World War II Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park

Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park

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Born June 15, 1892 in Thames, New Zealand, Keith Rodney Park was the son of Professor James Livingstone Park and his wife Frances. Of Scottish extraction, Park's father worked as the geologist for a mining company. Initially educated at King's College in Auckland, the younger Park showed an interest in outdoor pursuits such as shooting and riding. Moving to Otago Boy's School, he served in the institution's cadet corps but did not possess a great desire to pursue a military career. Despite this, Park enlisted in the New Zealand Army Territorial Force after graduation and served in a field artillery unit. 

In 1911, shortly after his nineteenth birthday, he accepted employment with the Union Steam Ship Company as a cadet purser. While in this role, he earned the family nickname "Skipper." With the beginning of World War I, Park's field artillery unit was activated and received orders to sail for Egypt.  Departing in early 1915, it was landed at ANZAC Cove on April 25 for participation in the Gallipoli Campaign. In July, Park received a promotion to second lieutenant and took part in the fighting around Sulva Bay the following month. Transferring to the British Army, he served in the Royal Horse and Field Artillery until being withdrawn to Egypt in January 1916.

Taking Flight

Shifted to the Western Front, Park's unit saw extensive action during the Battle of the Somme. During the fighting, he came to appreciate the value of aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting, as well as flew for the first time. On October 21, Park was wounded when a shell threw him from his horse. Sent to England to recover, he was informed that he was unfit for army service as he could no longer ride a horse. Unwilling to leave the service, Park applied to the Royal Flying Corps and was accepted in December. Dispatched to Netheravon on the Salisbury Plain, he learned to fly in early 1917 and later served as an instructor. In June, Park received orders to join No. 48 Squadron in France.

Piloting the two-seat Bristol F.2 Fighter, Park quickly had success and earned the Military Cross for his actions on August 17. Promoted to captain the following month, he later earned advancement to major and command of the squadron in April 1918. During the final months of the war, Park won a second Military Cross as well as a Distinguished Flying Cross. Credited with around 20 kills, he was selected to remain in the Royal Air Force after the conflict with the rank of captain. This was altered in 1919 when, with the introduction of a new officer rank system, Park was appointed a flight lieutenant. 

Interwar Years

After spending two years as a flight commander for No. 25 Squadron, Park became squadron commander at the School of Technical Training. In 1922, he was selected to attend the newly-created RAF Staff College at Andover. Following his graduation, Park moved through a variety of peacetime posts including commanding fighter stations and serving as air attaché in Buenos Aires. Following service as air aide-de-camp to King George VI in 1937, he received a promotion to air commodore and an assignment as Senior Air Staff Officer at Fighter Command under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. In this new role, Park worked closely with his superior to develop a comprehensive air defense for Britain which relied on an integrated system of radio and radar as well as new aircraft such as the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire.

Battle of Britain

With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Park remained at Fighter Command aiding Dowding. On April 20, 1940, Park received a promotion to air vice marshal and was given command of No. 11 Group which was responsible for defending southeastern England and London. First called into action the following month, his aircraft attempted to provide cover for the Dunkirk evacuation, but were hampered by limited numbers and range. That summer, No. 11 Group bore the brunt of the fighting as the Germans opened the Battle of Britain. Commanding from RAF Uxbridge, Park quickly earned a reputation as a cunning tactician and a hands-on leader. During the course of the fighting, he often moved between No. 11 Group airfields in a personalized Hurricane to encourage his pilots.

As the battle progressed, Park, with Dowding's support, often contributed one or two squadrons at a time to the fighting which allowed for continuous attacks on German aircraft. This method was loudly criticized by No. 12 Group's Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory who advocated using "Big Wings" of three or more squadrons. Dowding proved unable to resolve the differences between his commanders, as he preferred Park's methods while the Air Ministry favored the Big Wing approach. An adept politician, Leigh-Mallory and his allies succeeded in having Dowding removed from command following the battle despite the success of his and Park's methods. With Dowding's departure in November, Park was replaced at No. 11 Group by Leigh-Mallory in December. Moved to Training Command, he remained indignant over his and Dowding's treatment for the remainder of his career.

Later War

In January 1942, Park received orders to assume the post of Air Officer Commanding in Egypt. Traveling to the Mediterranean, he commenced enhancing the area's air defenses as General Sir Claude Auchinleck's ground forces tangled with Axis troops led by General Erwin Rommel. Remaining in this post through the Allied defeat at Gazala, Park was transferred to oversee the aerial defense of the embattled island of Malta. A critical Allied base, the island had sustained heavy attacks from Italian and German aircraft since the early days of the war. Implementing a system of forward interception, Park employed multiple squadrons to break up and destroy inbound bombing raids. This approach quickly proved successful and aided in the relief of island.

As pressure on Malta eased, Park's aircraft mounted highly damaging attacks against Axis shipping in the Mediterranean as well as supported Allied efforts during the Operation Torch landings in North Africa. With the end of the North African Campaign in mid-1943, Park's men shifted to aid the invasion of Sicily in July and August. Knighted for his performance in the defense of Malta, he moved to serve as commander-in-chief of RAF forces for Middle East Command in January 1944. Later that year, Park was considered for the post of commander-in-chief for the Royal Australian Air Force, but this move was blocked by General Douglas MacArthur who did not wish to make a change. In February 1945, he became Allied Air Commander, Southeast Asia and held the post for the remainder of the war.

Final Years

Promoted to air chief marshal, Park retired from the Royal Air Force on December 20, 1946. Returning to New Zealand, he was later elected to the Auckland City Council. Park spent the majority of his later career working in the civil aviation industry. Leaving the field in 1960, he also aided in the construction of Auckland's international airport. Park died in New Zealand on February 6, 1975. His remains were cremated and scattered in Waitemata Harbor. In recognition of his achievements, a statue of Park was unveiled in Waterloo Place, London in 2010.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).