Battle of Britain Day

September 15.

Its worth remembering, for New Zealanders, that the man who commanded the fighter forces in 11 Group which bore the brunt of the battle was a New Zealander, Keith Park. Also that the number of New Zealand pilots flying in the battle was more than any other Commonwealth country apart from Britain itself.

The most comprehensive and analytical book on the battle, Stephen Bungay’s ‘Most Dangerous Enemy’, in analysing what and who won the battle, concluded Park’s skill as a commander was the most crucial factor:

“Throughout the long months of strain, Park hardly put a foot wrong, making all the major tactical decisions, attending to relevant details, visiting pilots and airfields himself, and fighting an internal polticial battle….Park’s performance was extraordinary. In the way in which he anticipated and countered every move of his opponent, it has many parallels with Wellington’s at Waterloo; but whereas Wellington sustained his concentration and bore the strain or some five hours, Park ran the Battle for five months.”

The apogee of this was the fight on September 15. A week earlier, the Germans had switched from attacking airfields to bombing London. It was a blunder on their part, but it may not have looked that way at the time. Their first attack on London was met with few fighters – they were still covering the airfields. The following week saw continued attacks, but indifferent weather. To the Germans, it appeared they were winning.

September 15 changed that. Park had moved all his Spitfire squadrons to the forward sectors: they met the day’s two big attacks of nearly a thousand aircraft and drew off many of the fighter escorts: the bombers were then met by a series of attacks by defending Hurricane fighters. The battles seem to have been particularly fierce. Pilots had seen London burning and they tore into the Luftwaffe. Many of the attacks were head-on: there were also a number of cases of pilots ramming German bombers when the pilots found they were out of ammunition.

Churchill – whose country house was not far from Park’s headquarters – happened to visit on September 15, as he had done on previous weekends. He watched the way Park was dealing with the incoming raiders and at one point, realising Park had committed more of his fighters than he usually did, asked where the reserve was.

“There is none,” Park said. Some instinct had told him to throw in everything he had.

Park had served in the army in the First World War, both at Gallipoli and at the Somme. He’d been injured several times, and then he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He was shot down twice and wounded there too.

After the first war he’d had a staff job. He had something of a delayed reaction to his war experiences and a note on his file said something to the effect that ‘this officer should not be put in situations of high pressure.’

How wrong was that? Between July and October 1940 the defence of Western Civilisation depended on how he decided to fight the Battle of Britain. His pilots were not known as ‘The Few’ for nothing – Park had to husband his resources and a wrong decision would have been disastrous. In the First World War Churchill commented his Admiral of the Fleet was the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon: Park was the Second World War equivalent.

It wasn’t a one off for Park – two years after the Battle of Britain he commanded the forces during the siege of Malta. Again, he won against the odds.

There is a nice story about Park on the ship taking him out to Malta. Also on board was a bunch of young pilots on the way out to reinforce the squadrons there. They were a little boisterous and the senior naval officer on board banned them from the officer’s bar.

Park – who outranked the senior naval officer – countermanded the order, saying ‘those young men have faced, and will face, dangers you will never have to face.’

After the war he retired quietly in Auckland.

Too few New Zealanders know about this man.

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