NZ’s greatest war hero – Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Park

Today is the birthday of probably the greatest war hero New Zealand ever had – that of Keith Rodney Park born in Thames and educated in Auckland and Dunedin who was the Air Officer Commanding or leader of RAF Fighter Group 11 tasked with defending London and the vital RAF fighter squadrons in the southeast of England during the .

Some readers may object to this designation and cite Sir Charles Upham who won the prestigious Victoria Cross twice in World War 2 (one of only three out of 1,355 VC recipients to achieve such feats of bravery). There is no denying the incredible heroism of Upham and his bravery on the battlefield that has done New Zealand proud. But when you weight up the absolutely crucial role Park played in the Battle of Britain, it is hard to find another New Zealander who has played such a vital role in such a pivotal battle.

The architect of the RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain was Chief of RAF Fighter Command Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding. Whilst various commentators point to the vital role of the Spitfire and radar in winning the Battle of Britain, it was Dowding who conceived the entire elaborate defensive structure of Britain that gave the British the edge in battle and of all his subordinates, it was Keith Park who was the tip of the spear and whose job it was to implement Dowding’s plans in the most vulnerable and essential region of the England.

Dowding was a dour and gruff Scotsman but possessed a consummate determination to face down entrenched reactionary opposition within the War Ministry for his plans. It was Dowding who pressed ahead with plans to seek tenders for two modern mono wing fighters (the Hurricane and the Spitfire) against the prevailing mindset that biplanes were superior because of their maneuverability (a carry-over from WW 1 dogfighting). It was Dowding who championed radar which at the time was an experimental technology with no proven track record of success. Despite skepticism and opposition, he pressed ahead with the installation of a network of radar towers along the south and east coast of England called Chain Home and augmented it with 30,000 on-the-ground observers who could assess height and size of German flight formations as radar could only work out to sea. Dowding divided Britain into four Fighter Groups and allocated the strengths of the fighter squadrons in each group. Dowding was the one to devise the centralized command structure with Operation Rooms in each group and then linked the Group Operations Rooms to his central Command Room at Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory. Dowding ensured that deep, concrete-protected phone lines were laid between each of the Group Operations rooms and all the fighter squadrons and from all Observer Corp and Radar stations to his Central Command Room. This ensured that vital communication could continue despite the disruptions of the bombing that he anticipated.

Dowding installed state of the art colour coded readiness boards in each Group Operations Room which displayed at a glance the strength and readiness of each fighter squadron in the Group. The readiness boards and banks of phones were grouped around a large central plotting table with a giant map of the Group’s area of defense with all the fighter squadrons marked. WAAF officers were given headsets that connected to the Group Commanders whose job it was to receive the raw Radar and Observer Corp data from Bentley Priory thus giving an accurate description of the size of an incoming German raid, its height, direction and breakdown of Luftwaffe bombers and fighters. Each Group Air Officer Commanding and his staff could then choose from the readiness board which squadrons were in the best position to be scrambled just in time to meet the German formations. The system was sophisticated enough for Squadron Leaders and even Flight Leaders to have WAAF plotters patched directly through to the R/T radios in their cockpits to receive real time updates of enemy movements while they raced in the air to meet the incoming German planes.

This complex system took years of careful planning and dogged determination to pull off. But whilst Dowding had created the best logistical structure for the defense of England, it fell to Keith Park to actually run the apparatus of the system in the area that bore the brunt of the German attacks. Park had to decide with only a few minutes leeway as to which squadrons to scramble, where to send his fighters and in what numbers to what height. Leaving the decision too late left precious fighters on the ground and vulnerable to being bombed whilst making the decision to scramble too early meant the RAF fighters would arrive in the air too soon and squander precious fuel searching the skies for incoming German planes. It was said that Dowding managed the Battle of Britain from day to day but it was Park who managed it hour by hour on the front lines of the skies above Kent, Surrey and London. In WW 1 it was once said that Admiral Jellicoe (Admiral of the British Grand Fleet) was the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon. Given the precarious balancing act Park was up against through the heat of the Battle of Britain, it was said that he was the only man who could lose the battle also in a single afternoon.

Park was a hands-on commander alternating between overseeing 11 Group’s coordination of the course of battle from his Group Operations Room deep in a bunker below RAF Uxbridge and flying around all his squadrons in his own Hurricane. Here are a series of interviews with RAF pilots who flew under Park as they sum up what it was like to be commanded by him.

The Battle of Britain was a close-run thing. Despite the advantages of Dowding’s integrated air defense system, in the end it came down to a race to see who could build new fighter planes and train new pilots the fastest. By the end of August 1940, Dowding told Churchill that had only enough pilots and fighters to last 3 weeks such were the losses the Luftwaffe were inflicting by its relentless bombing of the squadrons in the south. Churchill ordered a small flight of Wellingtons to bomb Berlin. This raid did little damage except to so enrage Hitler and Goering that suddenly in early September, they ordered the Luftwaffe to cease its attacks on the fighter fields of 11 Group and commence bombing London in retaliation. This one tactical blunder cost Germany the Battle of Britain. As Londoners bore the brunt of the Blitz, Dowding and Park had time to replace and repair damaged Hurricanes and Spitfires and train new pilots so that gradually through the autumn of 1940, the RAF were able to gain air supremacy and save Britain from what in May seemed certain invasion.

Park was the lynchpin who drove RAF Fighter Command’s defense of England. He stoically backed Dowding even when faced with intense opposition from the head of 12 Group AVM Leigh-Mallory who proposed a different strategy (that of scrambling all available squadrons into a giant formation) versus Park and Dowding who favoured the smaller squadron-by-squadron piecemeal defensive forays where squadrons would attack large bombing formations and get out quickly to refuel and re-arm allowing the next squadron to attack the same formation. Such was the politics of the Air Ministry that both Dowding and Park were relieved of their commands soon after the Battle of Britain despite their essential role in its victory.

It is hard to underestimate the enormous impact Park had on the Battle of Britain which in turn was one of the most consequential battles of WW 2. Had the RAF failed and Britain fallen, who knows how long it would’ve taken to liberate Europe. Park returned to NZ in 1946 as an Air Chief Marshall. He served on the Auckland City Council for a few terms and died in 1975 with little fanfare. He and Dowding have rarely been heralded for the absolutely crucial role they both played in Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain. For this feat, Keith Park surely is New Zealand’s greatest war hero.

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