Page last updated at 13:02 GMT, Monday, 19 January 2009

Profile: Sir Keith Park

Sir Keith Park with his Hurricane
Sir Keith Park with the Hurricane he flew during the Battle of Britain.

Former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn and Conservative peer Lord Tebbit have backed a campaign for a permanent memorial in London to Sir Keith Park, the unsung RAF commander credited with winning the Battle of Britain.

Sir Keith Park commanded the RAF squadrons which won the Battle of Britain against the superior air power of the German Luftwaffe, saving Britain from German invasion.

In 1940, Hitler's forces were gathered on the European mainland for an invasion of Britain, but before they could begin the Germans needed control of the air.

The Battle of Britain began, pitting a few hundred RAF fighter aircraft against the numerically superior German Luftwaffe.

Sir Keith Park, a New Zealander by birth, was Air Vice Marshal and Commander of 11 Group Fighter Command, responsible for the defence of London and south-east England.

It was, therefore, the squadrons under his command which bore the brunt of the fighting.

Defender of London

During the four-month period of the battle, which he conducted from a bomb-proof underground bunker in Uxbridge, he developed a reputation for strategic brilliance and calm, inspirational leadership.

Sir Keith Park with Winston Churchill
If ever any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did
Lord Tedder, Marshal of the RAF

Wave after wave of German sorties met with stubborn resistance from Sir Keith's pilots and the Luftwaffe was unable to break down Britain's air defences.

Hitler was forced to cancel his invasion plans and Sir Keith came to be known by the Germans as the "defender of London".

After the war Lord Tedder, Marshal of the RAF said of Sir Keith's role in the Battle of Britain: "If ever any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did.

"I don't believe it's recognised how much this one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save not only this country, but the world."

Despite this later accolade and his successful campaign, Sir Keith was relieved of command of 11 Group after the Battle of Britain following a dispute over tactics with a rival Commander, Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who replaced him.

He went on to take charge of Malta's air defences before being appointed Allied Air Commander, South-East Asia for the rest of the war.

Hands-on commander

During World War I, Sir Keith fought with the New Zealand army at Galipoli and the Somme, where he was wounded by a German shell.

He was evacuated to the UK, where he began his air force career. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, quickly becoming the ace of his fighter pilot squadron.

Flying missions towards the end of the war, he was recognised with the Military Cross for courage and skill after being credited with the shooting down of 20 enemy aircraft and being shot down twice himself.

Between the world wars he remained with the Royal Air Force in various posts, eventually reaching the rank of Air Vice Marshall.

Prior to World War II, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding made Sir Keith his Senior Air Staff Officer and then gave him responsibility for the air defence of London and south-east England with Group 11.

As commander of Group 11 his first experience of action in WWII was in providing air cover for the Dunkirk evacuation in May-June 1940.

Sir Keith flew many missions himself over the French coast, taking note of enemy positions to provide information for his squadrons, highlighting his hands-on approach to leadership which continued through the war.

Retirement

He retired in 1946, when he was promoted to Air Chief Marshal.

He subsequently returned to New Zealand, where he died in 1975.

He is now the subject of a campaign to have his pivotal role in the Battle of Britain recognised with a temporary public statue in Trafalgar Square, and a permanent statue on Pall Mall.



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