Keith Rodney Park, 1892-1975

Sir Keith Park (1892-1975) is best known as the commander of No.11 Group in the south-east of England during the Battle of Britain, but he also played a major part in the Dunkirk evacuation, the successful defence of Malta and the British and Commonwealth offensive in Burma in 1945.

Park was born in Thames, New Zealand, in 1892, the son of the director of the Thames School of Mines. In early life Park trained in mining, before going to sea as a purser. In 1914 he volunteered to join the artillery. In 1915 he was part of the NZ Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli, where he won a regular commission. He then went to France, fighting on the Somme in 1916. He was seriously injured on the Somme and spent some time serving at the Woolwich arsenal, before joining the RFC in 1917. He was an immediate success in his new service, rising to the command of No.48 Squadron and winning the MC and Bar during 1917. He was thus one of the founder members of the RAF.

In April 1940 Park was given command of No.11 Fighter Group, based around London. Park had sixteen Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons available to him during the Dunkirk evacuations, roughly 200 aircraft. His aircraft were operating towards the outer limits of their range over Dunkirk, and could only stay over the beaches for forty minutes before they were forced to return to base to refuel. This meant that he could only put one squadron at a time over the beaches, and the efforts of the RAF were not recognised at the time by the beleaguered troops on the beaches (one reason for this may have been the difficulty in telling British from German fighters in such stressful circumstances - with naval anti-aircraft gunners firing at Hurricanes and Spitfires on a regular basis the troops can be forgiven for not realising that British fighters were overhead). Of course Park was not responsible for the number of aircraft at his disposal - this decision was made by Sir Hugh Dowding, who was unwilling to risk exposing more of his precious fighter squadrons over the Continent. Park himself flew his own Hurricane over Dunkirk on several occasions.

Park changed his tactics on 29 May. Until then he had operated on the principle that there should be one squadron of fighters over Dunkirk at any time. This mean that the RAF was always outnumbered, and so from 29 May Park operated in greater strength but less often, putting up patrols of four squadrons. This meant that the Luftwaffe were less successful while the RAF was present (for eleven of seventeen daylight hours on 29 May), but were able to operate largely unopposed during the gaps. During the nine days of fighting over Dunkirk Fighter Command flew 2,739 sorties, losing 99 aircraft including 42 Spitfires.

In July Park was promoted to Air Vice Marshal. During the same month he also made an effort to improve the air-sea rescue service, getting some Lysanders to operate alongside the launches and other craft provided by the Vice-Admiral commanding at Dover. By the start of the Battle of Britain Park had been brought into the small circle of senior commanders who were aware of the Ultra secret - the breaking of the German's enigma code, joining Dowding.

Park played a key part in the implementation of the 'Dowding system'. Dowding himself, from his headquarters at Bentley Priory, was at the heart of the system. The Operations Room at Bentley Priory was the only one that showed the entire situation across the UK. Park's own Operations Room, at Uxbridge, showed the situation in his own and neighbouring groups. Park controlled the tactics that his squadrons would use, but the hour-by-hour control of the battle was performed by the Sector Controllers. These comparatively junior officers were the men who put the squadrons into the air and decided where to send them.

During the battle Park issued a series of 35 Instructions to his squadrons. These give us a very clear idea of Park's view of the battle and how it was developing. From Instruction No.4 of 19 August we learn that Park believed his squadrons should concentrate on destroying enemy bombers, avoiding fighter-to-fighter combat as much as possible. The same document also includes instructions that No.12 Group should be asked to provide patrols over Debden, North Weald and Hornchurch if all of No.11 Group's squadrons were off the ground. This led to the 'Big Wing' controversy - Leigh-Mallory, commander of No.12 Group, wanted to engage the enemy with larger formations made up of several squadrons, something that Park rarely had time to achieve. These 'big wings' could be very useful if they arrived where and when they were needed, but unfortunately they often arrived late, or under the command of Douglas Bader got involved in a different part of the battle. Park became increasingly angry with Leigh-Mallory whenever No.12 Group failed to prevent a bombing raid on one of Park's airfields, while Leigh-Mallory felt that he wasn't asked for assistance early enough.  

Park had to cope with a series of changes in German tactics. At first they flew with their bombers low and their fighters high. This gave the fighters the most flexibility, but Park coped with it by ordering his squadrons to split, with half holding off the fighters and the other half attacking the bombers. This tactic was so effective that from 16 August the Germans moved their fighters closer to the bombers. From 24 August the Germans flew standing patrols over the Straits of Dover, which made it harder to detect genuine raids. Park responded to this tactic with the 'Tally Ho' system in which squadron leaders in the air radioed information about the course, height and size of enemy formations back to their control rooms to allow a more accurate picture to be created. October saw the advent of hit-and-run fighter-bomber raids using small numbers of aircraft. This forced Park to adopt his own standing patrols.

The 'big wing' controversy eventually led to a conference on 'Major Day Tactics' held on 17 October at which Park, Dowding and Leigh-Mallory were all present. At this meeting it was apparently decided to allow No.12 Group's 'wings' to operate freely over No.11 Group's area, with the two groups being coordinated by Fighter Command HQ.

On 24 November Dowding was replaced as Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command by Sholto Douglas. Park's time at No.11 Group was clearly now limited, and he was replaced by Leigh-Mallory on 18 December. There was also a feeling that Park was exhausted after a period of relentless pressure that had lasted from late May, and also that other men would be better suited to the more offensive battle now being planned.

Dowding's career never recovered from his removal from Fighter Command, but Park went on to serve with great distinction in a number of posts. His first appointment was to command No.23 Training Group, where his experience was invaluable. In the autumn of 1941 he received an overseas command, becoming Air officer Commanded in Egypt. On 15 July 1942 he was moved again, becoming AOC Malta. This meant that once again he was in command of a desperate defensive battle, although he did arrive after the worst of the siege was over. One of Park's first moves on arriving in Malta was to alter the fighter tactics in use. The slow rate of climb of the older aircraft on Malta meant that the standard tactic when a raid was detected was for the fighters to head south, away from the raid, to gain altitude before turning back north to intercept the German or Italian aircraft. This meant that most Axis raids managed to reach the island. Park realised that the newer Spitfires at his disposal meant that this could be abandoned, and he ordered his fighters to head north after taking off and climb towards their opponents. This meant that more aerial battles took place over the sea, placing a greater strain on the air-sea rescue service, but also reduced the number of bombs that fell on Malta.

In August Park played a part in the defence of Operation Pedestal, the movement of a major convoy from Gibraltar to Malta. He received 100 new aircraft, giving him a total of 250 for the upcoming battle. Some of these aircraft were used to bomb Axis aircraft on Sicily, while his Spitfires and Beaufighters provided fighter cover around the convoy. Although only five of the fourteen merchant ships in the convoy reached Malta the supplies they carried provided a vital boost to the island, as well as allowing the navy to resume operations.

Park's last major defensive battle came after Rommel's last advance, which ended at El Alamein. Aircraft based on Malta attacked Axis supply convoys, and were able to carry out fifteen bomber sorties per week. After the failure of Rommel's last offensive in late August the Allies began to prepare for their own attack. By the eve of the battle of El Alamein Park had eight squadrons on Malta out of the total of ninety six operational Allied squadrons in the Middle East, but the island's position meant that it still played a major role in disrupted Axis supply convoys.

After the victory at El Alamein Park's forces went firmly onto the offensive, taking part in the fighting in Tunisia and the invasion of Sicily. In the months before that second campaign Park directed the effort that built extra airfields, radar installations and control rooms on Malta, including the combined war room from where General Alexander commanded the invasion. By the time that invasion took place there were forty squadrons of fighters alone based on Malta, Gozo and Pantelleria (not all commanded by Park).

On 14 January 1944 Park was promoted to become Commander-in-Chief of the RAF in the Mediterranean and Middle East, replacing Sholto Douglas. He held this post for just over one year. In November 1944 Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory was appointed as Air Commander-in-Chief in South East Asia under Mountbatten, but he was killed in an air crash in the French Alps on his way to take up the new post. Park was appointed to replace him, and arrived in the Far East to take command on 23 February 1945. This was a very different task to Park's pervious front-line commands, which had been largely defensive. His new command's main responsibilities were to fly up to 2,000 tons of supplies per day to the advancing armies in Burma, and to provide aggressive fighter-bomber cover over the battlefield.

Park retired with the rank of Air Chief Marshal in 1946 and returned to New Zealand, where he died in 1975. For many years his role in the Battle of Britain was little known, but in recent years his importance has been increasingly recognised, and in 2010 a permenant statue was unveiled in Waterloo Place, London, looking towards New Zealand House.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 February 2011), Keith Rodney Park, 1892-1975 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_park_keith.html

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