“The Defender of London”
Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park
Park was Air Officer commanding the most vital of Fighter Command’s four operational areas, No. 11 Group, which covered south-east England. Park had the hardest of jobs, assessing which attacks posed the most danger and which could be safely ignored. He was careful to commit his squadrons in ones and twos, ensuring enough units remained in reserve to meet subsequent raids. These tactics were effective, but meant the RAF fighters were usually outnumbered in combat. He is seen here later in the war when he became Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Middle East Command. (photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
11 Group was the critical group command out of the four groups in Fighter Command (10,11,12 & 13). Park had to constantly, and I mean constantly, decide in just a few minutes, seconds even, whether a German raid picked up by RAF radar stations and volunteer observers was real or a diversionary raid designed to draw his fighters away from London or ambush them with a huge number of German fighters.
Writes historian David Wragg in the RAF Handbook:
“…the Luftwaffe would be across the Channel in just six minutes and be over the first of Fighter Command’s 11 Group airfields in south-east England in a quarter of an hour, and while German aircraft would be picked up by radar as they massed over the French coast, it took four minutes for information from the radar stations to reach the airfields and thirteen minutes for a Spitfire to reach 20,000 feet.”
Air Chief Marshal (as he later became) Sir Keith Park RAF (15 June 1892 – 6 February 1975) was actually a New Zealander. Like many young men in the Empire he answered the call to serve in the British forces in World War One. He first joined the artillery and fought mainly on the Western Front. In 1916 he joined what was then called the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and remained in the new service, renamed after the war as the Royal Air Force.
Replica of Sir Keith Park’s personal Hawker Hurricane on display at the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland.
(Photo taken in 2007 and released into the public by the author.)
According to historian Stephen Bungay in The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain, Park first served in the RFC as an artillery observer which makes sense given his background, and later transferred to fighters. He was credited with shooting down 14 German planes. Park was also shot down twice.
Sir Hugh “Stuffy” Dowding, Air Office Commanding Fighter Command, was a difficult person to get along with at the best of times and one intolerant of incompetence and stupidity of which there was much in the RAF and especially the Air Ministry. It was Dowding who recognized Park’s talents. After serving for several years as Dowding’s Chief Staff Officer, Dowding appointed Park to command 11 Group, which he knew would be the most critical group command when war came.
Says historian Stephen Bungay, “he was uniquely qualified for the job”.
Uniform and medals of Sir Keith Park
GCB KBE MC* DFC
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Military Cross & Bar, Distinguished Flying Cross. Legion of Merit (USA), Croix de guerre (France).