A decorated fighter pilot in World War One, Keith Park was Commander-in-Chief of No. 11 Group 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.
In 1942, he led the defence of Malta. Highly decorated and awarded, knighted, and with a reputation for fearlessness, Park returned to New Zealand sometime after the war for a career in aviation and local government. It was thanks in part to Park’s role in World War Two that Winston Churchill memorably proclaimed: “Never in the history of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
World War One Flying Ace
Born in Thames, New Zealand, on 15 June 1892, Keith Parks was the son of Scotsman, Professor James Livingstone Park, and his wife, Frances.. Park was educated at Otago Boys High School in Dunedin and at 19, he began working for the Union Steamship Company, gaining a promotion to purser within 12 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 (British) 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 led 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 No. 48 squadron in July 1917.
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 No. 48 Squadron. For his displays of skill and gallantry, he 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 a London girl Dorothy, “Dol”). Park became a Commanding Officer at one of Britain’s peacetime fighter stations, before eventually rising to the rank of Air Vice-Marshal. He was also chosen to be one of King George VI’s four aides-de-camp, riding behind the King in his Coronation procession in 1937.
Vital World War Two Campaigns
The air was to be the critical military arena of World War Two. The British stakes were high, the German threat was immense, and the internal political and operating environment with the Air Ministry and Churchill’s government was complex. At the beginning of WWII, Keith Park was appointed senior air staff officer to Hugh Dowding, the first commander of RAF Fighter Command. Dowding was behind the development of the Dowding System, which would be pivotal to success in the upcoming air war. Soon after, in January 1940, Park was appointed Commander-in-Chief of No.11 Group, the most important in Fighter Command. No.11 Group was assigned to not only defend the southern coastline of Britain and south-east England from enemy attack, but also to protect London, which it was obvious would be the prime target of the Luftwaffe at some stage of the war.
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 advancing German forces and between 26 May and 4 June 1940 – nearly 350,000 troops needed to be evacuated by ship. The air support’s job was to intercept the Luftwaffe before they could attack the 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.
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.
The Dowding System, which Dowding conceived and oversaw, was an integrated air defence system which included radar, Royal Observer Corps, realtime raid plotting, and radio control of aircraft. Using the innovative radar defence system at Fighter Command, and with the help of the Observer Corp, Park, and the No. 11 Group, tracked German aircraft and advised British fighters, enabling them to intercept the raiders. When the early raids proved indecisive, the Luftwaffe switched the assault to London. Their efforts intensified, but so did their losses and, on 17 September 1940, Adolf Hitler postponed Operation Sealion indefinitely.
Park’s repelling of the German air attack was attributed to his leadership, judgement 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 judgement was based not only on astute decision making, but also a willingness to gain crucial information first hand. He often made reconnaissance missions within range of German guns and fighters, and 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 hanging 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. They were attempting to make the island “free for the storm” and open supply routes to Rommel’s army in North Africa. Instead of trying to defend the island, Park decided 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 sheltered headquarters. His willingness to take to the 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. There, the air force performed a vital role in 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 WWII, 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 6 February 1975, aged 82.
A section of the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology is named in Park’s honour, as is the ‘Sir Keith Park IHC School’ in Auckland. He received honorary degrees and doctorates from Oxford University, was created a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, and a Knight of the British Empire. He was also one of several distinguished men of the time, along with Winston Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook, to have locomotives named in their honour by the Southern Railway in Britain.
For a short biography, (contains details of biography of Park by Vincent Orange) at: http://www.theaerodrome.com/aces/nzealand/park.php
[access May 2000]
For a biography from the “The Battle of Britain Historical Society” website (links to an excellent site on the history of The Battle of Britain): http://www.battleofbritain.net/section-3/appendix-17.html
[access May 2000]
Link to the Sir Keith Park Memorial Site at the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT), Auckland: http://www.motat.org.nz/collections/aviation.htm.
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For the DNZB entry on Keith Park see http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/dnzb/.
[access September 2006]
For more information about 34053 Sir Keith Park and its restoration.
Gordon McLauchlan (editor-in-chief). (1999) Illustrated History of New Zealand, Bateman, Auckland.
Pugsley, Chris. (1996) Scars of the Heart – Two Centuries of New Zealand at War, Bateman, Auckland.
Eugene Grayland. (1967) Famous New Zealanders, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, Christchurch.
Orange, Vincent. (2001) Park: The Biography of Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Park, Grub Street Publishing, London.
Sites which have linked to this story:
Australian Aviation Archive
Sir Keith Park Statue Campaign:
A major campaign is currently underway in the UK — supported by New Zealand — to erect a statue to commemorate
Sir Keith Park’s efforts in saving Britain during WWII. To support the campaign, visit the website http://www.sirkeithpark.com and sign the petition.