Keith Park


Keith Rodney Park was a decorated First World War fighter pilot who carved out a prestigious career in the Royal Air Force (RAF). He played a pivotal role in the defence of London and south-east England during the Battle of Britain.

Born in Thames on 15 June 1892, Park was educated at King's College, Auckland and Otago Boys' High School, Dunedin. At the age of 19 he joined the Union Steam Ship Company as a cadet purser – earning the nickname ‘Skipper’ among friends and family.

Early in the First World War Park enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF); he sailed to Egypt in January 1915. He landed at Gallipoli on 25 April and served with a New Zealand howitzer battery until July, when he was promoted to second lieutenant and transferred to the Royal Field Artillery. Following his battery’s evacuation to Egypt in January 1916, Park was transferred to the Western Front. Wounded in October 1916, he was sent to England to recuperate and, after being informed he was unfit for active army service, gained a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in December 1916.

Park was taught to fly at Netheravon on Salisbury Plain. After a three-month spell as an instructor he was sent back to France in July 1917. For the remainder of the war he flew two-seater Bristol Fighters with No. 48 Squadron, which he commanded from April 1918. According to Park’s biographer, Vincent Orange, by the end of the war between them Park and his various observers had ‘certainly destroyed eleven enemy aircraft and damaged at least thirteen others to a greater or lesser degree.’ Park earned two Military Crosses and a Distinguished Flying Cross in the process. 

During the interwar years Park held various command and staff postings in the United Kingdom and overseas, including service as air aide-de-camp to King George VI in 1937. In July 1938 he was promoted to air commodore and appointed deputy to Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding at RAF Fighter Command headquarters near London. Together with Dowding, Park developed a comprehensive air defence system involving the use of high-speed, heavily armed fighter aircraft (Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires) in combination with new radio and radar equipment. This daunting task was made even more difficult by peacetime restrictions on training. 

Promoted to air vice-marshal in April 1940, Park was given command of No. 11 Group, responsible for the defence of London and south-east England. His first operational test was to cover the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. In July 1940 the Luftwaffe (German air force) turned its attention to crushing the RAF as a precursor to the invasion of Great Britain. Park’s No. 11 Group bore the brunt of this assault. During the Luftwaffe's daylight raids between July and September, he developed a reputation as a ‘hands-on’ leader, often flying his personal Hurricane to embattled airfields to inspire his hard-pressed pilots.

Unable to neutralise No. 11 Group, the Luftwaffe began bombing London in September. During a series of massive raids on the capital, Park’s skilful handling of limited resources ensured that the RAF was able to continue resisting the German offensive. By October 1940 Hitler had postponed the invasion of Great Britain and the German air offensive switched to night-time raids on London and other British cities.

It was at this point that Dowding and Park became embroiled in controversy over their handling of the battle. Some senior RAF officers believed their tactics were too cautious. The most vocal critic was Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commander of No. 12 Group. Leigh-Mallory believed that large-scale formations of three to five squadrons – dubbed ‘Big Wings’ – would disrupt enemy raids more effectively than Park’s one- to two-squadron approach was doing.

Although Park’s tactics have since been vindicated, the Big Wing approach won out at the time and Park was replaced by Leigh-Mallory as commander of No. 11 Group in December 1940. After a period in command of a training group, he was sent to Egypt before becoming RAF commander on the strategically important island of Malta in July 1942. Using tactics he had employed during the Battle of Britain, Park’s forces successfully repelled repeated German and Italian air attacks before mounting a decisive offensive against Axis shipping in the Mediterranean.

Knighted in 1942 for his role in the defence of Malta, Park was promoted to air marshal and appointed commander-in-chief of British air forces in the Middle East in January 1944. A year later he assumed command of Allied air forces in South-East Asia Command, which performed a vital support role, including supplying stores from the air on a previously unprecedented scale, to the British 14th Army advancing through the jungles of Burma.

Park retired from the RAF in 1946 as air chief marshal and moved back to Auckland. He worked in the civil aviation industry until 1960. During the 1950s he became chairman of the Auckland International Airport Committee, encouraging a reluctant government to purchase land at Mangere for an international airport which was eventually completed in 1966. Park was also active in local government, serving three terms as an Auckland city councillor.

Keith Park died in Auckland on 6 February 1975, aged 82. A section of the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) is named in his honour, as is Sir Keith Park School – a special needs centre in Māngere, Auckland. A statue of Park was unveiled in Waterloo Place, London on 15 September 2010, the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

By Gareth Phipps

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Roland Van Deusen

Posted: 31 Dec 2018

I'm a Yank, just learned about Sir Keith Park an hour ago. NZ needs to get a film made about the whole life of this great hero. Perhaps Peter Jackson or Mel Gibson could do it? Gallipoli In WWI, shot off a horse, 20 RAF kills in WWI, shot down twice. Was first to defeat Hitler in WWll Battle of Britain - the Jerries called him "Defender of London." Then won Battle of Malta, cutting off Rommel's supplies from Germany, so Montgomery could win in North Africa. AMAZING!!!!!!!