sir keith rodney park
SIR KEITH RODNEY PARK
AIR VICE-MARSHAL - Commander in Chief Allied Air Forces in South East Asia Command
Keith Park was born here in Thames on 15 June 1892; he went on to be educated at Otago Boys’ High School, Dunedin and King’s College. He served as a cadet and later joined the army in the New Zealand Field Artillery as a territorial. Aged 19 he joined the Union Steam Ship Company as a trainee purser, earning the nickname ‘Skipper’ and at the outbreak of the First World War he left to join his artillery battalion as a non-commissioned officer where he experienced the landings at Gallipoli following which he was promoted to Second Lieutenant. The toll of the Turkish campaign left its mark on Keith Park both physically and mentally and it is perhaps here that his compassion and care for his personnel had been nurtured. After evacuation from Gallipoli, Keith Park served on the Somme where he was blown off his horse and sustaining injuries was moved back to England. After recovering, and being deemed unfit for the army, he managed to join the Royal Flying Corps in December 1916. He completed flying training at Netheravon in England and after a three month spell he joined Number 48 Squadron, which he later went on to command. He was credited with destroying at least 11 enemy aircraft and damaging several others. This achievement earned Park two Military Crosses and a Distinguished Flying Cross. There was no doubting this man’s tenacity, leadership and bravery. Keith Park remained in the newly formed Royal Air Force after the First World War spending a period as Aide-de-Camp to King George VI in 1937. He rose through the ranks to become Air Vice-Marshal in April 1940 and was Commander in Chief of Number 11 Group at the outbreak of the Second World War. Number 11 Group had responsibility for air defence of the East and South-East of England. There are several defining moments in Keith Park’s remarkable life, not least his leadership during the evacuation of British and allied troops from Dunkirk in France during late May and early June 1940 followed by the air defence of England during the Battle of Britain from June through to September 1940. Keith Park and Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding had developed a comprehensive air defence system in England, combining the use of Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft with new radio and radar systems. His foresight and intuitive tactical knowledge were crucial to the evacuation from Dunkirk and the winning the Battle of Britain against all odds. When we think of the of the Battle of Britain we remember that during one of the most critical moments in the history of the world, NZ’ers stood with other brave souls at the very forefront of the fight, and gave their all to ensure goodness and right prevailed. And it was our very own Sir Keith Park who was preeminent in leading this fight. Sir Keith’s approach to leadership and care of his personnel was to single him out, he was a hands-on leader and he would often fly his personal Hurricane to embattled airfields to inspire and encourage his hard pressed and very tired pilots and ground crews. Park’s own experience, his fighting spirit and at times less politically correct approach raised morale. The outcome of the Battle of Britain led to Hitler postponing the invasion of Great Britain and forced the Germans to change tactics. However, Park’s less than politically correct approach also saw him embroiled in controversy over the Battle of Britain and future tactics. As a result Sir Keith was moved to Egypt before becoming the RAF Commander Malta in July 1942. Using the same tactics he had used during the Battle of Britain, Park’s forces successfully repelled repeated German and Italian air attacks before mounting an offensive against Axis shipping in the Mediterranean. Sir Keith was knighted for his role in the defence of Malta in 1942, promoted to Air Marshal and appointed Commander in Chief Allied Air Forces in South East Asia Command. He retired from the Royal Air Force in 1946 in the rank of Air Chief Marshal and returned to Auckland. What is clear is Keith Park’s leadership, attention to detail, ability to think outside the square, his fortitude and focus on achieving the very best for people played an important part in his post war life. For example, his determination to ensure that Auckland had an international airport and his support for a myriad of organisations such as the Blind Institute, veterans associations, sheltered workshops took time, energy, compassion and vision. His goal was to serve his people and community. Simply put, Sir Keith was an outstanding man, leader and ‘Kiwi’. No other New Zealand-born military figure has had a greater impact on history than Park, for none have ever had such a significant role in determining the course of such a major battle. A battle that had it been lost, would’ve allowed Hitler’s land forces to invade Great Britain, thereby changing the history of the world. Subsequent Chief of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder – best summed up Park’s achievements in a quote – “If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world”.