In February 1947, at the New Zealand Society’s annual London dinner, Lord Tedder (head of the Royal Air Force) said of Keith Park: ‘If ever any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I don’t believe it is realized how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgment and his skill, did to save not only this country, but the world’.
Keith Rodney Park was born in Thames, New Zealand, on 15 June 1892, the third son and ninth of ten children born to Frances Rogers and her Scottish-born husband, James Park, who earned in New Zealand an international reputation as a geologist. Educated until 1906 at King’s College, Auckland, and then at Otago Boys’ High School, Dunedin, Park joined the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand in June 1911 as a cadet purser. He was granted war leave in December 1914.
Park sailed to Egypt in January 1915 as a lance bombardier with the 3rd Reinforcements and served with a howitzer battery at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, from 25 April. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in July, he took part in the Suvla Bay landings in August and then transferred to the British Army, serving with the Royal Field Artillery until 2 January 1916, when his battery was evacuated to Suez and sent to the Somme front in March. Wounded in October and shipped to England, he gained a long-sought transfer to the Royal Flying Corps in December 1916.
Park was taught to fly at Netheravon on Salisbury Plain, then spent four months teaching others before joining No 48 Squadron, equipped with the excellent two-seat Bristol Fighter, in France in July 1917; he commanded that squadron from April 1918 until the armistice. He and his various rear-gunners probably destroyed 11 enemy aircraft, damaged (perhaps fatally) at least a further 13 and drove away scores; they protected artillery observation aircraft and gathered valuable information from flights behind enemy lines. These feats earned him a Military Cross and bar, a DFC and a Croix de guerre.
Park married Dorothy (Dol) Margarita Parish (a genuine cockney whose family had strong links with Argentina) in London on 25 November 1918; they were to have two sons. Park was one of 20 officers selected to attend the first course at the world’s first air force staff college at Andover, Hampshire, in April 1922. In August 1926, after three years in Egypt, he went to the headquarters of Air Defence of Great Britain at Uxbridge, west London, where plans for the country’s air defence were discussed.
This was followed by a succession of prestigious postings, including command of his own fighter squadron (1927–29), chief air instructor at the University of Oxford, two years (1934–36) as air attaché to all the independent South American states, and culminating in appointment as air aide-de-camp to King George VI for 1937, the coronation year. That year Park attended the Imperial Defence College, near Buckingham Palace, where senior officers of all three services made useful contacts.
In July 1938 he was promoted to air commodore and became Sir Hugh Dowding’s deputy at Fighter Command headquarters, Bentley Priory, a few miles north-east of Uxbridge. Under Dowding’s direction, Park’s chief concern was to employ newly introduced, high-speed, heavily armed monoplanes (Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires) in combination with equally new radar and radio equipment to frame an effective defence of vital British targets against a growing danger of aerial attack. This daunting task was complicated by peacetime restrictions on realistic training.
In April 1940 Park was promoted again (to air vice marshal) and appointed to command No 11 Group, Fighter Command’s principal subdivision, charged with the defence of London and south-east England. His first operational test was to improvise, in partnership with the Royal Navy, the Dunkirk evacuation. By 4 June some 340,000 Allied troops had been rescued: a figure to compare with ‘up to 45,000’ hoped for when evacuation began on 27 May. But 435 experienced aircrew were lost in the French campaign and their absence seriously handicapped Park’s conduct of operations during the Battle of Britain.
That battle was actually a year-long campaign, fought in daylight from June to September 1940, then mainly in darkness from September to May 1941. By mid September it was clear that although Britain’s daylight defences had held, the German switch to a night offensive was causing heavy casualties and serious damage. Many anticipated that the offensive would intensify during the long dark hours of the next six months, and that when long light hours returned, Britain must expect a better organised and more destructive resumption of the day offensive.
So grim a prospect provoked anxious debate in Air Ministry and government circles. Ignorance of fighter capabilities, fear of German conquest, resentment of Dowding’s irascibility and Park’s vanity and the ambition of those who believed they could do better sharpened the debate. Park had been constrained by having to husband scarce resources, but it was concluded that more aggressive tactics might have achieved victory (as opposed to avoiding defeat) in the day battle and that Dowding was mishandling the night battle. As a result he was replaced on 25 November, and Park on 18 December 1940; he was appointed a CB on 4 December.
The worst danger had in fact passed and by May 1941 the Luftwaffe had begun to switch its resources to the eastern front in preparation for the attack on the Soviet Union. Fighter Command’s new masters began to attack across the English Channel, using tactics Park had rejected during the Battle of Britain; their failure led an overwhelming majority of airmen, as well as later historians, to argue that Dowding’s strategy and Park’s tactics had been correct.
Park spent 1941 as head of a flying training group in Gloucestershire, then six months organising an air defence system in Egypt, before becoming RAF commander of the strategically vital base of Malta in July 1942. He there displayed an ability both to handle fighters offensively (rarely possible at No 11 Group in 1940 when facing superior German forces) and to co-operate with other services and American forces in a succession of victorious campaigns. He was made a KBE in November 1942.
In January 1944 Park was promoted to air marshal and appointed air officer commanding in chief, Middle East, in Cairo. His immense area of responsibility was one in which training mattered more than actual fighting. Appointed a KCB in January 1945, Park became air commander, South-East Asia Command, in February. His outstanding achievement there was joint direction, with the Americans, of a huge air supply operation to support Burma’s liberation from Japanese control. He was made a commander of the US Legion of Merit in 1945. His last year of RAF service (he retired as air chief marshal in December 1946 with yet another decoration, the GCB) was spent winding down a vast military machine and creating its peacetime successor.
In retirement, Park, looking for opportunities in business, saw a future in civil aviation. He went to Argentina in 1947 on behalf of the Hawker Siddeley Aircraft Company to negotiate a sale of aircraft. With the help of an old acquaintance – Juan Perón, now president – his mission was successful. In 1948 the company offered him a position as its Pacific representative, based in Auckland; he held this position until 1960.
In 1951 Park became chairman of the Auckland International Airport Committee. By 1955 he had persuaded a reluctant government to purchase a site at Mangere. Construction began in 1960 and the airport opened in 1966. Park served three terms (1962–71) as an Auckland city councillor and was active in the New Zealand Foundation for the Blind, the New Zealand Epilepsy Association, and the King George V Children’s Health Camp, Pakuranga. In September 1951 his son Colin, an officer in the Perak constabulary, was murdered in Malaya. His wife, Dol, died in August 1971. Park retained his love of yachting, continued his business interests and played bowls.
Keith Park was tall and slim and, despite his very large ears and long nose, was generally reckoned a very handsome man, with a most attractive smile when he cared to show it. Even in old age, he looked deceptively young, for he walked briskly and carried himself well. He died in Auckland on 6 February 1975 and received a military funeral at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Parnell. In September a memorial service was held in London at the RAF’s own church, St Clement Danes. Sir Douglas Bader, an eloquent critic in 1940, there put an end to whatever bitter feelings remained. The Battle of Britain, he declared, ‘was controlled, directed and brought to a successful conclusion by the man whose memory we honour today’.