The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park

After reading Bungay’s Most Dangerous Enemy, I was intrigued to discover more about Keith Park.

Park is painted as a brilliant tactician, who grasped the situation and made the correct decisions in the heat of battle. However, after the Battle, he lacked the political ability to capitalise on his military triumph and convert it into career gain. This, of course, only serves to further cast him in the role of a hero.

Shortly after the Battle of Britain he was relieved of his command of 11 Group and sent off to train pilots (he would return to front line action in the War, but more on that later).

Vincent Orange‘s substantial biography of Keith Park presents the facts and well-deserved tributes in a readable manner. He enjoyed unrestricted access to Park’s papers and as the first edition of the book was written in 1984, he was able to conduct many interviews with people who had known him.

Orange reveals a man whose energy and courage won him supreme praise from Churchill and the lasting respect of all who served under him.

Christchurch Press writes:

“Park emerges from this very thorough and scholarly biography not as The Great Man, but as a human being with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us: a man whose greatness is delineated alongside his more everyday qualities.”

Park wasn’t recognised in his time; the official record of the Battle doesn’t even mention his name. However, he has now taken up station as one of the War’s great leaders. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a campaign was launched to create a permanent monument to him

“Individuals can achieve so much in a single life, and we should never forget how each of us, everyday, can make a difference to the world around us. That is something that Park and his Pilots knew only too well.”

-Terry Smith at the unveiling of the statue of Sir Keith Park, Waterloo Place, London, 15 September 2010

So, a hero now but not then. Why? Did someone fail to see the triumph at the time, or does history start to re-write itself over the decades?

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4 responses to “The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park

  • Amy Scott

    I hate to drag the conversation back to War and Peace again, but I find myself seeing the world through that book now and I can’t resist making the parallels. Tolstoy speaks at great length about a Russian commander, Kutusov, who was and is glossed over by writers of history. Tolstoy gives a much fuller picture of his genius and, in so doing, makes a scathing indictment of the so-called history of “great men”. He writes,

    “Strange and terrible to say, Napoleon, the msot insignificant tool of history, who never even in exile displayed one trait of human dignity, is the subject of the admiration and enthusiasm of the Russian historians; in their eyes he is a grand homme.

    Kutuzov […] was never in one word or deed false to the himself, presents an example exceptional in history of self-sacrifice and recognition in the present of the relative value of events in the future. Kutuzov is conceived of by the historians as a nondescript, pitiful sort of creature, and whenever they speak of him in the year 1812, they seem a little ashamed of him […]

    This simple, modest, and therefore truly great figure, could not be cast into the false mould of the European hero, the supposed leader of men, that history has invented”

    (Trans. Constance Garnett, The Modern Library edition of War and Peace, page 1236, 1238)

    I am fascinated by the scope of history itself, one which is as narrow or as wide as the historian who does the researching and writing. When we restore figures who have been left out of this scope, we don’t exactly put them back in history as they were, but we re-engage with them now in ways that reflect our own scope. Their lost past becomes part of a conversation between what has been written and what is still waiting to be written. And this goes on indefinitely.

    Although post-modern theories of history have done the necessary work of questioning and deflating the idea of the “great men” of the past, there is still much work to do to abandon the idea of greatness, and to speak finally just of men and women in all their variable moods, ambitions and motivations.

  • Amy Scott

    I’ve looked up Kutuzov now since I’ve become fascinated by what happened to his memory. It seems history does regard him highly and he has several statues and memorials dedicated to him. Also of interest (from Wikipedia, alas):

    “Also during the Second World War one of the key strategic operations of the Red Army, the Orel Strategic Offensive Operation “Kutuzov” was named after the Field Marshal (Russian: Орловская Стратегическая Наступательная Операция Кутузов) (12 July-18 August 1943).”

    How fascinating!

  • Amy Scott

    Also:

    “During the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), the Soviet government established the Order of Kutuzov which, among several other decorations, was preserved in Russia upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, thus remaining among the highest military awards in Russia.”

    And I must stop using the word “fascinating” in this blog…it’s starting to lose all meaning!!!!

  • Angels 14

    Apologies for adding another Wikipedia quote (but let’s just remind ourselves that no one is reading this except us, so it’s OK to drop in a few useless references)… but this seems like quite a relevant summing up:

    “Tolstoy incorporated extensive historical research. He was also influenced by many other novels. A veteran of the Crimean War, Tolstoy was quite critical of standard history, especially the standards of military history, in War and Peace.

    Tolstoy read all the standard histories available in Russian and French about the Napoleonic Wars and combined more traditional historical writing with the novel form. He explains at the start of the novel’s third volume his own views on how history ought to be written. His aim was to blur the line between fiction and history, in order to get closer to the truth, as he states in Volume II.

    The novel is set 60 years earlier than the time at which Tolstoy wrote it, “in the days of our grandfathers”, as he puts it. He had spoken with people who had lived through war during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, so the book is also, in part, accurate ethnography fictionalized. He read letters, journals, autobiographical and biographical materials pertaining to Napoleon and the dozens of other historical characters in the novel. There are approximately 160 real persons named or referred to in War and Peace.

    Tolstoy himself, somewhat enigmatically, said of War and Peace that it was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.”

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