Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Rodney Park was a New Zealand soldier, First World War flying ace and Second World War Royal Air Force commander. He was in operational command during two of the most significant air battles in the European theatre in the Second World War, helping to win the Battle of Britain and the Battle of Malta. In Germany, he was supposedly known as “the Defender of London”.
Sir Keith Rodney Park, GCB, KBE, MC & Bar, DFC, 1892-1975
Park was born in Thames, New Zealand. He was the son of James Park from Scotland, geologist for a mining company and later a professor at the University of Otago in Dunedin.
An undistinguished young man, but keen on guns and riding, Keith Park was educated at King’s College, Auckland until 1906 and then at Otago Boys’ High School, Dunedin where he served in the cadets. Later he joined the Army as a Territorial soldier in the New Zealand Field Artillery. In 1911, at age 19, he went to sea as a purser aboard collier and passenger steamships, earning the family nickname “skipper”.
When the First World War broke out, Park left the ships and joined his artillery battalion. As a non-commissioned officer, he participated in the landings at Gallipoli in April 1915, going ashore at Anzac Cove. In the trench warfare that followed, Park’s achievements were recognised and in July 1915 he gained a commission as second lieutenant. He commanded an artillery battalion during the August 1915 attack on Suvla Bay and endured more months of squalor in the trenches. At this time Park took the unusual decision to transfer from the New Zealand Army to the British Army, joining the Royal Horse and Field Artillery.
Park was evacuated from Gallipoli in January 1916. The battle had left its mark on him both physically and mentally, though later on in life, he would remember it with nostalgia. He particularly admired the ANZAC commander, Sir William Birdwood, whose leadership style and attention to detail would be a model for Park in his later career.
After the hardship at Gallipoli, Park’s battalion was shipped to France to take part in the Battle of the Somme. Here he learned the value of aerial reconnaissance, noting the manner in which German aircraft were able to spot Allied artillery for counter-fire and getting an early taste of flight by being taken aloft to check his battalion’s camouflage. On 21 October 1916, Park was blown off his horse by a German shell. Wounded, he was evacuated to England and medically certified “unfit for active service,” which technically meant he was unfit to ride a horse. After a brief remission recovering from his wounds, recuperating and doing training duties at Woolwich Depot, he joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in December 1916.
First World War
In the RFC, Park first learned to instruct and then learned to fly. After a spell as an instructor (March 1917 to the end of June), he was posted to France and managed a posting to join 48 Squadron, at La Bellevue (near Arras), on 7 July 1917. Within a week, the squadron moved to Frontier Aerodrome just east of Dunkirk. Park flew the new Bristol Fighter (a two-seat biplane fighter and reconnaissance aircraft) and soon achieved successes against German fighters, earning, on 17 August, the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”, after shooting down an enemy aircraft and causing the destruction of three others, with Arthur Noss as his gunner. He was promoted to temporary captain on 11 September.
After a break from flying, Park returned to France as a major to command 48 Squadron, where he showed his ability as a tough but fair commander by demonstrating discipline, leadership and an understanding of the technical aspects of air warfare.
By the end of the war, the strain of command had all but exhausted Park, but he had achieved much as a pilot and commander. He had earned a bar to his Military Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the French Croix de Guerre. His final tally of aircraft claims was five destroyed and 14 (and one shared) “out of control”. (His 13th “credit” of 5 September 1917 was Lieutenant Franz Pernet of Jasta Boelcke (a stepson of General Erich Ludendorff)). Park was also shot down twice during this period.
After the Armistice, he married the London socialite Dorothy “Dol” Parish.
After the War, Park was awarded a permanent commission as a captain in the Royal Air Force and when the new RAF officer ranks were introduced in 1919, Park became a flight lieutenant. He served as a flight commander on No.25 Squadron from 1919 to 1920 before taking up duties as a squadron commander at the School of Technical Training. In 1922 he was selected to attend the newly formed RAF Staff College. Later on, Park commanded RAF stations and was an instructor before promotion to Air Commodore and an appointment as Senior Air Staff Officer at Fighter Command under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding in 1938. In 1937 he attended the Imperial Defence College.
Second World War
Battle of Britain
Promoted to the rank of air vice marshal, Park took command of No. 11 Group RAF, responsible for the fighter defence of London and southeast England, in April 1940. He organised fighter patrols over France during the Dunkirk evacuation and in the Battle of Britain his command took the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s air attacks. Flying his personalised Hawker Hurricane around his fighter airfields during the battle, Park gained a reputation as a shrewd tactician with an astute grasp of strategic issues and as a popular “hands-on” commander. However, he became embroiled in an acrimonious dispute with ambitious Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commander of 12 Group. Leigh-Mallory, already envious of Park for leading the key 11 Group while No. 12 Group was left to defend airfields, repeatedly failed to support No. 11 Group. Leigh-Mallory and his Big Wing (led by Douglas Bader) often ran amok through No. 11 Group airspace confusing the UK’s defences. Quintin Brand’s No. 10 Group in the South West successfully supported No. 11 Group when required despite having far more arduous defensive duties in its own area than No. 12 Group.
Park’s subsequent objection to Leigh-Mallory’s behaviour during the Big Wing controversy may have contributed to his and Dowding’s removal from command at the end of the battle, but neither Park nor Dowding had much time for internal politics and fell easy prey to their waiting critics. Richard Saul of 13 Group on the other hand, wrote to Park on learning of his pending departure from No. 11 Group, commenting on “the magnificent achievements of your group in the past six months; they have borne the brunt of the war, and undoubtedly saved England”. Park was to remain indignant however over his and Dowding’s treatment for the rest of his life. Park was posted immediately to Training Command before seeing later high ranking service in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, while Dowding was sent to America.
Park’s No. 11 Group RAF were coordinated by fighter controllers in the No. 11 Group Operations Room in the underground bunker, now known as the Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge. Park himself was not based in the bunker but did visit to impart his wisdom at numerous key points during the battle, along with visits from the Royal Family and Winston Churchill. Among the many air battles fought over Britain, Park personally commanded RAF forces on several important dates; 13 August (Adlertag), 18 August (The Hardest Day) and the 15 September (Battle of Britain Day).
While overseeing the operations at RAF Uxbridge, Air Vice-Marshal Park stayed in a house opposite the entrance to the bunker. He used a small door to get from the house each day to the bunker. In 1996, the house, named Park House after the war in his honour, was demolished. Only the door and garden wall were retained.“
Later war career
In January 1942 Park went to Egypt as Air Officer Commanding, where he built up the air defence of the Nile Delta. In July 1942, following growing concern over the German and Italian attacks on Malta, he returned to action, commanding the vital air defence of the island. From there his squadrons participated in the North African and Sicilian campaigns. In January 1944 he was made Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Middle East Command.
In June 1944, Park was considered by the Australian government to command the RAAF, because of rivalry between the nominal head, Chief of the Air Staff Air Vice Marshal George Jones and his deputy the Operational head, Air Vice Marshal William Bostock, but General Douglas MacArthur said it was too late in the war to change. In February 1945 Park was appointed Allied Air Commander, South-East Asia, where he served until the end of the war. Park was made a Commander of the American Legion of Merit in 1947. On leaving the Royal Air Force, Park personally selected a Supermarine Spitfire to be donated to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, New Zealand. This aircraft is still on display today along with his service decorations and uniform.
Park retired and was promoted to Air Chief Marshal on 20 December 1946 and returned to New Zealand, where he took up a number of civic roles and was elected to the Auckland City Council in 1962. He lived in New Zealand until his death on 6 February 1975, aged 82 years.
“ If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world.” Lord Tedder, Chief of the Air Staff, February 1947.
While Sir Hugh Dowding controlled the Battle from day to day, it was Keith Park who controlled it hour by hour. Air Vice Marshal ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, one of the top Allied air aces of the war, said: “He was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon”.“ This was an echo of Winston Churchill’s description of Admiral Jellicoe in the First World War.
Another ace who fought in the Battle of Britain, the RAF pilot Douglas Bader, said that “the awesome responsibility for this country’s survival rested squarely on Keith Park’s shoulders. British military history of this century has been enriched with the names of great fighting men from New Zealand, of all ranks and in every one of our services. Keith Park’s name is carved into history alongside those of his peers.”
Although Park has not received widespread public recognition, either in Britain or his native New Zealand, he has a claim to be one of the greatest commanders in the history of aerial warfare.