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Sir Keith Park: Battle of Britain's 'Defender of London'

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‘If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I don't believe it is recognised how much this one man, with his leadership, his calm judgment and his skill, did to save not only this country, but the world.’ Lord Tedder, Head of the RAF, 1947.

The Battle of Britain was a major turning point of WWII and the first big defeat for Hitler’s Germany. British shores remained free from Nazi occupation and Winston Churchill couldn’t praise the efforts of the RAF highly enough when he spoke the immortal words, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’.

Whilst history has remembered the heroic contributions of the ‘few’, it seems to have forgotten the courageous leadership of the man who led them, Sir Keith Park. 

‘He was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon,’ said Air Vice-Marshal 'Johnnie' Johnson, one of WW2’s top flying aces. Park’s superior Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding was said to have controlled the Battle of Britain from day to day, but Park was the one who controlled it hour by hour. 

By the end of the Battle, Park had earned the nickname ‘The Defender of London’ and had staked a claim as one of the greatest commanders in the history of aerial combat and certainly one of history’s finest military leaders. And yet his achievements went almost entirely unacknowledged for decades after the war and even today his name is not as well known as it should be.

Born in New Zealand in 1892, Park was the son of a professor at the University of Otago, Dunedin, in the South Island. Aged 19 he went to sea working on passenger ships before joining the army at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. In 1915 he fought in the gruelling Gallipoli campaign, before transferring across to the British Army and fighting in the Battle of the Somme. 

After a brief stint in England recovering from wounds suffered from a German shell, Park joined the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) in 1916. By the end of the war he’d been shot down twice, downed 20 enemy aircraft and been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty… setting a most inspiring example by his dash and tenacity.’

At the outbreak of WWII, Park had worked his way up to Air Vice Marshal and was in placed in command of No. 11 Group of the RAF - the Group responsible for the defence of South East England and London. Due to the strategic significance and geographic location concerning the Luftwaffe, Park’s Group bore the brunt of the German aerial assault during the Battle of Britain. Before the battle, the Group tasted action during the Dunkirk evacuation of May 1940, providing aerial cover over the beaches.

 After France fell, German forces amassed on the French coastline and the Axis powers looked towards the skies. If they were to complete a successful seaborne invasion on Britain, they needed to take control of the skies over the English Channel. 

During the inter-war years, Park’s superior Dowding had conceived and implemented his ingenious ‘Dowding System’ - the world’s first wide-area integrated air defence system. The combination of radar and human observers allowed the RAF to rapidly and accurately respond to incoming German aircraft. 

The previous common belief was that ‘the bombers will always get through’ and so fighters should focus their assaults on the bombers after they had dropped their payloads and were returning home. Dowding and Park disagreed with this belief. With the support of the Dowding System, Park designed his tactics around mobile and agile defence. Using small formations, he wanted his fighters to intercept the German bombers ideally before they reached their targets. 

Park’s tactics would be proven correct and his forces consistently prevented the Germans from either reaching their targets or being able to hit them as effectively as they could. The small RAF formations also gave the Luftwaffe fewer targets to shoot at. It also meant there would always be RAF fighters in the air who could cover those on the ground.

During the four months that the battle raged, Park mostly conducted operations in an underground bunker at RAF Uxbridge. Day after day Park made strategically brilliant choices, organising and deploying his forces with clinical precision. He soon garnered a reputation as a remarkable tactician as well as a popular ‘hands-on’ leader, flying around in his personalised Hurricane regularly visiting airfields and keeping spirits high. 

Due to his inspirational leadership, strategic genius and calm approach, the numerically inferior RAF were able to beat back the Luftwaffe time after time. 11 Group had held firm. After months of achieving nothing, Hitler eventually cancelled his plans to invade Britain and turned his attention east. 

Britain’s ‘darkest hour’ had turned into its ‘finest hour’, the odds had been stacked against them but the RAF had come out victorious. Without the heroics of Sir Keith and his pilots, Britain would almost certainly have fallen, changing the course of history forever. As Battle of Britain and RAF ace, Douglas Bader said, 'The awesome responsibility for this country's survival rested squarely on Keith Park's shoulders.’

Shortly after the battle both Park and Downing would be relieved from their positions due to internal politics. Ambitious 12 Group commander, Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory had vocally disagreed with Park's tactics during the battle, believing his 'big-wing' strategy of meeting the Luftwaffe head-on with huge numbers of aircraft was superior. In the end, Trafford would have his way and took over from Park as commander of 11 Group.  

The war was not over for Park though as he would go on to fight in another significant aerial battle, the Battle of Malta. Malta had become strategically vital to both the Allies and Axis powers after the front in North Africa was opened up in 1940. The important island was soon besieged by Axis forces and became the most bombed place on the planet. 

In July 1942, Park took charge of the air defence of Malta. Demonstrating his versatility as a military strategist, Park implemented opposite tactics to those he deployed during the Battle of Britain, utilising his increased resources and aggressively sending large formations of fighters against the smaller Axis forces. 

Park immediately turned the tide of the aerial battle in favour of the Allies and within six days the Axis forces abandoned daylight raids. By November the battle was over and Park could turn his attention to more offensive operations including the bombing of German supply lines. The Allied victory in Malta played a pivotal role in helping secure their eventual win in North Africa. 

Park ended the war as Allied Air Commander, South-East Asia and retired shortly after, returning to live in his native New Zealand before passing away in 1975, aged 82. 

In 2010, after a campaign to raise public awareness of Sir Keith’s achievements, a bronze statue was erected in Waterloo Place in central London. 

During the unveiling ceremony for the statue, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, said that Park was ‘a man without whom the history of the Battle of Britain could have been disastrously different. He was a man who never failed at any task he was given. He gave all to whatever he did.’