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Category: Assorted/Heroes

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Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park GCB, KBE, MC & Bar, DFC, DCL, CdeG

"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 judgment and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world." Lord Tedder – Chief of the Royal Air Force, February 1947.
Sir Keith Park, GCB, KBE, MC, DFC, DCL

A decorated fighter pilot in World War One, Sir Keith Park was Commander of the RAF during the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk (France) in the early part of World War Two.

He was in charge of defending London and southern England from German bombing raids during the Battle of Britain.

He went on to organise the Defence of Malta.

Bar to the 

Military Cross


DCL is an honourary

Doctorate of Civil Law

from Oxford University

World War One Flying Ace
Born in Thames, New Zealand, on June 15th 1892, the son of Scotsman Professor James Livingstone Park and his wife Frances, Keith Park was educated at Otago Boys High School in Dunedin. At 19 he began working for the Union Steamship Company, gaining promotion to purser within twelve months.

When war broke out in 1914 he joined the New Zealand forces and served with the New Zealand Artillery in Egypt and Gallipoli. He transferred to the Royal Artillery in September 1915 and served in France for two months where he was wounded on the Somme in 1916 and classed as 'unfit to ride a horse'. This allowed Park to become a fighter pilot on the Western Front. 

"It may seem strange that I was considered unfit to ride a horse but fit to fly an aeroplane. But tradition was still strong in those days of horse-drawn artillery - and an officer and gentleman was expected to ride into battle on a charger". - Major Keith Park (comment from Scars of the Heart - Two Centuries of New Zealand at War).

Two months later he joined the Royal Flying Corps, where after flight training and accumulating 100 hours of flight time he joined 48 squadron in July 1917.

  • WWI Bristol Fighter plane of the type Keith Park flew.

By the end of the year the Bristol fighter pilot had scored 20 victories, despite being shot down once by anti-aircraft fire, and later by the German ace Kurt Ungewitter of Schusta 5. Park was the highest scoring ace to serve with 48 Squadron and for his displays of skill and gallantry was awarded the Military Cross and Bar, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. 

After the First World War he remained with the RAF, passing through the RAF Staff College, becoming an air attaché in Buenos Aires (while there marrying an Argentine woman) and a Commanding Officer at one of Britain’s peacetime fighter stations, before eventually ascending to the rank of Air Vice Marshall. As well he was chosen to be one of King George’s VI’s four aides-de-camp, riding behind the King in his Coronation procession in 1937. 

Vital World War Two Campaigns
Prior to World War Two Keith Park was appointed senior air staff officer to Hugh Dowding, who developed the utmost respect for Park, appointing him Commander-in-Chief of 11 Group, the most important in Fighter Command. Group 11 was assigned to not only protect the southern coastline of Britain and south-east England from enemy attack, but to protect London, which it was obvious that at some stage in the war would be the prime target of the Luftwaffe.   

His first experience of action in WWII came when he was in charge of organising air-protection for the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk on the French coast. The British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army had become cornered by the advancing German armies and between 26 May and 4 June 1940 nearly 350,000 people needed to be evacuated by ship from Dunkirk. The air support’s job was to intercept the Luftwaffe before they could attack the tired and exhausted Allied troops on the beaches. It was a juggling act that required shuttling fighters, often crewed by pilots with limited experience and at the end of their fuel range, back and forth across the English Channel.

Park was often in the air himself over Dunkirk, spotting weak enemy positions and taking note of targets for his own pilots. When the order came to evacuate, Park was up in a Hurricane fighter making reconnaissance missions within range of German guns. He watched the last two British ships set sail while making a final survey. He was the last airman to leave.

Luftwaffe Repelled
With the Dunkirk evacuation at best a dignified retreat, Park’s real reputation was to rest on "the resounding success" of the Battle of Britain campaign. "Operation Sealion" was the codename for Germany’s intended invasion of England. The plan was for the initial air attack to destroy vital airfields, radar stations, ports and aircraft factories, and pave the way for a sea/land invasion. When the Luftwaffe attacked Britain in 1940 (flying nearly 1500 flights over England), Park controlled the urgent defence hour by hour, organising and managing his squadrons and men brilliantly. 
Using an innovative radar defence system, Park at Fighter Command, with the help of the Observer Corp, tracked German aircraft and passed on information to British fighters enabling them to intercept the raiders. 

When the early raids proved indecisive the assault switched to London. The Luftwaffe' s efforts intensified, but so did its losses.

On 17 September Hitler postponed Operation Sealion indefinitely. It was at the conclusion of the determined warding-off of the German attack that Sir Winston Churchill was to memorably proclaim, "Never in the history of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few". 

Variously credited with "saving Britain" when it was most directly under threat from invasion, his successful repelling of the German air attack was attributed to his leadership, calm judgment and exemplary co-ordination skills. 

Elevated in stature as well as esteem (he was 6ft 5, deserving credit for merely fitting in an aircraft cockpit) his judgment was based not only on astute decision making, but also a willingness to gain crucial information first hand.

Go to The Battle of Britain Website

Often making reconnaissance missions within range of German guns and fighters, Park was at one point forced to land when a British pilot mistook his plane for one of the enemy. His service was recognised with the Order of Commander of the Bath.

Defence of Malta
After campaigning in Egypt in 1941 Park’s next big achievement came when he was charged with defending Malta. Just as the British Isles had been threatened earlier, Malta’s fate was now hung in the balance. Malta was of strategic importance, controlling the vital sea-lanes between Italy and Africa. Its natural rocks and deep inlets concealed anchorages and submarine bases. Fighter planes based on Malta were also strategically positioned to defend convoys in the Mediterranean Sea.

When Park, now Air Marshal Park, arrived on the island he found scarce food supplies, insufficient planes, and petrol supplies dependent on tankers getting through without being attacked by German fighters. In April 1942 the island suffered merciless air attacks from the Luftwaffe and Italian bombers attempting to make the island "free for the storm" and open supply routes to Rome's army in North Africa. Instead of trying to defend the island, Park, in the best All Black tradition, determined to counter-attack. The fighters that were sent out to intercept the German attack inflicted such heavy losses on the incoming German planes that Malta was saved.

Man of Action
Park’s temperament meant that he was never confined behind a desk in some buffered HQ. His willingness to take to air himself, and forcefully state his opinions regardless of rank meant that his colleagues found Park "fearless in words and deeds". As Eugene Grayland states in Famous New Zealanders, "The tall, lean New Zealander displayed the unusual combination of intense individual activity and initiative with a capacity for teamwork and co-ordination". With Malta saved, he was promoted to the post of Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, South East Asia, where the air force performed a vital role supplying stores to ground forces in testing jungle terrain where it was often difficult to find landing strips. Regularly flying into black monsoon nights and through enemy fire, Park summed up the achievements of the campaign with the telling phrase "The army of the jungle advanced on the wings of the air force".

Hero Retires to New Zealand with Honour
After World War Two Park was decommissioned and went to Argentina to work as trade ambassador to South America for the Hawker Siddley Aircraft Company. An opportunity arose to return to New Zealand as the company’s Pacific representative, and in 1948 Park came home to Auckland, eventually retiring and taking a prominent part in the Auckland City Council and other local body affairs. He died on the 6th February 1975, aged 82.

A section of the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology is named in his honour, as is the ‘Sir Keith Park IHC School’ in Auckland, New Zealand. He received honorary degrees and doctorates from Oxford University, was created a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, and was knighted twice – as well as being one of three distinguished men of the time (along with Winston Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook) to have locomotives named in their honour by the Great Southern Railway in Britain.

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